May 25, 2024

Reclaiming the word ‘fat’ is about reclaiming our bodies

I am at the airport security checkpoint when I hear a small and tender seedling of a voice behind me. “Look at that fat lady! ” I turn around, meet the bright eyes of a three-year-old, and smile.

Her mother’s face is stormy, voice sharp. “Don’t call her that. ” “It’s okay,” I offer. At 340 pounds, my size is undeniable. “She’s right. I am fat. ”

“No, she’s not. That’s not nice. ”

“Some people don’t like to be called fat, but I really don’t mind. ”

I look to the girl. “You’re right – I’m a fat lady,” I say, puffing up my cheeks.

The child smiles tentatively before her mother cuts in again, her angular voice coming out in jagged shards. “Don’t ever say that word. It’s a bad word, and I never want to hear you say it again, do you understand me? ”

The child bursts into tears. Her mother shoots me a serrated glance. She is a knife; I am her steel.

“Now look what you’ve done. ”

As a fat person, I have found this has become a regular feature of my life: trying to convince people who don’t wear plus sizes that I am not deeply wounded by the word fat.

Author Allie Rowbottom gives us a 35-year-old former influencer who is choosing a high-risk elective surgery to reverse her many plastic surgery procedures while also raising questions about the effects social media has on our perception of beauty, the cost of excessive self promotion, and whether the staggering amount of time and money spent to become Insta-perfect is ever worth it.

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When I refer to my own body as fat, I’m met with a knee-jerk, syrupy insistence that you’re not fat!

When children observe plainly that my body is fat, their straight-size parents reliably make a scene, sharply disciplining them, insisting fat means pain, and that fat bodies are not to be seen, discussed, observed, or embraced. In so doing, they redact fat bodies from their children’s worldview. And, even with the best of intentions, they create powerful sense memories for children who dare to say the unspeakable name of bodies like mine.

«The hurt doesn’t come in naming our bodies for what they are – it comes in the harm that is visited upon us for being visibly fat. «

I try, and almost uniformly fail, to convince thin people that I do not mind the word fat – that I strongly prefer it to kid-glove euphemisms like “curvy” or “fluffy” or stigmatizing medical terms like “obese. ”

When I talk to other very fat people, they often feel similarly. The hurt doesn’t come in naming our bodies for what they are – it comes in the harm that is visited upon us for being visibly fat. It comes from the street harassment, the pervasive medical discrimination, and the reliable silence of thin people when we are bullied.

Fat is a term that holds a great deal of power for a great number of people. It is hurled as a weapon, a ruthless mace tearing through too many of us. We respond with Pavlovian fear, overtaken by our own instincts to self-preserve. For some, being called fat just once is enough to trigger the onset or relapse of an eating disorder. For others, it leads to body dysmorphic disorder, in which the affected person obsesses endlessly over perceived flaws in their appearance, usually something minor or imperceptible to others.  For such a small word, the hurt it can cause is great.

In many thin folks’ imaginations, being called fat seems to be among the worst size-related experiences a person can have. But nearly all of us have been called fat at one point or another.

And for those of us who are undeniably fat, being called fat is just the beginning. We aren’t just called fat; we’re treated differently by individuals and institutions alike. Employers refuse to hire or promote us and frequently pay us less than our thin counterparts. Airlines won’t transport us, and other passengers happily scapegoat us for policies that already target us. Restaurants won’t seat us, and healthcare providers refuse to care for us.

“I don’t define myself by my fat body, but nearly everyone else seems to. ”

All of that discrimination happens, overwhelmingly, without any solidarity from the very thin people who object to the fat shaming of thin people. Theirs isn’t an objection in solidarity; it’s a defence of their privilege as thin people. And at the end of all that differential treatment, we’re told “You’re not fat; you’re beautiful! ” or “You’re not fat; you have fat! ” Our discrimination and harassment are sanctioned by thin people, who then insist we aren’t fat, quietly cleaving us from our own bodies.

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