In Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, exercising is now all the rage. Scores of joggers take to the streets before sunrise, or just after sunset, while others gather in parks and roundabouts to exercise together, often to the commands of an instructor. Some use public staircases for sprints and jump-squats, and benches for triceps dips.
The practice of physical activity in this part of the world is, of course, not entirely new, and the colonial histories of sports and leisure offer an important historical backdrop against which to understand current trends. But fitness, as a pursuit driven by a combination of health and aesthetic concerns is a novel and increasingly popular phenomenon.
Only a few years ago, gyms and joggers were few and far between, and not many people would have considered exercising, let alone outdoors, in public. Mozambique is, in fact, quite the unlikely place for a “fitness revolution”, if only because the pursuit of fitness clashes, or so it seems, with the social and aesthetic value accorded to fatness. Kenyan scholar Ali Mazrui (1987) once playfully called this the “sexercise gap”. He wrote: “If the measure of sexual attractiveness is fatness, and the measure of fitness is slimness, then we have a wide sexercise gap.” This gap now appears to be closing. My focus here is on how women’s body fat is viewed and worked on in Mozambique.
In anthropology, much has been written on the social meaning of fat, and on the ways in which this bodily substance has come to “signify”. In Fat: the Anthropology of an Obsession, Graham speaks of “lipoliteracy” in reference to the ways in which fat is read as an index of a person’s health and morality. Ethnographic studies from across sub-Saharan Africa show how fatness has commonly been considered a marker of ideals of fertility, health and wealth, and as a tangible manifestation of care. (That said, fatness can also be understood as a sign of greediness, an indication that one is “eating alone” instead of engaging in redistribution.)
In Mozambique, skinniness, especially in women, is seen as a sign of lack—lack of health, social support and sex-appeal. Plump women, in contrast, are seen as well looked after and worthy of respect. They are also not only believed to be fertile, but less likely to be HIV-positive, although growing access to antiretroviral therapy has complicated the relationship between body fat and seropositivity.
When someone tells you that you’ve put on weight, they usually mean it as a compliment. Often people will say, in Portuguese, “estás a engordar” (you are getting fatter), emphasizing fatness as a process rather than as an ontological characteristic. The response is generally something along the lines of: “são os bons tratos” (it’s the good treatment), thereby locating fatness in networks of care. I have, however, noted how in recent years, that women have started seeing “getting fatter”, or at least “getting very fat”, as a cause for concern. Scholars have, indeed, noted “a profound global diffusion of negative ideas about obesity,” alongside the globalisation of the “fit body,”, at a time when even sub-Saharan Africa, a continent better known for its famines and chronic malnutrition, is now described by the WHO as facing a growing “obesity epidemic.”
If fatness is seen by many as aesthetically and sensuously pleasing, ideals of beauty are far more fluid and diverse than Mazrui intimated. Amidst this diversity, I have also found a shared understanding of fat, not as a singular bodily substance, but rather as a substance with variable qualities. Simply put, some fat is seen as both unhealthy and unsightly, whereas some fat is seen as desired and desirable.
All the women I have been working out with, as part of an ethnographic research project on wellness aspirations in Mozambique—whether they are large middle-aged women following the doctor’s order to exercise or young middle-class professionals who spend hours at the gym in pursuit of fitness—share a desire to have a slimmer waistline, to “reduzir a barriga” (reduce the belly), as they put it. More specifically, they wish to lose weight from the waist up. Fat, then is not something one strives to eliminate indiscriminately.
What’s more, even fat that was at the right place, such as around the hips, is understood to come in different qualities. The fat that women tend to want is one that is smooth, firm enough, but not too much, and overall “bem arrumado” (tidy, neat). Many women use the word secar (lit. to dry or to freeze) to capture this desired outcome and speak of wanting to look more “elegante”. But others, in contrast hope that exercising will help them “aumentar”, literally, to increase [their body weight] and, more specifically, to make fuller (cheia) their hips and backsides.
Echoing these women, a young Mozambican man I met at a gym in central Maputo explained: “The dominant ideal of beauty (o padrão de beleza)is such thatthe beautiful woman is the fat woman, but no one likes a “balão tudo desorganizado” (a disorganized ball)”. In short, not all fat is considered equal.
The growing popularity of fitness across the global South has often been understood as indicative of the globalisation of Western ideals of beauty. And while this may very well be the case elsewhere, what my research in Mozambique suggests is that the fitness craze in this southern African country has little to do with a redefinition of bodily ideals.
Fat has long been seen and experienced as a complex bodily substance that was socially and aesthetically valued, depending on where it was located. And women have long wanted a little less here, and perhaps a little bit more there.
They have also relied on a broad repertoire of “bodywork technologies” which includes daily hygiene practices such as bathing and applying cream to the skin, as well as ways of eating, dressing, walking and sitting, that are designed to enhance the body. What the globalisation of fitness brings, then, are new bodywork technologies that add to this preexisting repertoire; novel ways of working on the body that promise to discriminately target the fat deemed undesirable, while accentuation the “good” one—an aspirational pursuit that has a long history.