Fat Lady on a Bike: My Journey to Peace and Fitness

Join me and my wonderful Electra Townie bike on my continuing journey to inner peace and both inner and outer fitness.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Momona, Zaftig or Fat?

This weekend I hosted a meeting/retreat for the board of the Mohala Hou Foundation, on which I am privileged to serve.  One of our tasks was to review a video about Aloha Music Camp, which is one of our major programs and a place where people from all over can come to Hawaii and experience not only the arts and culture of the islands, but that ineffable gift that is the Aloha Spirit.  In the course of our discussion about the film, someone brought up the point about wanting to use images of some very large people dancing hula, even if they might be somewhat off-putting to potential campers.  That got me thinking about the place that being in Hawaii has played in dealing with my own feelings of shame and self-loathing about my body.  And that got me thinking about the words we use and the power they have over us.

I am very fortunate in that the two non-mainstream cultures I know best are both much less narrow about body size and beauty than the Western norm.  Here in North America we call people fat, but that word is not permitted to be the simple, neutral descriptor that it actually is.  In contrast, one of the Yiddish words to describe a curvy, larger than "normal" woman is zaftig, which literally means "juicy."  The images that spring to mind are, on the one hand, the juices that run from a ripe, delicious piece of fruit or the juices that drip from a nicely marbled piece of meat roasting on a rotisserie -- both, I think, positive images, as the juiciness is a quality that makes each of those foods more delicious and desirable. 

In Hawaiian, there is an even more positive word:  momona.  It means, literally, "fat," but more in the sense "fat of the land," and is often translated as "rich" or "fertile."  It can also have the sense of culinary richness, that quality in food that makes you smack your lips and feel satisfied, and if you add the prefix "ho'o," which means to make something become whatever word you add it to, ho'omomona means "to sweeten."  These are all very positive qualities, and if you call a person momona, it is definitely not an insult.

A few years ago I was studying Hawaiian using a wonderful book, Ka Lei Ha'aheo by Alberta Pualani Hopkins, and at the end of the third lesson came across the following passage, which astonished and delighted me:

In the first two lessons you have learned the words u'i (handsome, beautiful) and momona (fat, sweet, fertile).  But what makes a person handsome or beautiful to an English speaker's eyes might not be the same as being u'i to a Hawaiian's eyes.  In the same way, fat and momona may refer to different weights, depending on the cultural context.  Someone who is fat in a haole [Caucasian] setting may not be considered momona in a Hawaiian community.  Beyond that, whether it is good or bad to be fat or momona also depends on cultural values.  It is "bad" to be fat in a haole world, but to be momona in a Hawaiian world is a desirable quality.   (p. 17)
Here in the islands, momona people dance hula, are admired as beautiful and attractive, and dress in ways that are comfortable and appropriate for the climate even if it means exposing parts of their bodies that they would be humiliated for exposing in a mainstream American context.  They give themselves permission, as I said in my last post, to live.  When we first started coming to the islands, in 1988, I was often in that weird state of magical thinking where I believed that if I dressed in a certain way, no one would notice my size.  Being here and seeing those wonderfully momona local people walking proudly through their lives helped bring me back to a much more compassionate and livable reality.

As Popeye says, I yam what I yam, and what I yam is fat, zaftig and momona.


  1. Thanks for another great blog post Sherry! This reminds me -- my mother always said she'd prefer to grow old in Southern Africa, where traditional elders are not considered old and fat, they are instead "nice and round and full of knowledge."

  2. Kate, that is so fantastic -- I want to be "nice and round and full of knowledge" too! Thanks so much for sharing that.