Race, Gender and Weight

I was recently triggered into thought by the widely debated Cosmopolitan’s feature of different body types with the tag ‘This is Healthy
I lost 15kg during the difficult months of Cancer treatment in 2014, and then my doctor asked me to maintain my new weight since it was my ‘ideal and healthy’ weight. However, I went into a mental decline three years post-treatment and gained back the 15kg quicker than I had lost it.
After I had received help for my depression and was happily employed and well on my way to achieving my dreams, I convinced myself that my weight was not a problem because I was after all ‘happy’. It didn’t matter that I weighed 70kg at 4’10”. I am a regular runner, a gym frequent, I eat salads and never ice cream, I am confident and my mental state is right.

Wrong! Granted, I lead a considerably healthy and active lifestyle. Granted, I am shorter than average and as a Southern African woman, I have natural fat accumulation in areas that are genetically conditioned that way. Need we be reminded that even in the 1800s we were showcased in Europe for what they considered then to be alarmingly large buttocks and hips? Should an average BMI calculator be used to determine whether I am overweight or not?
I was confronted by this for the first time in the United Kingdom. I requested a certain drug and was told that I was obese and therefore could not be prescribed the medicine I wanted because of the increased risks for overweight people. My initial response was anger and claims that the medical system is biased against black people. I thought that it was bizarre that I would be called obese when I ‘look’ and ‘feel’ really great in my body. Historical and continued current racial injustices such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, social inequalities and systemic racism contributes to our inclination to believe that everything is rigged against us. However, after sobering my thoughts and considering proven medical science, I came to the logical understanding that overweight isn’t healthy, no matter how good it looks, and what race it presents in.

The increased risks of diabetes, hypertension, and strokes that come with having excess fat cannot be denied. It has also become evident that being overweight puts one at a 70% higher risk of getting sick from Covid-19. BAME communities have been worst hit by this pandemic because of these very underlying health conditions that have characterized us for far too long. It is time we honestly admit that our bodies are killing us.

This of course does not undermine the social inequalities that have predisposed BAME groups to unhealthier bodies and lifestyles. I also definitely appreciate that it seems unfair for me to be going to the gym 4 times a week and not losing weight as quickly as I would love to, or as quickly as my mate with a faster metabolism may, but it doesn’t mean that I can ignore the fact that I must put in the extra effort, for my own sake.

Admitting that obesity is unhealthy does not discredit mental health, and it does not promote body shaming and stereotyping. BAME societies are owed many apologies and there is a lot to correct. However, the correction we need here is an opportunity to afford healthier lifestyles and the education to do better for ourselves, not to be cushioned and comforted for unhealthy bodies.

One rather telling conversation I had with a relative reminded me that we also have underlying cultural issues that glorify obesity (I am sure without any malice intended). There is a notion that a real woman must have certain curvaceous features, and that a man with a large tummy is wealthy and happy. We also loosely use phrases such as “a woman must gain weight when she is properly loved”. This shows that in order to succeed at educating a generation about the health risks that come with excess weight, there are a lot of underlying issues to address. Perhaps this is an area that Public Health Specialists would want to spend more time exploring, especially in countries such as my own, where the healthcare system is inundated with the consequences of rampant lifestyle-related non-communicable diseases.

From a happy, confident and beautiful African woman: overweight is not healthy!
*Lebani Mazhani is an Attorney and a Chevening Scholar currently pursuing her Masters in Medical Law and Ethics at the University of Kent, United Kingdom.