A study on the views and attitudes on body image of 10 to 18-year-old black girls living in Cape Town has revealed some disturbing perceptions that should sound alarm bells to parents everywhere. Interestingly, says Phumeza Mgxashe, the media’s obsession with the size-0 body seems to have no influence on the girls. They take their cue from parents and peers from their same cultural background.
The School of Public Health at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) randomly sampled a total of 240 girls from 11 schools in Cape Town’s townships.
Shockingly, two thirds of the respondents believe that being fat is a sign of happiness and wealth. “When you are fat, you look dignified,” said one. The group seemed to be confused as to the difference between physical strength and being fat as some respondents said being fat allowed one to engage in sporting activities that require physical strength.
On the other hand fatness or being overweight was associated with diseases such as diabetes and hypertension, and with increased difficulty in finding appropriate clothing sizes. Some felt that being overweight could lead to unfavourable perceptions and comments from peers, including name-calling.
The mixed messages from parents also add to the confusion. Some respondents cited parents’ views, with one adolescent saying, “They say I must not get too fat because many things will pass me… things like sport.”
“My mother prefers a fat person to a slender one because she said when a person is slim, it looks like they are ill. Because of that I ended up feeling proud to be fat,” another weighed in.
Worryingly, negative consequences of obesity seemed to be ignored by the majority of the respondents and are “often not enough to induce an inclination to lose weight”, said the research team.
The researchers also said that the views on weight also point to the fact that being overweight does not negatively affect the lives of the respondents in their day-to-day lives.
I understand the cultural standpoint of the mothers who express admiration for the fuller figure. But the good news is that this was not the overwhelming view in the group as comments indicate an acknowledgement of some of the lifestyle diseases linked to obesity.
We are a country in the midst of an obesity epidemic and these findings point to a need for interventions that broadly define strategy and target multiple groups, including parents of school-going children. If we are going to get somewhere in tackling the problem, children as young as 10 should be targeted.
We are between a mountain and a hard place in that while truly respecting all cultures we need to face our present-day realities that, if ignored, could prove costly in the future.
The media, as our most influential social institution, is an invaluable partner in educating and empowering both young and old to enable life choices that support a bright and healthy future.
Phumeza Mgxashe is a Cape Town based communications specialist.
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