When fat is desirable: anthropologist Rebecca Popnoe explores beauty ideals in Niger

How do you feel about your body?

I feel fine about it! Of course we all bear with us the expectations of our societies' norms - we wouldn't be human if we didn't - but that's really true for all parts of our being, isn't it? One could be a bit taller, a bit thinner, a bit smarter, a bit kinder, have a bit better memory . But even though I have spent so much time studying and thinking about the body I have never really had body "issues", I wouldn't say. (Maybe just intellectual body "issues".) I experimented with dieting as a teenager a few times, as teenager girls do, but figured out fairly quickly that I liked eating normally more. I'm normal weight and always have been; exercise regularly more or less; of course wouldn't decline the offer if a fairy godmother showed up and told me she could wave her wand and make me look like Kate Winslet, but that's just rational thinking, no?

What do bodies mean to you? 

I think that the way in which Western society THINKS that it obsesses about the body is in fact due to the fact that we somehow think bodies shouldn't really matter much, and we are bothered by the fact that they do.  But we're animals - of course our bodies - how they move, how they look, how sexually attractive they are, how youthful they look - matter.  Sometimes I think intellectuals just can't bear that something they can't fully control and that isn't their modus operandi matters so much in the real world.

As an anthropologist, how have your own experiences influenced you whilst you are in the field?  

Certainly living among a people who thought women should be as fat as possible was liberating and put things in perspective. 

What were the most shocking discoveries from the field. What were the most stark contrasts to western ideals of the body? 

Apart from fat being beautiful rather than thin (on women) it was that stretch marks were considered beautiful that was the strangest thing. Women literally wanted to have stretch marks on their arms and legs. In a historical description of fattened girls and women from Mauritania the author describes how women would run a comb over their arms and legs to make it look like they had stripy stretch marks.

What about bodily substances. How do you feel about the mechanics of the body, how do you perceive them and how did your informants?

The Arabs among whom I did fieldwork did not like blood or sexual secretions, and thought they should be wiped away and cleaned up as soon as possible. They were more ok with urine than we are in the West, I would say. Drinking sheep's urine was a traditional medical treatment. 

How has your perspective of bodies changed since your fieldwork. Do you see your own body/ other bodies on the street differently?

Well, to be honest, when I returned from Africa, the main thing that struck me about white people was that they were so ugly.  They looked so bleak and pasty and awkward and they dressed in mismatched clothes and moved so clumsily. And their bodies, whether fat or thin, weren't graceful.  It took a while for that impression to fade and for me to get used to white people's bodies again.  In addition, I think I do find more kinds of bodies attractive.  I do see bigger female bodies as attractive and sexy and sensual in a way that I don't think I did before I lived in Niger, and more readily think some women are too thin. 

Why do you think we have such extreme bodily anxiety in the West? 

We don't!  We have anxiety that we have anxieties.  In most societies women especially are very taken up with how their bodies look and are perceived. It may be expressed in different ways than in the West, but I don't think there really is a society where women especially don't care an awful lot about their body, their hair, their faces. Where they don't, it has more to do with poverty and lack of resources than with lack of a basis for cultural interest in appearance and the body.  I think what is particular, and strange, about the West, is that we think it is somehow a problem that care about our bodies!  Yet obviously what we look like matters - most societies get that and just get on with it.  I think as women came to be thought of as men's equals in the West, and with the purchasing power industrialization brought to most of us, it became annoying that we women were supposed to and able to do what men do but that our appearance still mattered more than theirs; AND we could spend lots of money on lots of products that cater to our appearance. But don't think for a minute that we spend so much more time or attention on our bodies than people who have the leisure to do in other parts of the world. 

Do you think this is increasingly the case, as countries develop or do you think it is a social fact that we have cross-culturally we have body ideals? 

All societies have bodily ideals, especially for women. We are in no way unique. We just think we are - whereas other societies have an easier time accepting this fact of life, and get it that other societies also have beauty ideals, even if they differ from their own. I think we are slowly moving back to a more "normal" state when men also wear jewelry & make-up, tattoo their bodies, use products in their hair, etc. 

Can you say something about the role of gender, and the body. In the west, beauty is overwhelmingly a female issue, and eating disorders are predominant in women. Why do you think this is the case? 

Whether we like it or not (and I'm not saying I do!) we are primates and mammals and basically our biology dictates that males of the species go after females of the species and the biological logic of sexual selection determines that women's bodies and appearance matters more.  Unfortunately that explains most of it. Then we can of course decide how much we as human with at least the illusion of free will choose to cater to those biological forces (by for example breast enhancement, tight-waisted clothes, dyeing away grey hair, covering up facial blemishes, wearing lipstick) and how much we want to live our lives that emphasize other values - and we are lucky to have that choice. The majority of us wisely take a middle road, I would say, and then we have the Dolly Partons as well as the Lena Dunhams, and they are both refreshing and fun in their different ways. 

That men's appearance is less of a "thing" is partly biologically driven, but of course in many societies men's appearance is played up as much as women's. Think, in our own history, of Tudor times when men wore earrings, codpieces, and dyed their beards.  Or the 1700's when men wore powdered wigs. Industrialisation brought a little historical "blip" when men became somberly dressed workers and women the fancifully decorated signs of a family's status, at least in the growing middle and upper classes.  I think we are slowly moving back to a more "normal" state when men also wear jewellery & make-up, tattoo their bodies, use products in their hair, etc. 

As to eating disorders, my reading of the scientific literature points strongly to them having rather little to do with our society's body ideals, and more to do with generic mental health and general demands and expectations of self-discipline on girls and women. Eating disorders exist in many places outside of the west (Kenya, Ghana, Iran) where Western body ideals don't hold.  Furthermore, all women in the West are bombarded with the same adverts and magazines and reality TV-shows, but the vast majority do not get eating disorders. Other forces are at play, and our body ideals are something of a red herring.  Eating disorders also have a large biological component - once a person stops eating enough the brain becomes "fooled" and the eating disordered behaviour is very hard to break. It doesn't have to do with some conscious longing to look like a fashion model.