Folks, we’re in denial about how fat we are, say the experts. But I think the real story may be a little more nuanced than a straightforward denial and has more to do with our nation’s particular views on body image and stigma.
South Africa is, on paper at least, the land of inclusion and acceptance, where we iron out our issues with a chant of Shosholoza, a braai and a beer. Everybody helps you by singing along when you forget the words to the national anthem and that awkward moment when white rugby fans end up at the same pub as black soccer fans turns into one big jol. Nobody is ever excluded here (or so we imagine). But you don’t have to dig deep to find that the reality is less than TV-commercial perfect. All that those beers and braais have done, perhaps, is help turn us into a nation of fatties.
Up there among the scale-punishing Americans and the Shane Warne before the all the diet shakes, South Africans are larger than life, literally. A massive 61% of us are overweight or obese; particularly black women older than 35 and white men over the age of 15. This loosening of the belt has been particularly marked since the dawn of democracy, and has followed a pattern seen in other developing nations. Simply put, democracy has made us fat.
But much of the developed world has been there, eaten that and got the XXL T-shirt. In fact, some countries have moved on as I suspect we might, too.
Health professionals said it was evidence of the nation’s fat-denial psychosis that while 74% of South Africans thought their fellow countrymen were overweight, only 34% considered themselves to be overweight or obese. I do not think this to be wholly attributable to denial. I think we might have skipped right past the extremes of Western angst over waist size, body-mass index and fat percentage right into fat acceptance.
Fat acceptance activists liken their cause – challenging and removing the social stigma of being overweight or obese and ensuring the masses are afforded the same treatment as their leaner counterparts – to the US civil rights movement or the battle being waged to assert equal rights for LGBTI Americans. I know. I was taken aback, too, but was also challenged to consider the possible point they may have.
Because of the effects of “fatism” (prejudice against fat people), food and eating, which were once pleasurable, eagerly anticipated experiences, have come to elicit a mix of emotions comparable to doing something deviant or taboo. So fat acceptance activists also want to destigmatise food in the same way, they say, as Aids activists try to prevent and reverse the stigmatisation of sex.
They’ve also sought to reappropriate (or ban, depending on who you ask) the word fat and all its derivative forms, which are numerous. Fatty, thunder thighs, chubster, chunky, lard ass, fat lard and I could go on.
But here, in the land of magwenya, bunny chow and gatsbys, I’m hard-pressed to think up as sizeable a list of homegrown derogatory terms for the overweight. Only the truly spiteful, like the Gareth Cliffs or the Eric Miyenis, try to publicly ridicule and belittle others by targeting their weight or size. Unlike their US counterparts, when our airlines talk about an overweight passenger, they are referring to the passenger’s luggage, not their person. And save for the infrequent taxi driver who’ll insist a larger passenger pay twice the price, fat discrimination is not as pervasive here as it may be in equally overweight nations. Even the little discrimination that there is would likely not stand up to constitutional challenge.
The adjectives would be different and kinder than other nation’s responses were we put through a test where we are shown a picture of typical overweight South African and told to describe their traits. For example, an overweight black woman over 35 would, in a representative sample, be likely described as “mother”, “loving”, “friendly” significantly more often than she would be called “lazy”, “slob” or “ugly”, as is the case in the US.
The nation we live in leaves us in general feeling okay about the state of our weight, accepting of ourselves and generally kind to each other’s proportions, despite what may be going on in our heads. Sure, we might experience pangs of guilt over that late-night McDonald’s burger or those missed gym sessions, and we decline politely the restaurant’s offer of bread for the table. But on the whole, we are far more comfortable with the weight we and those around us carry. Many of us even like our partners with a bit of girth and curves. To what end though?
Some doctors and health researchers say the logical end of fat acceptance is a nation of people suffering multiple chronic and debilitating diseases and costing billions a year in healthcare and productivity. They argue that while stigmatising being overweight may be fuelling obesity by drawing people into routines of unsustainable diets, binge eating and dieting again, it is dangerous to promote not doing anything about having an unhealthy body weight or leave the unhealthily large unchallenged.
For us, fat and content South Africans braaing and beering in perfect harmony, the truth is that our logical end is likely not that different, except we might have shorter lives due to all our other health and social issues. And it probably won’t be easy either to hold that first note of Shosholoza when coronary heart disease and clogged arteries leaves us short of breath. DM
Osiame Molefe is a writer with a keen interest in the space where personal and societal ambitions intersect with technology, politics and economics. That intersect right now, in South Africa, has brought him to observing, researching and writing on racial and gender inequality, and how well, or poorly, dialogue around these issues takes place. His column deals with these and issues tangential. When he is not writing news, analysis and opinion, he reads speculative fiction and writes some, too. Rumour is he single-handedly keeps the South African sparkling wine industry afloat. In a former life, he worked as a chartered accountant in New York, Bermuda and Johannesburg, but has since fled that industry in pursuit of a life less grey. He holds a bachelors degree in accountancy from Rhodes University, but don’t let that fool you into believing he has a head for numbers. He does not.
"The soul is known by its acts" ~ Thomas Aquinas