As a teenager growing into adulthood, 23-year-old Chinecherem Ogbu, who weighs 100kg or 220.462 pounds, had depressing times because some people around her shamed her regularly for being plus-size.
“I had very low self-esteem and felt bad about my size. Some of my friends called me names because I am plus-size,” the Enugu resident said. “I didn’t go out with my mates, and I didn’t go swimming. No social gatherings and I always hid inside.”
Like Ogbu, Chioma Odinaka, 22, grew up feeling that she was not as beautiful as other girls because some friends constantly passed critical comments about her body size.
“I recall vividly back then in my secondary school when a guy always stopped me on my way back to the hostel to remind me of how fat I was,” she said. Odinaka weighs 80kg.
But in October 2019, when a friend told Odinaka about a pageant for plus-size and fat ladies in Nigeria, somehow, the news brought her excitement – a feeling that she had found a platform to show her traducers how beautiful she was in her body size.
“I was optimistic hearing about the competition for plus-size ladies, which has rarely been done and that propelled and challenged me to partake in the competition in the year 2019,” Odinaka said. She won the contest that year with a cash prize of N1 Million (about $2427).
Ogbu also participated in the contest that year and emerged as the first runner up. The pageantry is called Miss Bold and Beautiful Nigeria Plus Size (MBBN).
“I never believed a plus-size lady would ever be recognised. So when a friend gave me the flyer [that promoted the pageantry], I went through it and realised that this was a dream come true, a platform to help me build my self-esteem,” Ogbu said. “I wanted to love myself more and always feel superior, not inferior, and it was in the year 2019.”
MBBN is helping big and thick Nigerian women discover their uniqueness, celebrate their beauty, and grow their self-esteem.
Body shaming is the practice of bullying and mocking people because of their physical body shape or size. It could also mean passing demeaning comments based on skin colour, height, facial looks and more.
Body-shaming could negatively affect victims’ emotional and mental health as it increases body dissatisfaction among victims. Body-shaming could even incite physical abuse against victims.
According to a 2019 survey by the Mental Health Foundation (UK) involving 4,505 participants conducted by Mental Health Foundation in the UK, one in five (20%) body-shamed adults feel down or low, and 19% feel disgusted because of their body image. Among teenagers, 37% feel upset, and 31% feel ashamed. It also said 34% of body-shamed adults suffer depression, and 13% experience suicidal thoughts.
‘Plus-size women are beautiful too’
In Nigeria and worldwide, most beauty contests target slim and tall girls often idolised or promoted as the most beautiful. Hardly are pageantries created for thick ladies.
But Cherdah Republic, an event-hosting firm in Enugu State, wanted to create a platform for fat and plus-size ladies to express their beauty and build self-esteem. So in 2018, it launched MBBN and held its maiden edition in November that year at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Enugu State.
“We believe plus-size women are beautiful too and can be represented better through pageantry,” said Chiamaka Agba, the modelling director of Cherdah Republic who joined the firm as a victim of body-shaming.
“In primary and junior secondary school, I was called the “mummy” in a bad way by my classmates because of how big I looked, and it got to me a few times,” 27-year-old Agba, who weighs 81kg, said.
As the modelling director at Cherdah Republic, Agba now sees her role as an opportunity to help other thick ladies find self-love.
Explaining how it works, she said: “MBBN is a yearly event where these plus-sized women camp for one week before the grand finale. Besides other activities in camp, Cherdah Republic invites a certified and well-experienced counselling psychologist [to counsel participants on how to build self-esteem, develop body satisfaction and self-love and stay mentally healthy]. During the session, contestants talk about their differences and sad experiences of how other people had treated them because of their body size.”
Past contestants told Prime Progress that camp activities building up to the actual contest provides a soothing, self-lifting, and rewarding experience that helps them appreciate their bodies and become less mentally affected by what others say about them.
“It brings together people who relate with each other and understand the pain and struggles of one another,” said Yadera Ugonna, a 2021 first runner up. “Believe it or not, once there is a platform, there will always be people available to learn and be a part of it. This platform is long overdue, and we are happy it has come to us.”
Each year, the star prize winner receives a cash prize of N1 million (about $2,500 now), and the first runner up receives half of that amount, while the second runner up gets N300,000 (($728).
Cherdah Republic rotates MBBN hosting between cities: Nsukka in 2018, Asaba in 2019, and Enugu in 2021. There was no 2020 edition because of COVID-19, but a fourth edition is expected later this year.
Since the maiden edition, MBBN has attracted about 500 plus size participants with 65 finalists. The contest (and post-production) is aired on African Movies Channel on Startimes, a cable television network. It is also streamed on Cherdah Republic’s Youtube channel, attracting about 4000 views per edition.
The organisers say they intend to widen the viewership beginning with this year’s contest in November by partnering with local television stations and streaming live across other social media platforms, including Facebook and Instagram.
The contest is open to any interested plus-size lady between the ages of 17 and 28 from any of Nigeria’s 36 states. All an intending participant needs to do is fill out an online registration form available on Cherdah Republic’s website and pay a fee of N6000 (about $14).
Struggling to grow
But getting sponsorship to expand awareness about the pageantry and increase participation has been challenging, admits Uchechukwu Obasi, Cherdah Republic’s project manager. He said the contest so far is run solely with funding from Cherdah Republic.
“It’s quite difficult for some brands to accept plus-size pageantry and sponsor it as they do for slim fit pageantries,” he said. “MBBN is capital intensive; there is so much that goes into executing an exceptional event. Not to forget camping, where these contestants stay for six days with feeding, lodging and other expenses. With more investors and brand sponsorship, the company can definitely be more and do more for these ladies.”
Also, convincing some plus-size and thick ladies to participate in the contest has been challenging. “Many of them love our aim but do not feel confident enough to participate,” he said.
But MBBN runs what can be called a limiting one-way approach. While it does well reaching plus size ladies with self-lifting messages, it dedicates no programme to educate the public who actually body-shame plus-size people about the need to stop discrimination based on body size and look. Fighting the dehumanising practice of body-shaming from both directions could be more effective.
Yet, ladies and girls who have participated since 2018 admit that they now feel better about themselves and their bodies.
“Currently, I’m viewed as that big girl who got a crown and [became] a plus-size queen who inspires [other] plus size girls. That’s the adjustment. Miss Bold and Beautiful Nigeria helped me and went a long way in adding extra spice to my confidence,” said Ugonna.
For Odinaka, “Now, I am bold enough to make decisions, and I can boldly enter into a place, ignoring side comments and awkward glances.”
And Ogbu? “I have a different view of myself now, compared to how I felt before I joined the competition. I am plus size, not obese. It’s not a crime but a great privilege,” she said with some obvious pride.