Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
I Want a Fat Canadian Lady

15 comments

"I've been losing weight," I mentioned to a friend. He tilted his head to one side and looked concerned.

"That's terrible," Ayou said. "What is it about our country that's doing that to you?" Ayou wasn't joking. In Niger, like in most of Africa, being fat is a sign of good health. The more corpulent a woman the more attractive she's considered. But in America being fat is a sign of the excess consumption that plagues our culture, and for me being overweight was a sign that I wasn't taking care of myself or respecting my body enough to eat right.

The next day I was sitting on a bench with my 3-year-old son who was eating yogurt half-spoonful by half-spoonful. We were near the Lycée La Fontaine, a private French school where hundreds of expatriates send their children. The street outside the lycée is lined with vendors -- fruit and vegetable shacks on one side and artisans selling everything from handmade postcards to carved wooden furniture on the other. A large Tuareg man wearing a white turban and white robes sidled up to us, a heavy sack slung from his shoulder. He pulled a leather jewelry box from the sack and held it under my nose.

"Merci," I said. "I'm not shopping today."

He heaved his sack onto the bench and sat down heavily.

"American?"

For some reason I didn't feel like saying yes. So I told him I was Canadian.

"Canadian?" He spoke loudly. "Listen, Mrs. Canadian! I want you to find me a fat Canadian woman." He clenched his fists and cocked his elbows, tensing his muscles in what was almost an indecent gesture to illustrate what he was looking for. "Une grosse femme! A fat woman! Not skinny like you." He appraised me disapprovingly. Then a leer spread over his corpulent face. "Do they have fat women in Canada? That's what I want!"

"And your wife?"

He waved his hand dismissively. "She won't mind."

I couldn't help giggling. The vendor looked offended. He heaved his sack back on his shoulder and got up. "Don't forget," he called as he walked away. "I want a fat Canadian lady!"

In the first month we were in Niger, before we moved into our rental house, we stayed in a missionary guesthouse. A French couple was staying there as well, missionaries from Agadez who have lived in Niger for 25 years. We hired a young woman named Nadege to help us with the housework. One day when Nadege was in the communal kitchen I heard the French missionary ask her: "Do you have chickens? Would you like this stale bread for them?" Nadege nodded and accepted the rock hard baguettes with open palms, as is the custom in Niger. Later I saw her standing up, hunched over a plate in the kitchen, dipping the bread in water and eating it furtively.

So many people in Niger are hungry. Hunger is an enemy that stalks and badgers you. Even when you shake him off he lurks in the dark corners of your life waiting to attack you again. When a married man gains weight, his wife gets approval from her family and friends -- a corpulent man is proof of a wife's ability to cook well. A zaftig young woman will catch the eye of young men while her thinner friend is overlooked. And in the midst of all this poverty and want, I am finally -- consciously -- losing the weight I gained during my third pregnancy. While Africans flee from Hunger, I court him.

Though I didn't decide to lose weight, per se, I made a radical change in my eating habits right after Christmas. During the holidays my children, husband, and I stuffed ourselves with cakes and candies and cookies and chocolate Santas. I could never eat just one. I would eat a handful and sneak the kids' leftover bits, chowing on the sticky sweet stuff until my stomach was so full my hands trembled and I felt ill.

One evening at the end of December I finally had enough. Here we were living in a country where stale bread was coveted and I -- like so many other Americans in the expatriate community, especially those who work at the American Embassy -- was overeating. I disgusted myself. So I stopped. Instead of devouring sweets indiscriminately, I allow myself candy and dessert -- as much as I want -- on Saturdays only. No more soda or cupcakes or leftover candy during the week. I've also stopped taking second helpings, which I used to do out of habit rather than hunger.

We don't have a scale in Africa but my pants are baggy and skirt bands that once left a red line around on my waist now fit comfortably. Others have noticed it as well. "Your stomach," an American neighbor said enviously the other day, "it's so flat."

"You've lost weight, are you sick?!" my friend Bouhary, who's dramatic on a quiet day, cried when he saw me last, throwing his hands in the air in distress. "You've disappeared. You've completely melted away!" Bouhary shook his head in disapproval. "What will they say when you go back to America? We need to fatten you up before you leave!"

