Canadian Expat Mom

Body Image From an African Point of View

“It’s too much!”

That was our cleaner.  She walked in the door and saw me on the spin bike. Again.

It was my fall routine since the moment my bike arrived from Indonesia: Netflix in the living room, with me on the bike, working off my summer weight.

Thankfully, I’ve never had any weight issues, but like many woman, it’s something I’ve always kept an eye on.

Well, not always, actually…


In high school I was tall and slim, what a treat! I never even thought about my weight at all. Then I turned legal drinking age(or maybe a bit sooner) and spent nearly a decade drinking far more than any liver should have to deal with. I’d cap each evening off with late night greasy food that I could barely recall consuming. It was my 20’s…sowing my wild oats, and all that! I didn’t really think about my weight then either, but maybe I should have because all those years of partying did result in there being a bit more of me to love. Thank God for my height!

When I met my husband my lifestyle balanced out. Less nights out with a 2am stop for fries at McDo’s(as the French fondly refer to the golden arches) and more trips to the produce section at the grocery store. I was left with a body imagine in my later 20’s that I was(and still am) generally happy with. Even though I gained an obscene 50 pounds(!!!) with each pregnancy, I found my way back to my skinny jeans relatively quickly, with the help of my running shoes.

What I didn’t account for was the weight gain that my expat lifestyle would bring!

Generally, I stroll through life with a rather laid-back attitude, and try to enjoy things as much as possible. This means warm baguettes in France, fresh coconut milk in Indonesia and Hawkins Cheezies in Canada. I know I’m only in these places for a somewhat short time, so I enjoy…or perhaps even indulge, while I can. This especially speaks for my last two summers in Canada.

Both this year and last year our family was moving continents and first we went to Canada for two months of visiting and, well… eating. I basically said ‘no’ to nothing, and ended up with about 8 extra lbs both summers.(Impressive in a short time, I know.) I arrived in both of our new locations feeling a bit like a stuffed sausage and wishing my clothes fit better.

The 38 degree heat(plus humidity) in Indonesia made running, for this Canadian, nearly impossible. It was just too damn hot. We ended up buying a spin bike that I became rather fond of.

After my summer of over indulging, I wanted to hug that bike this fall when it finally arrived in Congo. Every morning once the kids went to school, I’d faithfully climb on my bike and binge watch Netflix. Before I knew it, my clothes fit again and I was back to feeling fit and fabulous, with a confident spring in my step.

Just when I was starting to feel good about myself again, our cleaner, who spends her days at our house, said to me with an I-just-drank-sour-milk look on her face, ‘“Madame, c’est trop!

She told me, in French, that I was exercising too much and getting too thin. According to her, the worst part was that *gasp* I was loosing my butt!funny movie film happy dancing

Talk about a clash of cultures! It was obvious that we had two very different world views on this, because I was TRYING to shrink my backside! But, to be honest, her idea of a nice, cushy derrière was appealing as it freed up a good part of my mornings.

It didn’t matter how much I liked the theory of ‘bigger is better’…It was easier said than done to simply reprogram what I had always been told was ideal.In December our expat life had us drifting between continents once again, for Christmas this time, and we were lucky enough to be able to spend almost an entire month in France…or should I say, ‘foodie heaven‘?!

We spent weeks outside of our routine and loved every second of it. We visited, ate, drank, and were merry—just as you should be at Christmas time. A month later, and in stark contrast to the French stereotype, there was a pleasantly plumpness about us. We stepped away from the kitchen; said goodbye to the foie gras, creamy cheeses, charcuterie, and baguettes, and boarded a plane for Africa.

Day one back in the Congo and I was delighted when our cleaner arrived. After one month without her, I had a brand new appreciation for her when she walked through the door! We chatted and caught up while she tidied and I unpacked suitcases.

Passing her a box of chocolates that were unopened from Christmas, I asked if she wanted them, and continued to explain, “I ate too much over Christmas and now I need to go on a diet.”

A big smile crossed her face, “Oui madame, vous avez grossi” she happily agreed that indeed I had gotten bigger since she last saw me. I stood there a bit gobsmacked, and marveled for a moment at her candor. She genuinely looked pleased that I’d gained some weight. Not because she was being unkind, but she honestly thought it was a good thing. My butt was back!

My mind flashed back to a few years ago in France when my Australian girlfriend got her muffin top lovingly pinched by an Indonesian friend after Christmas, commenting with a smile that she must have really enjoyed the holidays.

If the Indonesians don’t have a stigma about weight gain, and the Africans think it’s great, maybe I’m the one who needs to revamp my thinking…or more likely, our society as a whole.

I’m not cheering on obesity. But perhaps we could get rid of the photo-shopped magazine ads and find a healthy balance we can move towards, somewhere in the middle.

In the meantime, when I notice a bit of overhang on the midsection, I won’t feel bad about my body, instead I’ll be laughing as I imagine the day when it’s socially acceptable in North America to tell someone they’ve gained weight, and mean it as a compliment.


*An update*

Yes, I still ride my spin bike daily. And yes, our cleaner still thinks I’m crazy for doing it. She smiles and shakes her head, and I smile back because we know we come from different worlds on this one. I’m not aiming for perfection; just a functional balance between health & fitness and indulgence.

5 thoughts on “Body Image From an African Point of View

  1. Kara Khurana

    Lisa, this article is great! I totally remember the first time I was in Uganda and my host mom told me I was too skinny and that no one would want to marry me if I looked that way! I also had an African friend ( when I lived in a rural village) say I would not be worth many cows when married. Haha. Fortunately, someone did eventually want to marry me?
    I have had weight issues in the past so this articles is a great reminder about cultural diversity and a healthy perspective. And yes, in going on 9 years of being an expat, I have seen culture is nearly impossible to change.

  2. CMT

    Every Single Vacation we get back and our Filipina maid smiles and tells us how ‘fat’ we’ve gotten! Took a few years to get used to it. It just wasn’t something we said back in Canada. But it DOES motivate me to get back on track! ? Great piece!

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