New year, new classism


It’s the most stressful time of the year, when we start over by making expensive, ill-thought-out promises to ourselves, which almost always include health and fitness goals.

We’re back to purging ourselves of the original sin of poverty and fatness, that great unforgivable ugliness that in turn is a measure of one’s character and humanity.

In recent memory, fitness has developed into a social identity — at least among the digitally savvy, burgeoning middle class of roughly millennial-aged urbanites. For many who grew up with the stench of poverty hanging over them, fitness presents a way to detach and disassociate from their past whether they realise it or not. CrossFit’s evangelical zeal, the near idolatry of yoga and Pilates and the rigour of carb watching is for the rich.

That cute gym tote does more than carry musty workout clothes. Those branded running shoes don’t just go from the couch to a 5K. That Apple Watch isn’t just some cool new toy to track your daily steps. These things have deeper, far-reaching implications for our place in society.

The manual labour we willingly do is far from the type our older relatives endured to put food on the table. Wearing workout gear in a non-exercise setting such as Woolies marks its wearers as the type of people who care for their bodies, even when they aren’t exercising.

Being fit now denotes class. As calorie-dense but nutritionally empty foods have become cheaper, fatness has changed from being a sign of wealth into a hallmark of moral failure.

Today, being perceived as being unhealthy functions as a signifier of everything we expect from the worst humanity has to offer. Being fat is an indication of one’s lower-class status, the inability to exercise decorum and self-control, so they deserve their lot in life and nothing more. For us to empathise with them they must be deserving, but how deserving can a wasteful person be?

Society has always found ways to explain away poor people and fat people as those who can’t be trusted to make better decisions, often lumping together the two groups with stereotypes of the slovenly con who willfully burdens everyone with his laziness and uselessness.

We perceive in poverty and extra weight a lack of virtue. Poor people don’t have the ambition, the drive or the mental capacity to make something better of themselves, something more productive. For fat people: Why can’t they be something useful — something worth our approval, something of beauty?

Those who can afford to spend on optional manual labour in the gym, “clean eating”, yoga retreats or whey protein must, by contrast, be a golden example of humanity, the future, more of what this country needs. “Healthy bodies” glowing from within are, therefore, associated with purpose, which makes them inherently more worthy, more respectable and thus more beautiful. Clean eating is really about the largesse and purity of the soul. And if we are what we eat, then healthiness is close to godliness.

A person’s appearance has very little to do with general physical or mental health. The “clean eating” movement, weight loss and extreme exercise all have a sheen of wholesome goodness and wealth, ostensibly disguised as conversations about health. But when we look at the dynamics of shame and class positioning, there’s more to this conversation than caring about high blood pressure or life expectancy.

The reason we don’t talk about the classism of most weight loss initiatives — the latest workout routines trends and eating less — is there is a subtle reiteration of the idea that if fat or poor people simply behaved in some certain “perfect” ways their lives would be better.

Of course, exercising, eating better and striving to be healthier are not inherently bad things. Yet they become dark and disingenuous when they are positioned as a particular class’s moral superiority over another, and as a justification for social inequality or a way to hamper social mobility.

We should also remember that human insecurity in all its iterations is big business. When appearance becomes something to be dissected for trace evidence of humanity, we’ve completely veered off course.

Our resurgent health-savvy culture doesn’t expend as much effort ensuring everyone can have clean water or nutritious food as it does shaming and blaming. We should care about health, personally and in our communities, instead of seeing it as a way to assert class dominance.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

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Kiri Rupiah
Kiri Rupiah is the online editor at the Mail & Guardian.

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