Waist beads are often worn to accentuate the wearer’s waistline and by the world’s standards, my waist was not considered desirable enough to be accentuated; it was not what the society needed to see being accentuated.
I have always been enamored with waist beads — tiny bits of colourful jewellery strung in elastic strands into rows of glistening loops clasped around a person’s stomach. Waist beads serve as a repository, clutching past moments shared with my demised grandmother; moments bolstered by hour-long routines where she and I tailored thousands of beads in ropes. Hence, whenever I catch sight of waist beads in shops, it is a struggle to squelch the need to purchase more in addition to my already mighty collection. When I started wearing waist beads, I felt a deep connection with how gloriously they framed my body. But fatphobia was a menace laying in wait, ever ready to bump into me with displeasing alacrity. Waist beads are often worn to accentuate the wearer’s waistline and by the world’s standards, my waist was not considered desirable enough to be accentuated; it was not what the society needed to see being accentuated. The strands solidly digging into my flesh instead of resting loosely atop my belly was a painful prompt that my body was nowhere near the elusive ideal.
Waist beads have been a notable motif in African traditions. Its origin can be traced back to 15th century Egypt where women wore them as “girdles” and pre-pubescent girls sampled them as an innocent beauty accessory. In Nigeria, however, waist beads are believed to have been glorified by the Yoruba tribe as a celebration of womanhood, sexuality, femininity, fertility, healing, spirituality, body shaping, protection and wealth. The negative context in which conservative agents of the Nigerian society popularly perceive it stems from the belief that women in past times concocted traditional magic and infused it in waist beads to create charms that helped them trap love interests, mostly unwilling ones.
With colonialism and its religious influence maintaining a strong hold on Africa, a majority of Africans readily shun objects considered to be “traditional” as these objects have been conceptualised by colonial forces as “fetish” and “evil.” Regardless, in more recent years, its adverse publicity is being tentatively mitigated as women are shunning retrograde norms and refusing to hinge their self-perception and individuality on faulty standards of morality. Imperative to note also is the West’s influence in sanitising the mass African perception of waist beads and endorsing its rise in the global beauty culture. Therefore, images of thin women with washboard stomachs garbed in waist beads are splashed all over the internet in celebration of female sexuality and femininity.
However, living as a fat woman in a fatphobic world translates to a continuous battle with exclusivity. It means that I am completely removed from the things considered as beautiful or feminine. By virtue of my size, as a fat woman, I am forced to only dream of my initiation into the world’s beauty system while starving and jogging my way into it, but never quite reaching it. Fat women are constantly demanded to minimize themselves, to hide, to shrink into obscurity, never standing out. Thus, when fat people are caught tampering with the splendour of waist beads, they are met with recoil and immediately shamed — what louder way to stand out than to openly sit strings and strings of glistening, shiny beads on folds and rolls of fat tummies? As a symbol of femininity, waist beads are widely accepted on slim bodies because slim, dainty women are levels above fat women on the prejudiced hierarchy of femininity with thin, white women placed comfortably at the highest top.
The beauty industry, deeply rooted in capitalism, has continued to poach the inherent significance of waist beads and transpose it into another toxic weight loss medium. Waist beads are used as embellished substitutes for the scales. Thus, women are encouraged to buy and wear waist beads while endlessly struggling with the fatphobic climate in which it is enveloped in. In a Healthline article, people are advised to use waist beads to stay aware of any weight gain or loss in the abdomen “rather than step on a scale.” In another article, the steps involved in using waist beads as weight trackers is explained:
“When the waist beads get loose and slip down to your hip bones over the course of days, you know you have decreased in size and/or lost weight. Simply complete this process again if you wish to be smaller. Remove the beads and tie them tighter again above your belly button. On the other hand, if you notice the beads rising higher on your body instead of slipping down, this is a sign you are gaining weight and getting bigger.”
I fell heavily into this fatphobic regimen and it taunted my mental and physical health. The waist beads that I loved as adornments of my physical form became a dreadful reminder that I was growing and expanding into undesirability. I would starve myself for months. The dizzy spells I had from hunger failed to halt the spread of a sort of wicked glee that formed in my heart when I noticed how lose my waist beads were becoming. I was proud of achieving such feats. Dizziness, illness, and malnutrition were diminutive prices to pay in exchange for beauty, to win the glamorous prize of society’s acceptance and validation.
Now, I continue to re-work my relationship with waist beads, nurturing it into a talisman that gives me better, nuanced perspectives of my body. My waist beads which are wrapped gallantly in the middle of my stomach is a sight that evokes a deep appreciation of the beauty of my body. Their undulating motion around my midsection — travelling up to reach my breasts, hiding in the crevices of my folds; rolling, sometimes, to nestle underneath my stomach — teaches me to be unafraid of the different shapes and forms that my body is liable to take.
Because fear is a strange thing which grows into hatred and disgust and internalised loathing, it is pertinent that I do not fall back into old patterns where I fret and scare myself into striving for a particular ideal, typified by mass approval. I look upon my body with a lot more kindness because the resplendence of my waist beads affords me the pleasure to view my body with a more humane lens. The gentle way with which the beads grip my stomach in a steady embrace grounds me to the glory of existing in a body that spirals far away from conformity. In seasons where my mind wanders and threatens to get lost in fatphobic tides, my waist beads guide me back to safety and refrain me from contorting it into a dark vessel that transports me back to feelings of inadequacy.
Realising how therapeutic waist beads are for me has exposed me to a deeper exploration of its wonder; a depth so intense that it is way beyond the reach of fatphobia. Fat people deserve to experience happiness and express themselves in styles that testify to their personality and creative imagination just as much as thin people do. As Nigel Rudkin affirms: “If you do not inhabit a fat body, you cannot imagine a world in which everything and everyone is geared towards a body type that you cannot attain.” While society may be determined to monopolise waist beads as a property of thinness, I refuse to deprive myself of anything that makes me happy.
Words by: Melony Akpoghene