If asked, many would say their ideal body would be slender and perfect in just the right places. Of course, beauty is subjective, but interestingly, in parts of Africa the bigger you are, the more there is to love.
In Sudan, women are seeking to fulfill their beauty desires in black market substances.
Bleaching creams are already in widespread use across the nation. Small shops that sell them also dispense fattening pills illegally. Young women can easily obtain these pills in small sweet containers or bags that are devoid of any warning labels.
It is difficult to estimate how many women in Sudan use these products to gain weight, because many are reluctant to admit to it.
“Pills are handed out in the village like penny sweets,” says Imitithal Ahmed, a student at the University of Khartoum. “I’ve always been scared [to use them] because I’ve seen family members fall ill and close friends become dependent on appetite stimulants. My aunt is on the brink of kidney failure and has blocked arteries from taking too many fattening pills, trying to get a bigger bum. Everyone in the family knows why she’s sick, but she won’t own up to it. She’s had to stop taking the pills on doctor’s orders.”
Catchy names are plastered on the labels referring to its effect. From The Neighbours’ Shock to Chicken Thighs and My Mama Suspects, the clinical name of pills are forgotten and replaced by promises of a bigger bottom, shapely thighs and a belly that will have your mother concerned that you might be pregnant.
Tablets range from standard appetite stimulants to allergy medicines containing the steroid hormone, cortisone. It is known to slow the metabolism, increase appetite, trigger water retention and create extra deposits of fat around the abdomen and face.
Using unregulated steroids without supervision can damage the heart, liver, kidneys and thyroid, says Dr Salah Ibrahim, Head of the Pharmacists’ Union in Sudan.
He explains that cortisone is a naturally occurring hormone in the body, helping to regulate vital bodily functions. But when a man-made, concentrated version enters the body in the form of pills or topical bleaching creams, the brain gives the body a signal to stop production.
If a user suddenly stops taking the substance, their major organs can spiral into dysfunction.
Fatalities are especially common among new brides, who traditionally undergo a month of intense beautification before their wedding day and then abruptly stop using fattening pills and steroidal bleaching creams. Their deaths are put down to sudden organ failure.
Awareness campaigns have so far had very little impact. Dr Ibrahim, Head of the Pharmacists Union, has made numerous appearances on national television to warn of the dangers of prescription pill abuse.
At university level, pharmacists are taught vigilance and trained to act in keeping with ethics and pharmaceutical law.
But in a country where pharmacists and doctors are paid very little, the temptation to sell pills to illegal vendors is irresistible for some.
Sudan isn’t the only African society where being overweight is a symbol of prosperity and power, boosting the “marriageability” of young women.
But in this country, it defines the ultimate Sudanese woman – full-bodied and light-skinned.