By Afua Hirsch
In the lobby on the morning the event was meant to start (Ghana being Ghana, the 11am launch happened closer to 3pm), I saw something I have rarely seen around here before: skinny women. Not just the odd one – who of course exist in every country – but whole groups of them, moving together in small, conspiratorial-looking packs.
“Ah the models have arrived,” an equally bemused woman sitting near me pointed out. “They look like aliens, don’t they, 6ft tall, all arms and legs, with waists the size of one of my thighs?”
I wouldn’t describe them quite like that, but this observer – a typically curvy older woman – captured a reality; that in Ghana, sightings of skinny women are extremely rare. Models don’t look like ordinary women – if they did then they wouldn’t, by definition, be fashion models. And the debate about how different their bodies are from the ordinary is nothing new.
But in Ghana not only do women not look like models, but they have no desire to look like them. This is a country where pharmacists freely disclose that buoyant sales of appetite stimulants are mainly owing to women who want to, as Ghanaians put it, “grow fat”. Across west Africa, large busts and behinds, and thick legs are highly prized assets. As the legendary Fela Kuti sang in Army Arrangement, “yansh na wonderful material perfect” (“arse is a wonderful thing”).
Watch any music video by the growing number of west African artists who are crossing over into the mainstream with hits like Sound Sultan’s Pass Me and you will find ample evidence that the Afrobeat pioneer’s commentary is as timeless as ever.
It’s not just that booty is considered beautiful. There are also taboos surrounding skinniness in west Africa, where a lack of body fat is associated with poverty and Aids. A friend who moved to Ghana from Europe told me that when she was breastfeeding her child, people regularly expressed surprise that her “tiny breasts” were capable of producing milk. Girls are still told that if they want to find a husband and bear children – which most do – they will need to fill out a bit.
The spread of the western fashion industry, and its increasing convergence with Africa’s own long-standing and vibrant fashion culture means all this is changing. I remember the furore in 2001 when Nigeria finally became the first African country to win Miss World because it entered Agbani Darego – a tall, skinny, 18-year-old with non-typical features who was not considered particularly attractive at home. Her victory had a huge impact on the model industry in west Africa, where skinny girls suddenly realised that what had seemed like a hindrance was now an asset.
And as African fashion weeks, such as GFDW and the increasingly high-profile Arise event in Nigeria, gain traction with the global fashion industry, it is inevitable that they will begin conforming more to those standards. Some of the collections at GFDW, which finishes on Tuesday, were beautiful. Duaba Serwa combined on-trend, A-line silhouettes, Lurex silver, and textured layers with very Ghanaian textile prints.
The more accessible these designers become to a global market, the sooner Africans will be able to profit from their own talent, rather than watching European and American firms exploit their traditions without leaving a trace of benefit.
There is probably an argument – which I don’t accept – that African designers have to present their clothes on the same skinny bodies as designers everywhere. And, yes, you can change the models, but you can’t change the customers. I’ve never been to a fashion week before, but at New York and London I’m always reading about lettuce leaf lunches and people who don’t eat. All I can say is that the jollof rice and fried chicken was disappearing at the usual rate at lunch at the Mövenpick; and at the cupcake and champagne reception, I saw hardly anyone drinking champagne, but the cupcakes were gone in a flash.
Thankfully the prospect of Ghanaians thinking that models are meant to fill them with self-loathing, seems a long way off.
Afua Hirsch is the Guardian’s west Africa correspondent based in Ghana.