Friday, August 6, 2010

Fat is an adjective, not an attack

Sara Ramirez, a beautiful fat woman with long black hair, walks confidently in a tight red dress. From Wikipedia.

Fat is just an adjective.

That’s it. It’s a word that describes, subjectively, a physical characteristic. Like big, or thick, or curvy, or beautiful.

It’s not an insult. It’s not definitive. It’s not an argument.

Yet so many people take it that way. To many readers, “fat” is a declaration of war.

When I wrote about Joan from Mad Men, people immediately criticized me, a size-14 woman who identifies as fat, for calling a size-14 woman fat. When Tasha Fierce described the lovely Sara Ramirez as fat, people immediately attacked her for her word choice. Fat is a word that gets people going; those three letters contain all of the sizism and prejudice that kyriarchy force-feeds women. Fat seems to erase any positive description - even if it's paired with beautiful or sexy, many readers will ignore it and focus on fat. If these readers don't see the noun attached to this particular adjective as disgusting or unattractive, it's wrong, and a personal affront. 

When I describe myself as fat to my friends, at first they go, “Don’t be silly, you’re not fat!” Because I am attractive, because I am curvy and my stomach appears flat when standing, because I am confident and carry myself with knowledge of my beauty, the attack that most hear when I say fat shouldn’t apply to me.

There’s a certain conception, that fat means one thing and not another. That fat means a certain size and shape that’s beyond bodies like mine. Snarky’s Machine articulated this in the comments at Tasha’s post above:
She has been targeted for her weight, and fat policing and shaming the author because Ms. Ramirez is not a size 20 + is really problematic. Also, isn't the idea of "fat enough" a bit anti-feminist and reductive. Fat is not a destination, it's a spectrum and includes people that other folks might not frame as "fat".Those of us at the chubby end of the spectrum are targeted because of our weight and often feel left out of conversations about fatness because of our "inbetweenie" status.
Now, bodies like mine experience lots of thin privilege. We’re able to see bodies like mine as beautiful, so they can’t experience that specific oppression. And we don’t, not some of it. I don’t experience the same discrimination that women who are bigger, like the author of Living ~400 Lbs, or Marianne Kirby of The Rotund. Though I’m no better or more beautiful than these women, I experience privilege that they do not.

But I do experience stigma and discrimination, and so do famous fat women. Christina Hendricks is stigmatized for being fat: discussion of her body takes up much of the conversation around her, crowding out her subtle and confident portrayal of a woman stuck in a bad place in a bad time. Sara Ramirez is stigmatized for being fat: it may bar her from being as big a star as she could be. America Ferrera is constantly expected to represent all other fat women. Sara Rue needs to lose weight to make it onto tabloid covers (and she's done it several times). These women bear extra weight of oppression and challenge specifically for their weight.

And of course these women usually won’t identify as fat. Fat is not an okay word, especially in Hollywood. But fat is still a word that I’m free to use, like pretty, like gorgeous, like beautiful. It describes bodies that are fat like mine, beautiful like mine.

The fact that they don’t actively identify with a specific adjective or phrase doesn’t mean that I am using it to attack them. Christina Hendricks might not identify as “stunning” but she is. Sara Ramirez might not actively say that she is incredibly gorgeous, but she is.

Fat is not an attack on these beautiful women. It’s an adjective. It’s a way to describe why I find the beauty of Joan Holloway to be powerful. It’s a way to tell others that fat is, actually, okay. It’s a way to take a word that you may see as disgusting and tell you that it’s actually not.

You don’t have to use that specific word to describe Christina Hendricks or Sara Ramirez or America Ferrera. That’s okay. It’s a subjective word, and I use it because it relates to my experience as a fat woman. You can describe women who aren’t small as big, or plus-size, or curvy, or whatever. Or you can not describe their body! That’s okay, too.

But I use fat, because I’m fat. I’m not using it as a descriptive knife: I’m not attacking their body, I’m not attacking my body, I’m not attacking your body. I’m just using a damn adjective.


  1. This was wonderful. One of the reasons I have walked away from the mainstream fat acceptance movement - though not the tenets of the movement, which are still very important to me - is I got tired of the fat policing and the silencing that happened if I mentioned my size. It's also why I don't actually publicly identify as fat anymore. Now, does that mean I'm unaware of my relative thin privilege? I am well aware of it because I actively work to ensure while I talking about my lived experiences as a fat person, I'm not silencing the voices of those who are more marginalized than I am. It is a balancing act, but again, at the end of the day, I also get have hateful fat focused slurs targeted at me and people who deny me medical treatment, but I also have more protection when those things DO happen, which is why I am nasty like whoa towards those who would seek to marginalize fatties even if the marginalization benefits me.

