'Fat Acceptance' In Latin America: Resisting Tyranny Of The Slim

Latin Americans call it the Movimiento Gordo, accepting weight differences as a way to resist a mass consensus typical of our time. One Argentine author offers her portrait.

Moreno helps lead movimento gordo in Argentina
Patricia Suárez

BUENOS AIRESLux Moreno is an Argentine philosopher, writer and activist of the so-called fat-acceptance movement. In Argentina, it is the Fat Movement (Movimiento Gordo), written this way to appropriate a word that is often used as an insult.

Born in 1986, Moreno has recently published her autobiographical Gorda vanidosa: Sobre la gordura en la era del espectáculo (Fat and Vain: Girth in the Age of Spectacle). She was a fat child who became an anorexic teenager, then an overweight adult until she resorted to gastric bypass surgery on a doctor's advice. "Nobody warns you that bariatric surgery to reduce weight is not magic, but a major intervention," she told Clarín. People are not informed, she says, that "it's not advisable for fertile women, that you could have menstrual bleeding or thrombosis the first month, that you must exercise five days a week. That you have a lifelong contract with taking vitamin and iron pills."

Few reading Gorda Vanidosa will fail to find common ground with Moreno. Who has not felt they had to lose weight at least once in their lives? Or the dread of having to pick a larger size in clothes or the approach of summer, knowing you're overweight? Clearly these fears pertain more to women than men, as their bodies are more likely to be commodified. Amid debates in Argentina on abortion, says Moreno, now "there's a possibility people will stop and question and think about the body they want to have. Or have some idea about the body itself."

It is now a "duty" to be thin.

The fat-acceptance movement first appeared in the late 1960s amid a wider struggle then for the rights of minorities, and had a resurgence in the 1980s and 90s. Today, eight years after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared obesity to be a global epidemic, we may need a new critique of what fatness means. Moreno describes in her book how the obesity epidemic was "fabricated." The first step was to impose the BMI (Body Mass Index, which gauges the relative proportions of body and height) as measuring index. This is "supposedly a universal measurement" that defines one's wellness regardless of "age, ethnicity, geographical origin or any other factor, and justifies all types of interventions," says Moreno. WHO, she adds, has also lowered its BMI limits on weight excess, immediately making half the world's population obese. The BMI has in the past 20 years been the basis of healthcare policies designed to eradicate weight excesses.

Moreno says it is now a "duty" to be thin according to a hegemonic medical model that transfers itself into "judgemental gazes." That then permeates fat people's views of themselves. Being thin is the norm, she says, so being overweight is abnormal. The "presentable" employee or candidate is never fat, she observes, while excess weight is perceived as related to such qualities as weak will power, inefficiency, ugliness. Even the rich and famous will find it hard to escape these social prejudices. She cites the British singer Adele, who has shed weight while ascending to international stardom.

Another group fighting fat persecution locally is AnyBody, which has pressured retailers to stock all sizes in shops. Its slogan was "Beauty Comes in All Sizes," though Moreno points out that Argentine laws on sizing are not being respected. She thinks the retail argument heard about the higher cost of creating clothes for bigger people is really "an excuse."

Moreno adds that surgery is a drastic measure that has overtaken dieting, thanks to the pressures of a "neoliberal world." The message, she says, is "there is no time to lose. "I don't have three years to diet and lose weight, I have to lose it now"."

In the Platonic tradition, she says, beauty is "unattainable... it is the ideal. Beauty is what is good and real." But today, she observes, beauty has become "a source of pain and illness: it is the dangling carrot we are all chasing."

Support Worldcrunch
We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!

Oui-Haw! American Country Music Has Global Appeal

Some might ask: Why is there such a thing as International Country Music Day? Turns out the American musical genre has pockets of popularity around the world, from twanging sounds in Japan to South Africa to line dancing in France.

Japanese cover of a Dolly Parton album

PARIS — To the rest of the world, there may be nothing more American than singers with acoustic guitars crooning about beer, trucks and Southern living. But the longstanding genre has had surprising relevance faraway countries. Academic papers have even been penned on why these cultural symbols — so specific to the Yankee experience — have such global appeal.

The examples abound of the traveling power of this popular music genre that blends folk, blues slavery-era spirituals and Southern gospel. One famous story recounts that during his time as a political prisoner, South Africa's Nelson Mandela was allowed to play one song over the loudspeakers. What tune did he pick? The Dolly Parton classic "Jolene," in which the Tennessee icon pleads with another woman not to take her man.

