The loaded language of bodies

2010-07-31 14:44

In the past month, the South African public has been captivated by body size and its relationship to health.

The issue was sparked by Eric Miyeni’s column in another paper, and Lebogang Mashile’s ­response to his comments.

Miyeni’s column ­focused on the poet’s body weight and ­expressed concern for her health, noting an increase in her body size since he first met her.

In her response, Mashile labelled Miyeni’s concern as a ruse, given how little he knew about her, even though he prefaced his ­remarks with feelings of kinship.

She also saw his column as mean-spirited.

Many agreed with her.

Since then, blogs, electronic news forums, television and newspapers have been abuzz with talk of body size.

Although this issue has been catapulted into the limelight in an unfortunate manner, it is a conversation well worth having.

The timing of the Miyeni-Mashile exchange could not have been better.

First of all, as we enter into Women’s Month, a time when the nation is more open to talk about issues of embodiment and gender, we can make sure that there is a month-long conversation about ­bodies, health and sexuality.

Second, we are in the midst of a global ­explosion in obesity, and this needs to be ­addressed.

But there are also ­deeply ­ideologically loaded impulses at play.

In order to have an honest and useful ­conversation, it is important to address several myths about weight and health.

Whether you take the glib approach of ­bumper stickers that declare “you can never be too thin or too rich” or note the many ways in which skinny women are promoted as the ­ideal embodiment of sexiness, health and beauty, there is ­undoubtedly pressure on women and girls to look thin in order to be accepted.

The flip-side of the coin is that women who do not fit into this “thin” ideal are policed and have their body size ­commented on by strangers on a ­regular basis under the guise of concern for their health.

Many skinny women are prepared to put their lives in danger to stay “thin” and “healthy looking” with diet pills, undereating, laxatives, smoking and so on.

The rise in eating disorders should be as much a part of the health and weight ­conversation as sedentary lifestyles. We need to recognise that not all weight gain endangers a person’s health.

Many people who are larger than the idealised image are healthier than many of the models we are invited to emulate.

Most women reading this column, and many men, experience first-hand unwelcome comments about their body size. Most of the time, are intrusive and are premised on an ideological connection between health and body size – thin is healthy and fat is not.

This ongoing commentary on what our ­bodies look like reinforces shame and feelings of undesirability.

We should all start being honest about why we really care, take responsibility for how we show our claimed concern and desist from ­victimising people because they do not fit into a dominant category of what is desirable.

» Gqola is a feminist writer, associate professor of humanities at the University of the Witwatersrand and author of What is slavery to me? published by Wits University Press

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