As a young black woman who was educated in so-called “model c” schools, I get really annoyed when people say things like: “but you’re so eloquent”, as though it’s a huge surprise that a black person can pronounce determined without saying de-Te-Mined. Equally annoying is when someone looks at me and says: “but you’re so beautiful”, as if fat people aren’t meant to be. Recently, I watched a movie called Fat Like Me. In the movie, a young girl, Allison, decides to go undercover as a fat teen in summer school to investigate how people treat fat people. Her motivation is that fat people use their weight as a crutch and if they tried harder, they wouldn’t be so isolated and ill-treated; “I always just thought fat people needed to smile more”. Obviously, the fact that the movie is set in an American high school changes the context immensely, but the movie does well to explore the issue of weight from different perspectives.
Many people tip toe around the word fat. They disguise it with euphemisms such as “full-figured”, “well-insulated”, voluptuous”… whatever. The bottom line is that although those are all lovely poetic-sounding synonyms, they still mean fat. And you can’t hide fat. I guess it’s similar to when white people try and find other ways of saying “black” so as to sound politically correct. But as much as black is black, fat is fat. And I’m sorry I just equated being fat to being black but I’m going somewhere with this so please bear with me. After watching the movie, I had an interesting conversation with a friend and it sparked a mini-debate about weight in the African context. For the longest time, “woman” in Africa has been associated with curves. The voluptuous silhouette of a woman with booty and breasts is about as synonymous with the African woman as the illustration of black stick-figures with flat noses, big ears and full lips has been with black people. Even artists have dedicated large portions of their talents to the celebration of the “black woman’s shape”.
Eric Miyeni wrote a poem called Cellulite Shuffle, in which he says: “Hey, I love that killer smile of yours/I can’t help it/ I also love your cellulite/ I love those big thighs/ That bum of yours/ I can get a handle on it you know/ And know that this is a woman/ A woman for all women”. But he was not the only one. Who can ever forget Sir Mix-A-Lot’s: “I love big butts and I cannot lie…”? The black man, throughout the world has always been a fan of the curvaceous female form. But times are changing. With the Americanisation of Africa, more and more women are moving towards size zero. Mtv, E-entertainment, The Style Network, Cosmo, Elle… all these mediums of entertainment are constantly telling women that the thinner the better and it takes a whole lot less to be fat now days. So when at first glance, it would seem that it is easier to be fat in Africa than it is in the States, closer examination would prove otherwise.
It would appear that even in Africa, there is a sense that many non-fat people think they have rights over, and influence on, fat people’s body issues. Jill Scott has a poem called The Thickness, in which she speaks of this young, “thick” girl’s experience with older men who want nothing but to sleep with her. Jill speaks of how this girl is still just a girl, even though she is “built like a woman”. “Don’t nobody even care what’s on her mind… she’s been Degraded, Exploited, Not celebrated.” The fact of the matter is that fat girls are often caught up in thinking that they have no choices when it comes to men. That they should be grateful for whatever affection comes their way, and as a result, can only land older man whose mid-life crises draws him to the youngest reminder of his wife he can find outside his home. Outside the “conscious” brother looking to make her his queen, these girls often feel as though their Mtv-watching peers are not interested in romantic relationships with them.
In Mauritania, the bigger the woman, the sexier she is considered to be. In Nigeria, women with protruding butts are generally considered to be sexier than those without. But in the more cosmopolitan cities of countries that have historically embraced the fuller figure, Beyoncé is about as big as can be acceptable. (And thank God for her, otherwise pre-swimsuit-paparazzi-snagged-Tyra Banks would be Hollywood’s idea of voluptuous). Fat women are sexier back in the rural homelands, artistic playgrounds and if they’re lucky enough to be in the Eastern Cape (maybe) the townships. Size does matter… For women as well. And you would think that men are entirely to blame, but shamefully, that is not so. Women are more likely to make women feel insecure about their bodies than men are. With snide comments, side-way glances and whispered snickers. Mostly because every woman is fighting her own insecurities, and some think that the only way they can get over them is by shining the spotlight on others’.
There is a well known saying that no one can make you feel anything without your consent. No one can impose body issues on a grown woman. (But it is true that insecurities can be transferred onto children). Be it about one’s weight, complexion, social upbringing… whatever. There are just certain things that we have to claim, dispute or overcome. Sadly though, there are people who will never get to know some incredible people because they refuse to look past the physical; but such is the nature of life. It has no bearing on you if someone judges you at face value. On the contrary, it has everything to do with them: the demons they are fighting, the issues they are battling with. One of my favourite sayings is: “I have enough of my own insecurities to deal with, without having to deal with yours”.