Skinny African girls may get to strut on Western catwalks, but the fat ones have to stay at home.
This is the message being delivered to the 500 or so Ghanaians who have registered with the country’s only international modeling agency, Exopa.
“A lot of them want to go. But not everyone has the chance to go because of the size the Europeans want them to be,” said Exopa’s Ghanaian director Sima Ibrahim.
As models on Western catwalks get thinner and thinner, their hungry look has sparked noisy debate about the pressure this places on girls and women to achieve perfection even if perfection means size 0, the smallest American dress size, the equivalent to a British size 4.
In Africa, rolls of flesh are usually seen as a sign of wealth and status, not of ill health.
Few aspire to a skinny look, as those who look starved and ill too often are that way through misfortune, not choice.
But just as Africa’s youth find themselves choosing between Western music and clothes and those rooted in their own tradition, they are now faced with two opposing images of beauty — the Western ideal of an ever thinner frame and the African one of a buxom and well-rounded figure.
Nowhere is this debate clearer than in the African fashion industry.
Those who want to make it as a fashion model in the West are well aware they need to conform to Western sizes.
“Those that come here who are skinny, they know they want to go international. The others, they know they are big, they want a job here in Ghana,” said Exopa’s Ibrahim.
Few Africans want to see a superskinny model, said Sylvia Owori, who runs Uganda’s Ziper models.
“I think most Ugandans would be disgusted. They’d think she’d just come out of the village and she was malnourished,” said Owori.
On the street and in African clubs and bars, it is still the bigger girls who are likely to get attention.
A big cheer goes up when a “nice, shapely African model” take to the stage in a fashion show, said Santa Anzo, director of Uganda’s Arapapa clothes and model agency which specializes in plus-size models.
Some international clothing brands are changing their sizes to match the realities of the African fashion market.
The South African wing of Levi Strauss & Co. launched a roomier pair of its famed red label jeans after African women told researchers they liked the brand but couldn’t fit into the skinny designs aimed at Westerners.
“Young African women are increasingly proud of their body shape and are celebrating it in fashion. There is a marked confidence in African identity compared to 5 to 10 years ago, and while young Africans are making use of international brands they want to maintain their sense of being African,” said Levi’s South Africa managing director Mike Joubert.
But the rewards on offer in Europe can make weight loss worthwhile for ambitious models.
Ghanaian fashion models stumble out of bed for up to $200 a day. Those who make it to Europe get $1,360 per half day.
Batting the lashes of her feline eyes and toying with her gold slippers, the naturally skinny 20-year-old Mimi Mensah says she has wanted to be a model since she was 14.
“I just have the passion for it. I have the flair. And if I am not mistaken, I don’t look bad,” she said.
“When you are on the catwalk, all eyes are on you. You feel you are on top of the world. It makes you feel great.”
Six foot 1 inch with a 25.5 inch waist, Mimi has already modeled in Europe and she knows that is where she wants to be.
“Back home, people think bigger people are attractive. I am aiming internationally, so if I am here, and people don’t think I am attractive, it doesn’t bother me,” she said.
But Mensah also questions the size 0 trend.
“I don’t think that is healthy. Most of them starve,” she said.
Some people do aspire to Western ideals, said Uganda’s Owori.
“It is starting to change now. It used to be that you had to be big and curvy but now people watch TV and read Western magazines and they want to be like the girls they see there,” she said.
But still, there are few African models who would purposely lose weight and many relish their food, say model agencies across the continent.
Slim Alberta Arhin, 21, has her hopes pinned on an international modeling career, but still loves her kenkey, a fermented corn dish which is a staple of Ghanaian diet.
“I like myself the way I am. I am a Christian. God made everyone different. Don’t starve yourself to make someone happy or to be on a runway. It is wrong,” said Arhin.
For those who do pursue perfection in the form of a smaller clothes size, the irony is that for many men, the superskinny are not objects of desire but simply mannequins who decorate the shop window of a multibillion-dollar fashion business.
“It is a business. Almost every man I know, the skinny models, it is nice to take them somewhere. If it comes to really having a relationship, they prefer to have bigger people,” said Exopa’s Ibrahim.