Is big really beautiful?

More Kenyan women are becoming overweight, at risk of disease

In Summary

• Trend is blamed on family planning pills, fast food and women eating as they cook

• The problem is many end up overweight or obese, risking diabetes and heart disease

A competitor prepares to go in front of judges at a casting call for the second season of the reality television programme ''Dance Your Ass Off'', during which overweight or obese contestants hope to lose weight by dancing, in New York December 18, 2009. /REUTERS
A competitor prepares to go in front of judges at a casting call for the second season of the reality television programme ''Dance Your Ass Off'', during which overweight or obese contestants hope to lose weight by dancing, in New York December 18, 2009. /REUTERS

You wouldn’t want a steak that was nothing but bone, why would you want a woman that was?” that is one of the ‘body positive’ quotes on a page for plus-size women on Facebook.

We could talk about the inappropriateness of comparing women to a piece of meat, but that’s a whole other conversation. Instead, we can focus on how the glorification of being ‘big and beautiful’ could be contributing to the worrying statistics that show about 38.4 per cent of Kenyan women are either overweight or obese.

WHO describes overweight and obesity as the excessive accumulation of fat that may impair health. A report released in November last year found Kenyan women are the ninth most overweight in Africa after those from Swaziland, Lesotho, Gabon, Ghana, Mauritania, Comoros, Zimbabwe and Sao Tome.

The report used data from national surveys of 47 countries, and the research involved women aged 18-49. The range was from 5.7 per cent in Ethiopia to 50.6 per cent in Swaziland, Kenya’s being 32.8 per cent. That means one in three adult women are overweight.

On the other hand, more men are malnourished. Twice as many women aged 15-69 compared to men

( 17.5 per cent) were either overweight or obese, according to the Ministry of Health review.



Gladys Mugambi, who heads the nutrition and dietetics unit at the Health ministry, attributed weight gain to use of family planning pills, rise in accessibility to fast food joints as people’s economic status improves, and that women tend to eat food as they cook.

But what’s wrong with being overweight? What’s the harm in a group of plus-size women who love their bodies coming together and celebrating their curves through a Facebook page?

The problem is many plus-size women are more often than not overweight or worse still, obese. And what does that portend for their health? WHO cites obesity as a risk factor for noncommunicable diseases, including diabetes and heart disease.



While some women are aware of the risk of being overweight and work towards shedding the extra kilos, there is a group of women who work towards gaining weight (in the right places) because it is seen as attractive.

Scroll through Instagram and you might be surprised at the number of women posting their voluptuous bodies with the hashtag ‘thicker than a snicker’ or ‘thick thighs save lives’ — never mind that they might be overweight and at risk of disease.

Pop culture has glorified the bodies of socialites such as Vera Sidika and Huddah Monroe as the ideal. Further afield, women such as rapper Nicki Minaj and socialite-turned-businesswoman Kim Kardashian are seen as having bodies worth aspiring to. They are said to have undergone surgery to get the big ‘bubble’ behinds, and some young women are now following in their footsteps in pursuit of that type of body.

It is for this reason that there are hundreds if not thousands of YouTube exercise videos on ‘how to grow your booty’ and make your waist smaller to give the perfect hourglass shape.

Sellers of waist trainers, bottom and bust enhancers are also cashing in on the desire to attain the ‘ideal figure’.

In the traditional African setting, big women with wide, ‘child-bearing’ hips were seen as having the ideal body, and this trend has made a comeback in a bigger way, with women turning to creams and cosmetic procedures to attain it.



We talked to women and men on their thoughts about the plus-size movement, body shaming and the voluptuous body ideal.

Oscar Buyu says, “Voluptuous women are attractive and I don’t mind whether a woman exercised to get a good figure or used pills, as long as she looks good. I think women feel pressure when they see the kind of women referred to as beautiful — the Vera Sidikas and the like with big derrieres — so we cannot blame them if they want to look like that.”

Sarah Wangui says, “I gained a lot of weight when I started using contraceptive pills and my face got breakouts. Some of my friends would tell me to stop letting myself go and stop overeating, but I kept telling them it was the pills. It’s wrong to judge a woman who is overweight and label her lazy because you don’t know why she has gained weight.”

In a previous interview with the Star, plus-size fashion designer Naomi Ng’ang’a said women should love the body they are in. She is not shy about showing her body and is proud to be plus-sized. On body shamers, Naomi said, “There will always be people who celebrate you and others who hate on you. I am never affected by people who post negative things about my weight on social media. Those are just idlers and they mean nothing to me. I focus on the positive comments.”


That being said, Naomi said she does not advocate for women letting themselves go. “You can be plus-size but you should never let yourself go. Make sure you eat healthy and work out so that even with your curves, you do not put yourself at risk for diseases such as diabetes.”

Wilfred Nyamai says it is wrong for people to dismiss people who tell overweight people to lose weight. “This plus-size movement is a lie. How can people be cheering people who are overweight, yet they not only look unattractive, but they are putting their health at risk when carrying around all that weight? Plus-size is just a ‘polite’ way of saying fat. Fat shaming is just telling a fat person the truth — that they are fat — so why should I be trolled for saying the truth? The fact of the matter is there is no such thing as fatness being hereditary. It’s just down to lack of effort in cutting weight.”

Wanjiru Mugo says, “Women should love — or at least accept — the body they have. If you don’t like the way you look, you can hit the gym to tone or cut a little, but women should not feel pressure to conform to an ‘ideal’ shape or weight.”

Nancy Ayimba says, “The problem is some women want to have a certain type of body and not all that comes with it. There is no way a woman will have a big behind and no hint of some cellulite, because any body part that is big is simply fat. So when you see socialites claiming not to have done any cosmetic work and they have huge busts and behinds with no sight of cellulite, I think it’s a lie. There are some who do have a naturally curvy body, but they will go on Instagram and put a thousand and one filters. Then some young girl out there will hate herself because she has a little cellulite. Let’s just be honest instead of giving an illusion of perfection.”

Well, it looks like the jury’s still out on the ideal size, shape and whether cosmetic enhancement is a good or bad thing.



What qualifies for one to be overweight? While obesity might be obvious to see, there are many overweight people who do not know they are because they do not necessarily look it.

According to WHO, body mass index (BMI) is a tool used to determine whether one is overweight. It is an index of weight-for-height and is defined as a person’s weight in kilogrammes divided by the square of his height in metres (kg/m2 ).

For adults, overweight is a BMI greater than or equal to 25; and obesity is a BMI greater than or equal to 30.

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