Thank you so much for the kind comments about my previous Skin Deep posts (Adolescence and the College Years). I feel as though I’m finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel of my weight issues and part of getting to the root of my struggle is identifying how my emotions affect my eating.
I could write volumes on my life in Mozambique. It was one of those life altering experiences that no one else quite understands except maybe my site mate. I beam when I talk about it even today. Sure I had my ups and downs living in a third world country, but overall it was wonderful.
Someday I would love to chronicle my Peace Corps experience here, but for now I’ll just give a brief overview. I joined the Peace Corps when I was 25 years old and received an invitation to serve in the first group of Peace Corps Volunteers ever in Mozambique. Mozambique is located in southern Africa on the Indian Ocean coast.
In October 1998 I left the United States for a 2 year 3 month assignment as an English teacher. The 3 months is pre-service training which includes language, culture and teacher training. From there I was assigned to teach English at the secondary school in a town called Chokwe.
About 6 months before I left for Peace Corps I was at my heaviest weight, 208 pounds. Despite my ups and downs during college and the progress I made with improving my self-esteem I let all that go and of course gained a lot of weight. I joined Weight Watchers at that time and I think I managed to lose about 20 pounds. Before leaving the U.S. my Peace Corps (PC) group met in Denver, Colorado for a 4 day staging event. I remember arriving to the hotel and meeting the group for the first time. I distinctly recall feeling very self-conscious about my appearance. I instantly hated all of my clothing and felt frumpy and fat.
My group was mostly women. Once in Mozambique we found ourselves living in dormitory-like conditions with the women separated from the men. I was angry about my weight, frustrated about my ugly clothing and depressed about my appearance overall. Our shower stalls had no doors on them which only added to the anxiety I felt about my body. I seemed to quickly retreat into myself causing unpredictable mood swings. Needless to say I probably wasn’t very well liked by my colleagues. I did make friends but I don’t think my attitude was often appreciated. I was aware of my negativity, but I couldn’t seem to control it.
By the end of the 3 month training I know I had lost weight. I remember getting weighed at some point during training and I was in the 170s. I certainly felt better and my mood lightened. Upon arriving to my permanent site where I would be teaching I lost more weight. I was walking everywhere. My site mate and I bought bikes and spent hours almost every day riding through the vast agricultural fields that surrounded the town. The heat made me eat less as did the fact that we didn’t have a refrigerator and everything had to be prepared from scratch. I went from being a non-vegetable eater with a diet of mostly white starchy carbs to a diet full of colorful fruits and vegetables. Mozambique opened up a whole new world of flavor for me.
I gradually lost more weight and had to buy new clothing. I started wearing dresses and skirts. I added cute tank tops to my wardrobe. For the first time in a very very long time I wore a bathing suit at the beach. I actually went into the water sans large T-shirt. I don’t think I weighed any less than 160, but I felt fantastic. I would go out to the disco on the weekends in a cute dress something I don’t think I ever did before living in Mozambique.
About 2 months after arriving to Chokwe I met Orlando. Our friendship developed over the next few months into a more serious relationship. He didn’t seem concerned about my body. He obviously liked what he saw and would compliment me on my appearance. He never made a negative comment about my weight so I didn’t mention my issues with weight.
In June 1999 I went to a PC conference and on my way I caught my pinky finger on something while getting off the bus. It developed quickly into an infection and the medical officer told me to stop smoking. I didn’t bother to heed her warning and by the next morning my finger was extremely swollen and sore. I stopped smoking cold turkey and have never looked back. I had wanted to quit. Orlando didn’t smoke and didn’t seem to love the fact that I did, but I also had misgivings about what it might be doing to my health. I worried that I would gain weight, but miraculously I didn’t.
The Mozambicans had different reactions to my body and they let me know. A comment I heard quite often was how voluptuous I was in reference to my full hips and bottom. The women would outline the shape of my body in the air with their hands and then tell me what a good mother I will be obviously meaning to say that I clearly have the perfect body to deliver a baby.
A perfect example of how Mozambicans viewed weight is exhibited in these typical comments I received often. I might go out in the morning and hear “oh teacher you look so fat today!” I would instantly sulk. My day ruined completely until later in the day wearing a totally different outfit I would be greeted by friends with “are you ok? You look so thin today. Do you feel ok?” Suddenly I would grin from ear to ear, comments from earlier in the day forgotten. To the Mozambicans carrying extra weight was a sign of wealth, health and well-being. Appearing thin signified illness. So in my dysfunctional warped brain I preferred looking sickly. There is something very wrong with that kind of thinking.
It took me a while to wrap my head around the Mozambican mentality towards weight and body image, but in time I grew increasingly less self-conscious about what I looked like. By the time I left Mozambique in 2002 I weighed somewhere in the 160s. I had quit smoking. I overcame my picky eating habits and finally added vegetables to my diet. I discovered that I liked dressing in feminine clothing. I became more active. I was walking and bike riding regularly. Life in Mozambique happens outdoors and I learned to enjoy that aspect of life too. I smiled more and felt a sense of peace inside. Overall I felt better than I ever remembered feeling. I was also a newlywed. My life changed so positively in my almost 4 years overseas. I loved my life in Mozambique and I was very reluctant to leave.
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I just found your blog through HTP and how funny that your the first post I see is about Peace Corps. I’m an RPCV from Nicaragua (2009-2010) and it always amazes me how even though all of serve in vastly different places around the world somethings are still the same. (the people telling me you are fatter/skinner in the same 2 hour time period is awesome!)
Its awesome to see the positive impact PC had on you life! I loved my PC service (although cut short due to serious health issue..I’m fine now!) and it had an awesome impact on my life too!! 🙂
Welcome! It’s such a small world. I’m glad to hear you had a good experience as well. I have a friend who was in PC Nicaragua in the mid-90s. She also loved it. There are so many similarities between certain countries. I always enjoy chatting with other RPCVs. Thanks so much for stopping by.
It is funny (to me anyways) how different cultures view weight. I’m glad you had a positive experience over there!
I love hearing about your PC experience! It’s crazy how different most cultures view weight compared to America. It sounds like Mozambique was a big game changer in your life, how awesome!
Aimee…I love continuing to read your story…can’t wait for the next edition…
Good grief, I can only imagine how much I would hate showers w/o doors. I’d be so uncomfortable! I think I told you that hubby and I are contemplating PC after we retire (though he has some health issues that may preclude it, or relegate us to countries w/ more modern health care facilities). But I know dealing with things like no shower doors, a different diet (possibly comprised almost exclusively of foods you think you hate), etc. can make for an amazing, life-changing experience. I so hope we end up doing it, and I’m so glad it was so wonderful and transformative for you.
Sounds like lived a very active lifestyle when you were in Mozambique. I wonder what happened when you got back to the States…
Hi Aimee! Well, this is pretty interesting. I personally also found that it was inner changes that made outer changes. And Orlando liking you as you are–that’s just sweet.
Loved this post. I do think it’s great that once other things in life are making you feel happy and special, things like weight are not automatically the first thing you think of. I touched on this a little bit in my post today, in regards to two piece bathing suits. I mean, the sailor has seen me in less than a bathing suit, so why am I being so self-conscious about wearing a two piece? He obviously has no issues with my body and neither should I.
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What a cool experience, Aimee. thanks so much for sharing it with us.
I am so sad to read about your struggles with body image. I cam totally relate, as you well know.