Denial is a wonderful thing. Here's an example. It's your senior year of college. You have a job, and so exercise time is cut down to a minimum. You also live next door to a liquor store and a few bars with great happy hours (this may also be affecting exercise time). There is a Starbucks on campus right next to your first class that makes great Iced Mochas. When these factors combine, the freshman 15 that you had successfully avoided for three years sidles up to you and plants itself firmly on your hips. Well, that's ok because your friend denial is waiting on the sidelines, ever ready and available, just like a friend should be, to blame the tightness of your jeans on the hot drier, or your strangely large bum on the broken mirror. That's it, problem over. No stress. Life is good, as usual.
Life isn't quite as good when that denial is taken away. It's a fact of the Peace Corps life that during the service, men lose weight and women gain weight. No one really knows what causes this phenomenom, but I have a few ideas, like the way a good number of females tend to deal with stress (pass me another chocolate bar please) and carbs (sticks to your bones like glue) differently from men. So, as a result of my femaleness, the freshmen 15 that I managed to get rid of in the months after I graduated has come back in the form of the Peace Corps 15. It's not too much extra weight; in fact, it should be easy to fit in to my pattern of denial, in my house that only has hand mirrors, and when all of my baggy village clothes still fit.
I must remind you however that this is Fiji. Denial is a piece of cake in America where thin is beautiful and no one except for maybe your mom would ever tell you all of your clothes were awkwardly tight. In Fiji, where fat is thought to be healthy and beautiful, it is considered a compliment to tell someone they're looking a little thicker in the middle. As I was hanging my laundry on the line outside a few days ago, someone I barely know walked by me. As he passed he said, “Maya o iko bulabula vinaka (Maya you're looking healthy). O iko levulevu (you're fat).” GASP!! How do you respond to that? “Thank you,” “No, it's just my (un)flattering shirt,” “Screw you”? And he's not the only one to say it. The old ladies will tell me, the young ladies tell me, the nurse says it, and even the little kids! For God's sake, I've only put on a few pounds! The bells are tolling to announce the iminent death of denial.
For me, the whole situation goes to show how funny culture is. The things typically considered to be most culture specific, like food or music, have been easy for me to adapt to. I'll eat octopus cooked in coconut milk while singing along to Dokidoki music anyday. However, body image has turned out to be one of my least flexible pieces of Americana. While yes, there are other big switches to get used to, such as the ocean being treated like a dumpster and beer being considered the work of the devil, being told I am becoming levulevu is the cultural change that affects me most personally. Chalk it up to those formative teenage years in the western world, I suppose. Lucky for my sanity though, I also spent those formative years perfecting the art of denial. Another cultural stronghold. So, when I hear levulevu and run inside to check out my waist in the tiny hand mirrors, I usually decide that Fijians just don't understand my curves and that the piece of pie I just bought is looking delicious! And anyway, I know that there are always a few parasites lurking around the village just waiting to reclaim an inch or two of that waistline.