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Monday, May 03, 2010

"Fat" Is Not a Dirty Word

Have you seen Joy Nash's "Fat Rant"? If you haven't, you should. It's funny, it's brilliant, and for the majority of the American public, it's crucially educational.



There are so many important things the beautiful and talented Joy Nash has to say here. But one of the most radical things I realized when I first saw her rant is that "fat" is not an insult. Well, not necessarily an insult. As used in our culture, it usually is an insult. But when used in a neutral way, it's simply a descriptive word, as Joy points out.

But most of my life, I think I've been afraid to use the word. What other word should I use? Describing people is part of life, and we call people "tall," "short," "skinny," "petite," etc. all the time. But for many people "fat" seems like an insult. What's a better word? "Overweight" probably seems more socially acceptable to some people, but it's terrible, implying that the person being described is the wrong weight. Would I rather be called "skinny" or "underweight"? Um, I'll take "skinny," thanks.

(I am, full disclosure, skinny by most people's measure, and have always been skinny except when I was a kid and was, objectively speaking, scrawny.)

Without a word that's not an inherent judgment ("overweight") or a patronizing euphemism ("plump"), it's hard to talk about body size in a way that's not charged with the fat phobia that runs rampant through our culture. I'm not saying I'm the enlightened one who is leading the way. Introducing Joy Nash's "Fat Rant" to my Gender Studies class today, I was struck by the fact that even though as a teacher I'm actively trying to promote body acceptance for people of all sizes (and as anyone who's suffered through adolescence can attest, feeling good about your body can be a challenge no matter where you fall on the body size spectrum), I still find myself at a loss for words sometimes in real life situations that involve talking about actual people's body size. I realized today that I don't use the word "fat" because it carries with it so much negative baggage. But is this a word that only fat people can use positively? I think if I actually used the word, it would help me to better live the values that I espouse, and to teach my kids to accept people's body size and not feel like they have the right to make assumptions about how people live based on their body size. I want to start using the word "fat" in a way that is free of judgment. But I'm still a little afraid to use it at all.

15 Comments:

Blogger DoctorMama said...

Great post. For us skinny folks, it's almost like trying to talk about race when you're white, isn't it? I have always felt myself in such an odd position: a skinny doctor who is passionate about fat acceptance. But ever since a patient read "obese" on her chart (upside down) I've been more comfortable saying "fat" -- depending on the patient's perceived comfort level.

It is bizarre how even though the majority of Americans are now padded beyond the "acceptable," fat discrimination is rampant. Are we becoming a nation of self-loathers?

(Another interesting phenomenon: I have had many women patients of color -- many colors -- who want to GAIN weight. Is this mainly a white issue?)

3:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay, here goes (anonymously...) - I weigh 199.5 lbs!

11:16 AM  
Blogger E. said...

I agree that it's a little akin to the race thing. And re: fat discrimination and self-loathing, Joy Nash has two sequels to the Fat Rant, and in the 3rd rant she points out that fat hating is the one form of bigotry where the victims tend to feel they deserve the abuse. (And she also offers some great comebacks for people who are victims of fat harassment, or any kind of harassment, for that matter. My favorite: "You might want to keep your voice down. Everyone's going to find out what an asshole you are.")

7:14 PM  
Blogger Feral Mom said...

Awesome post. It would be good for someone from the other team to weigh in (sorry) on skinny folks preaching fat acceptance, but I suspect the more of us talking body love the better.

I should qualify here that I am neither skinny nor fat, but "medium." My body, formerly skinny, is now a mystery to me, with its thin arms and legs, but fat tummy and butt. However, which parts do you think my kids want to playfully pat and snuggle up to? Not my arms. Here's to my tummy, pillow for five year olds. I don't look forward to it becoming object of derision of fifteen year olds.

9:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was also scrawny as a child and skinny thereafter. I have an older brother who loved to plague me, when we were children, by (among other things) referring to me as "skin and bones and ugliness." As a result of his teasing, it took me a long time, after I became an adult, to get over the feeling that "skinny" was a perjorative term and not to feel humiliated by it.

So I've thought it interesting, over the years, that many people have felt free to say things to me like, "Oh - you're so skinny!" when they would never ever dream of saying, "Oh - you're so fat!" to an overweight person.

