In the Nollywood movie Goodbye Tomorrow, a woman is dying in a hospital. Her sores are bubbling with maggots. Her wounds ooze something yellow and gooey. The woman says she’s sorry for trapping and ruining uncountable men with her body. This is the third movie we’ve watched this week that suggests women deserve death sentences for having sex with men who weren’t their husbands. I miss the misogyny; I’m focused on the woman’s sores. I begin looking for those sores on my mother after she and a neighbor get into an argument. The neighbor tells another neighbor that my mother is losing weight because she’s dying of AIDS. They don’t know that I’m around the corner.
My mother is suddenly even thinner. Her cheeks have deflated. The area between her collarbone and her neck is hollow enough to store water. At night I get too scared to sleep alone now that she is dying, so I climb into her bed and watch her wrestle the sleep paralysis demons, her mouth slack as she struggles to make her limp body obey her wide-awake brain. I look for the symptoms of AIDS like the one the woman in the movie had, but my mother’s skin is smooth and clear with no maggots in her pores. It is just the weight loss for now. I wonder what sin God is punishing her for, since my Sunday school teacher keeps telling us how the Bible says that the wages of sin is death. I wonder if she knows that she’s dying.
An old man wants me to run errands for him. He calls me nka iferi, a term I find creepy, seeing how I’m not a naked girl. I report him to my mother and get a history lesson. My mother tells me there was a time when young girls my age could move around with very little clothing. Back then no one cared that breasts were budding out in the open, she says.
The nka iferi lives her life free from clothing and judgment. Her body, not yet a sin, is allowed to blossom. When she ripens, her parents send her away to be fattened and prepared for womanhood. The women who run the fattening room lock the nka iferi girls away from the eyes of the world. In seclusion, the nka iferi learns the ways her body will serve her for the rest of her life. They stuff her full of food and water until she collapses, breathless. Every morning, they check her body for signs of expansion. The jigglier her belly, the better. They teach her how to hold her future husband’s gaze with her robust waist. She learns how to wash and prepare her body for when he desires her. There are cooking lessons and diplomacy studies for misbehaving in-laws. She learns which gods to appease when her children get sick or her business stops flourishing.
Age Eight or Nine
A teacher looks for dirt under our fingernails and inspects our white socks for stains. She nods her approval when she examines my school uniform. Luckily, my mom always irons it until the pleats get sharp enough to draw blood. There is laughter behind me suddenly. When I turn, a boy tells me I look like an improper fraction. I’m a bit slow at math, so it takes a while to understand that he’s referring to how my head looks bigger than my body. I am, however, quick with comebacks. I tell him his mother’s upper body looks like a fat watermelon stuffed inside a set of parentheses. I get a punch in the gut and wake up in the principal’s office. The old woman squeezes her face. Would you want someone to talk about your body like that when you become a mother? I shake my head no. The principal tells me to apologize to the boy. Back in class, the boy says he wouldn’t have hit me if I’d insulted his father. I learn that you only respect the female body if it’s related to you.
The white man’s ship returns to the coast. He has a Bible in one hand and a plough in the other. He gives us English names and teaches us European ways. The factories in Europe no longer require slave labor on account of the Industrial Revolution, so this time the white man stuffs his ship full of raw materials. He gets cotton, gold, diamond, ivory, cocoa beans, rubber, wood, and other materials for the industries in Europe. He calls dibs on the land, then goes and warns other white people to keep off. Feeling generous, the white man introduces the locals to the God in his Bible and makes them forsake their heathen ways. Later, he deposes kings and binds autonomous ethnic groups together in administrative units, creating a marriage of grumbling strange bedfellows. His woman arrives from London to see just how well her man is colonizing. The man, feeling tremendously romantic, gives her the honor of naming the country.
