The reaction of former health minister Fuad Khan to a plus sized-woman highlighting body shaming in society and a positive body image does not bode well for national public policies which should be based on human rights.
Executive director of WINAD, Folade Mutota, made the statement after Candice Santana had to defend herself against Khan who called her a tub and told her to shut up via a Facebook video post.
On March 6, also on Facebook, Santana documented her experiences with fat shaming and discrimination as a masquerader in Lost Tribe's Taj on Carnival Monday and Tuesday. At the end of the post she stressed that she had to remind herself that she was a beautiful person “inside and out,” that she loved how she looked in her costumes, and expressed her appreciation for her positive self-esteem.
She also appeared on CNC3's Morning Brew programme to express her feelings on body-shaming, urged people to treat each other better, and encouraged women to believe they were beautiful despite insecurities. She also encouraged people not to judge others by their appearance whether by their shape, size, skin tone or more, but to realise that beauty was also internal.
On the show she said, “I am in no way endorsing an unhealthy lifestyle. I believe that we all need to be healthy. You need to have a balanced diet, you need to have regular exercise, etc. However, you do not know a person’s situation. You do not know if a person may be suffering from thyroid issues or maybe dealing with hormonal imbalance issues, etc. Even if a person is overweight and obese, it’s best to encourage them to lose weight in a sensible manner, respectfully, and of course, do it in a healthy way.”
Khan: I'm protecting children from obesity
However, in his video post on Friday, Khan took umbrage to it all saying she was promoting obesity in children with her message of “fat acceptance.” He said the issue was not about victimisation or fat-shaming but that almost 60 per cent of the population was obese and would suffer from non-communicable diseases (NCDs) when they got older. He said he was concerned about Type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, heart attack, respiratory problem, renal problems and other complications of obesity, in children.
“I don’t want my children in my country to suffer from such issues of obesity because people like you try to pull the victim system. Victim shaming? That’s not victim shaming. It’s the reality that y’all are too fat and you are forcing the fatness on the children of Trinidad and Tobago and the world. Because of the junk you eating. No self control.
"Exercise is minimal and you just use words like victimisation and fat shaming and fat society. Shut up and lose the weight or else you will suffer from serious non-communicable diseases as you get older... If you want to do yourself that stupidness, go ahead. Walk around the place like a tub but don’t let my children in Trinidad and Tobago, none of them, end up like tubs like you.”
Standing up for herself on Facebook, Santana reiterated that she was not endorsing an unhealthy lifestyle. She said she forgave Khan for his “harsh words” and reminded herself that she was beautiful. “I also remind myself that this is an opportunity to show love and not get caught up in any negativity.”
Mutota told Sunday Newsday she was not surprised by anything Khan said and that he was voicing the position of many people like himself.
She said the situation showed that some people in society were invisible to the country’s leaders which was why national public policy should be based on human rights. She said that was why there was no national gender policy and why a policy on sexual harassment in the workplace was only recently drawn up.
Mutota: Leaders' attitudes affect human rights
“If you do not see the value or understand the needs of a particular group of people, whether it’s plus sized people, non-binary people, gay and lesbian, people with disabilities, when you have to sit down to shape public policy you are not going to take them into account so our public policy would always be deficient because it is not a policy that is based on human rights.”
Mutota said it also highlighted the fact that people who were considered different faced a lot of discrimination from many members of society. “People who may have these challenges face discrimination and even when they make an attempt to raise awareness among the population about the challenges they have, they still face this kind of discrimination and abuse, even from people who are public officials and national leaders.”
Asked about his colleague’s response, former education minister, Dr Tim Gopeesingh said, “Dr Khan has a strong thinking on obesity. He speaks more strongly than I would speak but he has been the former minister of health and he realised we needed to do something about it.”
Gynaecological oncologist Dr Anthony Pottinger said he could “understand where Khan was coming from” as cancer shared risk factors with NCDs. However, he said not everyone wanted to change society’s body image profile to make “fat and fluffy” fashionable, and that Khan probably believed people were too lazy to exercise or they “wanted to eat any or everything.”
He noted that many people in TT had hormonal problems such as insulin resistance syndrome, and polycystic ovarian syndrome in women which made them put on weight. “You can’t get away from it. It comes back down to chronic exercise, you have to watch what you eat – a low glycemic index diet – and most of these people should be on medication to help them lose weight. At the end of the day, you can’t blame people and say all of them are lazy which is why they are obese. But people really need to take better care of themselves.”
Lecturer at the Institute of Gender and Development Studies Dr Angelique Nixon said policing people's bodies, and policing women's bodies in particular, is a problem. "A woman should be able to wear whatever she wants whenever she wants without harassment judgement, stigma or shame. I think we should be able to wear and dress and be however we want to be and take up as much space as we and that goes for everyone who wants to express gender (and sexuality) in whatever way," she said.
Mas designer: Healthy life is self love
Valmiki Maharaj, designer of Santana’s costume, said he heard about Khan’s video but did not see it so he could not comment on it.
However, he believed that the topics of self-confidence and self-respect were separate from that of obesity.
“One part of self-confidence is self-love and a part of self-love is taking care of yourself. No one is saying at all that anyone is encouraging people to be unhealthy. I think it’s quite the opposite. The solution to a healthy life is self love ... take care of yourself no matter what those measures may be, and love yourself enough to accept yourself at every stage of your life.”
He said he personally had been different sizes at different stages in his life but he always worked on his health by being active, taking vitamins, and visiting his doctor. He said if he was ten pounds heavier or lighter it did not affect how he felt about himself so he simply dressed for his body type.
Most of the people who responded to Khan’s post did not appreciate his comments while some, like Christine Le Gendre, thanked Khan for “keeping it real.”
Many pointed out that Santana was giving her personal experience rather than promoting an unhealthy lifestyle. They expressed their disappointment in him as a medical doctor noting that someone being slim did not mean they were healthy, and there were many medical reasons for someone to be overweight. Some also described him as insensitive and unprofessional, and criticised him for cyber bullying her.
Sunday Newsday was unable to reach Khan on his cellphone, and did not get any response to messages left on Santana's Facebook page.