Hey you, Fatty! What are you hungry for?
This morning I was chatted up by a woman. Tall, sturdy, she worked out, the first thing I noticed was her trim Ben Sherman checked shirt, open to reveal a chunky silver chain. Her hair was completely shorn- clean and shiny, she had no earrings, no makeup. Her feet were large, a size nine perhaps, in new Nikes, her jeans loosely fitting, just so. Her breasts were vaguely noticeable. A butch Tanzanian woman- openly cruising me on a dusty pavement outside the shop where I had stopped the motorbike to pick up cigarettes. She was perfunctory- what was my name, did I ‘smoke’, peeling back her trouser leg to reveal small rolled packets of ganja tucked into her sock. “I sell it” she announced with little fanfare. Then she proceeded to tell me she had two kids- 14 and 9 “no more, enough” she flicked her hand dismissively, and that was that.
Being a dope dealer, or a butch lesbian, or the mechanics of picking up a foreign woman on the side of the road of a medium sized African city are not what this piece is about.
The bit I want to focus on is being fat (or just not thin) and female in Africa, which has a particular set of assumptions. Twice this week I’ve ended up having conversations with (white, expat) women about their eating disorders. About the obsessive concentration and planning that goes into thinking about food: it strikes me as a route into edifying one’s own existence. A way of exploring how to assert one’s ‘realness’ in a world where it’s easy to disappear, to starve oneself out of existence. A road into emotional terrain that is complex and contradictory, a way to name the tangents of the first, basest emotion: hunger.
Writing about being fat in Africa, It’s hard to know where to position the lens, where to start. Images on British news screens of Biafra in the 70’s, Michael Buerk in Ethiopia in the 80’s. All showed thin as a double negative, doubly sub-altern, a culpable state of vulnerable victimhood, being a refugee; never chosen, but inflicted by political conflict, drought, and now we know, environmental damage.
On the other side, occasionally we see images of fat African mamas selling bananas in markets. Or wives and political leaders (I’m thinking Sally Mugabe, Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, Winnie Mandela) whose bulk and largesse, swathed in powerful bright material, is positioned as vaguely ridiculous. A reference to their lack of self-control? Inability to discipline themselves? The Williams sisters (Serena and Venus) are remarkable because they unashamedly portray an image of African (American) femininity as powerful. But they are not, strictly African, and sportswomen belong to a whole different category I think. A whole other set of essentialist assumptions about body-fascism, that belongs to another day.
It’s what hit me in Manhattan. The skinny white women. Same in Richmond (West London, not the US) – home of Japanese shoe-ins, Russian Oligarchs and South African bankers: girl-women crammed into tight jeans, ugg boots, pushing prams, their bodies a triumph over their biological histories. It is like choosing horses at the auction, only the ones of a certain height, strength (flimsy looking) with no body mass or sturdiness, get in. (Who is doing the choosing?) I could understand why in certain circles women are referred as ‘fillies’ – all gangly legs, big eyes and cute fragility. There is a certain similarity. When women are thin, Bambi-like and in the ‘first world’ it is desirable. But in East and Southern Africa being thin means something else entirely. The slang for HIV positive in parts of South Africa is ‘thin’. When I visit England and return, my Tanzanian friends greet me with jubilant cries of “Look how you’ve increased! You’ve got fatter! Welcome back!” It’s a way of saying I look good, healthy. Nogizi Chimananda writes about it too- good she’s noticed as well- the way that there’s a correlation between geography and perceptions/interpretations of bulk: a few train stops in New York is the difference between rich, thin white, and poor, black and FAT. Yes, personhood as drama of heterogeneity (Bataille 2001) rings true.
