Sex, Body Image, Reproduction

Someone asked my friend Arimiyaw if either Dominique or Max, two EWB volunteers that have recently visited Karaga, were staying with me. This seems like a direct attempt to determine whether despite my “I have a husband” status, I was sleeping with multiple men in the same week. Sweet.

Instead of having sex Max decided to build a fort out of our mosquito nets instead. Needless to say, I was impressed with his skill.

A man who I’ve become acquainted with at the Karaga market, which happens every six days, has told me that he has seen many white people before, but did not like any of them. Because they were not fat like me. I am the first one, he says, that he has talked to because he likes me. Really likes me. As in yesterday, we were chatting and he told me that he likes me so much that he wants to touch me, but knows it is not allowed in his religion and because I am married.

I get at least a few requests each day for men to marry me, or if I want them (sexually). This started out as more than ten/day, and something that kept me on my toes, and that I was very quick to divert. My friends have assured me that these are largely great jokes reserved for white people (women). Lately the requests have dwindled and my response has changed dramatically, to one that is far more relaxed and playful. People know me better now, and those asking are usually in the company of people who already know my answer, so I’m no longer hyper-proactive to make sure my message gets across. Plus, it’s funny asking a 20-year old if he’s going to go get his parents now so we can get married tomorrow.

People have absolutely no qualms about calling it as it is in terms of body image. As a result, being called fat is something that has been transformed for me from something people said to me to be mean in elementary school to something that just seems to be a natural descriptor for myself, someone who hasn’t taken the time to maintain my physical activity over the past few years. This one is pretty weird for me, because I have had a negative image of my body, especially my weight as I perceived it compared to others, since I’ve been aware of it (maybe 13 years old). Most of the time, it doesn’t bother me at all, but it has never been a part of my identity that I have been proud of. In Karaga, and I suspect in most of Ghana, being fat is a neutral to good thing. If you’re fat and a woman, you’ve probably given birth many times, you’re a successful person with lots of food to eat, and life is good. Regardless, it still stings a bit when people laugh when I’m double-riding my bike, and I’m the one sitting on the back, and they think I’m so fat I’m going to break the bike. Sheesh.

Fat and happy at the office. Life is good today, as I had a box of apple juice and my favourite, fried yams and beans and guinea fowl for lunch.

Some of the people I’ve gotten close to originally assumed that I was around 35 years old (one guessed 42) because of my body image. To think that I was a target within their age range (mid-twenties) released what seemed to me to be an onslaught of professions of love, requests for sleepovers, and assertions that I would be snatched by them from my husband by the time I leave Ghana. Regardless of the contract I signed as part of the JF program, and my solidly “taken” relationship status, I don’t have any temptation at all to consider having ten children with any of these guys. And that’s the general expectation, is that each wife attempts to pop out a bevy of kids. People are incredulous when I tell them that I only have one sibling, and that my ideal number of children is also 2-3.

My effective go-to person in my compound, one of Chairman's wives, Fatima. She has at least 3 children living with her, two pictured below. I have no idea if there are more that are older, but I'd guess yes.

Family planning is something I’ve only heard of in Ghana in one of my conversations. Most people have just asserted that the more children the better. My colleague Mr. Abanga feels otherwise, and is planning for only a few children and one wife, because he knows that he needs to be aware of his limitations in the care he can provide them.

My friend Eliasu, a marketing student at the Tamale Polytechnic college, asked me if it could happen too that women can become pregnant outside of marriage in Canada. I assured him that yes, it happens in Canada too, but if the people are still in secondary school that it is usually not good at all. It is pretty much expected that by 25 years old, women are “expired”, as my EWBer buddy Lyndsey so bluntly learned from her taxi-driver. This means that you’d better marry and prove that you’re fertile by this time, and the earlier the better.

——————-

How do Canadians express all of these concepts? These occurrences seem so distinct from something we’d experience in Canada, but how are there similarities?

In a Canadian context:

  1. How do you gain information about someone’s sexual exploits? How do people’s interest levels in multiple sex partners/cheating etc. vary compared to Ghana?
  2. Why do people find it inappropriate to tell someone that they are physically attracted to them if the person of interest is married/taken?
  3. How do jokes about relationships differ? Are Canadians too prudish/scared/shy to make fun of marriage? How would you respond if someone off the street asked you to marry them?
  4. Why do we find it offensive to comment on someone’s fatness? How does it differ from a comment on eye colour, or singing voice, or puzzle-solving ability?
  5. Why do we tap out after a few kids? What are the economic incentives behind this decision? Is there a societal time-limit on our (female or male) reproduction? Where does that come from?

I’m looking for at least one comment from each of these categories. I want to hear what you think, and how it’s comparing to my experiences  So take a look at the comment list, and if one of these hasn’t seen any responses, take a stab! Don’t feel shy *ahem* chapter members*ahem*Also, do not hesitate to ask me some questions in return!

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About Janine Reid

What is Janine? -board game enthusiast -political observer -Vancouverite -questioner -listener -health provider
This entry was posted in Sex, Drugs, and Rock n' Roll, Special Interest. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Sex, Body Image, Reproduction

  1. Ryan says:

    Hey Janine,

    Awesome post, very honest and open, you rock! You’ve raised a lot of really interesting points. I think your first two questions, at least, are related to the openness, or rather closed-ness of Canadian society vs. what you’ve described of Ghanaian society.

