Till the fat ladies sing…

Four singers celebrate their size

Till the fat ladies sing…

Pop heavyweights: the Qianjin girls in all their finery

Counting calories’ means something different in Mauritania. Despite government attempts to discourage the practice, as many as one in five women from the west African country deliberately overfeed, often on gallons of cow or camel milk, in hope of snaring an eligible husband.

Most nationalities prefer the slimmer look, of course. And, despite news that four young fat ladies have caused something of a stir on a nationwide pop tour, China is little different. In fact, health officials worry that the country may soon be facing an obesity epidemic.

The four women in question belong to the Qianjin Group (qian jin translates as 500 kilograms). This is close to their combined weight (500kg, incidentally, is roughly how much a Formula One car weighs).

The group has been performing at venues across the country and even managed a spot on national TV with talk show queen, Yang Lan (see WiC10). As far as the China Times is concerned, the ladies have steamrollered the critics with their stage presence and high-tempo dancing. Punchy (and practical) verse like “I’m fat and the bus is crowded, so I will absolutely not get on” has earned them audience attention.

The China Times says the singers are fighting against prejudice and discrimination. But, at the same time, obesity is on the rise at a national level. The newspaper puts it all down to “the market economy and Western civilisation”, and it is true that changing diets (meat as 8% of the diet in 1982 but hitting 25% twenty years later) and altered lifestyles (especially, urbanisation impacting on exercise levels) have seen the Chinese getting fatter.

The most recent major nutrition and health survey (2002) classified 14.7% of the population as overweight and 2.6% as obese. Compared to the US (nearly two thirds overweight and around a third obese) this doesn’t look too bad, even if it sums up to more than 200 million revenue opportunities for whoever owns the Chinese WeightWatchers.

But the number of Chinese bulking up is growing quickly, especially among the young. The 2002 survey saw excess weight and obesity amongst 7-18 year-olds increase by 28 times between 1985 and 2000.

This seems to be storing up health problems for the future, especially so when most Chinese don’t need to get quite as fat as your average Caucasian before the risk of diabetes or heart disease begins to kick in. Correspondingly, most official surveys use a lower Body Mass Index (BMI) score to classify Chinese levels of excess weight than most Western equivalents.

The Qianjin Group look unruffled by the statistics. Their most popular song – “I’m Fat, So What” – seems almost celebratory in its defiance of nutritional advice.

Behind the bravado, the reality is a little more conformist. The girls admit to feeling hurt when they hear shouts of “you’re so fat” during their concerts, for instance.

Two of the group also dream of becoming “elegant white-collar workers” in later life, somewhat contrary to the typical dream of your average American Idol contestant.

In fact, it turns out that all of the girls are trying their best to lose weight, and they all speak longingly of their hopes for a more slender future.

So it seems to be a case in which they would probably trade stardom for slimdom.

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