Tokyo Sexwale, a fellow freedom fighter in the cell next to Mandela, told the podcast "Dolly Parton's America" that the choice was somehow perfectly natural: "We are all human beings. The jailed and the jailer. But we all come from one country, but we all don't want to lose. Whether it's a man or your country, nobody wants to be hurt. Don't hurt me."

With this theme of art's ability to transcend geographic boundaries in mind (and to mark International Country Music Day, here's a swinging tour of country music's worldwide influence.

Africa: Classic Country Imports And Kenya's Own Elvis

Nigerian country music singer-songwriter Ogak Jay Oke — Photo: Mgbo
  • Back in 2007, NPR reported about the popularity of country music in Nairobi, Kenya — particularly Dolly Parton and Texan singer-songwriter Kenny Rogers, who received extensive television and radio play. Reporter Gwen Thompkins highlighted how, despite cultural differences, Kenyans found strength and a common ground in songs about agriculture-based economies facing societal and political challenges. As Henry Makhoka, the head of programming at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, told Thompkins: "Most of the country music we play talks about country life, talks about the farm life and so on. That kind of environment was abundantly available where I was born."
  • In fact, country music has been popular in Africa since the 1950s, with local artists across the continent interpreting the genre's musical and thematic elements (see Ivory Coast duo Jess Sah Bi & Peter One and Nigerian country-disco pioneer Emma Ogosi). Many harken back to country music's roots; the banjo was in fact an instrument brought to the Americas by African slaves.
  • Currently, one of the biggest country stars is Elvis Othieno (a.k.a. Sir Elvis), who grew up in a country music-loving household and was inspired by Garth Brooks and Hank Williams. Originally from Kenya, Sir Levis has performed around the world — he started his first country band while living in Norway — and is part of a generation of African country stars that also includes newcomers Esther Konkara and Ogak Jay Oke, who hails from Nigeria.

Asia: A John Denver Classic Hits Home

John Denver in 1975 — Photo: Wikimedia Commons
  • Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli is known for its rich depictions of Japanese culture and mythology, so it's somewhat surprising that the 1995 animated film Whisper of the Heart centers around a country song: John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads." Denver's ode to West Virginia is a unique fit in the coming of age story about the stress of urban life in Tokyo, but Studio Ghibli is far from the first to adapt "Country Roads" to a foreign audience.
  • The song has been covered by over 150 artists (from Olivia Newton-John to Hiwain singer Israel Kamakawiwo'ole) in at least 19 different languages, from Hindi to Greek to Hebrew, often changing the lyrics to be about the singer's homeland. Researchers in 2009 found that it was the most popular American song among college students in China. (Denver was in fact one of the first American artists to tour modern China in 1985 and his music was played widely on Armed Forces Radio in countries like Philippines, Korea and Vietnam where the U.S. had an important military presence.)
  • This ode to the Appalachian Mountains also has a special meaning for many who came to the U.S. searching for the American Dream. As Jason Jeong wrote in the Atlantic, many Asian-American immigrants see the song as both "an ode to an uncomplicated vision of the United States" and "a melancholic reminder of leaving a place they called home, and everything lost to the promise of a better life."

France: Translating Country Sounds — And Dance Moves

Linedancing in France — Photo: Country-France Facebook page
  • France, a country proud of both its language and cultural output, has a long history of rock stars pillaging country standards, often completely changing the songs' meanings: from American-French singer Joe Dassin changing "City of New Orleans" into "Salut les amoureux" ("Hello Lovers") to "Five Hundred Miles Away From Home" by Bobby Bare somehow becaming Richard Anthony's "J'entends siffler le train" ("I Hear the Train Whistle").
  • Whether it's creative liberty or cross-cultural miscommunication, this trend has been popular since the days of big '60s household names like Johnny Hallyday to Eddy Mitchell to Hugues Aufray. The result usually infuses the French ennui of the "everyday man" into these American classics.
  • Line dancing has also become somewhat of a phenomenon in France, with clubs around the country (especially in more rural areas) featuring dancers who dress the part in cowboy hats and boots. According to weekly news magazine L'Express, some 4 million people — nearly 9% of the French population over 18 — have tried country-style dances.

Support Worldcrunch
We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!