As with previous series of Biggest Loser, the introductory episodes spend time introducing the audience with the contestants, familiarising us with the history of each and how they came to be on the show. My wife, who is a Zambian and relatively new to life in Australia, was amazed at how these people had suffered socially because of their size. In particular, she found it strange how obese people in Australia can have a rough time growing up, and even face difficulties in finding a partner as in Zambia, beauty is measured on larger scales.
In Zambia, big is beautiful. Generally speaking, the larger a person is, the more attractive that person becomes. This was great news to me as when I first met my wife, I was pretty big. In fact, after we started seeing each other, I had to return home to Australia for a few months for work, and with fresh motivation I thought it'd be a great time to lose a few kilos, so I did. Over a few months I worked hard and lost about 20kg, then returned to Zambia. Expecting to get a smile and an encouragement on how I had changed, I was surprised to find that both Sylvia and her family's initial reaction was worry, wondering if I was sick, or work was too stressful. Size is a sign of health, meaning that you are eating well, and looking good, whereas a lean figure or gaunt appearance often means quite the opposite.
Not only do our cultures differ concerning how size affects beauty, but our opinions on skin tone also contradict. In Australia, we spend time, money and even put health at risk bronzing up and darkening our skin. Generally speaking, in Australia tans are sexy, and every year millions spend their annual holidays down the beach sunning their bodies like a chicken on a rotisserie in the hope that we can return to work looking trim tanned and terrific. For sure, the immediate effect might be a healthy glow, but long term exposure would even turn Snow White into something more akin to a leather bag. We suffer to look good.
In Zambia, lighter skin is beautiful. Just as we put our health at risk, spending hours in the sun inviting sunburn and increasing our likelihood of skin cancer, throughout Africa, many skin lotions contain skin bleach, which lighten but also damage skin. Most bleaching solutions are high dose steroids and after long term bleaching, skin suffers tissue damage, significant thinning, redness and intense irritation, leading even to psoriasis, eczema and increased chances of skin cancer.
So really what is beauty? Listening to stories from the Biggest Loser, its apparent that the consequences for not measuring up to societies expectations can be devastating on self esteem and our expectations on future happiness, so I figure its a question worth asking.
There's a lot of written material and research out there, concerning the philosophy of beauty and how we assess attractiveness, however based on my wife's reactions and a simplistic contrast between cultures, it could be said that similarities exist between what we find beautiful, and minorities within our social environments. Many of our expectations surrounding beauty are formed based upon qualities that are rare, or difficult to achieve, rather than a flat, unchanging criteria.
Taking a simplistic approach, in Australia, we have a varied and abundant supply of food. We have a culture that sees food as an entertainment as much as a necessity, and so many of our social engagements involve, or revolve around food. We have easy access to transport and tools which take much of the hard work out of daily chores and living, and as a result, its harder to keep weight off as it requires a concerted effort (i.e. going to the gym) to do so.
In Zambia, there are less transport and tooling options, and so life incorporates much more of a physical approach. This combined with a more pragmatic than entertaining outlook on food, and a less varied diet, makes it harder to gain weight than to lose it, and so opinion is swayed to a more heavy set ideal of beauty.
So I figure next time you feel a little low about how your looking and wondering if you can be bothered doing anything about it, its all good… its probably just time to move!
The Song of Solomon 4 verse 11: "Thy lips, O my spouse, drop as a honeycomb: honey and milk are under thy tongue"
Ben Kitzelman has spent the last 4 years travelling between Australia and Zambia, serving for one as a missionary, and is now an IT professional in Melbourne.
Ben Kitzelman's archive of article may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/ben-kitzelmen.html