Heart of Arts

Lepa Or Orobo? Lookery and Women’s Body Parts

Toyin Falola


Afrobeats by the new generation of musicians can be reduced in its lyrics to money, women and sex. If you have money, the other two can follow. If you don’t have money, Habeeb Olalomi Oyegbile, the indomitable Mr. Portable, alias Dr. Zeh, husband of Motunde, daughter of Mr. Macaroni, advised you to do the money ritual. I have already located the person I want to use for the ritual, Mr. Portable himself, but he has to lead me to the “ritualizer”, and I can walk back home by myself with a trailer of money driving behind me.

The Afrobeat videos are about marketing women’s bodies, matching the slim and the big to produce a forest of elegant bodies in multiple dress colours. Sexy ladies with banging bodies. The choreography is amazing, jazzy, seductive, and romantically satanic. The music leads you to the examination of body parts: her mouth is small and well-rounded for the “job,” the blow job near the fence; her “back” is an asset, big enough to cause commotion on the streets; her hips are wide enough to carry a man’s child; and her breasts are milk factories. Rest your head between the breasts, and you will fall asleep within seconds. Her body cools a man’s high blood pressure from 200/130 to the normal range of 120/80.

In drinking places, hardly a woman passes by without a comment, some very printable as “her buttocks are good,” “her boobs are firm/standing,” “that girl’s butt is ‘watery’,” “What a defence at the back and attack in the front!”. Omo tan sibe—(the babe is ‘complete’), Eru Aya (chest load). And disagreement follows: she is too big, she is too short, she is too lean, she is too fat. Women’s bodies are the subject of conversations in the public domain. Lookery has reached the level of criminality without laws to proclaim it as a crime. Don’t Seun-Kuti mi o for slapping me in public, abeg.

WhatsApp has created a stadium where the best sport is not soccer but jokes about women—too many of them for comfort. The current depiction borrows women’s looks from Mr. Macaroni’s comedy—the hip must be big, the back must be bigger, and the front must be heavy. Oin! You are doing well!! Give me your account number!!!

No more gist! You don’t have to open your eyes to see what I mean. Let me turn what you know to what you don’t know: body positivity. How do you tolerate those you don’t like, accept those you dislike; and what emotional crimes are you committing by calling a woman ugly or fat? And what serious charges of deadly sins await you in heaven for abusing God’s creation?

Maybe I am hitting you too hard. Forgive me. In a world of social media, TV and the internet, it is arduous not to be attached to or influenced by the information flowing around. The type of content presented on people’s screens and the thoughts behind its selection leave audiences with ideas of what might be popularly acceptable. But while the concept of body positivity cannot be said to have started after the media revolution, it is bound to it in a cause-and-effect relationship.

The body positivity movement is often traced to the late 1960s efforts of author Llewellyn Louderback and fellow activist Bill Fabrey to alter the narratives surrounding fat people. Fat people were crucified then and even now. Fabrey had been inspired by Louderback’s article on the American diet culture and collaborated with him on forming the National Association to Aid Fat Americans, later renamed the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA). But even as the group was committed to delivering on its objectives, a trait reflected in its over half a century of existence, some members preferred that it took a more aggressive posture.

And in line with this, The Fat Underground was established. It was founded by Sara Aldebaran and Judy Freespirit, two Los Angeles women discontented with the narratives surrounding mental health treatment and fat people. Initially, both joined NAAFA because of its stance on anti-fat stereotypes. When the leadership, however, began to request that they soften their militant attitudes in public commentary, it became less habitable, and they eventually had to split. Thus, The Fat Underground evolved into a movement recognized for its confrontational approach to challenging medical and wider societal perspectives around bodily weight and was perhaps most popular for their work, “Fat Liberation Manifesto”. I can be certain that most Nigerians are unaware of this manifesto. Neither do Nigerians care about the stereotypes they use routinely on street corners. Sisi Quadri, a superstar comedian of insults and mockeries, will win a medal for his extreme words on bodily parts.

