“Obesity” and the Public: An analysis of the public communication of obesity science in South Africa and its implications on the health and happiness of Black women

“Obesity” research has gained momentum globally since the 1970s when the term “body mass index” was coined, with Western countries such as the US leading the initial knowledge production on the subject. The meteoric rise and popularity of science focussed on the pathologisation of fat people in the West are documented, and the implications are also well studied, not only through the paradigms of biomedical science but critical social sciences as well. Similarly, South Africa’s “obesity” research has grown over the past two decades. Much of the scientific literature, and the subsequent media coverage and public advocacy and policy, emphasise Black women’s higher levels and/or risks of “obesity” compared to other groups. Motivated by critical race theory, Black feminist thought and decoloniality, Pilane’s PhD research investigates the trends in “obesity” research in South Africa and gives a historical account. Using archival, bibliometric and media discourse data analyses, Pilane investigates the relationship between “obesity” science, mass media and public policy texts and how these three powerful social actors and their discursive narratives and normative ideological constructions are formed. In determining the framing, messaging, and themes of the “obesity” discourse—in relation to race, gender and intersectional experiences of oppression, global and local dynamics—in these three inter-connected texts and fields, her research will share insights on how these representations could be harmful to fat people, particularly Black women through the moralising and pathologising of our bodies.

Note: The annotations in the use of terms such as “obese”, “obesity”, “obesity epidemic” and “overweight” are deliberate. Following in the footsteps of Fat Studies scholars, I use the inverted commas to signify the “constructed and contested” status of these stigmatising terms (O’Hara and Taylor, 2018; Previte and Gurrieri, 2015; Williams and Annandale, 2019). I do not use these terms uncritically. Instead, I use them for the benefit and understanding of the reader. Additionally, the term “fat” is used as a neutral descriptor which fat people, like myself, have reclaimed. 

PhD Researcher: Pontsho Pilane | PhD Supervisor: Prof Mehita Iqani