Although living in Niger has helped me understand that our American obsession with dieting is a privilege, I realize I'm lucky to be from a country where people have too much instead of too little. I hope I can stick to my new regime. In the meantime I'm taking out a classified: Wanted: Fat Canadian Lady as Second Wife for Tuareg. And I'm glad that lady isn't me.


Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D. (“Poker Face”) is a freelance writer, consultant, and parent educator. She is the editor and co-author of Toddler: Real-Life Stories of Those Fickle, Irrational, Urgent, Tiny People We Love (Seal Press), which won the Independent Publishers Book Association Award. Her writing has been published in Mama, PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life (Rutgers University Press, 2008), Ms. Magazine; Pregnancy; Newsday; Mothering Magazine; Brain, Child; World Pulse; and dozens of other national and local magazines and newspapers. She has eaten fried crickets in Niger, appeared live on prime-time TV in France, and performed the can-can in America. She lives in Ashland, Oregon, with her husband and three small children. Find out more about her at: www.ToddlerTrueStories.com.


More from



Hi, I haven't introduced myself before but I found your blog though the Hoppers and have enjoyed it a lot. I live in Alexandria, VA, work in politics and hope to join the Foreign Service one day. This post stood out to me. I was a very thin child (daughter of a very thin mother...5'9" and 120lbs one day after delivering me...usually about 110 or less, and under 100 when she got married) but at puberty began to take after my father's side for no reason whatsoever (he's 5'8" with a 42+ inch waist and well over 200lbs). This was not easy for someone who was (A) used to being thin (B) female (C) American (D) teenaged. I did my Junior year of college abroad in Botswana where, in my first seconds of meeting my host mother (who was laughing and patting my breasts) was informed that she was saying that she knew why I'd been placed with her...she herself was quite fat and had three fat daughters and she knew how to feed a fat girl. I was mortified. Soon, though, I realized that "fat" in Botswana is at worst a neutral term, along the lines of "blonde" or "short" in the US and is generally a positive term. I quickly became THE standard of beauty in the village (fair skinned, short, blonde and fat). I was offered a full 5 head of cattle above the going rate for marriage (going rate was 8). It was very, very strange for me that I was considered the prettiest of all the girls in our group (one of whom was actually a model in the US). It was even stranger coming back home....like revisiting all of those 14-year old self-conscious fears all over again. I do find it incredibly strange that we have so much excess that being thin is a luxury while most people in this world struggle to maintain a baseline standard of healthy weight. It makes me wonder what has happened in this world that this is reality. I'm sorry to ramble at you....this really has struck a cord with me all over again. I wish there were answers. I'm glad there's someone else who sees it too.
I'm Canadian and when on holidays, I've noticed quite often that people are initially skeptical when I say I'm Canadian - I guess because there are growing numbers of Americans who don't want to admit their nationality for whatever reason. You have every right to tell people whatever story you want, but you know, it gets tiring having to tell stories about Toronto and punctuate every sentence with "eh" just so people don't assume I'm an American hiding behind a maple leaf.
Thanks JC for describing so well what I have been feeling when I read about Americans "passing" as Canadians. I was part of a group in a place that accepted 1000s of Americans when the planes were detoured to Canada. And your president couldn't even acnowledge that contribution when he spoke to the country in the days following that awful event. And yet so many of his citizens find safety in assuming our nationality. There's irony for you. But then, the situation you describe re: body image is also full of irony. What are we doing to this next generation of young women in the West who struggle to starve themselves while millions go hungry? It will be interesting to see where we go from here. I would love to read your insights on the skanky clothing that is being marketed to toddler girls (toddlers!! as sex objects!!!). Best, Pink
Love this article, you made me think. Not easy to do after a long day at work!
Ugh...so you only just realized that it's bad to "stuff" yourself with sweets, cakes, cookies, etc? Thanks for perpetuating the Ugly American stereotype that makes Americans aboard have to say "uh, no, I'm Canadian" in the first place! And still having gorge-fests on the weekend isn't exactly a "radical" diet change. Try resolving to never eat out again, or to never eat candy or chocolate again. That would be radical. You work at an American Embassy? Jeez, no wonder the rest of the world thinks so poorly of Americans. Just look at the wide-eyed "golly gosh, people are hungry?!" naifs we send as our ambassadors. And your advanced degree doesn't automatically mean your worldly. Some of the most sheltered people I've ever met were academics.
