‘Where have you been?”, the security guard asks me. “Wherever it was, it must have been good. You’ve grown fat.” With a smile, I keep going. However, confusion is brewing inside of me. I do not know whether I should take this as compliment or an insult. I wonder if it was because of the loose fitting high-low dress I was wearing. I know for a fact that it is not shapeless, so the dress is not the issue. I also know that I have not put on more weight in the past days. Nevertheless, I keep getting lots of comments about my size that leave me ambivalent.
In the Rwandan culture, when you tell a person that they are fat, it is a compliment. It means you are well off enough to feed yourself. It also is a sign that all is going well. However, with the spread of popular culture about body image, things have changed. Fat is ugly. When someone mentions that I have grown fat, I feel a little bit insulted. It is no different from being told that I am sick or ugly.
I realized that being fat was a bad thing at the tender age of ten. I grew up as a chubby child who never said no to food. I took pride in hearing people tell me that I shall grow to be as fat as my mother. One sunny afternoon, I decided to put on the new Ikanga my mom had given me. I felt so beautiful parading in it. That was until I heard some boys whisper to themselves that I looked like a woman. That marked the beginning of micro-aggressions I faced due to my size.
Things turned from bad to worse. A friend of my sister’s told me that I walked like an elephant. That really hit close to home. I cried myself to sleep that night. I was taller and wider than my older sister, most people thought that I was the oldest. This, secretly, made me sad, and I started starving myself. Nothing changed though. I remained the big old me.
High school was particularly harder. No one pointed out my size as being a bad thing. However, I still felt uncomfortable in my own skin. I so desperately wanted to fit into the mainstream. I starved myself even more- the food was terrible anyways. When I went back home after the second term, I had successfully lost weight. None of my clothes fit, and I had to borrow clothes from my little sister. This felt like a victory- until it wasn’t.
My extreme weight loss came with an unwanted baggage- ulcers. My stomach had literally digested itself due to minimal food ingestion. In just six months I lost fifteen kilograms, and inherited multiple wounds on the lining of my stomach. The society with its judgement had pushed me to extremes. I didn’t even find joy in the loss of weight. I was sickly and super weak. Once, my mother’s friend mistook me for a boy.
Five years later, I have gone back to the weight I had in primary school. It more acceptable now. However, I still get negative comments in regards to my weight. Recently, a guy told me that I was too fat to learn how to ride bicycle. I have learned not to be unsettled by such comments though. I know the person meant no harm, nonetheless he did cause some. I won’t go back to starving myself, however, I would appreciate it if people though twice before making comments about others’ size and identity.