Turning beauty standards upside-down. Image by Flickr user Ray Dehler.

The author, Julie Strupp, is a francophone American writer living in Togo, West Africa. She’s currently serving as a gender equity and education volunteer, teaching Togolese munchkins at a local combination middle school/high school. She’s written for a variety of publications, including the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, the Center for Public Integrity, Mic , and AllAfrica. You can also follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

“You’re so heavy, I’m gonna have to charge you double,” the young Togolese motorcycle taxi driver, sporting red kicks and pants a little too tight to be considered tasteful, told her with a wink. The (rather thin) American Peace Corps volunteer promptly burst into tears. The hapless Romeo looked utterly flummoxed — the ladies usually loved that one.

An American friend of mine, also currently teaching in Togo, told me her school director recently pulled her aside. “Are you ok? Are you unhappy in our town?” he asked, brow furrowed with concern. “I see you gained weight when you traveled. Why can’t you get fat here?”

In many cultures across Africa — especially in rural areas that have retained more traditional beauty standards — telling a woman she’s fat or that she’s gained weight is a compliment. Needless to say, I’m not the only Western (or increasingly, African) woman who isn’t impressed with that particular strategy. In the past extra weight was seen as a sign of wealth and opulence. Now that’s changing, especially in the cities. “Sometimes being told you’re fat is an insult, sometimes it’s a compliment,” a Togolese woman my age, Jolie, responded to my puzzlement. “It just depends on the person.”

Now there’s pressure not just to retain the curves, but to achieve or maintain that Western slimness at the same time. You should be curvy, but not too curvy. Of course, everyone’s idea of where that line is drawn is different. And everyone from your mother to your moto man feels entitled, nay, compelled, as the Only Beauty Expert Who Matters, to tell you where you stand.

I found it similar studying in Senegal: Every time I returned from a trip, my friends would exclaim over how fat I’d gotten — even if I’d in fact lost pounds. “Hey, you’ve gained weight!” was almost an obligatory compliment, the Senegalese equivalent of “You look great!” But sometimes the comments weren’t so…complimentary. While walking to karate practice one day, a friend stopped me. “Julie,” she said with typical African candor. “You sure have a big belly for someone who does sport.”

Still, beauty standards can be just as schizophrenic in the United States — I should know. When I was a teenager, I dealt with a pretty nasty eating disorder. My high school years were spent avoiding eating, over-exercising, counting calories till I damn near went mad, then finally breaking down and binging and throwing it all up in a wave of guilt and relief and endorphins. I was a mess. I chewed gum constantly so I wouldn’t feel hungry. I guzzled coffee so I’d have the energy to keep going.

In a way, thick thighs saved me.

beauty-standardsHow we see each other is often dependent upon our cultures. Bronskvinnorna (Marianne Lindberg De Geer). Image from Wikipedia.org.

I went to the Dominican Republic with family friends when I was a high school senior — land of big asses and big thighs and seriously sexy people. After a few weeks of appreciation, I caught myself: If I truly valued the un-skinny beauty of these women, why couldn’t I value the same thing in myself?

It was a flash of understanding of just how deeply we’re shaped by our cultures. Bodies were not something to be molded into a Marilyn Monroe one decade and a Twiggy the next as fashion dictated. I couldn’t leave my shapely, muscular thighs in the Dominican where they were appreciated and trade them in for a Methadone-chic pair that gapped when I returned to the U.S.

I vowed to value myself, regardless of the culture I happened to be in at the moment. Beyond that, I vowed to simply… stop caring so much. It was physically impossible to make everyone happy, and I was exhausted from trying.

Fast forward three years from that memory to my time studying in Senegal. I hadn’t made myself throw up in over two years. I just so happened to conform well to the beauty standards of this particular place.

Still, it’s tough, the constant policing of appearance. In the U.S., this usually manifests in media images, as polite society largely frowns on overt commentary. Here, there’s less media bombardment but much more direct commentary from friends and people on the street alike. I hear mothers telling their daughters, “You used to be cute; now you’re ugly” and men telling their female friends they “…look like cows now.” Yet in America the message about what we should look like — and our failure to achieve that — still comes through loud and clear, regardless of our veneer of politeness. There isn’t a place left on the female body that shouldn’t be toned or bleached or plucked, and the most intimate spots need the most “fixing.”

Girls like my confident, brainy host sister Sheman give me hope. When I asked her how she feels when people call her fat, she just shrugged. “It is what it is, I really don’t care. I just want to graduate.”

Have you ever been somewhere that challenged your perception of beauty? Share in the comments!