I’m reading newspapers, checking for what it means to have AIDS. In Ibibio, AIDS is called itiaita—the number eight—since eight and AIDS rhyme. There are television advertisements and radio jingles to promote safer sex. Condom commercials interrupt the cartoons on TV. I still don’t understand anything. Everyone around me is talking about this new disease. People say a man contracted the disease when he did unspeakable things with a monkey. Others say that white people created the virus in a lab and sent it to Africa to stop us from having sex since we are all so fertile. Others say God is punishing us for our depravity. It is Sodom and Gomorrah all over again. Sick people are ostracized and shamed.
The nka iferi girls graduate from the fattening room after some months. They are no longer nka iferi now, but full-blown Mbopo women. They adorn their hair with ivory combs, stack coral beads on their necks, wrap their fat bodies in the best brocade wrapper their parents can buy. Anklets jingle on plump ankles as they dance ekombi, stirring the dust with their bare feet as they make their way to the village square. Prospective suitors are already at the square to match with the best girls. Suitors shun girls who haven’t become fat after their seclusion because thinness after months of fattening is not a good look. No man wants to marry a woman whose body will not reflect his wealth.
My favourite aunty jokes about how I look like the small letter I. i. I am toothpick-thin with a huge head perched on top. At night, when the house is quiet, I sit in front of the fridge and spoon butter into my mouth. I tear into bread like I’m feral. I chew dry garri until it plugs my throat and I start to choke. Two weeks later, I am still i.
The nka iferi, having become Mbopo, gets married. For a splinter of time in childhood and adolescence, her body was mostly hers. The husband pays a bride price for her, so she covers up and adjusts to new ownership. She wears blouses and wrappers to show her standing as a respectable married woman. When her baby comes, she owns even less of her body, which now must be topped up with fat. Her female relatives fatten her with food and spread the fat evenly with an excruciating massage. With a baby, the judgement lessens. No one cares about the engorged breast flopped over her blouse as she nurses in public. Her total freedom comes in old age when her now sapless breasts swing free. She is allowed to stuff a wilted nipple into her grandbaby’s eager mouth, becoming a pacifier.
A friend invites a group of us to the bar and buys us drinks. His wife has just given birth, so he’s in the mood to celebrate. He’s buying her slimming teas on Instagram. If she doesn’t lose weight fast enough, then no one should blame him if his eyes wander. He laughs at his little joke. The wife is still in the hospital recovering from the caesarean section. The men in the group laugh while some of the women squirm. One woman tells us how she’ll never let herself go after childbirth like all these other women. I have to hold back from breaking someone’s nose with my head.
The white man’s Bible says that everything we do is sinful. Young girls shouldn’t run around naked. The white man’s women in London are thin and dainty. Not like us, fat and grotesque with our hefty behinds and blunt facial features. The Mbopo institution should be abolished, he says, because, in the beginning, Adam and Eve were naked, but they were not ashamed. After the fall of man, Eden was taken away and we humans have to cover our nakedness in compliance with our punishment.
There’s MTV in every home. In boarding school, we swing our hips to Shakira and belt out ballads like Christina Aguilera. Like our idols in the West, we raise our jeans just enough to cover our pubic bones, and then curse our little love handles for spilling over the bands of our pants. Our idols have concave bellies, all caved in and hollow. Some of us cut garri and fufu from our diet. Some of us guzzle slim teas with delicate Asian women printed on the boxes. Some of us learn to say we are big-boned whenever people bring up our weight. The meanest of the bunch tell us that there are no fat skeletons or big bones, just gluttonous people. So, we learn how to retire for the night with angry worms growling in our empty bellies. Some concerned teachers shake their heads at us and say, “First they colonized your land, now they have your minds.”
My mother drops me off at boarding school. Two senior girls walk past and say something under their breath. All I hear is, “Jeez, does that woman eat?” My mother is too busy getting my school uniforms out of the car to hear them. Suddenly, I want my mother gone from the school compound. Later, the same seniors call another junior girl fat, right in front of me. I learn that when it comes to bodies, the middle is a good place.
