You love cocktail parties, don’t you? If you’re an expat you probably adore the ones sponsored by embassies and big international companies where everybody has sold his or her soul to the god of networking. Well, the working spouses have. If you’re a trailing spouse accompanying your partner to such an event, you are lucky because you can consider this an educational opportunity. I’ve spent many an edifying hour standing around in my finery amid a gaggle of foreigners and listened to riveting honks about small ruminant value chains, the standard TSMA, gender-disaggregated data, and so on. This can be excruciatingly fascinating boring and usually we trailing expat spouses will find each other and discuss other matters such as fashion, breast implants, and potty training dramas. (Please don’t write me about how insulting this is.) But one evening at a cocktail party in Ghana, West Africa, I met businessman Mr. X. And he did not talk about business or politics or international finance. Here’s what he did talk about:
Beauty and the Bad Boy
Mr. X is a charming, sophisticated African with graying hair, a mischievous glint in his eyes and a story to tell. He has a beautiful accent compliments of a PhD from Oxford and we are chatting at an outdoor cocktail party in Accra, Ghana. It is a dark and steamy night, the frogs are frogging, the drinks are flowing, and the malarial mosquitoes are zooming in ecstasy over the abundance of naked flesh. The naked flesh being faces, arms and legs, just to be clear here.
His story involves a visit he made to my homeland of the Netherlands when he was a young man, a young man who had never left his native land of Ghana. As an unworldly 20-year-old on a two-week business course in The Hague, he was excited beyond description to be in the land of cheese and tulips. He had a wonderful time, at least until the last evening there when he attended the big goodbye affair with food, music and dancing. Dancing! Girls! Dutch girls!
Now, Ghanaians know all about having fun eating food, making music and dancing (and they learn young), so Mr. X was looking forward to the evening.
Some of his study-course mates had been abroad before and shared with him their acquired wisdom relating to the treatment of western women, such as how to behave at the dance and how to make a good impression.
He was told that the women were expecting to be asked to dance and would not join in on their own. He could make his own choice by looking around to see who looked available and willing and then go over and ask her to dance.
“Give compliments,” he was told. “Tell a girl she looks beautiful. That she has pretty eyes, a nice smile, that sort of thing.”
Not so difficult. Young Mr. X was up to the task.
Older Mr. X smiles at the memory as he relates this story. He takes a drink from his Scotch.
“So,” he continues, “when dinner was over and the dancing began, “I looked around and saw a beautiful girl with blond hair and blue eyes and I went over to her and asked her to dance. She came to the dance floor with me and we commenced dancing and talking. Then I remembered what I’d been advised about giving compliments, so I told her she was beautiful and then something went awfully wrong.”
“What do you mean?” I ask, spellbound by his story. What woman doesn’t want to hear she is beautiful? “What happened?”
“She glared at me and took off. Left me standing there in the middle of the dance floor. I was perplexed! I was giving her compliments! What had I done wrong!”
“She took off because you told her she was beautiful?” I am equally perplexed.
Mr. X smiles, enjoying telling me his tale. “Yes, I told her she was beautiful. And so nice and fat.”
Dear reader, do I need to explain? In Ghana, as in some other African countries, the traditional view is that fat is beautiful. The original cultural reason behind this is the thinking that if a woman is fat she obviously has lots to eat, which means that first her father and then her husband is prosperous. Although many young Ghanaian women now have adopted the western idea of beauty and like to be thin, there are others who don’t. Just have a look at this picture.
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What cultural experiences, or experiences with foreign men, have you had about body image? About what you should look like? How much you should weigh or what the size of various body parts should be? Get some milk and cookies and think about it.