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Sexual body ideal among Zulu women: Continuity and change

Winnie Ogana
Vivian Besem Ojong


Among the Zulu in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal Province, overweight and obese women are generally  viewed in positive light. Favourable cultural associations of plump women range from beauty to fecundity,  physical wellbeing, affluence and happiness, among other positive attributes. Such notions are  still widely held among isiZulu speaking women in contemporary KwaZulu-Natal, despite overweight and obesity being implicated in public health disorders like diabetes, hypertension, cancer, coronary disease and strokes. This gender-based article interrogates changes in how Zulu women in particular view their sexuality in terms of their body weight, size and shape, against the backdrop of an individual’s image and identity. These concepts are  juxtaposed against the western ‘thin ideal’ of a sexually alluring female body. The article is based on an  ethnographic study in cultural anthropology conducted mainly among Durban based Zulu women either  studying or working at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. In South Africa the western thin ideal has heavy racial overtones for the majority of blacks, who are still shrouded by a minority white culture that continues to  dominate 17 years after the apartheid era ended. Whether for or against the contemporary western ‘thin ideal’, for the above women there is no escaping the cultural change currently mapping future trends. Current trends foretell an intertwined Zulu ethnicity of the past, but also contemporary aspirations spearheaded by women in the globalizing west.

Keywords: Sexuality, body, ideal, beauty, identity, individual, image, gender.