I was milling around outside the other day, watering my leftover moringa seedlings, when my neighbor approached me excitedly to ask a question. “You have not met my sister, isn’t it?”

“I don’t think so. Why?”

“Oh!” The neighbor exclaimed. “She is coming from Machakos next week. You must meet her. She is so fat, just like you! You will like her much.”

Blessed Mother Mary in a dug-out canoe, did she REALLY say that?

Why yes. Yes she did.

As any American can tell you, there are few things more soul-withering you can say to the average woman than, “Honey, have you put on a few pounds? Your slacks are looking … well … just a little snug.” But in Kenya, the opposite is true. As it has been in most countries for most of history, thin is lame. Forget Kate Moss and Gisele Bundchen – those waifish stick-figures are the object of scorn and ridicule. Fat is HOT. Fat is favored.

It makes sense, when you consider it: a woman with a little extra padding around the hips, bum, and chest is prosperous. Her farm is fertile enough to grow extra food, which she doesn’t have to sell because her husband has a good enough job that he can afford to feed her without that additional income. She probably eats meat – and not just for holidays and weddings! Several times a month, or maybe even several times a week. If a woman is rich enough to eat more than the bare minimum, she can afford school fees for her children and fodder for her livestock. Her above-average breasts can produce rich milk for those children. Most importantly, she doesn’t look like she has “the wasting sickness” – aka AIDS (or tuberculosis, or both in tandem.) If you stay with a Kenyan family, the greatest way you can honor them and raise their standing in the community is to pack on some extra pounds while you’re there. A good hostess always overfeeds her guests. For a country that has long struggled with poverty and starvation, what greater compliment is there than for someone to point out your nutritional success?

This can be better exemplified by the other word used to convey the same meaning: “strong.” If you look strong, you look hefty, solid, and capable of taking on problems. You can carry your child on your back, a goat in your arms, and 20 liters of water on your head without anyone worrying about you being crushed under the load. Your life has challenges, but you’re fully capable of tackling them and vanquishing them by planting your hard-won bulk on their chests until they can’t breathe and give up.

So if a Kenyan calls you “strong,” they’re pretty much calling you a fatty. But in a good way?

In Kenya, I have few choices but to walk/bike everywhere on my own and the cheapest food I can prepare myself is obnoxiously healthy kale with rice. These magical forces, when combined with the absence of Margarita Thursdays with my best gal pals and the typical college diet of “whatever I can eat with one hand while typing with the other because oh my god this thesis chapter is due in 2 hours and I haven’t slept a full night in 8 months” have yielded a slightly smaller Megan: 17 pounds smaller, to be exact. I’m still gorgeously curvy, but a little more toned, and I’m loving my body even more than usual. But nothing in Peace Corps is ever that straightforward. It has a way of humbling you in the subtlest, most unexpected ways. One minute you’re catching your reflection in a shop window and pausing to admire your own near-Hollywood attractiveness, perhaps idly wondering why Vogue won’t return your e-mails about doing an autumn spread. The next, your coworker pops your balloon with a Charlie Sheen TruthNeedle by reverently intoning, “Your dress is so beautiful. You look most fat today. If only I could borrow it and look as fat as you!”

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