Photo Courtesy of the Miss Rwanda Pageant

In a nation that once honored rounder women, girls are starving themselves to meet a Western standard of beauty.

KIGALI, RWANDA – Diane Ineza was a chubby, bubbly girl until she entered secondary school in 2011 at age 12. Weighing 73 kilograms (160 pounds) and standing 160 centimeters (5 feet 2 inches) tall, Ineza was constantly chided by classmates. Kids called her “sack of beans” or “Primus bottle” – a reference to a popular Rwandan beer that comes in a bulbous brown bottle.

Ineza became increasingly conscious of her weight over the succeeding few years.

Last year she started skipping meals in hopes of losing weight and stopping the insults. Soon, she was going full days only eating fruit and drinking water.

As Ineza quickly dropped weight, her mother worried about her, Ineza says. Family members tried to persuade her to eat. But she had fixed her sights on becoming slender, even if it meant starving herself.

“I would prefer starving from hunger than having a big belly,” she says. “Every beautiful girl here at school must have a small waist.”

Determined to stay thin, she refused the traditional three meals she was offered each day at home and school. Instead of eating breakfast, she filled her stomach with water. At school, she ate only fruit for lunch. For dinner, she just drank milk.

Within 10 months, her weight dropped dramatically, to 45 kilograms (99 pounds). Finally, after dropping more than half of her body weight, Ineza started to feel beautiful, she says. She even got the handsome boyfriend she had wished for.

But her quest to be thin took a toll, she says. She suffered daily headaches and stomachaches. Still, she didn’t realize she had an eating disorder until she fainted at school last May. Ineza’s classmates rushed her to the health center near their school.

“The first thing the doctor asked me was, ‘Do you get enough food to eat?’” Ineza recalls.

She was not diagnosed with an eating disorder. Instead, the doctor diagnosed her with anemia, a condition in which an insufficiency of red blood cells causes weakness and fatigue. He advised her to stay home for a few days and to eat three meals a day to get her strength back.

Throughout Rwanda, educators, counselors and nutritionists report that more and more schoolgirls are starving themselves to become thin.

Throughout the country, secondary schoolgirls admit to skipping meals, while their families and friends worry about their health. Nutritionists advise girls to eat a balanced diet but say nutrition is often misunderstood here. In an effort to counter the starvation trend, some schools now require all students to spend their lunch periods in dining halls.

More than 70 million people worldwide have eating disorders, according to the Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness, a U.S.-based nonprofit dedicated to promoting positive self-esteem and healthful eating. Most – 90 percent – are between 12 and 25.

While there are no statistics on the prevalence of anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder characterized by obsession with body image to the point of engaging in self-harming behaviors, cultural experts here say the idealization of thinness is a new trend in Rwanda.

Traditionally, Rwandans considered full-figured women to have the ideal body type. But the influence of the mass media and increasingly popular African beauty pageants have elevated the Western ideal of feminine beauty, psychologists and school counselors say. That ideal includes thinness.

Eating disorders in non-Western countries appear to be on the rise, according to a 2008 article in Medscape Journal of Health. The study’s authors attribute the increase to social pressure resulting from the standards of female beauty imposed by modern industrial society or Western culture.

Laetitia Uwizeye, a psychologist at Nyanza High School in Huye, a district 129 kilometers (80 miles) from Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, says she is becoming more aware of schoolgirls starving themselves.

Last school year, 11 girls got sick, fainted or went home because of fatigue brought on by undernourishment, Uwizeye says. But girls skipping meals is not a new phenomenon at her school.

“It’s hard to be precise how long it has been happening,” she says. “But what I can tell you is that it has been existing for a long time. It is not only here at Nyanza but also in many other high school and universities [in Rwanda].”

Anita Umutoniwase, a 25-year-old accountant in Kigali, uses an uchenge – a belt made of colored beads – to keep her waistline in check. The uchenge is set to a fixed circumference so that it presses against the midsection if the wearer gains weight.

“With the tips of [the] belt around my waist, I can’t be fat because I will immediately feel it,” she says.

Many girls wear an uchenge as a fashion accessory as well as a tool to check their weight, Umutoniwase says. 

The belts are sold in jewelry shops throughout Rwanda. They sell for 3,000 Rwandan francs ($5) to 10,000 francs ($15), depending on composition, says Claude Kazungu, a trader who sells jewelry at a stand on Mateus Avenue in Kigali. Kazungu sells as many as seven belts a day.

The popularity of beauty pageants here contributes to the desire to be thin, Uwizeye says.

Beauty pageants are changing the Rwandan ideal of beauty. While today’s pageant winners are thin, Rwandans did not always favor thinness.

“A beautiful woman is neither fat nor thin in Rwandan standards,” says Kalisa Rugano, a retired high school teacher who has authored several books on Rwandan culture. 

The last queen of Rwanda, Rosalie Gicanda, personified Rwandan beauty, Rugano says. Gicanda, the wife of Rwandan King Mutara III, who was killed in the 1994 genocide, had a healthy looking body, he says.

“She was neither fat nor thin, but she had a very small waist,” he says. “That is what we call beauty.”

Traditionally, girls in Rwanda are told to eat fruits and vegetables and to drink a lot of milk, he says. Before a marriage ceremony, women are also encouraged to drink an herbal concoction that is believed to make the stomach flat. 

But Therese Mukakibibi, a social worker in charge of nutrition at Kabutare Hospital in Huye, says nutrition is misunderstood here. A focus on fruits and vegetables to the exclusion of other foods is unhealthy, she says.

She advises young people to eat protein to build muscle, carbohydrates to get energy, and vitamins to protect themselves from disease.

She emphasizes the importance of eating three meals a day.

“Just as a car needs fuel, the body needs food to function properly,” she says.

In response to the growing trend, schools throughout Rwanda are beginning to respond.

To help ensure that all children eat during the school day, Nyanza High School now requires all students to spend their lunch period in the dining hall, Uwizeye says.

Things have also changed for Ineza.

Several months after she fainted at school, Ineza is no longer starving herself, she says. The medical crisis made her realize that she had endangered her health.

To counter the idealization of thinness, Ineza, who now weighs 66 kilograms (145 pounds), has started a school fashion club that welcomes all girls, regardless of shape or weight. Members of the fashion club meet every Saturday. They design clothes using kitenge, an African fabric.

The club is meant to help girls appreciate their bodies exactly as they are, she says.

“This club has changed most girls’ perception on beauty,” Ineza says. “Even fat girls do not feel ashamed of their bodies. No one here will ever starve herself in the name of beauty.”



GPJ translated all interviews from Kinyarwanda.