Akosua’s story: Ghana’s Beauty Cultures and the Price of (Non) Conformity

Beauty and Inequality

All five PhD researchers are now doing their fieldwork. On this blog, they share their research impressions in short vignettes. Emmanuel Narh shares the story of Akosua from Ghana

I am now content with my body; it gives me joy because now I get money to feed and help others…

These were the words of Akosua (pseudonymised) whose secondary high school teacher ‘without any reason’ took her out of the line when she joined her colleagues for a beauty contest organised by her school. She was asked to join the choir to sing ‘bass’ – a part that is mostly sung by men and in most cases has its position taken by the bass guitar – implying that Akosua who was dark skinned and had thin straight body shape do not qualify to join the beauty context but rather to do something else which has its position taken by an instrument. Looking into a mirror after she retired into her room that day, Akosua who saw nothing wrong with her looks saw a different picture of herself – not beautiful. Her physical appearance (beauty) had become a disadvantage to her. She then decided to change her ‘housing’ to embody the looks regarded as beautiful in Ghana.The word housing is metaphorically used to mean the body in Ghana implying that the body is a vessel of self which can be altered with practices such as cosmetic surgery.  

For years Akosua had been battling (until age 33) with creams and skin products to bleach for a fair-coloured skin. She suffered the pain for liposuction to acquire the curvy body shape, the agony to have a face lift, the pleasure to get self-injections for bold lips, and extraction of fat from her breast to reduce the size of it. Now Akosua is a fair-coloured skin lady with bold lips, curvy body shape which gives her joy and confidence. Due to her looks, she now has thousands of followers on her snap chat, TikTok and Instagram (where she serves as a beauty influencer). What is more, her appearance attracts a lot of customers for a restaurant she owns in Accra and has employed people who work for her. On top of it all, she now has a job as a media person in one of the reputable media institutions in Accra, the capital city of Ghana. Her physical appearance which was a disadvantage now gives her joy, confidence, and money after changing her housing. “… now even without makeup, I feel confident.”

Within the rich fabrics of Ghanaian cultural practices, beauty emerges as a complex and influential force, shaping perceptions, opportunities, and social dynamics. Akosua’s high school teacher’s evaluation of her physical appearance provides a lens for us to see how beauty and appearance contributes to social inequalities and a window for us to understand beauty cultures (standards, ideal and practices) in Ghana. Beauty can be regarded as a form of capital which brings advantage to those who are regarded as beautiful and a source of disadvantage to those who are not beautiful in global cities including Accra, Ghana. Beauty cultures in Ghana mostly center around the body – encompassing body size, shape, height, skin color – clothing (discussed elsewhere). In the Ghanaian context having a curvy body shape is one of the most important criteria for classifying females as beautiful before taking other parts such as the face into consideration. Such shapes are either referred to as Tapoli, a wooden  hourglass-shaped masher often used in Ghanaian homes, or Coca-Cola shape, with a contour figure like the old Coca-Cola bottle. The American movie accress Mae West was said to have been the model for the Coca-Cola shape.

In her study, “Beauty and distinction”, Kuipers, (2015) concentrated on the face to see how people construct their beauty taste in five European countries. While this may also be important in Ghana and some parts of Africa, the face as compared to the body (shape and size), plays a secondary role in regarding someone as beautiful – especially for females.

This beauty ideal is rooted in our culture; that in Ghana, while mothers bathed female babies, they massage their ‘butt’ with warm water to shape it into the coca cola form; beads are worn on their waist, knees, ancle etc., to give them shape with attention on some specific parts of their bodies such as the buttocks and calves. These are significant examples of how some Ghanaian mothers model female babies to fit into a specific beauty taste in Ghana even at their tender ages. Of course, beauty for females in Ghana like other places are stronger and more expected than males. For instance, Oduro (2015) points out more features such as having broad face, medium and pointed breast, gap in-between the upper front teeth, ringed neck, smooth skin, and most importantly, big thighs, well-shaped calves, wide hips, curvy/coca cola shape, and ‘big buttocks’  as beautiful for females (embodying femininity); than for males such as having good height, broad face, well-trimmed hair, well-built physique as embodying male beauty (masculinity).

