Monday, January 4, 2010

Lots of Bad Pounds in Gambia

I wrote recently about the women of Gambia and the value that culture places on a more rounded and heavier figure. In the comments, ONE of THE GUYS, although agreeing about issues to do with body image, quite rightly called me out for not addressing the issue of obesity.

That made me wonder about health issues and obesity in Gambia. It seems that problems with obesity are very much a concern in Gambia ("Obesity Amidst Poverty"). With growing urbanization and more people sending money home to their rural families, people are eating less healthful food and more high-fat processed oils. Obesity is one side of the coin in sub-Saharan Africa; the other side is starvation - too much of a bad thing or not enough of anything at all.

The obesity rates for women in Gambia are much, much higher than those for men - 36% versus 2% - because women are closer to food and its preparation and because heavier women are more valued by men.

I did wonder while writing the post on positive body image in Gambia if Gambian culture might not be similar to that of its neighbour Mauritania. In Mauritania, they have only recently (mostly) stopped the practice of force-feeding girls to make them attractive marriage partners. In much of sub-Saharan Africa it is quite common to value fat women, especially kings' wives.

Gambians face the same threats to their health as anyone else and for similar reasons - processed food, fast food, increase in labour-saving devices - and are getting fatter just as North Americans have done (and continue to do) having created and engaged with such changes earlier on.

Fat Africans and fat North Americans have much in common - too many calories, too little exercise, and too few nutrients in the food.

These issues are extremely complex - optimum weight, quality and availability of food, anorexia, body image. Throw in whole industries that want to "improve" women with their abundant product lines and become wildly successful by holding up ideals that no one can achieve.

 But imagine not being bombarded with images of anorexic females as the cultural ideal and not having thousands of girls and women becoming anorexic in the process. Of course the flip side is that the body image I'd love to love brings with it multiple health concerns.
So, I stand corrected, but damn it was such a satisfying fiction.

(the photos are from the article "Obesity amidst Poverty")


Pearl said...

to complicate matters more, obesity isn't always unhealthy.

some bodies naturally stabilize higher, some lower. some people can't gain weight no matter how much fat in diet or inactivity. some are obese but good heart health and can bench press impressively.

you've already seen this?

ChrisJ said...

You're quite right; it gets more and more complicated. Fitness seems a better indicator. The more I think about all this, the more it could be a book (probably has already.).

I will check out the site. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating post Chris! I was not aware of the extent of the obesity and poverty link in Africa. Thank you for teaching me something new today.

Given the very strong correlation between new chemistries in food and their effects on the human body, it's really alarming to me that we (those of us in the regulatory world) spend so much time focused on controversies over lead in electronics and so little energy concentrated on ensuring the safety and quality of the "chemicals" we use to mass produce ingredients in our food sources.

ChrisJ said...


I had no idea of the link either. I totally agree about chemicals in food - it's quite scary.

Anonymous said...

A man travels the world over in search of what he needs, and returns home to find it.