Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Why I use that word that I use: Fat

A speech bubble. Inside is a question mark in quotation marks.
The word fat holds a great deal of sway in the popular imagination. Everyone has a particular and often arbitrary standard for what fat means, where it begins and where it ends. In most cases, fat as an adjective is applied in an unambiguously negative way (e.g. "Mariah Carey got fat") , and denied in an unambiguously positive way ("what are you talking about? you're not fat at all, you're gorgeous!"). But as with the bodies it describes, "fat" is for my purposes value-neutral and relative: not necessarily good, not necessarily bad, and dependent on the context in which it exists.

Fat is an adjective used to describe size. Fat is measured by width or depth rather than height - I am fat because my hips are 47", not because my height is 5'11". Applied to humans, it usually means being large or upwards of the "normal" BMI. Applied to other nouns, it usually refers to abundance of mass. Its antonym is thin, referring to slightness is size. Fat is itself a noun; it is defined in this sense as a kind of bodily tissue.

Fat can be a positive word. It can denote a positive abundance: in health, in size, in finances (e.g. a fat wallet). Fat is often a sign of health; when I regained the weight I lost from anxiety (disability 2) and came back from thinness to fatness, it was a clear sign that both my body and mind were recovering from a severe and prolonged illness. In many bodies, fat is beautiful and attractive. Fatness is associated with fullness and a lack of want. Roundness, softness and other lovely textures are often associated with fat. The noun form of fat can be positive too: fatty tissue is essential to the human body.

Fat can be a negative word. In non-living nouns, it can refer to an overabundance borne of selfishness and greed - outside of bodies, there is such a thing as too big. It can also be negative in certain bodies, though not all of them: since I came back to my normal weight, I have slowly gained more weight because I've been overeating, overdrinking, and leading a sedentary life. Fat is not the cause of my lack of health, but in this case it is a symptom, a correlation. As Michelle of the Fat Nutritionist wrote, Health at every size ... does not mean that one individual can be healthy at every size."

Fat is a relative term. It changes based on intent, identity, and context. I am not read as fat in every situation - next to my fatter father, I look thin, but next to my thin mother, I look fat. Christina Hendricks and her alter ego Joan Holloway are likely not fat in a room of people who look like most of America, but relative to other actors, she is most definitely fat.

Fat is most often used as a slur, to insult an aspect of person's (usually a woman's) size and imply that their beauty and health are lesser. It can also cover a range of practices that discriminate against people of size: at the doctor's office, on the street, in the dressing room. When I am called fat as an insult, it is a form of discrimination, also known as sizism. Though such critics are not slandering me, they are attempting to devalue me based on my size.

As a fat person, I reject the definition of fat tainted by slurs, but not on the basis that I am not fat: instead, I reject that I am more lazy, less beautiful, less healthy, less worthwhile because I am fat. Its application as a slur is a demonizing misapplication by the arbitrary tastes and forces of the kyriarchy. Its sting makes it all the more powerful a word to apply to my own body with confidence and pride.

Fat is, as with everything, subjective. Its use is usually meant to communicate hatred, but that's not how I take it. Fat is an adjective, as neutral as red or blond, that has been perverted to mean something that it is not. But its application can and should be claimed for our own. In this space and in many other feminist blogs, fat is not necessarily anything: it's not necessarily unsightly, it's not necessarily unhealthy, and it's not necessarily the same for every body.


The use of fat as a positive descriptor is not a new one. As long as I've been even marginally active in online feminist discussion - close to ten years now - I've seen arguments for fat as a neutral to positive descriptor. This is not the first time I've written about fat as a neutral adjective, either.

Kate Harding, one of the most influential and widely-published women in the Fat Acceptance movement, put it like this:
[I]t’s important to me to reclaim the word “fat.” It’s not a bad word. It’s not intrinsically insulting. All it tells you is that this person has more visible fat on her frame than a thin person does — and since in my case, that’s the plain truth, I don’t have any problem with being described that way. I have a problem with people who would describe me that way with the intention to wound, but not with the word itself. I’m short, I’m blond, I’m pale, I’m hourglass-shaped, I’m fat. Some of those characteristics are more desirable in this society than others, but all any of those words tell you is what I look like. Not what I eat, not how much I exercise, not whether I’m healthy, not how strong my moral fiber is — hell, not even what my natural hair color is.
Tasha Fierce, writing for Bitch this summer, wrote about the place of the word in moving forward with fat acceptance:
“Fat” needs to be reclaimed and turned into a value-neutral descriptor, this is true. But “fat” is currently such a nebulous concept that it’s really going to take the elimination of euphemisms to describe it for it to coalesce into a firm identity, and we’re going to have to lay all our cards on the table when it comes to size privilege. We’re also going to have to convince fat people to call themselves fat, which in today’s fatphobic society is a somewhat scary thing when you’re not wholeheartedly dedicated to fat acceptance. We’re so used to defending ourselves from the word “fat” that euphemisms are comforting. Yet in order to move forward, we’ve got to face our fears.


  1. This is one of my all-time favorite articles. Thank you for posting it.

  2. This is SO beautiful. As someone who "does" words for a living and is deeply interested in language, this was the perfect essay for me on this subject.


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