Beauty standards: The more they change, the more they remain the same.

Vision is usually the first point of contact between people and the moment somebody looks at you, they begin to construct who you are, what you are like and whether or not they will be interested in discovering more of you. 

For centuries, the one constant about the concept of physical appearance is that people, women and men alike have sought ways to improve their physical appearance, to make it more alluring. For so long, the acceptable beauty standard has ranged within such narrow limits that people, women especially, find themselves fighting tooth and nail to fit within these limits because the consequences are dire and unforgiving. The labeling, mockery, discrimination, bullying and much more. Brands embraced the picture of a perfect body and face, and run with it. The universally recognized limits of beauty – the slim figures, long neck, the full lips and closer to home, the tiny waist on an ample body. 

But true to change being the one trend that never tires, standards of beauty have adjusted, and keep adjusting, dragging people along. The body positivity movement is widening the concept of what it means to be physically attractive. That fat women are walking on runways and having spreads in magazines, that mannequins are coming in real life sizes, that a girl like me can walk into a shop and actually find something decent on the first try, a far cry from 2011 when I first learned that I had no waist.

One evening at a bar on campus, I run into an old classmate I hadn’t seen in five years. We had been roommates, really close, but our friendship had simmered the moment we walked out of the school gates. We had tried to keep in touch but it hadn’t been the same, some bonds only thrive in proximity. A lot had changed for both of us when I next saw her that evening, and judging from how terrific she looked, the time had been good to her. 

She had always been a gorgeous beauty with perfect creamy skin, a distinguished mole on the left side of her top lip. Even as 14-year-old kids in S.2, we all agreed she had the most perfect body. She had the longest hair I had ever seen on an African girl, thick and black as night. One month into the term as everyone else struggled to reign their rebellious relaxed hair in, hers sat pretty in a long – often folded – ponytail. When a couple of girls made a rating for the hottest girls in my class, her name came first, naturally, contrasting the girl who was ranked ugliest in class, fat. 

Like her body and her hair, her personality was effortlessly magnetic too. She always had people about her, listening to her, sharing secrets and offering to help with her jerry can when we had to fetch water from the tank across the dormitory. Teachers liked her as well, where the standard punishment for coming late to class, skipping prep, sleeping and talking during lessons was polishing the school floors and scrubbing trenches, she was often excused and let off with a weak warning. For all her popularity and charisma, she was humble and real, funny too. I was happy to see that time had been gracious to her, she looked amazing. An aura of maturity had accentuated her childlike beauty. She looked luscious.

She said I looked different, her expression said the not so good kind of different. I did. For me, the five years had changed the size of my clothes and cheeks. For two years since I had finished secondary school, my weight had headlined all conversations, greetings and random meetings with both strangers and friends alike. Like the nagging aftertaste of gin, I had grown accustomed to it. That was it. I didn’t think it was something that could be changed and I didn’t see any reason to change the way I looked. I still didn’t understand why it bothered everyone that I was fat.

I told her she looked great and it was so good to see her. She still had her wry sense of humor and apt punchlines. Somewhere between my cascade of praise and catching up, she said it.

“… but you have really grown fat. You don’t even have a waist.”

For a person who had never really had a waist, I didn’t see why she would suddenly expect me to have one five years later. She said it with shock, mockery and a hint of pity. There was the normal girl, breasts, waist, hips, ass and everything else and then there was me; head, shoulders, knees and toes, a really large stick woman brought to life. She said she was shocked my body had not changed, it had not grown. She run a hand across my conspicuous belly, demonstrating where my waist should have been and said;

“See, there is no waist, Nara waist. You have become so fat, it is not good.”

The conversation moved to something else before I could react. I wouldn’t have known how to react anyway.

She was right. I did not have a waist and that was not good. All through my late teens and early twenties, there was a new reminder for me to hate the way I looked. I weighed 75kg and was about 5’3. That I was dark skinned and didn’t particularly spend much time and money at the salon didn’t help me along. Between the comments from friends and strangers, uncomfortable silences when the weight topic came up on TV and the unsolicited weight loss advice, not for a second could I forget that I was fat. And I did not have a waist.

I was constantly awakened to the reality of my fatness in the different ways in which my slender friends and I were treated. Naturally, they got everyone’s attention, and comparisons were made constantly, both in jest and innocence. When I couldn’t pretend that the way people saw me affected the way they treated me, I decided to not be fat anymore. I caved, I gave in. A few fad diets and muscle pulls later, I found an exercise regimen that suited me, switched my eating habits and eventually, I too developed some semblance of a waist.

The conversation on weight and body image is one that is long overdue and I am glad that the conventional beauty standards are being challenged and debunked. That women and young girls have room to feel at home in their bodies and not hope that they could magically wake up skinny. However, it is not enough to say these things, create hashtags and post thousands of plus-sized models. At the heart of it, people do make judgements on what they see and, unfortunately, these judgements are harsh when you don’t fit in a certain box. The world is telling you to embrace your waist-less body in one breathe and shoving a fold-free body shaper in the next.

We have seen trends in pop culture influence standards of beauty and aggravating body image and self-esteem issues. Being anything but petite and long-legged was an abomination until pictures of Rihanna with full breasts, thick thighs, and an ample waist surfaced online. Suddenly, everyone wanted to be “thick.” Years later when my waist got more visible, the same people that chastised me for “letting my weight run away” chorused how much better I looked with the chubby cheeks and “proper weight.”

It is important for every child, young adult and full-grown person to feel confident in their appearance, to not want to be someone else. However, the deep-seated prejudices based on appearance still exist. It is not uncommon that people considered attractive often get preferential treatment, more respect, sometimes better pay and it goes without saying, find romantic partners more easily. Despite philosophical, religious and moral appeals to look at people’s beauty from within, it is through physical interactions that the inner person is revealed.  

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Written by Shanine Ahimbisibwe

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