A tale of two bodies

There are two South Africas.

Former president Thabo Mbeki has called it out before. He named it black and white. A few South Africans got kinda angry because, as we’ve noticed on this column before, some people don’t like being called white.

That was way back in 1998 though. Fast-forward to 2009 at a media conference in Cape Town where the former editor of this publication, Ferial Haffajee, delivered another delicious soundbyte on the two South Africas: One that is tweeting and another that is not eating. We all immediately tweeted it.

I, however, have come to a personal realisation on the two South Africas and here’s the thing: There’s a fat nation sitting cheek by heavy jowl next to a painfully skinny one.

I’m not talking economic inequality, either. I really do mean aspiring anorexics for the skinny, and fat as in more than a little big-boned. As in chubby, extra-tyred, rotund, big-assed and just plain large.

Damn, it feels good to actually say that.

Fat is the new PC and while I’m all for the cause on, well, causes in general, this is one area I have to shut up or ship out on. You see, I’m one of those irritating people with a fast metabolism. I get to put away the equivalent of a small horse and my body ticks along at about a size 30. I know. I’m sorry.

As someone who is very aware of the unequal power relations and general unfairness of the world we live in, I’m still kind of surprised that, in size, I’m annoyingly in conformance to what we’re told we should look like. It’s rather disempowering really. I get to bitch with the people of colour on the evils of Eurocentrism and whinge with the girls about the awful realities of the patriarchy. But the minute the conversation turns to the power of the body beautiful and the impossibility of it all, an invisible zip works its way across my mouth. I sit in silent sympathy as the wounded tales pour out; unable to contribute because of the way I look. It’s a bit like white guilt, but with less denial. *ducks*

I want to take their faces in my hands, these lovely women who have nothing to worry about, and shout: “You’re not fat! Stop surviving on lettuce and spending hours in a sweaty gym! Stop showing me your cellulite because I didn’t notice it until you did!”

But their eyes just sort of glaze over because that’s how Cosmo‘s brainwashing works.

Mostly this obsession with the skinny has emanated from the West, with their size zero fashion models. But it’s spreading. Bollywood, traditionally the land of the voluptuous and fuller-figured women, has been gripped with a new dieting craze and their top stars have dropped several sizes to match those stick-figures on the ramps of the West.

In South Africa, our models tend to be a bit bigger than the international standard. But the skinny-mania has long spread among the moneyed classes and women are doing themselves an injury to cultivate that hideous bony look. (Personally I find it deeply unattractive. But I’d never actually say that I have to make a concerted effort to not get too thin because that would be kind of like complaining about having too much money and people would just dislike you a little bit.)

And the second South Africa I mentioned at the beginning of this column? Here’s a surprising stat for you. We have one of the highest incidents of obesity in the world. Yep — we have to stop mocking the supersized Americans right about now and take the log out of our own eye.

It’s probably partly a result of our pap-en-vleis culture. It would be cute if it wasn’t so dangerous. Obesity doesn’t just mean bigger plane seats and plus-size clothing. It means a heart attack and diabetes. It means shorter life spans and a host of health complications.

And it’s not just the individual who suffers. Our chubbiness is costing society.

An article endearingly entitled: “Catch me if you can, fatty,” appeared in the weekend papers, pointing out that about 42% of traffic officers in Port Elizabeth are fat as are 54% of fire fighters in the Nelson Mandela Bay metro. Anecdotal evidence would suggest that much is the same for the rest of the country.

A lot of it has to do with general ignorance. I remember covering the xenophobia attacks in Cape Town in 2008. In the children’s tent at a government shelter a mother was getting some milk for her baby girl. She pointed to the sugar. “Put,” she commanded. Two tablespoons in the little girl’s bottle. Considering they had just lost everything it wasn’t the right time to say what I was thinking which was: “WHAT THE HELL LADY?!”. That would have been callous.

But as in everything else in our divided country I wish the two South African sizes will stop being so extreme. Take Baz Lurhman’s advice and stop reading beauty magazines. They really do make you feel ugly. On the other hand if you’re ignoring a potential obesity problem, remember it’s your life that you’re playing with. Let’s all aim for healthy. Not extremity.

  • You can read Verashni’s column every Monday here and follow here on twitter here.

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Verashni Pillay
Verashni Pillay is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, and inaugural editor-in chief of Huffington Post South Africa. She has worked at various periods as senior reporter covering politics and general news, specialises in mediamanagement and relishes the task of putting together the right team to create compelling and principled journalism across multiple platforms.

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