Hi skinny Canadian, Tertia's sister Mel here. You write so wonderfully, I will HAVE to read all your work. It blows my mind constantly how we live in such excess and others literally die from hunger. I cannot understand why someone gets paid millions of dollars for a movie when other people have never even seen a television. Its just too wierd for me. I read a book about a couple who go to Mozambique and the work they do, book called Always Enough by Heidi Baker and her husband. I was so inspired I was ready to sell every last item I owned and go and help out. Husband not as keen. Don't get too skinny!
Vera, if you read Jennifer's previous columns you'll see that she does *not* work at the American Embassy -- she's a Fulbright Scholar who has contact with embassy employees. And I wish more of the "ugly Americans" you refer to were like her -- fluent in the native language, embracing local customs, and gracefully representing a country whose foreign policy is little more than a blunt instrument. Of course stuffing ourselves with sweets is bad, so I'm sure this isn't news to J. But I can see how she might be re-learning that, in the context of such relentless poverty.
The prevailing characteristics of the "Ugly American" stereotype are ignorance and rudeness. I don't see a shred of either in Jennifer's column, but, sadly, there's plenty in that comment, Vera. Read Jennifer's previous columns, and you'll see that she's doing important work in a country few of us could be bothered to visit, much less take our families to live in for a year. Jennifer, I appreciate your insights about the amount of food Westerners live on, compared to the rest of the world. While the disparity is something most of us are aware of intellectually, your story makes the reality hit home in a more personal way. Thank you.
Vera, Americans don't "have" to say they're Canadian. If they are so bothered by the Ugly American stereotype, then they could be honest about where they are from and try to dispel the image with their behavior, rather than posing with someone else's flag (and, quite frankly, giving other countries the same bad reputation in the process).
Interesting. I live in Japan, which has the highest rate of anorexia in the world. I'm a size 10, which seems sort of normal when I walk into a Walmart in South Carolina, but here, I can't fit into the clothes.
Jennifer, This column really struck a chord with me, too. Thank you for writing this. My six-year-old daughter is very petite and thin. I can't tell you how many strangers point this out to me: "Oh, she's soooo... skinny!" As if I don't feed her enough. I really appreciate your thoughts here: in particular how we, as Americans, view bodies, and our often crooked thoughts around weight. You clearly made many readers think. Good work. Best, Rachel
As a mom of a preschool girl, I'm vaguely terrified of what's coming--and keeping the luxury of dieting in perspective is helpful, thanks Jennifer! (but I'm still terrified)
This was interesting. I actually GAINED weight while living in a rural African village because my friends and neighbors there always insisted on sharing food with me. Refusing it was tantamount to rejecting the considerable work that went into procuring and preparing it. People would greet me and say with pleasure, "You've gotten so fat here in our village!" Of course, there was also a scarcity of healthy food like fruits and vegetables, which really changed the way I ate when I returned to the U.S. I was so grateful for the privilege of a balanced diet that I could no longer fathom why people in the U.S. would WILLINGLY fill their bodies with heavily processed pseudo-food that makes them tired, depressed, and sick.
I think it's very hard to write on the topic of poverty, hunger and excess in a way that doesn't rattle the proverbial chains. Thank you for taking it on, and braving the replies.
Hello, Your article on the men and their will to have fat women amused me much. It is a society phenomenon in Africa: having a fat woman as wife. Unfortunately, people (women especially) do not realize that this constitutes for them a health problem. There are indeed many women who suffer from cardiac problems or hypertension because of their excessive weight. I know the wife of a friend who at the time of their marriage was as thin as a needle. For no supporting more the mockeries of her friends, she begins to eat as a pig, eating kilos of food in an irrational way. Nowadays she has almost 90 kilograms and her husband is glad to have a true woman at home. See something cultural, but which represents a really public health problem and anybody does not have courage to denounce such practice. You are right, you have no interest has not to enlarge with the risk to be misunderstand in your country where the problem of obesity arises with more acuity. Good evening
Comments are now closed for this piece.