Food decisions and cultural perceptions of overweight and obesity : the case of Zulu women in Durban, South Africa.
This study investigates why Durban-based Zulu women in particular are experiencing a fairly recent exaggerated trend in weight gain. Relatively little has been written on this subject from a cultural anthropology perspective in general and in particular a food anthropological approach, which therefore remains a neglected field of study in South Africa. The study consisted of four objectives leading to knowledge that could have wide application towards curbing overweight and obesity among communities with similar belief systems and practices. Since no single theory proved satisfactory to explain weight-related trends among Zulu women, the study hinged largely on cultural aspects supported by postcolonial feminist theory, postmodern feminist theory, acculturation theory and symbolic interactionism theory. Through qualitative inquiry, the following methods were used to gather data: in-depth interviews, group discussions and ethnographic observation. Data was gathered from 50 female and five male participants drawn mainly from the Durban-based University of KwaZulu-Natal, Howard College Campus. The study’s 20 key research participants, half of whom were under 35, were identified for their ability to analyse and interpret their observations on the research topic. The first objective investigated the discourses of food decisions and cultural perceptions associated with weight and attendant health conditions. Related concerns included what participants ate, why, the quantities eaten, how often, when and with whom they ate, and under what circumstances and physical environments. Overarching the above aspects were associated symbolisms that shed light on factors that predispose Durban-based Zulu women to overweight and obesity against the backdrop of a rapidly changing world. Unlike contemporary trends in the Western world, the majority of study participants were not overly pre-occupied by the nutritive value of food or weight gain. The second objective highlighted food consumption patterns and weight-related health implications from an anthropological perspective. Paradoxically, while the plump woman is deemed healthy from cultural Zulu thinking, from a public health perspective such a body is considered unhealthy since excessive body fat is the precursor of a host of nutrition-related non-communicable diseases (NR-NCDs) or chronic diseases of lifestyle (CDLs). The thin ideal of a female body is idolized in the West is considered sickly among traditional Zulu thinkers. For example, to avoid being stigmatized in the contemporary AIDS era, thin women who are HIV-negative deliberately eat fattening junk foods in a bid to put on weight, while HIV-positive women maintain their weight specifically for this purpose. The third objective centred on body image and identity, with participants indicating that weight tolerance among the majority of Zulu men and women was diametrically opposed to the thin ideal of a female body. The participants indicated the Zulus traditionally appreciated the fuller body exemplified by the following positive attributes among others: beauty, sexual desirability, fecundity, healthy, physical hardiness, happiness, being good-humoured, kindness, good nurturance, generosity, respectability, wealth, success and affluence. Thin people, on the other hand were deemed unhealthy, weak or not hardy physically, miserable, miserly and ugly. In the 21st century the above-mentioned buxom woman is still largely deemed the epitome of attractiveness among the Zulu, especially by the older generation. Consequently, a fast-widening generational schism has occurred in the conflicting standpoints between Zulu parents and their young, especially in urban settings. Nonetheless, according to participants, neither generation necessarily deems overweight or obesity as key health concerns, unless faced with accompanying maladies. The fourth objective deliberated on efforts to discipline the body either through dieting or effecting lifestyle changes. The quest for bodily perfectionism has left in its wake a small but rising number of young women (those aged under 35) of Zulu ethnicity who have begun suffering certain extremes found in the West, where the desire to be thin has led to anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa (otherwise known as binging followed by vomiting), over-dieting and over-exercising physically. Such actions among participants suggest they are pursuing an elusive dream that is overly detrimental from both at a physiological and psychological level, as evident among their counterparts in the West. For example, some individuals are torn between two worlds – traditional Zulu and Western – to which they hold allegiance concurrently based on Zulu and Western notions of the female body ideal. In the process, some of the adversely affected women are attaining obsessive levels similar to those in the west in terms of weight watching, where body dissatisfaction heightens based on the disparity between an individual’s imagined and actual ideal. In addition the study noted that over time Zulu women’s body dissatisfaction based on attaining the thin ideal is escalating among participants and fellow community members, especially on the basis of sex, age, education level, and class as well as to a lesser extent, the geographic rural-urban divide. According to study participants this was also the case where, young and older men beginning to show greater preference for slim female bodies that are increasingly perceived to be more-sexually adept in bed than their heftier female counterparts. To this end, participants indicated various measures women of their ethnicity took towards attaining the slender body. As a result, millions of Rand are invested in South Africa’s burgeoning body weight industry. Customers are exposed to a wide array of over-the counter slimming products, as well as concoctions prescribed by izinyanga (herbalists), izangoma (diviners) and pharmacists; body-sculpting products such as underwear with spandex, to rein in body flab in the torso; high heel shoes to create an illusion of extra height thus a slimmer silhouette; weight loss technologies and exercises. In addition, more women of Zulu ethnicity are engaging in forms of exercise that include walking, jogging, swimming, attending the gym, dancercise (dancing for exercise), and sexercise (engaging in sex as exercise), among other activities. Considering the upsurge of overweight and obesity, among key recommendations was that since there is a dearth of information in this study’s area of research in South Africa, a lot of applied research is required in the field of applied anthropology. Such a venture could aim at health education and promotion associated with preventive health as opposed to focusing on curative health; the latter being the main focus at present. The preventive health approach would be more beneficial in terms not only of lessening physiological and psychological trauma of ill health, but also millions of Rand required for curative processes, many of which involve chronic medication. In addition, kknowledge gathered in this study has the potential to contribute towards health promotion geared not only in advocating towards improving women’s health in terms of diet and lifestyle, but that of their families as well. Women’s role in this respect is crucial in that they are best positioned to advocate for change by virtue of not only being key food providers, but as health carers in society as well.
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