I was born fat, a big 4.5kg and was born with a huge appetite. I always blame my mom for my appetite because she fed me ubugali at 4 months. As a toddler, I was not that fat but I have always been bigger than my age mates. I know myself as fat. From a young age to now. The only time I lost weight was at the end of my secondary school when a doctor put me on a diet and told me I was developing high blood pressure; which later I came to find out that I was instead having panic attacks. Despite people knowing me at my size, comments about my body have always been part of my life.
Fatphobia is very rampant in the world but living in Rwanda as a fat girl comes with its speciality. If there were medals about living in a fatphobic society I probably should get one for surviving. I am still here, innit? In Rwanda, it is very common for people to comment on your body and usually, it is the first thing we say before we greet someone. You would think I would get used to comments about my body, but my brain and heart have refused to register this as the norm and I get irritated every time. It is very common for people to ask if you are pregnant or have recently given birth due to the size of your belly and/or bosom. It doesn’t matter if you are on medication, have just had a miscarriage or simply gifted in that area, we can ask you anything.
The Urban dictionary defines fatphobia as, “the intense fear or dislike of fat, becoming fat and fat bodies.” This may seem as far-fetched and extreme but looking at the systems, products and services, that are designed for those who are big body inclusive are almost non-existent. From the fashion industry to insurance companies to the health systems, everything suggests that fat people do not exist in Rwanda. From the public transport, the seats are usually small on buses and motorbikes; restaurant seats – and am not even going to mention aeroplanes because that would be an entire article in itself. It is easier to tell fat people to lose weight to assimilate but that is ignoring the systemic issue around fatphobia entirely.
It is in the way we talk about food. When I proudly posted about my achievement of a pizza I had made, my friend commented with, ‘how much are you going to weigh this time?’ Usually I would brush this off with a laugh but since I am learning to stand up for myself I replied with, ‘I don’t care. Lol’. This may seem small and I know she did not mean any harm but the way we have grown to view food as good or bad is deeply rooted in fatphobia. We view bigger bodies as being ugly and unhealthy and we are on a constant battle to maintain a certain figure and weight to stay healthy and beautiful. Big bodies are viewed as a result of living reckless and eating unhealthy, regardless of their genetics and lifestyle. This is also reinforced by the media, the fashion industry and especially the insurance industry which has influenced the way the health system measures weight vs health.
As I mentioned above, I was misdiagnosed because my doctor thought I was overweight. And this is a problem that is common in both Rwanda and worldwide especially with black and people of colour. We are constantly misdiagnosed based on our weight and many underlying issues that are completely unrelated to our weight are overlooked. If my doctor had asked me a series of questions, then he would have probably referred me to a psychiatrist but instead, he put me on a diet that helped me lose weight for a year and gained it back again. And this again is why the diet industry makes a lot of money because dieting is not sustainable and people keep going on and off it. Most fat people will tell you how much they hate exercise because we were conditioned to see it as a punishment for our bodies. We were told to burn calories through rigorous training and consume fewer calories to maintain a healthy weight. We are told to measure ourselves according to the BMI despite it being inaccurate and have racist originality. The BMI which is widely used was never intended to measure individual weight, it was designed for statistics. Weight wasn’t considered a primary indicator of health until the early 20th century when U.S. life insurance companies began to compile tables of height and weight [U2] to determine what to charge prospective policyholders. The study on BMI was centred around white men, women of all races, black and people of colour were completely excluded. How this would then be used as a measure of health universally beats my mind.
The history of fatness and obesity is still one that is revolving and though there are emerging activists advocating for rights of all bodies; abled and disabled; the health systems around the world are deeply flawed. Our view of fatness is that it should not exist. We want fat people to feel sorry for their bodies and tell us if they are living a healthy lifestyle. To which we will still have a say because it can never be enough. Women especially receive a lot of harassment on their bodies and when it comes to fatness it is an insult to their beauty. When Pierce Morgan harassed Tess Holiday for being on the cover of the Cosmopolitan, people commended his bullying because she was promoting obesity. Lizzo received a good amount of bullying and harassment for performing, posting and showing off her body; even though she was doing the same thing celebrities in smaller bodies were praised for. It is not lost on me how women are expected to be role models of our children, but men are allowed to live freely.
