In a bizarrely opposite world, out totter the Djerma women onto the stage in all their massive, resplendent glory. They have trained hard for this moment of Niger’s Hangandi Festival reminiscent of a beauty pageant on the other side of the world - but at the same time, the complete opposite.
While most of the rest of the world combats a deadly skinny obsession perpetuated by an era of Barbie-esque beauty ideals, much of Africa has been locked in battle with an equally dangerous ‘big is beautiful’ culture for its women.
And I’m not talking about the likes of America’s fleeting brush with a healthy beauty ideal redolent of Marilyn Monroe.
Niger’s Hangandi Festival is a very real exemplar of this phenomenon: the Djerma women gorge on grain and millet gruel months before the contest, even undergoing special massages that help perfectly shape the body’s growing roundness.
May the woman with the most corpulent figure win; after all, in Africa, fat is a measure of a woman’s beauty and attractiveness to a man.
These beauty ideals manifest in the traditions of the Efik tribe of Calabar, specifically the Fattening Room ceremony - a rite of passage for womanhood, motherhood and marriage. During this months-long period, the girls are subject to a sedentary lifestyle with carbohydrate-rich diets including foods like yam, millet and porridge.
They are also fed pints of water and made to get plenty of sleep. Special massages with local ointments are regularly performed to mould a smooth and full womanly shape that will now attract the male gaze. A fuller waistline is indication of a beautiful woman and associated with fertility.
The young women are also taught domestic skills like cooking, weaving, braiding and crafts. In preparation for the wedded life, they are also taught how to please the man and better fulfil their roles as wives.
To a modern woman, this is a backward objectification forced upon the women who are confined unfairly to the inequality of gender roles. But to the Efik, it is a tradition of beauty and the mark of a mature woman.
Upon marriage, a large wife gives the man a pride similar to wielding a trophy. It is a sign of prosperity, wealth and status - the man is seen as rich enough to feed his wife properly.
The girls of Mauritania, North-west Africa, undergo similar experiences at fat farms, in line with the tradition of ‘leblouh’ which means ‘to fatten up’. This boosts the girl’s prospects for marriage.
Parents ship girls off to these fat camps where they are force fed a diet of up to 16000 calories a day, the refusal of which subjects them to torture - bending their fingers backward to their hands or crushing their feet between two wooden poles.
Fortunately, these practices have gradually become less widespread, albeit still practised in rural areas. People are beginning to realise the dangers of leblouh for the women including kidney failure, heart failure and reproductive problems.
In an age of body positivity, people are, thankfully, realising it doesn’t pay to adhere to beauty standards, no matter where you are in the world.
Yet it seems no matter where you are, impossible beauty standards according to men’s preference tear at women around the world, giving rise to the most unhealthy of lifestyles to fit into beauty norms.
Women of today, I implore you to see your own worth beyond a singular formula of beauty constructed by culture, society or men. Realise that, big or small, we are all beautiful women.