    For example, I would say that, in general, our “interest level” in multiple sex partners and extra-marital activity is as high here as anywhere in the world and that it’s mainly societal norms and protocol that have been established over hundreds of years that prevent us from acting on many of our impulses, not any lack of desire. Of course I can only speak for myself and what I know of “men”, so can’t assume that most women also have similar desires.

    These societal norms prevent us from acting in the open. Which is why much of our extra-marital activity occurs in secrecy (or attempted secrecy!). We have no problem telling a married woman she’s attractive if we’re alone and have had a few drinks. But most people wouldn’t risk doing this in front of others for fear of tarnishing our reputation. Take away those barriers, those external societal pressures, and this type of dialogue will occur more often in everyday interactions. That’s my take anyway!

    • Janine Reid says:

      Wow Ryan, thank you for your reply! Really interesting to read. For your first point I think I can confirm that women are in the same boat, in that we are restraining impulses because of societal norms. Great second point, I definitely agree. Both Canadians and Ghanaians are more or less expected to be faithful to their husbands/wives/partners. What do you think is different about Canadian society that creates a need for secrecy, vs. Ghanaian openness around attractiveness?

  2. rchatwindavies says:

    Hey Janine! Super interesting blog post, thanks for it! I definitely remember experiencing lots of this from Malawi this summer too.
    I think, in particular, I did lots of thinking about #4, because it’s something that I experienced lots too… People would mistake me for other white people, and then realize “Oh yes, you can’t be so-and-so, you are much fatter!”
    I think, what’s interesting, is that it kind of operates as the opposite in Canada. In Canada you’d tell someone “Hey, have you lost weight? You’re looking really good!” in the same way that in Malawi people would tell me that “Ah, but you are getting fatter! You are so healthy!”
    I think in both cases we are looking to promote and acknowledge whatever is viewed as positive in that society, you know?

    • Janine Reid says:

      Completely 🙂 A lot of the reason I’m torn on this, is I’m trying to empathise with ghanaian culture, but I’m still firmly rooted in my Canadian beliefs for this one. No idea if my perspective will shift, or by how much, but we’ll see in three months!

  3. Joyce says:

    How come you are asking those questions ‘in a Canadian context’ Janine? You are supposed to be the one who knows very well. 😀
    I think culture difference can explain all those weirdness and strange thoughts around, but somehow it just can’t explain itself: ‘Where does the culture come from?’ or ‘Is it possible to change their value?’
    There’s no doubt that adapting to the new environment is a great thing, but I guess how not to lose your identity is very hard too. This problem bothers a lot still after one year. :[

    Anyway, take care Janine. You are awesome!
    Joyce

    • Janine Reid says:

      Haha well I do have many ideas about my “Canadian context” but if I told all, maybe you wouldn’t have the same chance to think about them!

      That’s a really interesting point about retaining identity. I’m wondering how much of what I’m relating to in Ghana is just aspects of my own personality that are expressed more fully here, or if my views/values are indeed changing already. And is this a good/bad thing? I think it’s important to know when to change, while also remembering where you have come from. But life is rarely that easy!

      As for culture, some of it is totally explicable in my mind, and it’s a small wonder each day as I’m running across more of the reasoning behind things that I take for granted as “normal” here. I think there is a reason for everything, but how visible that reason is is totally variable!

      Thanks for the comment, you are awesome too 🙂

  4. maxipowghana says:

    Try to imagine how offensive it was to be the one that could not double ride you! Haha Very interesting blog post and an amazing experience this week-end. Thank you for that.. and BTW, people in my office are so proud of my new Dagbani skills lol Hopefuly I’ll get the chance to work that out in Chereponi next week!

    • Janine Reid says:

      lmao smallboy Max, you were well-loved despite your perceived weakness. Going to try to go to the farm again this weekend! Maybe do something more strenuous than shucking corn…

  5. Emily says:

    Hey Janine,
    Very interesting and honest blog post! I read some blogs and, as with people in Vancouver, I often get the feeling that the writers are never really being themselves… they are presenting an image of them self that they hope others find ‘cool’ or trendy etc. Which gets really frustrating because everyone on the internet tries to sound educated and cynical, but just ends up sounding douchey. Hmmm is douchebaggery synonymous with cynicism? I must consider this more…
    Anyways, to answer a question, since that’s the point, from a purely sociological perspective, the answer to all those questions would be that we act the way we do because that’s the way society has conditioned us to act! eg question 4, being fat is a trait we are taught to think of as undesirable, so no one wants to think about fatness, much less get caught talking about it. Which I suppose if we were thinking in terms of fitness, it’s probably not the best thing for your body to be overly fat, but the fat-phobia that we seem to be suffering from today is ridiculous. When it comes down to it, being fat is, like you said, just another physical attribute. I find it’s funny (when in Canada, probs less in Ghana, since people seem to have a much more reasonable stance re:fatness) to ask people, would you rather be fat or stupid? and see what people respond.
    PS: when it comes to telling people they are attractive, even if they are in a relationship, I find that I have mostly got past the awkwardness of it and I just tell them. Then I usually tell Zav that I met a babe that day and if he knows them we comment on his/her babe-liness together. Perhaps that is slightly inappropriate, but it is defs more fun than keeping that opinion to yourself

