Since the debut of Big Brother Africa in South Africa in 2003, reality television shows have become a common feature on television stations across the continent. They have helped the development of a host of television stations in the wake of the democratisation of the airwaves in the 1990s. This paved the way for private individuals or entrepreneurs to own television stations, creating an environment of competition for viewership.
The phenomenon of reality television has not been without criticism.
Some scholars argue that the shows, particularly those that focus on obese individuals, objectify and - even worse - ridicule them for their body type and size. Other scholars on the continent, such as the famed Nobel prize winning author Wole Soyinka, are of the view that reality television shows offer nothing of value to Africans.
These criticisms haven't dampened demand or supply. Shows range from music to dance, cooking, weight loss as well as cultural education and promotion reality shows.
Shows like Young, Famous, & African, and Date my Family are among the most popular reality shows engaging Africans on the continent and globally. Examples in Ghana include Ghana's Most Beautiful, a reality show that showcases the cultural values of the 16 regions of Ghana.
Missing in the various debates about reality shows has been the views of the participants. We sought to fill this gap by engaging with participants in a dance reality show in Ghana called Di Asa (Just Dance). The show was designed exclusively for obese, low-income market women.
Our findings show that the women viewed their experiences as positive because they derived some benefit from participating in the show. They also had positive feelings about their size which they said they were using to their advantage with the help of family and friends.
The findings also indicate that television shows like Di Asa are not necessarily one-sided, seeking to exploit and shame the participants. They also challenge the notion that reality television is unAfrican, by demonstrating how family and friends supported participants targeting the ultimate prize in the show.
The Di Asa reality show was created in 2017 by a relatively small Ghanaian media company, Atinka Media Village. It is privately owned with a TV station, radio stations, and an online presence. Atinka Media Village targets the Twi (one of the country's major local languages) speaking population of Ghana.
The maiden edition began with auditions in markets around the country in which contestants were required to dance to earn their spot on the show.
What makes the show unique is the body size of the contestants. It only features obese women who compete for prizes based on their dancing ability.
The show became popular in a short period of time, winning the TV reality show of the year in 2017.
It is the first show in Ghana to feature plus size women.
In many African contexts, an overweight woman can be viewed favourably in terms of body size preference. However, there are limits beyond which a woman's body size becomes socially unacceptable. In Ghana, derogatory terms like "obolo" and "cargo" are used for individuals deemed to have crossed the limits of the "acceptable" body size. These words also carry the perception that plus size women are lazy and physically inactive.
The maiden edition of the show shocked Ghanaian viewers due to the unusual body sizes presented on television.
What we found
We drew on interviews with 19 of the final 20 participants in the very first season of Di Asa which run for 13 episodes.
The participants were aged between 20 and 59.
The goal of the show was to identify the best female dancer out of a group of obese dancers. Evictions were carried out weekly using public votes.
The prizes at stake were a car for the winner, a mini truck for the person coming second and a motorised tricycle for the third.
Most of the women we interviewed said they had found participating in the show beneficial in ways that went beyond winning the top three prizes.
First was the fact that they earned an income. All the participants received the equivalent of US$50 for each week they remained on the show. This was a substantial amount given that a petty trader at the market doesn't, on average, make that much.
The participants also received a range of products from the companies that sponsored the show. These included noodles, herbal energy drinks and cocoa products.
Most of the women said that they had become fitter due to their participation. The final set of participants had a trainer who worked with them routinely. They also had doctors discussing healthy eating options with them.
Financial management skills was another benefit from participation in the show. This was especially important given that most of the participants traded for a living and could parlay the lessons learnt from training sessions into growing and expanding their businesses.
Above all, the women became recognisable faces in their neighbourhoods and enjoyed the "celebrity" status that came with this. This boosted their self-esteem, something they all remarked on in the context of the body shaming that takes place in Ghana, including name calling.
Participating in the show also opened up new job opportunities. Some of the women were invited to dance at events for a fee, one had created a YouTube channel while others had been approached by advertising firms.
The owner of the TV station that sponsored the show also offered some employment opportunities in the pharmaceutical company he owned.
Given the advantages associated with participation in the show, friends and family members of the women were actively involved in their participation. In a number of cases women said they'd been alerted to the opportunity of participating in the show by family members or friends. Some went as far as to provide financial support to cover registration and participation.
In other cases family members and friends supported the women by campaigning for them and providing financial resources for people to vote for their contestant.
Our study shows that the participants of this particular show do not view it as a fat shaming exercise.
Rather, they saw it as providing them with opportunities such as making money and becoming celebrities that they otherwise would not have had. Hence the general support for auditioning and participation that they got from all and sundry.
Authors: Akosua Keseboa Darkwah - Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Ghana | Rashida Resario - Lecturer, Theatre Arts, University of Ghana