‘Fatvocate’ tackles body shaming through T-shirts

Driven by a quest to frame body positivity in a uniquely South African way, Zolisa Marawa has designed a clothing range that embraces the beauty of bigness.

Self-proclaimed fat advocate, or “fatvocate”, Zolisa Marawa has launched a clothing line to relay a message of body positivity in a language that speaks to township residents. After three years in development, 28-year-old Marawa from Port Elizabeth launched T-shirt brand Igwinya, which translates loosely from Xhosa as vetkoek or “fat cake”, balls of deep-fried bread.

“I was drawn to language and to how our worlds, whether rich or poor, are basically delineated by language. We have this snack culture, where everyone has a snack or wants to be regarded as ‘snackable’. I tried to think about what could represent fatness … and there came Igwinya,” he says.

Marawa has experienced different forms of body shaming his entire life. He has been policed in restaurants when enjoying meals, has been made to eat smaller portions or has not been able to fully enjoy his food because of people staring at him.

“I’ve struggled to find simple items in my size. Most of the clothes I own and love have been items made for me … [including] jeans, underwear, corporate wear and formal wear,” says Marawa.

27 January 2020: Zolisa Marawa, here in Port Elizabeth’s central business district, has experienced different forms of body shaming his entire life.

Body positive

Body positivity is a movement that advocates for the full acceptance and tolerance of all body types. It is against fat and skinny shaming, challenging both “fat” and “skinny” as unrealistic standards that are part of Eurocentric social constructs. These ideas of beauty swept through Africa during the early stages of colonisation, when African bodies were seen as exotic curiosities. Sarah Baartman, for instance, was enslaved and put on display naked in Europe.

The body positivity movement aims to change this colonial construct by changing people’s behaviour. In the United States, Grammy award-winning artists such as Lizzo are well-known advocates of the movement. In South Africa, activists like Marawa are now taking the movement to the streets of Port Elizabeth, using pop culture and language to change attitudes.

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Body shaming is the norm in the fashion industry and Africa has been consumed by Western ideas of what constitutes fashion, which plays out in the range of sizes available on shop rails. Lately though, a handful of mainstream retail stores such as Donna Claire, Edgars and Jet have started designing for plus-size people.

“I don’t think it would have been difficult to design, buy or stock the latest trendy fashion for plus sizes. I recall having to cancel hosting gigs due to not finding good enough outfits,” says Marawa.

27 January 2020: Igwinya caters for small to extra-large wearers and ‘people enjoy the humour and boldness of the brand’, says Zolisa Marawa.

Social good

With many young people dealing with depression and bullying, Marawa’s brand is about creating a positive mindset. It aims to influence society to allow plus-size people to love themselves as they are and eliminate the policing and body shaming Marawa experienced while growing up.

“The response to Igwinya has been amazing. People are ordering from all corners of the country. They are adopting the language as a symbol of desirability. People enjoy the humour and boldness of the brand,” Marawa says.

Igwinya caters for small to extra-large wearers. Pop culture influences how people interpret and understand social constructs, so he hopes that the brand will evolve into organising social events and dialogues around the body positivity movement. South African stores have yet to stock the T-shirt brand, for now clothing can be ordered through Instagram.

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