  6. Jessica says:

    Hi Janine,

    Great post! I’ll take a stab at question 4. I’ve noticed that in Asia, people are very blunt when commenting on the appearance of others. “You’ve gotten fat!” is quite commonly heard when relatives haven’t seen each other in long time. Mothers call their daughters fat and pressure them to lose weight, even when they are a healthy size. Perhaps it’s because body image is incredibly important to girls in Asia, even more so than Canada. I think they put far too much emphasis on looks rather than a girl’s abilities. It’s their belief that Asian men will only choose beautiful women, which is unfortunate but sadly very commonly seen. Asians just see it as fact that one must slim down to be successful, and therefore think it’s helpful when they point out that someone should lose weight.

    Of course in Canada, more emphasis is put on a person’s skills and personality rather than weight. People are also understanding that weight can be difficult to deal with and that those suffering from weight disorders are well aware of the fact. There is still the societal pressure to be thin and unrealistically beautiful. I think Canadians are generally more focused on individuality, and people may be offended if they told to be what they’re not.

    Cheers,
    Jess

  7. Kay Ochiai says:

    Hi, Janine
    I just wanted to share my thoughts on your questions #2 and #4. By the way, a great job on blog! This is AWESOME!
    2.I guess it is forbidden to ‘tell someone that they are physically attracted to them’ regardless that person is taken or married. Because in North American context we try to hide our physical attraction to win opposite sex and it is some how rude to tell. For instance, if the guy is attracted to the women, he won’t say “Yo, you got nice butt, Mama”. I mean, that’s too extreme but you cannot possibly expect women to favour that comment. We detach sexual attraction from our feelings (at least hide it) so that a partner will feel that she/he is important more than sexual purpose per se.

    4. It’s funny that you brought up this question. Because I remember that my African friend told me that “In Africa, people eat and become fat as though you have everything. But in North America, people do not eat and become thin as though they have nothing”. I guess what you look like has lots to say about yourself. Many people (especially North America) associate fatness with “laziness” or “not being capable of controlling one’s weight = disorganized” and other negative connotations. Of course those are stereotypes and often not true at all. But what society accept today is THINness and whether you could keep up with up with this trend would tell you a lot about yourself too. Personally, I enjoy meal with someone that do not care about one’s weight and eat cheerfully rather than with a person who constantly look herself in the mirror and calculate calorie intake every seconds.
    5.Why do we tap out after a few kids? (what does that mean??)

    Keep it up for us please! It’s very informative!

    • Janine Reid says:

      Haha Kay your “extreme” example made me laugh out loud. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, I definitely am sensing that it is not rude to tell someone they are a hot mama, but it’s been hard to explain this idea to my coworkers, that in north america women are not necessarily wanting to be directly appreciated for their body…that it’s supposed to be subtle appreciation or unexpressed.
      5. “tapping out” means that you’re finished, you’re giving up. So in this context, after a few kids most families in Canada are deciding that it is enough.

  8. Very interesting post, Janine. On the topic of ‘changing values’ and ‘how do we do it?’, I spoke with a man who works with the City of Vancouver in the area he calls behaviour change. He said that one of the things he’s come to understand is that, while we think “People behave in a way consistent with their values, and so will change their behaviour when they value something different.” it’s more often than not the reverse. His example was about recycling and the environment, and that the way to go is not to “try to get people to care about the environment” so they’ll recycle, but to make recycling so darn simple and irresistible that they’ll have recycling as a habit. Then, in noticing that they are recycling, and how wonderful it is, they come to care about the environment.

    Regarding changing values around having many kids, or fatness, well we’ve seen that a lot of the time that behaviour (trying to have many kids, being neutral/positive about being fat) kind of correlates with something in that environment. Less economically developed countries tend to have more children (for several reasons, but one of them is that all the parents are sort of ‘raising their chances’ at having successful/healthy children because the risk is high that they’ll die). Then when their economy and healthcare booms, suddenly not so many kids are dying, and then it takes a while for people to realise “hey, we don’t need to have so many kids – and it would actually be easier to care for fewer”. So it starts to change. Then the social values shift from valuing large families to valuing small families. Sort of the same thing goes for ‘fatness’ – it’s hard to eat well in countries like Ghana, so if you can pull off fatness, then it’s ‘great’! But it’s easy to over-eat in Canada, so the reverse is true: skinny is ‘great’.

    But they’re just descriptors we attach values to. I read an article once by a guy in a wheelchair who said that he wanted everyone to just call him a cripple, because that’s literally what he was: crippled. Not ‘handicapped’ ‘handicapable’ ‘special needs’ ‘disabled’ – which skirt around the literal in an attempt to be neutral or PC. Physically crippled.

    Things to think about. Hope all is well in Ghana!

  9. Pingback: No fat people shirts | chasing questions

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