Cultural Anthropology Part 1

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wherefatisamarkofbeauty.pdf

wherefatisamarkofbeauty.pdf

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Article 26
Where Fat Is a Mark of
Beauty
In a rite of passage, some Nigerian girls spend months gaining weight and
learning customs in a special room. “To be called a ‘slim princess’ is an
abuse,” says a defender of the practice.
By Ann M. Simmons
TIMES STAFF WRITER
AKPABUYO, Nigeria—Margaret
Bassey Ene currently has one mission
in life: gaining weight.
The Nigerian teenager has spent every
day since early June in a “fattening room”
specially set aside in her father’s mudand-thatch house. Most of her waking
hours are spent eating bowl after bowl of
rice, yams, plantains, beans and gari, a
porridge-like mixture of dried cassava
and water.
After three more months of starchy
diet and forced inactivity, Margaret will
be ready to reenter society bearing the traditional mark of female beauty among her
Efik people: fat.
In contrast to many Western cultures
where thin is in, many culture-conscious
people in the Efik and other communities
in Nigeria’s southeastern Cross River
state hail a woman’s rotundity as a sign of
good health, prosperity and allure.
The fattening room is at the center of a
centuries-old rite of passage from maidenhood to womanhood. The months spent
in pursuit of poundage are supplemented
by daily visits from elderly matrons who
impart tips on how to be a successful wife
and mother. Nowadays, though, girls who
are not yet marriage-bound do a tour in the
rooms purely as a coming-of-age ceremony. And sometimes, nursing mothers
return to the rooms to put on more weight.
“The fattening room is like a kind of
school where the girl is taught about
motherhood,” said Sylvester Odey, director of the Cultural Center Board in Calabar, capital of Cross River state. “Your
daily routine is to sleep, eat and grow fat.”
Like many traditional African customs, the fattening room is facing relentless pressure from Western influences.
Health campaigns linking excess fat to
heart disease and other illnesses are
changing the eating habits of many Nigerians, and urban dwellers are opting out of
the time-consuming process.
Effiong Okon Etim, an Efik village
chief in the district of Akpabuyo, said
some families cannot afford to constantly
feed a daughter for more than a few
months. That compares with a stay of up
to two years, as was common earlier this
century, he said.
But the practice continues partly because “people might laugh at you because
you didn’t have money to allow your child
to pass through the rite of passage,” Etim
said. What’s more, many believe an unfattened girl will be sickly or unable to
bear children.
Etim, 65, put his two daughters in a fattening room together when they were 12
and 15 years old, but some girls undergo
the process as early as age 7, after undergoing the controversial practice of genital
excision.
1
BIGGER IS BETTER,
ACCORDING TO CUSTOM
As for how fat is fat enough, there is no set
standard. But the unwritten rule is the bigger the better, said Mkoyo Edet, Etim’s
sister.
“Beauty is in the weight,” said Edet, a
woman in her 50s who spent three months
in a fattening room when she was 7. “To
be called a ‘slim princess’ is an abuse. The
girl is fed constantly whether she likes it
or not.”
In Margaret’s family, there was never
any question that she would enter the fattening room.
“We inherited it from our forefathers;
it is one of the heritages we must continue,” said Edet Essien Okon, 25, Margaret’s stepfather and a language and
linguistics graduate of the University of
Calabar. “It’s a good thing to do; it’s an
initiation rite.”
His wife, Nkoyo Effiong, 27, agreed:
“As a woman, I feel it is proper for me to
put my daughter in there, so she can be educated.”
Effiong, a mother of five, spent four
months in a fattening room at the age of
10.
Margaret, an attractive girl with a
cheerful smile and hair plaited in fluffy
bumps, needs only six months in the fat-
Article 26. Where Fat Is a Mark of Beauty
tening room because she was already naturally plump, her stepfather said.
During the process, she is treated as a
goddess, but the days are monotonous. To
amuse herself, Margaret has only an instrument made out of a soda bottle with a
hole in it, which she taps on her hand to
play traditional tunes.
Still, the 16-year-old says she is enjoying the highly ritualized fattening practice.
