Fat-Shaming Culture & Why We Need to Reclaim the Word ‘Fat’

I was in Changi airport last week, waiting to check-in for my flight back to Jakarta. While queuing in line, this hunky guy came to me and said, “Hey, here’s my name card.” I was puzzled with that interaction, cos who in the world just randomly give out their name cards in airports? He continued on to say, “Yeah, I work for Herbalife. If you’re interested in losing weight fast, give me a call.” And then he walked away. I froze for a couple of seconds and thought to myself: What the fuck just happened? Did I just get fat-shamed?

I ranted about the incident on my Facebook feed, and most people agreed it was rude. Some tried to tell me that the guy had no malicious intent as he was just doing his job of promoting a product which had a specific target demographic, which I agree to some extent. But I still had the lingering feeling that it was impolite and inappropriate. The same kind of inappropriate if you see someone offer a dark-skinned person some whitening products just because they were dark-skinned. Just as it’s presumptuous to assume that said person is uncomfortable being dark-skinned and wants to be whiter, I think it’s equally presumptuous to assume a fat person dislikes their physique and wants to lose weight.

Oh yes, I used the word fat to describe myself. I am very much aware that I’m different physically: I’m fat. There shouldn’t be any shame in using the word, because it’s merely a descriptor. It describes a part of me, but it doesn’t and shouldn’t define who I am as a person. Sadly, many people don’t share my view. The majority of society considers the word ‘fat’ as something negatively charged, something unideal, and many use it as a form of insult. Almost every day growing up, I faced fat jokes and insults from all directions.

The biggest excuse people use to justify fat-shaming is that it’s an unhealthy lifestyle and people should pay more attention to their health. To which I would say: bullshit! Sure, I agree with all the science, that fat people are more prone to XYZ diseases and all that shiz. But the selective enforcement of this ‘healthy lifestyle’ mumbo jumbo is just hypocritical. People choose to subscribe to unhealthy lifestyles all the time, such as smoking, alcoholism, drug use, unprotected sex, being workaholic, etc — but you rarely see people calling out others on these choices, and even if you do, the level of hate is very pale in comparison to fat-shaming.

It’s just not nice to assume people are fat because they are bad people who is out to destroy themselves, lacking of self-love. Some people are born genetically obese. Some people, like myself, use food as an emotional outlet to cope with stress and it makes me very, very productive. Some others become fat because they just gave birth. Some become fat because of the side-effects of consuming morning after pills because abortion is illegal in where they live. There are so many reasons why people are fat, and it’s shameful that society gleefully jumps at every opportunity to shame others for being fat, disregarding the personal struggles people have. People enjoy fat-shaming for the personal satisfaction on not being fat, that they’re somehow morally superior to criticize how others choose to live their ‘lifestyles’ — and to me, that’s actually the morally reprehensible act we should condemn.

What makes it worse is that the culture of fat-shaming intrudes our lives through almost every medium imaginable. You see advertisements of health products subtly (sometimes explicitly even!) implying that being overweight is not ideal. You have pop culture TV shows like The Biggest Loser which sends an active message that being fat is a bad thing and the association of getting a reward by losing weight creates a conditioning in people’s head. You see many romantic comedies where the girl’s way of getting revenge on her ex is by losing weight and looking all sexy, making him regret his decision of breaking up with her. You have tabloids making an entire article dedicated to a celebrity’s increased weight and people referring it as them “letting go” of themselves. You have a rising trend of ‘no fats/no chubs’ sentiment growing in the gay community. Society is so habituated with fat-shaming that it becomes an inherent part of our lives: when you have a reunion with old friends, you talk about person X and how they’ve gained weight; when you’re about to attend a social event of particular importance, say, a prom, you starve yourself like crazy just so you can fit into that small dress everyone’s talking about; and the list goes on.

The word ‘fat’ is socially conditioned to be so negative, that people often err on the side of caution to use it in daily conversations. I recall someone telling me: “If a girl asks you if they look fat, always answer no. Answering otherwise is just asking for trouble.” So when a girl does ask if they’re fat, and when they’re told no they aren’t, they feel good about themselves, because phew, they don’t fit into a category that is deemed unattractive. Women in our societies are socially programmed to hate their bodies, that if they’re not a certain size, it reduces their self-worth.

What I also dislike is the development of alternative terms like plus-size, curvy, curvaceous, bootylicious, etc. While I acknowledge that the words try to serve a different meaning and bring a more positive light to fat-ness, it still reinforces the narrative that ‘fat’ is a bad word to use. What I dislike the most, however, is when I call myself ‘fat’, good friends would say, “Don’t say that! You’re beautiful/fabulous/fierce/insert other positive adjectives here!” — as if my being fat is mutually exclusive with being all of those other things. I am fat, in addition of being fierce and fabulous. I refuse to be defined as ‘I am fat, but in spite of that, I’m fierce and fabulous’, because the latter presumes fat to be a weakness, a flaw, a defect.

So when people ask me why I don’t work out or go on a diet, my answer is this: being fat is not just something I’m comfortable with, it’s also my political expression — that I reject to bow down to an oppressive social expectation to look a certain way, just to gain others’ approval; that I enjoy eating to gain happiness, where my sensory are the ones telling me what’s good for me and how I can be happy with it; that I’d rather live a short, happy life, rather than living a long, but less meaningful life. And that is why I choose to use the word fat to describe myself, because we need to reclaim the word, take away its negative charge, and normalize it.

So to my fellow friends out there:
If you’re still using the word fat to degrade someone, please stop.
If you’ve done so in the past to someone, apologize to them.
If you see or hear someone using the word fat to insult others, call them out on it and confront them on their ignorance.
Otherwise, you are complicit in cultivating an oppressive culture of fat-shaming and you are the reason why a lot of people out there are starving themselves to death, just so they don’t have to hear you call them fat anymore. Fat is not an insult and it never should be.