As a term, body positivity gained ground in discourses in the 1990s. In 1996, a group called The Body Positive was founded by a writer who suffered from an eating disorder in her teenage years and a medical specialist whose work involved the treatment of the same. With the onset of social media came a corresponding growth in communities focused on having conversations about how people saw their bodies. These comprised marginalized elements like black women, fat people, the LGBTQIA+ community, and differently-abled individuals.

            Today, the concept of body positivity has become popular, with its application often exceeding the groups that originally instituted it. The rise of social media apps like Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok has massively influenced notions of self and the consequent reactions among people. Among no other can the contents of these platforms be said to have taken hold than members of the younger generation, a demographic whose social existence is linked inextricably to the digital world.

It is not unusual to find endless images promoting a certain body type on video-sharing applications above others. In European, American and Asian cultures, these are often people with measured, slim figures. In Africa, females with hourglass bodies are generously endowed by metrics the society uses in gauging physical appeal. And different though the ecosystems might be, the message rings clear to viewers consuming such content – these body types are the trend, and social acceptance lessens for those who do not possess them. However, digital media is merely a reflection of societal norms. While it is certainly an amplifier, it simply mirrors the ideals passed around daily.

For instance, it is not uncommon for orobo, the plump women, to be given pride of place in African cultures. The same applies beyond the continent where EurAsians favour the lepa, the petite and even extend this to fashion magazine covers and criteria for determining marital eligibility. That NAAFA and The Fat Underground emerged at a time when contemporary media was nonexistent is also an indication of this.

My Nigerian friends and enemies, your lookery and comments have destroyed too many lives. The effect of popular perceptions of ideal bodies is that it forces women who, more often than not, are on the receiving end of stereotypes to indulge in habits that may not be particularly healthy for them. They bleach their skins for you because you want them light or yellow. Because you want big breasts, they put fufu inside the bra! As you demand big buttocks, they look for foam and discarded tires to augment the sizes. You want long hair, forcing them to wear wigs. Comments by men and women have turned many ladies into artificial creatures—heavy make-up transforms the looks so that the person you see in the morning is not the same in the afternoon. Undress! The face is reddish, the neck is pink, the chest is orange, and below the waist is black. Same person, seven colours: a rainbow coalition of ugliness moving from Ikorodu to Toyin Street in the cover of darkness in search of invested bats and owls. I pity your Mama. Even those with facial marks pancake them, so you cannot recognize them. On the streets, they look gorgeous; in private, they look unattractive.

In adjusting to stereotypes and labels, some women’s crises include eating disorders, muscle loss, weak metabolism, and nutritional deficiencies. It takes a turn for the worse when individuals with prior medical vulnerabilities also engage in weight loss routines. Furthermore, there is scepticism as to whether some of the ingestible such as cleansers used in driving weight loss are scientifically viable solutions. The controversy surrounding these intakes is, in a way, relatable to The Fat Underground’s notions of mystified oppression.

Under this mantra, the movement believed that medical professionals at the time put their mental health patients through procedures that they were not exactly savvy about. Rather, the approach of psychologists and other specialists involved victim blaming and rationalizing painful processes with the argument that they were necessary. The movement was also emphatic about reexamining the submissions of health experts, frequently accusing them of solidifying social sentiments about fat people by painting them as excessively consummate. Today, the conversation has expanded to include restructuring the narratives.

Corporations strictly incentivized by the need to make profits are now fingered as culprits in commercializing the body positivity movement. Given that pragmatic undertones remorselessly shadow them, it is not difficult to see why the motives for actions such as including characters with more diverse body sizes in fashion media are easy to doubt. Indeed, the global weight loss and diet management market size was valued by the most conservative estimates at a tad under 200 billion dollars in 2021, with projected growth from around less than 300 billion dollars to over 400 billion dollars between 2027 and 2028.

