“What can be political about bodies?”

What does the body have to do with politics? Professor Louise Vincent of the Department of Political and International Studies tackled the tacit assumptions which lie at the heart of the debate on embodiment and identity in her recent Inaugural Lecture.

While carrying out research on equity criteria, Professor Vincent was made aware again and again of the existence of tacit assumptions, based on factors such as race, disability and size. She took the opportunity of her Inaugural Lecture address the question “What can be political about bodies?”

To talk about the politics of the body is to invert the body politic, the state or society imagined as a human body with different parts symbolising different functions of a state. The body is itself, she explains, a politically inscribed entity.

Its physiology is shaped by histories and practices of containment and control. Professor Vincent undertook, in her lecture, to collapse the personal and political; the body is, she stated, located in culture and politics as much as it is in nature.

Politics is about power; the term body politics refers to how the powers of society regulate the human body, and how bodies of different kinds are interpreted. Individuals and movements engage in body politics when they seek to negotiate the effects of power on those denied the right to control and interpret the meaning of their own bodies.

The Inhabitants of certain types of bodies are regarded as inferior; slimness for instance stands for goodness and moral rectitude while fatness stands for greed and immorality. Professor Vincent sees this division as analogous to racist typologies of human worth. BMI measurements, ultrasound and fat-measuring callipers are tools utilised in the same way as those once used to classify humans into type based on race.

How, Professor Vincent asks, is the ‘average weight’ calculated, when media reports claim that 75% of SA women ’overweight’? Fat is described in the media as a “ticking timebomb” and the hyperbolic use of such terms presents the fat body as a threat to social order, as socially dysfunctional, legitimising social practices and policies such as the public weighing of children at government schools and the shaming of fat children.

In South African media reporting on the purported ‘obesity crises’ the bodies of children and black people have particularly been singled out for attention. This focus of media attention, says Professor Vincent, can be at least partly understood in the context of a search for new markets on the part of the multibillion rand health, fitness and nutrition industry which sees future growth potential in children and the black middle class.

Yet, almost half of all child deaths in Africa are due in insufficient food intake, not obesity, and yet obesity is presented as a crisis. Where are the outcries for malnourished children? Diseases of poverty are not focused on by the media – the people affected have no money and cannot fund the institutions which cry crisis.

While there is some competition for the title of Africa’s biggest health challenge – malaria, HIV, the fact that over 35 per cent of children in sub Saharan Africa are not being vaccinated – Professor Vincent argued that one thing we know for sure even if the media does not – is that obesity is not a contender for the title.

Almost half of all child deaths in Africa are caused by inadequate food and inadequate food is the underlying cause of many diseases, yet approaches to tackling these immanently preventable health calamities are disjointed and uncoordinated.

While obesity is a catastrophe, a crisis, a threat requiring our urgent and committed attention, we seldom see ourselves as needing to wage a war on the malnourishment of poor children. The fact that there are far greater health risks and negative life outcomes associated with being too thin than being too fat is not a truth we are able easily to stomach.

While the diseases of the wealthier sections of the population face pale into insignificance compared with the diseases of poverty the poor are not in the business of paying for health. The experiences of a small layer of society – kids who are driven in cars to school, for example – are treated as if they are reflective of the lifestyles of all South Africans while the experiences of poverty and malnutrition are largely ignored.

The voices of powerful social interests that fund research and develop partnerships with significant social institutions are amplified in the construction of what does and does not count as a social crisis. And what, Professor Vincent asks, is not political about that?

By Jeannie McKeown