“Culture, Health, and Women’s Image – The Lizard Story”
Guest Speech delivered by Chinyere G. Okafor
at the Annual Charitable Event by Nigerian Women Association.
Olive Tree Banquet Hall. Wichita. May 15, 2004
The lizard fell from a tree. She considered this a great feat, and indeed, it was. But nobody congratulated it or said what Nigerians say in different ways: “Well done, my fren.” “Sanu,” “Ndewo,” “Ekeabo-o.”
Well, the lizard began to shake its head and nod it up and down. Till today, the lizard still nods its head up and down, to remind itself its beauty and greatness even if other people don’t acknowledge it.
“I am beautiful and I am great!” Indeed the Nigerian lizard is very beautiful. I did not appreciate this until a colleague of mine, who lived in Nigeria, brought it to my notice. The lizard is brown, decorated with red and blue. The male has beautiful red tail and red and blue manes for attracting the female. Very beautiful! In Nigeria, we did not think of lizards as beautiful. We only think that the women are beautiful. And we think of beauty in various sizes and shapes, as well as various colors. “Yellow,” “Oji n’egbu ocha,” “Udala!” “ifolo ocha,” “Ube,” “oji asha-sha,” “Pepper!” These are different colors. We don’t think of ourselves as just black, because we are not just black. However, in this country, we are black. On our way to Nigeria, we drop the black identity at the airport and pick it at the airport as we return to the United States.
Anyway, back to the lizard story.
I use the lizard story as a metaphor. I just want to emphasize that we, Nigerian women of Wichita, should borrow a leaf from the lizard.
I say this because the body image of women in America is very very poor, and this is the best anybody has said about it. Jean Kilbourne, a social scientist who has done a lot of work on media images of women, described the American image system a ‘toxic environment;” toxic, in the sense that it causes a lot of anxiety for women. According to a study conducted at a hospital in Boston, many of the women who participated in study were more afraid of getting fat than they were of dying. I’m not making this up. This is from a study done by Siebecker “Women’s obsession with Thinness” (126). Many starve and have health problems, such as bulimia and anorexia. Heart disease can also come from unhealthy dieting.
In popular magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Vogue, on the television, films, and advertisements, we are bombarded with women’s body image that is like Barbie image - impossible to attain. Barbie is very tall, very thin, white, blonde, with massive breasts, extra-large buttocks and thin legs that cannot carry such buttocks in real life.
Of course, we know some Nigerian women with ample breasts and buttock, We know about the famous or infamous Ikebe Super, but how many women are like Ikebe Super? One in a hundred. And even, women with huge buttocks and huge breasts don’t usually have thin waist and thin legs like the Barbie image. No woman has that type of figure. If she has, she won’t be able to walk with such thin legs. Only Barbie can walk with them because she uses batteries.
The human equivalent of Babrie is the super model - average of 5/10 and weighing 110 pounds. Social Scientific research shows that only 5% of women have the super model image of 5/10 and 110. The average American woman is 5/4 and weighs 145. Most of the super models themselves try to acquire the image through diet and plastic surgery – breast enhancement, lap suction, buttocks, hair implants and coloration, teeth jobs, eye modification. The list goes on.
The magazines also do jobs on the
photos. They use computer air brushing to get a desirable picture of a model.
Sometimes, they get the face of a mode, and the thin legs of another one and
plant them on a body to make up a desirable image. Many of us don’t know these
tricks and want to look like the models. Women patronize plastic surgeons. According
to the American Association of Plastic Surgeons, of the 7 million people that
went though plastic surgery in 2000, 6 million were women that underwent
cosmetic plastic surgery for breast enhancement, tummy tucks, etc.
This leaves out majority of us who are not rich or who don’t care.
Back to the lizard story.
Today I want to say that Nigerian women of Wichita are not in the anorexia, bulimia, and cosmetic plastic surgery complex. We have not heard that any woman here is worried about body image, to the extent of becoming obsessive about it. They just like to dress very well, each woman thinking that she is the queen. And of course, I like to attend their event and watch them, all queens in their own rights. Obsession with thinness is not yet a problem, and may it never be our problem.
Don’t get me wrong. We do not like to be fat. But we don’t like to be very thin also. Just healthy enough to eat pounded yam, digest it, and have strong mouths to carry our voices, and strong backs to carry the babies. In the interest of those who don’t understand the association of backs with babies, we carry our children on the back not in front of us. Their heads are usually on the level above our shoulders, so that they see whatever we see while they sit comfortably on our ikebe. I used to carry my nephew on my back while I typed on the computer, because he wanted to watch it and feel the warmth of my body at the same time. As a child, I used to be a good girl, because my Aunty would reward me by carrying me on her back, and I was seven years old. Big small girl.
But I am talking about body
image. I don’t want people to think that exercise is not good. It is very
important especially with the kind of fast food that we eat. We need to help
our body metabolism to take care of the food. In Nigeria, the environment and
culture help our metabolism. I mean things like the sun and outdoor exuberance. We always tend to walk a lot in Nigeria. That’s
exercise. It is easier here in America
to step from the house into the car and not do a lot of walking. Conscious exercise
is very important for health reasons. We need to exercise. Your doctors will
tell you how good it is for the blood pressure, the heart, and general
So, let’s not say “I didn’t exercise in Nigeria and I was okay.”
We are now in America, let’s do it the American way. It is healthy.
But I am talking about Barbie and the super model image. I am proud to say that Nigerian women are not concerned about the Barbie image. They do not bug their husbands for money to use in lab-suction nor overlabor themselves for money to buy new breasts. But, I’ll still like them to come and join me in jugging for the sake of health and for sisterliness. I’ll also like us to keep our children focused on who they are, and not get carried away with the media and hip hop culture. And because Nigerian women organize events for children and for adults, events where they acculturate the children to Nigerian ways, events that help the adults maintain their Nigerian ways, and because of their confidence in who they are in a media culture that tends to exclude majority of us, I say, “let us congratulate ourselves as the lizard did.”
Umu-nwanyi ndewo ni-o
title: Culture, health, and Women
Last update: November 12, 2009
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Chinyere G. Okafor