Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Body Image Abroad

I’m a heavyset girl.

My whole life I have struggled with my weight. My weight-related issues are a mixture of the fact that I just love to eat food (and not so much exercise), and genetics.

Growing up I was much bigger than the other kids my age (both height and otherwise). I was also significantly larger than my brother. I was always made very aware of this difference – especially by certain family members. As a result I became very insecure about how I looked. And, it got even worse when I finally got “skinny.”

When I moved to Ghana two summers ago, I noticed how little people – particularly men – paid attention to size. There was sort of a belief, if you will, that it didn’t matter if you were big, small, tall, or short – women were beautiful regardless of shape, size, colour, etc. After feeling considerably insecure after having gained a lot of weight* prior to my arrival, this was a welcomed reaction.

Before too long, I began to gain my confidence back, and actually embraced by curvy body shape in a way I hadn’t previously. I no longer worried if my stomach roll (aka my winter survival fat!) showed when I sat, or when my hips stuck out more than those of the girls I was travelling with. But when I returned back to Canada – and particularly my first few weeks in Manchester – all of those insecurities quickly returned. I was back in a place where if you aren’t a size ‘0’ you are somehow valued less. One’s intelligence, creativity, humour or kindness are considered with far less value than one’s BMI score. These insecurities lessened with time – particulalrly as I met a group of friends in Manchester – but ultimately remained.

Let's take a quick minute to look at the "evolution of my body":

Me as a kid... likely 8 or 9, with my Mom and brother.
I pulled this from a punch of pictures I scanned. The file name itself was "I'm a fat kid..."
Prom night! Shot in one of my favourite places ever, with two of the most
influential and supportive people ever - my Mom and Scott!
My first solo trip - ALASKA! A proud runner at this point and the beginning of my "getting skinny"
The ESST Banquet 2012/2013 - just a few weeks before my Mom passed.
Photo Credit: Erin Anderson
A few weeks after my Mom passed, at a special "toast" to her.
Photo Credit: Applehead Studios/The Awesome Foundation Halifax
The ESST Banquet 2013/2014 - visual evidence of the difference a year can make!
Photo Credit: Erin Anderson
Arrival in Ghana.
Photo Credit: Mikayla Yujie
My 30th birthday - spent with lots of people I love, who made me feel incredible, inside and out!

Me with some of my lovely Manchester friends!
Photo Credit: Shelia N. Okwaro 
Just before Christmas. Admittedly, I felt really beautiful in this moment until I saw
the picture and how big the wrap around my waist and position make me look...
Photo Credit: Aaron Wolf
Me in Jinja a month ago, after a day defying my own
fears and showing off an epic sunburn and beautiful body!
Photo Credit: Rachel Quehl
In Ghana, my homestay mother told me I had a Ghanaian butt and stomach, and I was proud of that. My boss, here in Kampala, told me I should wear more African wear because it would show off my Ugandan backside, and I took that as a compliment, as well.

A few weeks ago, a few of us took a stroll through the “African Market” which is Kampala’s local craft market. There were many beautiful dresses and skirts for sale, and so we took some time to try on a few. The following day, we went shopping in hopes of finding a dress for the Christmas Eve church service we thought we were going to attend.  It was during these outings that I noticed many unwelcomed comments being directed at me. Comments such as,  You’re big,” “You’re thick,” “You’re not shaped the same as other muzungu,” “Hey chubby girl” and being told that the cost to take me home from the grocery store was the same for me on a boda alone, as my two, noticeably thinner friends sharing one… meaning, my size warrants double the payment of what my friends were being charged. Ten-years-ago-me would have been destroyed by these comments. And for the most part, I just chuckled at them, knowing that they likely weren’t said to be hurtful or mean. The boda comment on the other hand, really hurt.

The truth is, these aren’t the first comments I’ve had directed towards me since arriving in Kampala. And to be fair, they aren't always negative, either. For example, someone recently informed me that they, amongst other things, liked my size. When I inquired further as to what that meant, I was told: Not fat, not small, but medium. You're awesome! But usually they come in the form of unwelcomed** proposals, admissions of "love" and other such attention from men. I have had other comments about my size or the way I dress that if I weren’t content with how I look, would have really bothered me.

Being a female*** is tough... no matter where you find yourself in this world. When I reflect on some of these comments, I usually happen upon the conclusion that I'm lucky to have been born when I was and not in the current cohort of young ladies going through the public school system (in Canada, at least). The pressure to look or act a certain way can be overwhelming. But in a context outside of what you've grown up with, it puts a new perspective on things.

When I discussed these comments and situations with my flatmate, he admits he's unable to relate – because the reality is, he does not face these same experiences... ever. While I am being told to dress up more for work, lose weight, smile, or whatever the case may be, it is perfectly acceptable for him to wear a pair of jeans and a nice shirt to the office. There are no comments directed towards him about his appearance. This simply would never fly for me. And again, I go back to my earlier remark, that I actually 99% of the time like what I look like and am comfortable in my own skin. But I have to question why I even need to be commenting or writing about this.

Body image is such a touchy subject. Like many things, sometimes we do not have full control over our realities. Yes, admittedly, I could exercise more and probably eat less potato chips, but why do I even need to think along these lines?! A friend of mine made a comment about how she tries not to focus or make comments on how someone looks, but rather tries to direct any commentary on another positive aspect, should it be their sense of humour, outlook on life, or kindness, for example. And so, I challenge you all to do the same. Maybe we can create a bit more tolerance and appreciation, while building confidence in those who suffer from the pressures and insecurities of society. People need to start being valued for their contributions to society, community, or in the home, not on the aesthetic value we seem to be focused on.

I'd like to end this post by using a quote Ellen Degeneres is often found saying: "Be kind to one another." So, with that in mind I urge us all – myself included – to make 2016 the year of being kind to ourselves and to each other****.

-the Orange Canadian

*Partly to do with how I dealt with my mother's unexpected passing.
**A friend of mine also got “Hi, my size.” Yuck.
***In no way do I mean to suggest that no man ever has ever been subjected to unwarranted comments on their looks, nor do I want to insinuate that there are no pressures or resulting insecurities for men to be and look a certain way, especially in Western culture. However, women do tend to bare the brunt of these comments and social pressures. 
****Sorry for the preachy rant... I'm just tired of aspects of life that shouldn't really matter to anyone other than the individual being the focus of daily conversation and such.


  1. Sending love to you Emily. I think you hit the nail on the head with this post, and I can relate 100% to your feelings about body size and how women have different experiences with it then men do.

    1. Thanks, Amanda.

      It's sad, really, that so many ladies have sent in feedback sharing that they, too, have felt something similar. You are a beaut, Sweet Cheeks! Don't ever forget it!

  2. As I told you in Manchester, I do sometimes struggle with body issues. Now that I look back to my pics last year I think: I was crazy. It is so easy to have a distortion or to feel crapy because usually women get a lot of crap about weight and beauty everywhere. As you say, at the end of the day, the key is to feel awesome with yourself (no matter the size), and suck less (with you and with others). I LOVE YOU! And I love that your blog is so personal and with mixed topics. Stay awesome!

  3. beautiful and brave post, Emily.
    I remember being in Japan and having to shop in a plus size store (although I was half the size I am today). It's hard on the mind, when you stand out so, and we are so hard on ourselves.
    You are amazing. Keep it up.

    1. Thank you for the feedback! It certainly is hard on the mind...especially when the commenting is so frequent. You are also amazing - thank you for being you!