“I’m very happy about this,” she said,
her belly already distended over the waist
of her loincloth. “I enjoy the food, except
for gari.”
Day in, day out, Margaret must sit
cross-legged on a special stool inside the
secluded fattening room. When it is time
to eat, she sits on the floor on a large, dried
plantain leaf, which also serves as her bed.
She washes down the mounds of food
with huge pots of water and takes traditional medicine made from leaves and
herbs to ensure proper digestion.
As part of the rite, Margaret’s face is
decorated with a white, claylike chalk.
“You have to prepare the child so that
if a man sees her, she will be attractive,”
Chief Etim said.
Tufts of palm leaf fiber, braided and
dyed red, are hung around Margaret’s
neck and tied like bangles around her
wrists and ankles. They are adjusted as
she grows.
Typically, Margaret would receive
body massages using the white chalk
powder mixed with heavy red palm oil.
But the teen said her parents believe the
skin-softening, blood-stimulating massages might cause her to expand further
than necessary.
Margaret is barred from doing her
usual chores or any other strenuous physical activities. And she is forbidden to receive visitors, save for the half a dozen
matrons who school Margaret in the etiquette of the Efik clan.
They teach her such basics as how to
sit, walk and talk in front of her husband.
And they impart wisdom about cleaning,
sewing, child care and cooking—Efik
women are known throughout Nigeria for
their chicken pepper soup, pounded yams
and other culinary creations.
“They advise me to keep calm and
quiet, to eat the gari, and not to have many
boyfriends so that I avoid unwanted pregnancy,” Margaret said of her matron
teachers. “They say that unless you have
passed through this, you will not be a fullgrown woman.”
What little exercise Margaret gets
comes in dance lessons. The matrons
teach her the traditional ekombi, which
she will be expected to perform before an
audience on the day she emerges from seclusion—usually on the girl’s wedding
day, Etim said.
But Okon said his aim is to prepare his
stepdaughter for the future, not to marry
her off immediately. Efik girls receive
more education than girls in most parts of
Nigeria, and Okon hopes Margaret will
return to school and embark on a career as
a seamstress before getting married.
WEDDINGS ALSO STEEPED
IN TRADITION
Once she does wed, Margaret will probably honor southeastern Nigeria’s rich
marriage tradition. It begins with a letter
from the family of the groom to the family
of the bride, explaining that “our son has
seen a flower, a jewel, or something beautiful in your family, that we are interested
in,” said Josephine Effah-Chukwuma,
program officer for women and children
at the Constitutional Rights Project, a
law-oriented nongovernmental organization based in the Nigerian commercial
capital of Lagos.
If the girl and her family consent, a
meeting is arranged. The groom and his
From Los Angeles Times, September 30, 1998. © 1998 by Los Angeles Times. Reprinted by permission.
2
relatives arrive with alcoholic beverages,
soft drinks and native brews, and the
bride’s parents provide the food. The
would-be bride’s name is never uttered,
and the couple are not allowed to speak,
but if all goes well, a date is set for handing over the dowry. On that occasion, the
bride’s parents receive about $30 as a token of appreciation for their care of the
young woman. “If you make the groom
pay too much, it is like selling your daughter,” Effah-Chukwuma said. Then, more
drinks are served, and the engagement is
official.
On the day of the wedding, the bride
sits on a specially built wooden throne,
covered by an extravagantly decorated
canopy. Maidens surround her as relatives bestow gifts such as pots, pans,
brooms, plates, glasses, table covers—
everything she will need to start her new
home. During the festivities, the bride
changes clothes three times.
The high point is the performance of
the ekombi, in which the bride twists and
twirls, shielded by maidens and resisting
the advances of her husband. It is his task
to break through the ring and claim his
bride.
Traditionalists are glad that some wedding customs are thriving despite the onslaught of modernity.
Traditional weddings are much more
prevalent in southeastern Nigeria than socalled white weddings, introduced by colonialists and conducted in a church or
registry office.
“In order to be considered married,
you have to be married in the traditional
way,” said Maureen Okon, a woman of
the Qua ethnic group who wed seven
years ago but skipped the fattening room
because she did not want to sacrifice the
time. “Tradition identifies a people. It is
important to keep up a culture. There is
quite a bit of beauty in Efik and Qua marriages.”
