Definition. Obolo: A person who is fat
Have you watched the movie The Invention of Lying? An offensively brief plot summary is the characters live in a world where lying has not yet been ‘invented’. Everyone is subject to the truth—hearing it and speaking it. From my interpretation of the movie, consequences of lies like being hurt and offended would also not exist. In the movie, people are subject to the truth and equally compelled to respond truthfully. Quite unlike the movie is the recipient in his or her inability to respond or react, truthfully or otherwise.
I am Ghanaian, plus-sized and I have been called obolo more times than I can put effort to remember. To be called obolo feels like being a character in The Invention of Lying where whatever someone sees and thinks about you, he or she comments immediately. On the name caller’s part, there is no consequence—the ‘truth’ literally speaks for itself.
‘Obolo’ is a type of mockery that is socially accepted, recognized, very difficult to avoid and nearly impossible to protest. I once made the mistake of telling someone that it was neither appropriate nor kind to call me fat. I call it a mistake because of the verbal execution I thereafter received. The verbal backlash centered on my being obroni, another problematic word for me.
A few things for contextual purposes: I was born in the United States, my parents are Ghanaian, I lived abroad for 18 years though not in the US, I have spent 90% of my summers in Ghana.
Someone near-and-dear to me shared a blog post from That Hayet Rida, “Growing up Fat in Ghana”. Hayet writes about her experience as a plus-sized woman growing up in Ghana. Her narrative resonated with me. Rida says, “Sadly, I grew up in a culture that considers feelings and emotions exclusive to white people”. I must choose my words carefully because I do not intend to disagree with Rida’s observations. I am relieved to read Rida’s perspective and as evidenced from the comments section, discover that we are not alone.
I would not say, however, that most Ghanaians view feelings and emotions as exclusive to white people. Feelings and emotions are not white inventions, but probably a cocktail of chemistry, biology, environment, etc. I do think that it is more the case that different societies/cultures place varied emphasis on feelings and emotions, and this importance influences the role feelings and emotions play. Does that make sense? When I think about Ghana then, I think of a society that grieves together, laughs together and celebrates together—in my view, Ghana is an extremely affectionate society.
Ghanaians are observant and Ghanaians speak freely, for the most part I believe. No one has ever skirted around the issue of me being obolo. “Obolo” marks the beginning of social interaction in my experience. It is said as easily as “Obolo, how are you?”. “Obolo!” can also mark the beginning, end and sole purpose of interaction. Frankly, however it appears, it is horrible. For some reason, I feel compelled to add that in the same way I am called obolo so too am I called beautiful, eii sister wo ho y3 f3 ohhh. Obviously being told that I am beautiful (swirls) stirs up different emotions than obolo (cringes).
This is an important distinction for me because I think it might be saying something important about Ghanaian society and culture that is easily overlooked. And I will try and illustrate it this way: I have lived in the US for a decade now and I can’t recall being called beautiful by a stranger in public. Strangers have offered ‘compliments’ that made me feel uncomfortable and unsafe. I have never been called fat by a stranger in America either, but I have received all sorts of unsolicited counsel on how I can lose weight, eat better, dress for my weight, etc.
In America, I think we have developed a library of politically correct terms because we readily acknowledge that words can hurt and because our society is richly diverse. But is it okay that I think someone is stupid as long as I address him or her as ‘less intelligent’? If I see someone and I believe they are fat, as long as I address him or her as curvy, am I good?
What we say are leaves whose roots are our thoughts. But does that mean we should say exactly what comes to mind…? I guess not. What I am saying is that I didn’t consent to being called fat or oboloo. I similarly did not consent to ‘thick’ and ‘curvy’ or ‘plus sized’ but these terms have been deemed to be more respectful and maybe they are, unless it’s a new leaf for the same thought.
Personally, I do not appreciate any differences between fat and thick, or fat and curvy, or fat and heavyset or big boned. If we were to group people by their size only, would the groups ‘fat’ and ‘skinny’ have any more value or use to us than ‘curvy’ and ‘thin’? For a moment there, I even struggled to find the politically correct term for skinny—what are these terms? Why aren’t they at the tip of my tongue? Have you looked at the definitions of fat and skinny? The definitions are not favorable to either category in my opinion! Take a look at the synonyms too.
The issue is the social value or lack thereof we have bestowed upon ‘fat’ and ‘skinny’. The evidence that one body type is valued over the other is abundant.
As I write this, I am in Ghana. Yes, I have been called obolo. My response is to smile (or smirk) because if someone is calling me obolo they will not understand my protest. I can only hold them accountable for being an active participant in one facet of their culture. If they did understand my protest, they wouldn’t be calling me obolo, I hope. I have also reached a point in my self-growth where thoughts of self-hate and unloving descriptions of my body are slowly and surely being replaced with self-love, praise and just general amazement with everything my body enables me to do.
Bottom line: The consequences of a lack of consideration for a person’s feelings and the seeming hesitance, reluctance or refusal to scrutinize and question certain facets of one’s culture all create a terrible burden for the recipient of name calling and inevitably for the society itself. Maybe we wouldn’t need an archive of politically correct terms if we our interactions did not dedicate so much value to physical attributes.
 I am saying it is socially accepted because it is wide practice to call men and women oboloo. Of course, as it is the purpose of my writing to point out, this ‘acceptance’ is limited and partial.
2 thoughts on “The Trouble with Words (Part I)”
This is incredibly interesting to me–the way cultures dictate what’s appropriate in terms of communication. I would be horrified, as an American, if someone came up to me and addressed me as a “fat person.” But in some ways, the visual culture in this country does that work for me: the American supermodel ideal is typified by those who are often, from a medical standpoint, considered “underweight.” Because our advertising culture mostly glorifies a “thin” body type, I find that I’m made to feel like an outsider to beauty just by commercials, billboards, etc.
I would argue, though, that there’s a connotative difference between “curvy” and “fat” just as there is between “skinny” or “bony” and “thin” or “slim.” Curves are often sexualized in America, and sensuality is considered an important aspect of female identity (however problematic that might be). However, “fat” is rarely seen with any positive implications. Both terms, though, become equally troublesome for me in the fact that they objectify: A person is seen as only one aspect of their body (their curves, their weight, etc.) and not as a complex, whole identity.
Likewise, “skinny” and “bony” emphasize a single aspect of the body (the skin or the bones) whereas “thin” and “slim” seem, in some ways, more neutral. But part of what spurs my reactions to the words–which all denote the same thing–is in my own personality: I’m opposed to oversimplification, and I don’t like when a term is used to “define” a person as only one thing.
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Exactly correct here, there is an important connotative difference between “fat”, “curvy”. Either way, as you say, it’s troublesome. The trouble goes beyond the word too because it can put a person into a pigeon hole. Okay this is who are now, behave accordingly. And when they behave ‘out of context’ it becomes a problem. Imagine the plus-sized model, who loses weight, and then is harassed for it and called hurtful names. It’s all very problematic. Really thankful that you have added your insight.
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