Ethiopian Women and Fat

My mother stopped by my room to point at my stomach and ask, “What’s that?!”

The best part about the way my mother asks questions is the face that accompanies them. She scrunched up her face, nose wrinkled, eyes squinting: the perfect balance between confusion, disgust and a sincere curiosity.

The “that” she was referring to was a brown chunk of fat protruding from each hip, perfect, palm-sized love handles peeking over my denim jeans.

The beauty of having a size 5 waist and size -5 legs is the impossibility of finding well fitted jeans. So, usually, I pick the fitted legs and the too tight waist which can be easily covered up with a longer shirt. But this time, my mother has caught me per-cover up.

"Is that fat?!" she exclaims, leaning in to examine the suspicious guest.

She stares and shakes her head rapidly.

"Ew," she says, matter-of-factly. "Your getting fat Lily!" she calls as she exits my room.

No, I was not insulted. If anything, I was amused.

First, it must be understood that calling someone fat for Ethiopian people is no big deal. It is as normal and pleasant as calling someone a red-head, or noting that he or she is particularly tall. Just an observation, nothing more than friendly, reflective commentary. More often, however, such comments would be accompanied by helpful suggestions like this:

"You look really good! You’ve definitely been keeping your figure." "Oh, stop it, that isn’t so. I’m getting sloppy." "No, you’ve still got it. But you have gained a few pounds. You should lose some weight, don’t you think?" "Yes, your right, but it’s so hard! I’ll work on it."

Or, my personal favorite:

"Girl! You got fat! What happened?!" "I know, I have gained weight. I don’t know…" "Well, you better lose that weight!"

Such comments are not so much suggestions as they are commands, reminders on what need to be done.

I should make it clear that as comfortable as we are to calling each other fat, we ourselves lose our slim figures (if we ever had them) by about 25. Most will end up with rather narrow waists, and wondrous child-bearing hips. The exaggerated, infamous coke-bottle figure, you might say.

The hypocrisy of being a size 13 and demanding everyone else to be a size zero never really bothered me much until my aunt took my aside one day at a family dinner.

She pointed to her 13-year old daughter, a strangely shaped, awkward teen with a round belly and a long neck and pulled me close.

"Can you give her advice on how to get rid of that belly? What do you do? Can you talk to her, she’ll listen to you."

I paused, taken aback.

"Sure," I said, uncomfortably, staring at my strangely shaped, awkward aunt with a round belly and a long neck.


Needless to say, such a conversation never took place. But I wish my mom had heard. Maybe then she’d be a bit nicer to my “that.”

Tags: io j ooki