Article 26
Where Fat Is a Mark of
Beauty
In a rite of passage, some Nigerian girls spend months gaining weight and
learning customs in a special room. “To be called a ‘slim princess’ is an
abuse,” says a defender of the practice.
By Ann M. Simmons
TIMES STAFF WRITER
AKPABUYO, Nigeria—Margaret
Bassey Ene currently has one mission
in life: gaining weight.
The Nigerian teenager has spent every
day since early June in a “fattening room”
specially set aside in her father’s mudand-thatch house. Most of her waking
hours are spent eating bowl after bowl of
rice, yams, plantains, beans and gari, a
porridge-like mixture of dried cassava
and water.
After three more months of starchy
diet and forced inactivity, Margaret will
be ready to reenter society bearing the traditional mark of female beauty among her
Efik people: fat.
In contrast to many Western cultures
where thin is in, many culture-conscious
people in the Efik and other communities
in Nigeria’s southeastern Cross River
state hail a woman’s rotundity as a sign of
good health, prosperity and allure.
The fattening room is at the center of a
centuries-old rite of passage from maidenhood to womanhood. The months spent
in pursuit of poundage are supplemented
by daily visits from elderly matrons who
impart tips on how to be a successful wife
and mother. Nowadays, though, girls who
are not yet marriage-bound do a tour in the
rooms purely as a coming-of-age ceremony. And sometimes, nursing mothers
return to the rooms to put on more weight.
“The fattening room is like a kind of
school where the girl is taught about
motherhood,” said Sylvester Odey, director of the Cultural Center Board in Calabar, capital of Cross River state. “Your
daily routine is to sleep, eat and grow fat.”
Like many traditional African customs, the fattening room is facing relentless pressure from Western influences.
Health campaigns linking excess fat to
heart disease and other illnesses are
changing the eating habits of many Nigerians, and urban dwellers are opting out of
the time-consuming process.
Effiong Okon Etim, an Efik village
chief in the district of Akpabuyo, said
some families cannot afford to constantly
feed a daughter for more than a few
months. That compares with a stay of up
to two years, as was common earlier this
century, he said.
But the practice continues partly because “people might laugh at you because
you didn’t have money to allow your child
to pass through the rite of passage,” Etim
said. What’s more, many believe an unfattened girl will be sickly or unable to
bear children.
Etim, 65, put his two daughters in a fattening room together when they were 12
and 15 years old, but some girls undergo
the process as early as age 7, after undergoing the controversial practice of genital
excision.
1
BIGGER IS BETTER,
ACCORDING TO CUSTOM
As for how fat is fat enough, there is no set
standard. But the unwritten rule is the bigger the better, said Mkoyo Edet, Etim’s
sister.
“Beauty is in the weight,” said Edet, a
woman in her 50s who spent three months
in a fattening room when she was 7. “To
be called a ‘slim princess’ is an abuse. The
girl is fed constantly whether she likes it
or not.”
In Margaret’s family, there was never
any question that she would enter the fattening room.
“We inherited it from our forefathers;
it is one of the heritages we must continue,” said Edet Essien Okon, 25, Margaret’s stepfather and a language and
linguistics graduate of the University of
Calabar. “It’s a good thing to do; it’s an
initiation rite.”
His wife, Nkoyo Effiong, 27, agreed:
“As a woman, I feel it is proper for me to
put my daughter in there, so she can be educated.”
Effiong, a mother of five, spent four
months in a fattening room at the age of
10.
Margaret, an attractive girl with a
cheerful smile and hair plaited in fluffy
bumps, needs only six months in the fat-
Article 26. Where Fat Is a Mark of Beauty
tening room because she was already naturally plump, her stepfather said.
During the process, she is treated as a
goddess, but the days are monotonous. To
amuse herself, Margaret has only an instrument made out of a soda bottle with a
hole in it, which she taps on her hand to
play traditional tunes.
Still, the 16-year-old says she is enjoying the highly ritualized fattening practice.
“I’m very happy about this,” she said,
her belly already distended over the waist
of her loincloth. “I enjoy the food, except
for gari.”