Sometimes there's a need to describe a person's physical appearance, and when descriptors such as thin, fat, black, white, young, or old serve a purpose, let's go ahead and use them. Otherwise, maybe we (by which I mean the culture) should just quit commenting on each other's appearance.

Jessie (thin, white, and getting older)

7:17 PM  
Blogger E. said...

So, interestingly, when the class discussed this video, the students all really liked it, but a couple of the girls objected to Joy Nash referring to herself as "fat." "She's not fat - she looks great!" one of them said. And I asked what other words they would describe her body. They had some trouble coming up with a specific and accurate word, though one student suggested zaftig, which works. But we had a good discussion of why "fat" always implies something negative, and the potential for using the word in a neutral or even positive way. I'm still nervous about offending people by doing so, though, because of the whole fat/skinny issue...

12:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

E - I'm so glad someone like you is teaching "the kids." :O)

I understand your hesitation at using the word fat. As you note, it comes with so much baggage. Generally - and I'm not sure if this is the best practice or me being a generally avoidant person - but I steer clear of using personal characteristics in describing someone if I can. If I must point someone out in a crowd, for example, I will first try to say something like, "The man in the green jacket, standing by the tree." Personally, I don't mind what word people use to describe me: fat, overweight, plus-sized, larger - I'm happy if when people need to say it, they can say something at all, bonus points if they can do it without a note of irritation in their voice! As with so many things, tone is everything. I sometimes use fat to describe myself around my friends, if I think they "get it," but in public, I usually use the word "larger" if I need to say something. E.g., "The larger man in the green jacket." If I'm using it in reference to a woman, I will usually say "larger lady." I'm not 100% comfortable with what I feel is the kind of necessary addition of the word lady when describing a woman, but it does sound a little more gentle, and people really "get it." This method doesn't seem to have the baggage of some of the other words have and, importantly, it is true/honets and not problematically euphemistic.

Anyhow, that's my two cents… :O) Also, I want to shop at Ghetto Elegance!

- Other E from Seattle

2:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oops, that should read "honest" and not "honets."

Also, forgot to add: Many years ago, I got to see my medical chart, and the doctor had written that the patient was a "pleasant, excitable, obese young female." I think he thought I was a bit of a weirdo and not too bright, but I couldn't help but laugh. If I ever get around to penning my own blog, I'm thinking of using "Pleasant. Excitable. Obese." as my subtitle.

Other E from Seattle

2:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And... I just realized I said pretty much the same thing as Anonymous - Jessie!

Someday I'll learn to read all the comments before I post my own.

2:33 AM  
Blogger Feral Mom said...

I forgot to post my weight. 150 pounds, baby. Most of it in my badunkadonk and face.

3:19 PM  
Blogger E. said...

Yes, I agree with both Jessie and Seattle E. that ideally we'd spend less time thinking about each other's body size (and our own! that's probably even more important than the first).

And good for Feral Mom and the first Anonymous for coming out with their weight. It's just a number. How you feel and how you feel about yourself is a much more relevant indicator of health.

4:25 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

LOOOOOVED this post!!
Joy is fab. As were your words and all the comments herein.

I just this morning posted about having gotten "fatter and fatter and fatter" and I've been working hard at changing my opinion of myself in this state of increased weight. I'd rather have my old body back. And that, I think, is where the self-loathing comes into it for me. I went through a period of denial, e.g., "How did I get FAT? I haven't changed my lifestyle, so clearly there's nothing I can do about this." And have sort of moved through the stages of grief over the loss of a figure I somewhat approved of, but guess what? Even when I was a more acceptable (to myself) size, I never really thought I was thin enough. So now I'm focusing on appreciating the body I have--before it becomes a size or two BIGGER. I'd hate to look back and say, "Jeez, I wish I had appreciated myself as a size 12-to-14." I shudder at the thought. I really hope I've topped out. And pray to all the gods that anyone has ever believed in that I will never see the other side of 200.
(so much for my progressive attitude...but, hey, I have my goals!!)

Great conversation, ladies.

6:07 PM  
Blogger shampa said...

super star smile It's okay to be fat. So you're fat. Just be fat and shut up about it. When we lose twenty pounds... we may be losing the twenty best pounds we have! We may be losing the pounds that contain our genius, our humanity, our love and honesty.

2:09 AM  
Blogger shampa said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

2:14 AM  
Blogger insightful said...

Dentist santa monica “Fat,” claim these activists, is not a dirty word, and it should not be treated as such.

4:30 AM  

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