Dressing down sign of times

WHEN ANC MP Thandile Sunduza said yes to the dress that launched a social media shark attack against her a few weeks ago, I had just started an inventory of my winter wardrobe, which quite obviously needed padding up a size.

Weight has always been my personal bother but witnessing the full force of the world’s outlandish obsession with it has made me thankful for small miracles. Life is much easier lived anonymously: I’m not sure that I’d have handled such blistering criticism as graciously as Ms Sunduza did – or been able to pull off a yellow boob tube above-the-knee frock at the opening of parliament, no matter what I weighed.

If you missed the fashion event that sparked South Africa’s most heated, hateful online debate this year, I’m not very surprised. People who have better things to do wouldn’t have given their two cents about a topic that shouldn’t have been one at all.

But for those of us who still believe in a rainbow-sparkly world, where kindness is key, there was no option but to leap to this poor woman’s defence. Hell, someone had to – the boys were having a chauvinist insult fest. And the women were as bad, or worse.

What is it about beauty (or perceived lack of it) that makes humans so boorish? The lady – heavily pregnant – wore a bright dress deemed too tight for her voluptuous bod. When she sashayed down the red carpet, tongues went a-clicking within seconds – Sunduza was compared to various objects (ducks, fat caterpillars and lemons the nicer of the lot) and subjected to a stream of vitriol. As the Mail and Guardian’s Verashni Pillay said: “A pregnant woman made a bad fashion choice at the state of the nation address … and it signalled a free-for-all on her body.”

BethCooperWhy do they do it, these nasty types? Surely we’ve an infinite number of more interesting things to do than find depraved adjectives with which to desecrate a dress?

The answer, I think, lies not in what’s being said – but why. Peel away the layers behind an insult and you’re likely to find a fearful, growling beastie who has an axe to grind, but isn’t quite sure how to go about it.

The people who tore into Sunduza didn’t really care what colour or style she wore. She – like so many before her – became the unwitting symbol of other people’s issues. For the racist twits, she was a typical soft target, being a black woman in a position of power; for the fearmongering types, the dress and its wearer were super-sized into a symbol of government corruption (she’s plus-sized and able to afford designer threads).

And even we, the people who felt sorry for Sunduza, have cast her into metaphor: the Big Woman in all of us; the one who wasn’t afraid to clash with the media’s preference for skeletal beauty.

Freedom of speech is all very well, but as my friend and blogger Nadine Larter points out: having the right to say something doesn’t always make it okay or right to say it.

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