This is not uncommon in Rwanda. A Twitter user on #Rwot commented on something that many people did not agree on and the comments she received quickly jumped to her looks being a fat dark-skinned woman. Women with smaller bottoms (figure 9) are viewed as ugly and unhealthy compared to those with hourglass-shaped women (figure 6 and figure 8) who are viewed more beautiful, but they should be in proportion. Young girls with bigger bodies than their mates are targeted by predators; their bodies are violated by grown men. The beauty standards and health systems are heavily influenced by the west, the white man’s perspective and this affects the way fat and big-bodied people live. Fatphobia does not only impact our self-esteem but our daily lives are affected. Imagine not fitting in a bus/matatu or moto/Boda Boda (shout out to Uganda of bigger seats), having to ask for an extra seat belt on a plane just because the designers didn’t think that people with big bodies will use their product? Imagine not being able to sit comfortably at a restaurant because they designed tiny plastic seats that you cannot fit in? Imagine not finding clothes that you like because your most shops do not have beyond size L? Lingerie for big bodies are a dream on this side of the world. Imagine being told that you are not fat but beautiful, meaning you cannot be both?
Imagine being told that if you lost a few kilos you would look attractive to get a man? Imagine having to defend yourself every time food is mentioned that you actually eat healthily but still get advice on what more you could do? Imagine having to be used as a wing woman because you are not viewed that attractive to your friends to be a threat? Imagine being told that sex would be hard for you because there are certain positions you cannot handle? (I have to laugh at this one). I could go on about the experiences of fat people especially fat women in Rwanda but I am sure you now get the idea. These are our lives. Every system is designed to remind us that we are not wanted and not part of this population. Like all systemic issues, we are often given individual solutions on how to assimilate. We are told this is how the world works and the best we can do is adapt and be the change we want to see. We are told to work hard and stop complaining because it will not solve anything.
It is true that you cannot control everything and it feels overwhelming when you think of where to start. Perhaps complaining and talking about it is where we start. Perhaps by talking about this, we will gain the confidence to tell our doctors to do a thorough diagnosis to cover all bases. Perhaps policymakers will start to listen to our complaints and integrate systems that fit us all. The same way we started integrating elevators and pathways for people living with disabilities, we can start to think of the products and services we design. Perhaps the next person to own a restaurant will increase a centimetre or two to accommodate people with bigger butts. Perhaps our friends and families will stop harassing us about losing weight and eating healthy. Perhaps we will learn to consider other factors that contribute to good health that are not directly related to fatness. Perhaps we will stop harassing our children to watch their weight and worry more about their mental health. Perhaps we will understand that beauty is relative; that what the white man views as beauty should not be the standard. Perhaps we will be honest with ourselves and admit that it is not the health of fat people that we are concerned about, that we just find that extra fatness ugly. Perhaps next time we complain about eating too much and having gained a kilo or two we can examine our internalised fatphobia.
When I saw Adele’s picture after her weight loss I had to check myself. I was worried about her but I mostly thought that she was prettier when she was fat/chubbier. What my thoughts showed me is that I care about how people look and I invited myself to examine them and unlearn this habit of thinking how people look is any of my business. This is different from commenting on someone’s attire but bodies are people’s lives and they should be off-limits. The same way people shamed Chadwick Boseman for losing weight, only to find out after his death that he had cancer. The truth is people don’t owe us any explanation and their bodies are none of our business. Perhaps we will learn to be okay with fatness on us and others. But most importantly I hope we learn that fat people do not owe us good health and they are allowed to exist fully however they want just like each one of us.