My mother has fifteen girls working in her salon. Eight of these girls live with us to avoid paying rent elsewhere. I like hanging out with them because they are always talking about boys and grown-up stuff even though they are only a couple of years older than I am. My mother pays them well, so they can afford to buy pretty clothes and creams. When one of the girls gets dumped by her boyfriend for a light-skinned girl, she changes her cream and becomes fair in under three weeks. When the weather is hot (it is never not hot in Nigeria), she smells like rotting onions because of all the cheap chemicals on her skin.
I see a casting call for actresses in a magazine. They want light-skinned girls. The ad says the ideal girl should look like a “half-caste.” I buy a cheap tub of bleaching cream and hide it under my bed. My knuckles and elbows remain dark even as my skin acquires a bizarre yellowness. The cream sears angry stretch marks into my overcooked thighs. Salvation comes when my mother finds the tub and throws it in the trash. She cuts my weekly allowance in half.
My mother doesn’t act like her thinness bothers her. At church, prophets tell her that she’s thin because an unknown enemy is roasting her spirit over a fire. In her brand of Christianity, no one just falls sick or dies; some wicked persons are always responsible. When she prays, she asks God to rain down fire on these secret enemies. She draws up a list of neighbors we are not supposed to talk to because they could have used dark powers to cause her affliction. It doesn’t help that doctors have no explanation for her weight loss, and my mother is tired of spending money in hospitals because she has two young children in private schools. My mother grows suspicious of everyone, drifts from church to church in search of answers. Her seamstress knows not to sew her clothes too close to her skin, and to add ruffles.
“Thicc” has become a word. People pour encomiums on fat women on Twitter. Their fat women of choice have small waists and big hips and pretty faces. Bonus points if they’re light-skinned. Fat people are represented in the body positivity movement, but there are still standards to meet.
I’m discussing with a friend. She brings up the fact that the ideal video vixen’s waist is the size of a wasp’s. She thinks it’s because the Kardashians popularized the thin waist/thick thighs combo. Guess who was previously shamed and bullied for having the same shape? I don’t answer my friend’s question. I just shake my head and sigh.
Another friend works at a cosmetic surgery practice. One night we are joking around, so I tell her to let me know when they’re offering BBL and nose job giveaways at her job. She says I’m a great candidate for the Brazilian butt lift because I’m pear-shaped with a defined waist. It will take very little effort to give me a bubble butt. A few weeks after our conversation, her boss—a popular plastic surgeon—is in the news when his patient dies during a BBL.
On Twitter, a Nigerian celebrity bares her injuries to the world. There are pus-filled craters all over her butt from the BBL she got from a quack. The doctor responsible for her injuries has been in the news several times for killing her patients. When asked why she went to a well-known quack, the celebrity says it’s because it was the cheapest BBL she could find.
Hyperthyroidism. That’s what we suspect my mom had. She has gained a bit of weight now, but she’s still smaller than me. My mom has reached that perfect middle—not thin and not fat. People acknowledge her perfection by asking why I am bigger than her. I am told to keep my weight in check so that I don’t end up looking older than my mother. We arrive at the hyperthyroidism diagnosis when a loved one suddenly starts losing weight and gets hyperthyroidism in her test results. It is obvious my mother never had AIDS, seeing as she’s been alive all these years without antiretroviral drugs. It is obvious because loved ones have contracted the dreaded disease since then. I have seen them deny that such a thing could happen to them. Then there’s always the slow acceptance, the wearing of hooded clothes to the hospital to receive free antiretroviral drugs while trying to avoid being recognized, the frustration that rich people didn’t have to line up under the sun to collect the medications because health workers hand-delivered same in discreet envelopes to homes and offices for a hefty fee. I have lost several people when their HIV blossomed into full-blown AIDS. I know the signs.
I am with my aunt in front of her house, waiting for my Taxify ride. A woman in neon spandex jogs past us. My aunt looks at her and smiles. She reminds me of how my mom was brutally body-shamed for decades. Isn’t it funny how we all want to look that way now? My aunty shakes her head. May we live long enough to become the standard of beauty, she says.