While male beauty ideals are not often discussed, the influence of transnational media culture has increased the visibility of male beauty. For instance, with my interactions with a Ghanaian community in Belgium (NUGS Belgium) and informal conversations with people in Accra such as a barber who works in a classed beauty salon which specializes not only in shaving hair but also piercing, lips and body tattooing, hair dying. Coupled with my observations at the ‘Grand Audition’ of Ghana’s Most Beautiful (2023) and online ethnographies while on the BINQ project, having a well-groomed and connecting beard (the moustache grows to connect the hair on the chin e.g. Prince David Osei – a Ghanaian male actor) is one of the prominent features in describing male beauty in Ghana. In addition to Oduro’s findings, bodily features such as having a six pack, hairy body (especially on the chest – hair is also considered beautiful for women but preferably on the hand and legs), pink lips, and a muscular body shape also play a significant role in regarding males as beautiful or embodying masculinity in Ghana. Thus, ridiculing males who do not fit these ideals; giving them names such as ‘Kwadwo Basia’ for those who do not embody masculine bodies and emoji for males without beard.  Kwadwo Basia is an Akan word where Kwadwo (Twi) literally means a male born on Monday and Basia (Fante) is a word used to describe females. Hence calling a male Kwadwo Basia means a male with female body – in other words, a feminine male. Such men are usually ridiculed as weak (weak masculinity) and excluded from activities regarding men.

In addition to body shape, body size such as thinness play a role in Ghanaian beauty cultures. Until recently, people regarded individuals who were plump as beautiful and associated fatness to worthiness (Wrigley-Asante et al. 201); Tuoyire et al. 2017) which would not be the case in ‘Europe’ where plumpness and fatness is associated to poverty while thinness to worthiness projecting the ‘thin beauty’ ideal. But now with modern trends of beauty and the influence of transnational media culture, thinness and ‘not too skinny, not too fat’ has become the ideal body size in Ghana. While this may be the same for males and females there remain a significant difference among in their advantages. For instance, a female who is thin will be much appreciated than a male who is thin. Ghanaians raise questions of masculinity of males who are skinny and with the hallow effect see them as weak. To that effect, males who are ‘tick tall’ may seem to be competent for occupying leadership (managerial and traditional) roles in Ghana such as discussed by Goffman, (1976) in his book Gender Advertisement – that relative size play a role in gender display.  Thus, as part of body size, height is very important in describing male beauty as compared to females in terms of leadership positions and mate selection. While Ghanaian females mostly prefer men who are tick, and tall (complimented with dark-skinned) Ghanaian men usually prefer females who are thin (not too skinny, not too fat) with curvy shape. For females, height will be an advantage in areas such as beauty pageantry.

Finally, skin color plays a role in Ghanaian beauty cultures such that not fitting into the fairness ideal may bring social consequences such as exclusion. In Ghana, most people are either brown (chocolate) or dark skinned while few are fair. The preference for a specific skin color varies from person to person but there is an agreement even among ethnic groups that fairness is more beautiful. This is evidenced in the anecdotal claim that Ewes are beautiful than other ethnic groups because most of them are fair especially their women; and in daily discourses such as the use of the Akan word ‘Tuntum broni’.The Akan words ‘broni’ or ‘obroni’ are generally used to referred to a ‘White’ person or people with Caucasian features, and ‘tuntum’ a person who is generally dark-skinned (Boafo-Arthur et al., 2023). Using broni as a suffix or prefix to such descriptions is not insulting or demeaning; however, it is suggesting that dark-skinned women cannot be described as beautiful without attaching a sense of whiteness/fairness. Therefore, the anecdotal evidence that Ewes are more beautiful than other ethnic groups and our daily discourse such as ‘tuntum borni’ depicts skin color as creating inequality by placing fair-colored individuals on the higher social strata within Ghanaian societies especially in Accra where all the ethnic groups are highly positioned.

