“You’re so fat” are words I began to hear a lot when I was a teenager. When I was in grade 10, I bumped into a girl I hadn’t seen since grade seven. She was shocked to see the netball player who had been her opponent transformed into a blob of flesh stuffed into a tartan school dress and blazer. Comments about my weight were nothing new at that point in my life, but most people had been polite. The incident was not the last time I would hear someone comment about my weight.
Whenever I came home from university, my mother would make a point of commenting about whether I was thinner than the last time she had seen me. For six years her comments tried to be affirming as she asked a question rather than point out the obvious, “Uhlile? Have you lost weight?”, and left me to confirm what she could see. Growing up I would listen to my mom and her acquaintances greet each other in town saying, “Awutyebe! Inoba wonwabile! You’re so fat! You must be very happy!”, because being buxom was a sign of a happy, well-looked after woman (conversations about weight while greeting someone only seemed to happen when I was with my mother or my aunts and not my father nor my uncles).
Growing older I’ve noticed a slight shift in the narrative of “a fat African woman is a happy African woman” as many black women (especially in middle-class settings) are extremely vocal about their gym membership and hard toil to maintain the body of their youth. I don’t know where I am on the scale of obsessing about body weight but recently I’ve become highly aware of my body. I’ve had many friends and family tell me, “You’ve lost so much weight.” I was very annoyed by this because I had finally become comfortable with being a “big girl” and seeing as I wasn’t trying to lose weight, I thought it was a mean joke when someone told me I had lost it. I felt I was being duped. My annoyance was received with confusion by those who said this as a compliment because the words “you’re so thin” are words every woman yearns to hear, of course.
Now that I’ve been promoted to the group of women who have the desired body (a body that can be controlled and managed), it has made me observe other women’s bodies a little more closely. This leaves me wondering about how every woman feels in their body. Do women feel healthy in their bodies? How does one even feel healthy? This weighty issue is often extremely sensitive among women but we continue to talk about it, and it supports an entire industry of beauty products and glossy magazines.
I’ve avoided writing about my weight because whenever a woman writes about her body she runs the risk of self-flagellating rather than appreciating her body (which would be seen as vanity and a middle-class concern really). It’s also incredibly boring given the “real” issues women still face (such as access to education and contraceptives and healthcare for childbirth). But here it is, the weight issue rearing its ugly head during the season of braais and Christmas cooking. Women’s hatred for their bodies and the role magazines and Hollywood play in this hatred has been written about ad nauseam and the narrative doesn’t seem to be changing in spite of the efforts of women challenging glossy magazines and becoming plus-size models. I’ve been disturbed that they are referred to as plus-size models rather than simply being referred to as models because there seems to be a need to protect our idea of what it means to be a model. So there are models and there are plus-size models.
In becoming more aware of my body and how I use it to navigate space, I have observed other women’s bodies closely. While on a plane recently I had to walk through a group of men who had congregated closely together, hogging the aisle. I politely asked them to move, which was difficult and I eventually had to squeeze my body through the throng. I noticed that I managed to do this without touching any of the men who hadn’t moved out the way. I was surprised that I managed to do this, avoiding an awkward situation, as a personal bubble had been burst involuntarily. I also became very aware of my weight loss on a shopping expedition when I attempted to squeeze through the till barricades in a supermarket. I wanted to avoid the main entrance, which was blocked by trolleys and people, and saw an opportunity close to the tills. When I approached the barricade it looked narrower than I had anticipated but I still managed to pass through, much to my surprise.