    Excellent post!

  2. THANK YOU. It's so fatphobic when people get defensive about calling someone fat. It's clear that they see "fat" as an insult and their objections are just masked in supposed concern that we're mistaking "healthy" for "fat". Which of course, infers that fat is not healthy.

  3. I agree on all points. I'm a size (hah) 12/14/16, but I also identify as fat. Now, granted, I also have a very skewed self-image which was forced on me as a little kid by my peers, from a time I was a totally average size up until adolescence as a size 20.

    Medicine changes made me lose a great deal of weight - I went down to a size 6 and then restabilized as a 14 - and more recently have lost a bit of weight due to not eating very much from busy-ness and lack of money - but through it all my self image has been as the fat girl with some very brief periods of respite. Sometimes that's more positive and sometimes that's more negative

    So I know my self image and my self-identification has some tie ins to the negative parts of my life and the policing of our society, as well as the way we use "fat" as the easiest way to attack other girls (and boys sometimes) from age 4 onward.

    That said, I hate that women can't hear fat as a descriptor. I use fat as a positive/neutral descriptor all the time and still have trouble hearing my girlfriend (a size 26+) use the term, even though with her it is rarely negative - we are both very happy with our bodies and don't really wish to diet.

    Side note:
    I'm glad we're pointing out a lot of the inbetweenies who are oft-discussed for their size in Hollywood, but how about some of the underrated fatter actresses? Example: Amber Riley (awesome as Mercedes on Glee), Nikki Blonsky (still don't know what I think about "Huge", but I do know she is pretty happy with herself and her body from everything I've read), etc.

  4. Great post, but it left me with one question: how do you define the adjective "fat"? Most people, when using the word as a pejorative, seem to be implying that the person's body in question is not "height/weight proportionate," but based on your description of why other people don't think you're "fat," all I can think is that the existence of body fat means "fat."

  5. @Snarkys and Tasha - thanks for the comments and RTS :)

    @Faye - great suggestions!

    @April - I would say that in terms of discussing celebrities, it's entirely subjective and relativistic. Fat is what you see and what you make of it.

  6. As a beneficiary of thin privilege, I've tried to avoid using the word "fat" because I didn't want to seem mean or nasty. My mother is fat and beautiful, but I would never describe her as "fat." "Heavy," maybe or "curvy." All these other words, but not "fat."

    I guess the fact that I haven't thought much about that before, about why the word "fat" makes me uncomfortable, why society has given it a negative connotation, just made me think twice about my own privilege.

    Thanks for the great post!

  7. @April -- I'd agree with RMJ that fat is a descriptor like any other word. One might not agree with it's accuracy to describe something, but they should respect the use of it...for example, some (WRONG) people might think my cat isn't cute, but they wouldn't be fundamentally offended by someone else's use of the word "cute" to describe him.

  8. I'm totally on board the "fat as a descriptor" train, but sometimes I worry about describing people as fat. I think I'm more comfortable letting them self identify first, just because there is so much hurt surrounding the word. I don't want to contribute to the hurt but I also want to help turn the word around. Sometimes there isn't enough time to disclaim "FAT IS A DESCRIPTOR!" because the "f word" usually causes quick offense most of the time.

    I write about owning the word, and I refer to my fat friends and my fat self as fat, but I understand the hesitation most people feel about self identifying. Perhaps my technique is to just keep self identifying until those I talk with understand how I use fat as a word? Perhaps I'll keep avoiding, and being vocal about avoiding, euphemisms - which to me are more hurtful and play into rigid notions of femininity (e.g: curvy, voluptuous... I'm a rectangular shape, where do I fit in!?) It's interesting to note that plus size retailers cling to "curvy" and "real", both words bothering me rather intensely. The former because as I mentioned, I'm shaped like a rectangle, and the latter because "real" is a hugely exclusionary word.

    It's a toughie inter-personally speaking, but when it comes back to activism I will use "fat" and when I do, you can be sure I'll have to spend extra time advocating for the "f word". But I will also exercise consideration and understanding if people prefer not to self identify.

  9. Since I have a sister who struggled with bulimia for years, I was sensitive to the f-word for a long while. But when I started seeing "fat" used as a deliberate means of self-identification, I thought of it in very different terms.

    Still, I wonder if using it outside of the proper circles will lead to misunderstandings like you describe in your post.

  10. I don't agree. Seriously, with the way feminists fall all over themselves to use politically correct language, why would you call people fat when they don't want to be called that.

    I don't care if it's just an adjective, it's still a loaded word that a LOT of people find hurtful. So if they don't want to be called fat, and if you have even the slightest inkling that they might find it hurtful, don't use it.