The consequences of beauty standards

All these beauty cultures (ideals, standards, and practices) influence our perception and judgement towards others. It is therefore evidenced why Akosua had to engage in beauty practices such as surgery, bleaching, Botox, injection etc. to get her feet grounding well in Accra.  I must acknowledge that these are not the only beauty practices in Ghana, many go beyond the expected to acquire the right look in Ghana. These include going to the gym, taking drugs, and consuming products that will enhance one’s beauty.  Like Akosua, many people suffer the consequences such as exclusion and social injustice for not conforming to beauty repertoires in Ghana. As provided in the vignette, Akosua had to suffer the pain of beauty to price her beauty for profit (i.e. advantages she has now). What then becomes of a person who do not possess the capitals she had to conform to these ideals? Such a person will continue to suffer the consequences of exclusion and other mechanisms of beauty-induced inequality such as classification into unequal categories, cumulative disadvantage (the Matthew effect) and social sorting presented in the framework of Kuipers (2023 – unpublished). This is the price you pay for not fitting into the beauty taste of others. Therefore, evaluating people’s physical appearance as beautiful or not has a serious often taken for granted consequences on them.

These repertoires of evaluation happen in online and offline places shaped and mediated by a range of institutions as well as collective actions of people who act as cultural gatekeepers to beauty repertoires (these are discussed elsewhere). In Ghana they may include teachers (as shown in the vignette), TV Producers, make up artists, hair stylist, fashion designers etc with each having a specific role played in regarding what is beautiful or not. Each if these bodies have a specific focus on distinct body parts, strictness of norms, importance of beauty, as well as cultural-specific institutions and form of portrayal. All these dimensions are linked with processes of social exclusion and privilege as has been discussed above.

Evaluating others as beautiful or not or indirectly excluding them from social situations based on their appearance directly has effect on them. While conforming to societal expectation to beauty repertoires invariably may lead to mechanisms such as inclusion, non-conforming to prevailing beauty repertoires may lead to exclusion which ends up producing and reinforcing existing forms of inequality. Beauty cultures in Ghana often centre around the body with different practices offering different advantages to conformers and those who possess such beauty ideals (traits).  In this vignette, fair-coloured skin, embodying a curvy body shape, bold lips, and having not too skinny and not too fat ideal including other ideals described above is enough for classifying a female as beautiful; while having six packs, a connecting beard, a good height (eg. tick tall), and a combination of other ideals also described above may be enough for classifying a male as beautiful or embodying masculinity. I must acknowledge that the word “beautiful” used for males in Ghana have feminine connotations (thus a male with female beauty), but I use it here to also mean handsomeness without any feminine connotations. While beauty repertoires described in this paper may be prevailing in Ghana especially in Accra, a taste for what is beautiful and the advantages and disadvantages it brings may vary from person to person but the practice of evaluating others as beautiful or not must not be taken lightly considering its social consequences. 


Boafo-Arthur, S., Tsevi, L., & Pellish, J. (2023). Social justice: A comparative cross-cultural perspective. SN Social Sciences, 3(10), 168.

Goffman, E. (1976). Gender Advertisements. Macmillan Education UK. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-349-16079-2

Kuipers, G. (2015). Poetics Beauty and distinction? The evaluation of appearance and cultural capital in five European countries. Poetics, 53, 38–51. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.poetic.2015.10.001

Oduro, G. Y. (2015). The ‘Coca-cola’ Body: Beauty Trends and Constructs among Ghanaian Youth. In L. D. Peters (Ed.), The Body Beautiful? Identity , Performance , Fashion and the Contemporary Female Body (pp. 69–87). Inter-Disciplinary Press.

Tuoyire, D. A., Kumi-Kyereme, A., Doku, D. T., & Amo-Adjei, J. (2017). Perceived ideal body size of Ghanaian women: “Not too skinny, but not too fat”. Https://Doi.Org/10.1080/03630242.2017.1321607, 58(5), 583–597. https://doi.org/10.1080/03630242.2017.1321607

Wrigley-Asante, C., Agyei-Mensah, S., & Obeng, F. A. (2017). It’s not all about wealth and beauty: Changing perceptions of fatness among Makola market women of Accra, Ghana. Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, 38(3), 414–428. https://doi.org/10.1111/sjtg.12200

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