Being fat in Tanzania has its own set of signifiers. It indicates wealth, comfort, ease, choice. It says “I am thinking and doing beyond the next meal.” It says, I have ‘made it’ (income wise) and can support myself, my extended family, and I can sit down long enough to eat more than my body needs. That in turn says a huge amount about your time, choices, job, social life, access to medical care, and life chances. In a way being fat constitutes being ‘more’ of a citizen, or, in more academic language “sovereignty described as the foundation of individual autonomy….over identifies the similarity of self-control to sovereign performativity and state control over geographical boundaries”.(Balke 2005). The frequency of seeing fat people here in Tanzania is rare- the streets and markets are heaving with lean slim people. With current wages (low) and unemployment unofficially near 50% There simply is, for the majority of people, not the choice to be fat in Tanzania, I have, in over 20 years of visiting and living and working in Tanzania only known one clinically obese person. He was an immigration officer, not a high ranking one, and ate enormous meals, as part of my visa process (paid for by me). The medical facilities do not exist here to investigate the cause of his bulk, (emotional, or physiological) and I did not know him well enough to probe.
In a poetic twist, the rich (the fat ones) here in Tanzania are hidden. There are whole suburbs, unsigned, nestling out of town, whole estates where fat people (expat and local) live in protected, barbed wire bliss. It’s only the poor we see with their skinny frames in public view. With the recently elected Prime Minister, (Magafuli, interestingly shown on his campaign posters as slim and riding a bicycle) perhaps the (corrupt) fatties will come out of hiding…. We shall see.
Obesity is a national concern in South Africa, where a diet of pap (similar to ugali here, maize meal, but more processed) has resulted in a carbohydrate heavy diet, and diabetes 2 being the highest rising illness in the country. There are no recorded cases of anorexia or bulimia in Tanzania, there is a dedicated state clinic in South Africa, and numerous private facilities.
As for me, let’s get personal, as it is the political. My father expanded from being a beanpole in his twenties, to a man weighing more than 220kg who was carried dead out of his flat by eight men who struggled. I am about 15kg overweight, and have been since 2009, either as a result of the drugs I have to take to stay alive, or aging, or eating too much.
Only in the last year have I acknowledged how irritated I am by the photos of me in the last six years showing a substantial ‘winter reserve’. It’s funny here in Tanzania, (my friends glow, giggle and prod my tummy as they exclaim “You’ve expanded!). it’s normal in the UK (I am a size 14) but it bothers me that my choice to think about my diet, to have the time and knowledge to delve into various gluten- or non-gluten diets, is very much a privilege accorded because out of sheer luck. I was born in GB, and not Tanzania. (My parents were offered exile and citizenship in both places, and chose UK because my dad wanted to continue studying).
It bothers me that despite all this choice, all this politicised knowledge, all my self-control, I am not the lean, fit, energised person I want to be.
It is not about being desirable, or desired (ok yes it is, a bit) it is about exercising the macro-political and dietary choices I have, and my failure to do so.
It’s been over-written. Fat is a Feminist issue. Susie Orbach said it well. The control of our bodies, our reproduction, sexuality, self-maintenance, who we are judged and assessed by, is not a neutral thing. Donna Harraway writes about the all-consuming lens of the male gaze, with its ability to un-make or create us, and to a large degree we (women) self-police: imposing implicit codes on what we can look like on ourselves and each other. Rarely are we allowed to look tatty, unkempt in the way that say Jeremy Corbyn or Michael Foot does. A woman can be many things- but she must not be fat and ‘let herself go’. That is an indication of insanity.
I type this in a loose kaftan, hair un-brushed, fat at 6am, wondering if I too, might be slightly mad.
See also, for further reading:
Berlant, L. Slow Death (Sovereignty, Obesity, Lateral Agency) Critical Enquiry, www4.uwm.edu/c21/pdfs/events/berlant_slowdeath.pdf Chicago Press 2007
Cooper C. The Girl Chubster Gang: http://charlottecooper.net/b/chubsters/
Cooper C. Fat Activism, A Radical Social Movement, Hammeron press 2016
Ida Horner Big is Beautiful,. http://www.africaontheblog.com/big-is-beautiful-in-africa-but-should-a-person%E2%80%99s-size-matter/ 2010
Sebag-Montiefiore C. http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20150116-can-fat-be-beautiful 2015
Simmons, A. Where Fat Is a Mark of Beauty, Los Angeles Times, 1998 http://www.anthroprof.org/documents/Docs102/102articles/fat26.pdf