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The BBC's Greg Barrow
"Everyone is big and beautiful"
 real 56k

Tuesday, 21 November, 2000, 17:58 GMT
Soweto's battle of the bulge
South African women are divided on the question of weight
Weighty questions: what is the ideal of African beauty?
By Greg Barrow in Soweto

Thandiwe Rakale, now weighing in at 55 kg, lost 25 kg in 14 months.

She is the current slimmer of the year at the women's Weigh-less club of Soweto, whose members meet for weigh-ins at a local church.

Weigh-less slimmer of the year Thandiwe Rakale
"Thin is best!" : Thandiwe Rakale
In her sheer cut dress, and with her chiselled cheekbones, she represents everything her audience aspires to.

"I wanted to look good, I wanted to wear the clothes that project an elegant image, which I couldn't fit into," she says in an almost evangelical tone.

A poster for low-calorie soup is positioned next to another depicting the sacred heart of Jesus. For these women, losing weight has become an article of faith.

But not everyone in Soweto agrees that Thandiwe, and people like her, represent true African beauty.

Queen of curves

In a down-at-heel night club across town, contestants are limbering up for the Miss Fat South Africa competition 2000.

Now it's time that we show the world that we are big and beautiful!

Sumi Sekhuwe
Miss Fat South Africa contestant

This is a backlash against the trend towards losing weight.

The catwalk groans beneath the footsteps of contestants, who must weigh in at at least 80kg. Most have topped 100kg.

In stretched lycra shorts and t-shirts the size of small tents, they parade in front of a row of judges. Everyone is big, beautiful, and comfortable with their curvy bodies.

Here fatness is equated with traditional, African values. In the same way, thinness is associated with a Western of the body.

A contestant dances
A contestant for Miss Fat South Africa struts her stuff
"I can do anything anybody can do. I'm very proud of my body!" beams Sumi Sekhuwe, one of 20 contestants for the title of Miss Fat South Africa.

Contestants appear in sportswear, swimwear, and traditional dress.

In the battle to hold on to a culture of African-ness, these women are the queens.

Divided opinion

Not that this is likely to cut any ice with the women at the Weigh-less club.

"Thin is best!" says Thandiwe Rakale, who rejects any notion that fatness is closer to Africanness.

But Sumi is on a mission to show people that you do not have to be thin to get ahead.

"Young girls out there are hiding themselves. They say, oh, I'm fat, so I can't do anything.

"Now it's time that we show the world that we are big and beautiful!"

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See also:

20 Nov 00 | Africa
Hip hop 'comes home'
17 Apr 00 | Talking Point
Should models have to be thin?
07 May 98 | World
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