This is not the only problem of the 21st-century body positivity movement. Aside from conflicts on the inclusion of other minority groups, it also suffers appropriation from people who would ordinarily be deemed regular members of society. The forms that this takes include posts on social media by slim people captioning their loss of a few ounces of fat with the body positivity or bopo hashtag. Others situate their desire to flaunt their sexual appeal through revealing clothes in the #bopo campaign without understanding its foundational intents.

            Time to fight back! Still, conflicts or not, it can be argued that a fundamental theme in this is a drive to restructure power dynamics. Typically, definitions of what women’s bodies should look like to be seen as appealing are not untraceable to males. And for this reason, the proponents of positivity have not made it a bare request to democratize views of women’s anatomy; they are intent on downsizing their propelling hulk, masculinity. This does not mean men are not envisioned as participants in the #bopo movement. A fraction of men has been cited as susceptible to eating disorders and images of how an ideal man should look.

However, due to the emotional resolve expected of men, they feature more in the background than on the centre stage. It is also impossible to apply the same yardstick for describing the rebelliousness in #bopo to men. This is because the same stereotypical factors that limit their involvement would naturally also be stumbling blocks in any protest. Notwithstanding, experiences in the transgender community differ vastly from those with predefined labels. The incidence of stigma and social biases imply that talks of body positivity carry heavier weight among people who are not immediately accepted by society for who they are. Thus, the idea allows people to boldly confront inward and external denial, forging a refined self-image.

Shockingly, women are at the centre stage, judging what an ideal woman’s body must look like. More than men, the pressure and snide remarks from fellow women have driven women to do unhealthy things or go through dangerous procedures just to fit in. Women starve themselves under the disguise of dieting to lose weight, while others use various supplements and weight gain products to add weight to look desirable to men and get nice comments from fellow women. Different standards and trends are set mostly by women to prove their womanhood. So much for women supporting women. It is amazing, however, to see that the modelling industry, especially in Western countries, has begun to accommodate women of various sizes, forms, shapes and heights.

Can we rethink Nigerian society? I plead. Criticisms of the positivity movement have centred around the likelihood that it might promote unhealthy dietary habits rather than encourage people to fix them. Specifically, a primary argument along this line is that it could spur comfort in obesity. Another criticism is that it inspires people to assume confidence they do not feel. There is the possibility that people exposed to lots of body-positive messages may bear a burden to developing adulterated confidence in their physique.

You are getting bored reading this and need to use your make-up. Before I run away from your anger at my uncomfortable revelations, let Bishop Toyin Falola reflects on a Biblical passage:

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Genesis 1:27:

Man in the passage also refers to women; God created us in His image, whether you are a lepa or orobo. A commonly touted way to fill the gaps in positivity is body neutrality. It focuses on the body’s utility rather than magnified attempts at settling into it. The essential feature of neutrality is that it proposes a different approach to accepting one’s body. By recommending activities that inherently mandate an appreciation of physical qualities, its method distances from the external influences in the #bopo movement. My good women, thank God for how He has made you and avoid self-destruction. Sing along with me:

I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well. My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Psalm 139: 14-15

My spiritual message does not encourage unhealthy lifestyles like poor diet, lack of exercise, poor hygiene and care of the body. Body positivity does not excuse carelessness and allowing anything into your body. If you are obese because of your eating pattern, watch it and seek help instead of chanting, “I love my body. #selflove.” Same as one who is underweight: lepa is good but can be disastrous if self-inflicted. And if you plan to enter the Guinness Book of Records for “Best in Lepa,” go, girl! You can do whatever you put your mind to. Be sure to make Mama proud.

Finally, believe in how African ancestors have resolved the issue: promote inner beauty, not the external one, the Iwalewa. Your character and values will get you everything you want, not your bleaching cream, size 45 breasts, buttock enlargement, and Brazilian-made wigs. And learn to smile, as it is worth more than your size 48 Chinese cup.

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