  11. @Syndella - the post isn't advocating for you to walk up to someone in direct conversation and say "hey, you're fat" and expect them to know you mean it in a good way. Or even "hey, you're fat and that's awesome."

    If someone doesn't want to self-identify as a particular word, that should be respected.

    However, what is being said here is that there is nothing wrong with being fat, or with the descriptor fat. You say "it is a very loaded word" but you don't question why it is a loaded word.

    It's societal prejudice against those who are fat, as well as the intent of people using that word, that gives it so much power against people. Waxing and waning fashion ideals, influenced by economics and politics, all have to do with this, as does business. Cosmetics, fashion, pharmaceuticals, plastic surgery and even magazines and photographers all make their money off of women having poor self images and buying their products. Now, more than ever before, we are marketed to in every aspect of our life. For decades "thin" has been fashionable in the West (though not always, and as I pointed out, not everywhere in the world) but "fat" has never been as universally denigrated as it is today. Why? Because it's PROFITABLE for us to hate ourselves. If we don't, we might actually stop buying diet shakes and "What Not To Eat" books, work out videos, watching TV programs about people losing weight, buying Vitamin Water Zero and Wii Fit and eating up every article about the obesity crisis until we crack and get gastric bypass surgery or liposection because we've decided we're incapable of looking good on our own.

    Of course "fat" is a loaded word. Of course bullies know exactly how to use it to make you feel terrible. It would be UNCAPITALIST to use it any other way and we're all fed it with our breakfast cereal.

    Whew. /rant.

    But to get back to the original point, the post does not seem to me to advocate (as some people have suggested) that we use the term about people who do not want it used about themselves. It is advocating or at least suggesting is that "fat" can be used as a neutral term that merely describes a body type or in some cases the part of the body itself. And that self-identifying that way is fine.

    The point is that "fat" doesn't have to have ANY connotation. You can be a fat beautiful person, a fat terrible person, a fat healthy person, a fat person in need of some exercise, a little fat, a lot fat. (Say it enough and it doesn't even mean anything. Fat fat fat.)

    The intent of someone's word is really the issue, not the word itself.

    (That said, if someone told me I was fat in a negative way I'd probably react much the same as if someone called me gay. "Um, yeah, I knew that already, good job.")

  12. I'm unsure how I feel about this post as a whole, so I'm going to try and break it down for you, as I did when talking to Faye.

    I agree, wholeheartedly, that fat is an adjective that can be used neutrally. It is a word that is in the process of being reclaimed by women of size who choose to call themselves fat, and proclaim with pride that they are fat and beautiful and that these things can coexist. I am happy to reclaim it. You are willing to use it in reference to yourself. And I see where you are coming from.

    However: I have trouble with calling other people fat because while I am comfortable using the word, it is still a highly stigmatized word used as hate language against a highly stigmatized group. It is, to me, not unlike calling someone you know to have once dated someone of the same sex "gay" without knowing that they identify as such. It isn't outing, so to speak, but it is disrespectful in the sense that you are defining another person without their consent.

    So to talk about actresses and musicians and models who proclaim that they are fat and happy about it in those terms, that's fine, but to call someone who has not self-identified as fat encroaches on their right to define their own bodies. In that sense, I have a huge problem because it is no longer about your right to reclaim that term, but about your feeling justified in applying it to other people.

    I hope that those two points make sense.

  13. I understand that you want to reclaim a hurtful word and make it back into a simple descriptor, but here is how I experienced the article.

    Right off the bat you named a size that you figure is fat. And it's size 14... that's my size. And now I'm having a f*cking head trip about whether I should be doing more to lose weight. :(

    I know that wasn't the intended result, but here I am. I guess all this time I've been lying to myself. I'm just another girl who says "oh, I'm not fat, I'm curvy". Well, I guess the bits that curve outwards - the bits that keep me from fitting a size 12 - are fat... Is this the road to acceptance? I don't know. I feel pretty rotten right now. I do feel called out. My size was named. Now how can I deny my shame? :(

  14. Jessica, I'm sorry that this was triggering for you.

    Society has made "fat" a very negative word, and it's hard to get that out of your head. However, RMJ, and all of us at Deeply Problematic - as you noted you realize - aren't using the word that way, and the article was posted for the express purpose of breaking that down.

    In this context, saying someone is fat, or has body fat, should not be any different than the word curvy.

    If you have anxieties about your size or the word "fat" I really hope that you come to some kind of peace with that and yourself. I know it took me a long time to start down that road, and yes it can be rough at first).

    You are beautiful and worthy and don't need to be stressing about weight loss.

    That said: it's internal pressures, and those of the world we live in -- not the wording of one article that is trying to combat that -- that makes you feel the way you do.


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