Day in, day out, Margaret must sit
cross-legged on a special stool inside the
secluded fattening room. When it is time
to eat, she sits on the floor on a large, dried
plantain leaf, which also serves as her bed.
She washes down the mounds of food
with huge pots of water and takes traditional medicine made from leaves and
herbs to ensure proper digestion.
As part of the rite, Margaret’s face is
decorated with a white, claylike chalk.
“You have to prepare the child so that
if a man sees her, she will be attractive,”
Chief Etim said.
Tufts of palm leaf fiber, braided and
dyed red, are hung around Margaret’s
neck and tied like bangles around her
wrists and ankles. They are adjusted as
she grows.
Typically, Margaret would receive
body massages using the white chalk
powder mixed with heavy red palm oil.
But the teen said her parents believe the
skin-softening, blood-stimulating massages might cause her to expand further
than necessary.
Margaret is barred from doing her
usual chores or any other strenuous physical activities. And she is forbidden to receive visitors, save for the half a dozen
matrons who school Margaret in the etiquette of the Efik clan.
They teach her such basics as how to
sit, walk and talk in front of her husband.
And they impart wisdom about cleaning,
sewing, child care and cooking—Efik
women are known throughout Nigeria for
their chicken pepper soup, pounded yams
and other culinary creations.
“They advise me to keep calm and
quiet, to eat the gari, and not to have many
boyfriends so that I avoid unwanted pregnancy,” Margaret said of her matron
teachers. “They say that unless you have
passed through this, you will not be a fullgrown woman.”
What little exercise Margaret gets
comes in dance lessons. The matrons
teach her the traditional ekombi, which
she will be expected to perform before an
audience on the day she emerges from seclusion—usually on the girl’s wedding
day, Etim said.
But Okon said his aim is to prepare his
stepdaughter for the future, not to marry
her off immediately. Efik girls receive
more education than girls in most parts of
Nigeria, and Okon hopes Margaret will
return to school and embark on a career as
a seamstress before getting married.
WEDDINGS ALSO STEEPED
IN TRADITION
Once she does wed, Margaret will probably honor southeastern Nigeria’s rich
marriage tradition. It begins with a letter
from the family of the groom to the family
of the bride, explaining that “our son has
seen a flower, a jewel, or something beautiful in your family, that we are interested
in,” said Josephine Effah-Chukwuma,
program officer for women and children
at the Constitutional Rights Project, a
law-oriented nongovernmental organization based in the Nigerian commercial
capital of Lagos.
If the girl and her family consent, a
meeting is arranged. The groom and his
From Los Angeles Times, September 30, 1998. © 1998 by Los Angeles Times. Reprinted by permission.
2
relatives arrive with alcoholic beverages,
soft drinks and native brews, and the
bride’s parents provide the food. The
would-be bride’s name is never uttered,
and the couple are not allowed to speak,
but if all goes well, a date is set for handing over the dowry. On that occasion, the
bride’s parents receive about $30 as a token of appreciation for their care of the
young woman. “If you make the groom
pay too much, it is like selling your daughter,” Effah-Chukwuma said. Then, more
drinks are served, and the engagement is
official.
On the day of the wedding, the bride
sits on a specially built wooden throne,
covered by an extravagantly decorated
canopy. Maidens surround her as relatives bestow gifts such as pots, pans,
brooms, plates, glasses, table covers—
everything she will need to start her new
home. During the festivities, the bride
changes clothes three times.
The high point is the performance of
the ekombi, in which the bride twists and
twirls, shielded by maidens and resisting
the advances of her husband. It is his task
to break through the ring and claim his
bride.
Traditionalists are glad that some wedding customs are thriving despite the onslaught of modernity.
Traditional weddings are much more
prevalent in southeastern Nigeria than socalled white weddings, introduced by colonialists and conducted in a church or
registry office.
“In order to be considered married,
you have to be married in the traditional
way,” said Maureen Okon, a woman of
the Qua ethnic group who wed seven
years ago but skipped the fattening room
because she did not want to sacrifice the
time. “Tradition identifies a people. It is
important to keep up a culture. There is
quite a bit of beauty in Efik and Qua marriages.”

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