Pressure for Fuller Bodies Drives Drug Industry in Liberia


Article Highlights

MONROVIA, LIBERIA – Toyounon, a young woman in her early 20s, has a slim build. Unlike many young women the world over, she says she wishes she weren’t so thin.

“I wish I had a fuller body,” says Toyounon, who declined to give her last name.

She says this is because her society idealizes fuller bodies.

“In my community and my family, they look at me as if I am not part of them,” she says. “They say I am ‘dry.’”

Dry is Liberian slang used to describe slim people, Toyounon says.

Toyounon, like many other slim women in Liberia, says it’s difficult to find a Liberian man who is attracted to her.

Five out of seven men randomly interviewed here say they are attracted to women who are fuller. But they couldn’t describe why.

Desperate to fit in and attract men, Toyounon says she spends most of her money buying vitamins and pills that she believes make women “fuller.” She reveals a selection of pills that she bought recently and says are mainly imported from India. They range from multivitamins to pills that promise to increase hunger and help her “grow long.”

“I buy varieties of vitamins, and I mix them up for it to work faster,” she says.

But Toyounon says doesn’t know what the side effects are of taking these different pills at the same time.

Side effects include menstrual irregularities, skin rashes, dizziness, numbness, tenderness of the breasts and slow healing of wounds, according to Promoting the Quality of Medicines, PQM, a program run by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S. Pharmacopeia Convention.

Although Toyounon is still slim, she says she believes that the vitamins will gradually make her fuller.

“My friend took it, and now she is very big,” she says.

Toyounon is not the only woman hoping for a fuller figure here.

Men and women alike say that the ideal body type for women in Liberia is a full figure. To fit this standard, young women say they have turned to mixing vitamins and pills, which unlicensed dealers with little knowledge of side effects sell to earn money on Liberia’s streets. The government has been increasing regulation of the illegal medicine industry here, but initiatives to improve body image are rare.

Women’s bodies are seen as fair game for physical and verbal criticism from men in Liberia. Nearly 60 percent of women ages 15 to 49 say it’s OK for husbands to hit or beat their wives in certain circumstances, such as if she burns food, goes out without telling him or refuses to have sex with him, according to the latest Liberia Demographic and Health Survey from 2007. But women’s bodies are also subject to male standards when it comes to beauty, although official body image statistics are lacking.

The ideal body type for women, according to both men and women, consists of large breasts, big buttocks and wide hips.

Anna, a young girl who declined to give her last name, fits this description. She is a dream girl for many Liberian men. She says it’s because of her body structure that she gets attention from men anywhere she goes.

“In a day’s time, I get attention from guys who tells me they like my body,” Anna says.

Jacob Walker, a sociologist, confirms the preference for fuller bodies here. He says that the ideal body type for women is cultural and social, so it can’t be discouraged easily.

“It will take a long time for all body sizes to be accepted in our society,” he says.

Smiling, he says that he even prefers women with fuller figures because that is how he was brought up. He says this preference even pervades music here.

“Many girls are discriminated [against] because of their body figure,” he says. “Even in the music, their lyrics are discriminatory against girls who do not have a full body.”

Young women like Toyounon say one solution is taking supplements to help them develop fuller figures.

In Redlight, a busy commercial suburb of Liberia’s capital, Francis, a young man who declined to give his full name, sells medicine illegally.

“One of the fastest ways of getting money – apart from stealing – is selling medicine,” Francis says.

Francis, a “black-bagger” or “gobachov” – Liberian slang for people who engage in illegal transactions to make quick money – says he doesn’t have a degree in pharmacy. But he says he advises customers on how to take pills that they buy from him.

“Next to quinine that people buy regularly for malaria, one of the most common sicknesses in Liberia, vitamins are the sellouts,” he says.

He says he isn’t concerned with possible side effects of the medicine that he sells to customers. He says that all he cares about is earning money so he can take care of his family.

“I advise customers to buy different types of vitamins so it can work faster,” he says.

Earlier this year, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf announced the appointment of new members to the Liberia Medicines and Health Products and Regulatory Authority to serve as regulatory authorities of the amount, quality, sale and distribution of health and medical products coming into the country. The Ministry of Health also continues to warn people against selling medicine without licenses.

But there are still people who sell medicine illegally and medicine that comes into the country that is substandard and fake. According to a recent PQM report, nearly half of malaria medicine tested in the country was either counterfeit or substandard, providing one example of the counterfeit medication flooding the Liberian market.

Government and nongovernmental initiatives to promote healthy body image are rare. Some clinics address it while offering counseling to girls on general issues, while other organizations have emerged to promote self-confidence in girls.

Miatta Fahnbulleh, considered beautiful by many Liberians, has been a musical star since 1975 here and a women’s rights advocate. “Aunt Miatta,” as her admirers affectionately call her, says that African beauty isn’t only about body structure or physical looks. She defines African beauty for women as “having a self-desire and courage to break through the challenges on hand and to pursue her goals in life.”

To help instill this self-desire and courage in girls throughout the country, Fahnbulleh happily says that she organized a foundation called Obas Girls. She says the initiative, which has worked with hundreds of girls here, encourages girls who have dropped out of school to return to their education, with a special focus on girls who lack parental support.


Still, Fahnbulleh admits that the preference for fuller bodies exists.

“I don’t wish to be slim,” she says.

Toyounon says she wishes she weren’t either.

“If I had a fuller body, I will be a happy woman,” Toyounon says with a smile.