Years ago, a dear friend made a fat joke about me.
We were incredibly close then, as we are now, and had found ways to joke about our identities that brought us closer together. At that point, I had never described myself as fat: not to friends, family, myself. If the topic came up, my face would flush, I’d stammer out something about being “overweight” or “big” while a hot wave of blood rushed through my full cheeks, coloring my whole face. I would feel searing embarrassment for hours, sometimes days afterward. I’d come out as queer at fifteen — a surprise to friends & family — but still couldn’t muster the language to describe the body that everyone could see.
We were at work on the day my friend made the joke. At the end of a long day, he and I lugged dozens of heavy boxes up and down the stairs. On our last trip, I got impatient and tired, and opted instead for the elevator. “Elevator, huh?” He looked at me, his eyes lit up in the way they do when he’s ready to make a joke. “Is that why you’re… you know.…” He grinned, then stage whispered, “…large?”
There was a moment of silence, his face frozen in a grin, before I broke into a huge, cathartic laugh. It was such an absurd, stupid joke — that taking the elevator once was the difference between being fat and being thin — and it was exactly the kind of joke we’d make with each other about our other identities. In that moment, fat was a normal part of who I was — not the sole focus, not a secret to keep, not a fact to deny, not cause for an intervention. It was just one of the many identities and characteristics that made me who I was.
It was the first time that someone had talked to me about being fat in the way that they talked to me about anything else. It was normal, it could be joked about, and from that moment forward, it was part of our friendship. To this day, he jokes with me about my being fat. And I joke right back.
Rather than building a punchline built on rote cliches about fat people, it turned its focus outward, shining a light on the judgments leveled at fat people. Every time a fat person takes the stairs or the elevator, orders a salad or a sandwich, boards an airplane or a train, there is the opportunity for harsh judgment from someone. My friend wasn’t joking about me, he was joking about the absurdity of judging these tiny moments as an explanation for why I was fat, and the ridiculousness of others’ feeling of entitlement to know why I had the body I had.
It stood in stark relief from the furrowed brows, concerned faces, and “tough love” that so often face so many fat people. And it sharply contrasted with the shame-driven, moralizing culture around fatness that I experienced every day. It put the spotlight squarely on the absurd judgments that people of all sizes make when they see fat people. Fat jokes don’t work for everyone, and they certainly don’t work in every context. But for me, in that moment, it was the most exquisite, divine, cathartic moment of freedom.
Because it was, and is, true: I’m fat. I’ve been fat my whole adult life. Sometimes I’m less fat, sometimes more fat, but always fat.
Saying that makes people around me uncomfortable. Sometimes, the discomfort comes from other fat people, who feel the shame that fat people feel in a world that tells us we ought to. Often, it comes from people who aren’t fat, who remember deeply ingrained scripts about what it means to be fat (unlovable, slovenly, ugly, unintelligent), and that naming such a harsh truth would be impolite. They substitute other words, either euphemistic (plus size, fluffy, big girl, more to love) or medical (overweight, obese). I say fat.
I say fat to take back a heavily charged word. It’s a word that can be used with the sole intent to cause pain and harm — in street harassment, in arguments with loved ones, on TV, everywhere. For many women, fat is among the most hurtful things they can be called. Thin women often say they “feel fat” as a shorthand for feeling unattractive, rejected, ashamed. Fat — that one short word — has become the site of so much pain, both internalized and externally enforced. It comes with a long string of assumptions and insults, dragging noisily and clumsily along behind it like so many tin cans.
At the center of that cacophony of hurt is my body. Not an insult, not a feeling, not rhetoric: the body I live with every day. When friends say they “feel fat” or strangers call other strangers “fat” as a cutting insult, I feel it. I understand that for many, my body is the worst case scenario. Whether directed at me or not, the culture of talking about fat people derisively, dismissively, hurtfully — it all stays with me.
Yes, it can be hurtful to be called fat. It’s different to be fat.
For me, fat is a statement of fact. It is a description of the body I have. Fat is not a referendum on my morality, willpower, character, attractiveness, intellect or worthiness. It is a descriptor. It captures an important aspect of the way I look, like saying I’m a woman, I’m white, or I’m tall.
Calling myself fat describes my body, but it means so much more than that. When I say I’m fat, it takes power back. It’s hard to be hurt by someone calling me what I am. Living in a culture that seeks to treat, contain and eliminate fat people means that I can and will be at risk of all kinds of terrible treatment. But when I call myself fat, that doesn’t stay with me for quite so long. It cuts short that lengthy half-life of embarrassment and shame.
When those around me get uncomfortable or say “sweetie, no!” when I call myself fat, I don’t mind. As a fat person, there are little moments every day that wear away at you: the nurse that takes your blood pressure for the third time in a row, insisting that it can’t be right. Obese patients usually have high blood pressure. The patronizing good for you!s at the gym you go to every day. The unsolicited advice at the grocery store. Cantaloupe is so high in sugar. Have you tried grapefruit instead? Over time, these moments mount up, rain droplets turning to torrential downpours, slowly but surely eroding the topsoil, then the clay, then the bedrock of our senses of self.
When I call myself fat, and when I make jokes about my own fat body, I’ve got an umbrella, just for a few seconds. It gives me a momentary respite from that steady stream of judgment and harsh advice. It gives those around me a brief taste of that discomfort, leaving them to sit with the bizarre awkwardness that comes with these little moments when we judge one another’s bodies.
Many people — good, wonderful, thoughtful people — say harsh, judgmental things in the presence of fat friends and family every day. If you lost thirty pounds, you’d be a knockout. The dates would just start pouring in! It’s often unintentional, borne of a culture that expects that fat people internalize shame about our bodies. Comments and conversations that deride, erase, judge or punish fat people are predicated on the idea that we’re ashamed of being fat, so we won’t object to cruel remarks and thoughtless comments about who we are and what we need. Many of us have internalized that shame. Many of us don’t object. Neither do otherwise good-hearted, well-intentioned thin people. The more those conversations go unchallenged, the more loaded it becomes to interrupt them. And in turn, that one little word, three tiny letters, gets more and more charged.
Fat holds so much power over so many people. When I use it to describe myself, I take back a simple, small, important thing: the ability to name and own my experience.
When I talk about being fat, I take control of what that means. Instead of being forced into reductive conversations about weight loss and shame, I get to talk about my actual life. I can talk about the partners who’ve loved my fat body. The friends who understand and support me. The clothing that fits me. The people who shun me for having the body I have. The doctors who treat my fat body, and the ones who deny it. The way my body is seen as a reflection of my character, of public ills, of morality. And the disconnect between that and who I actually am.
Calling myself fat allows me to wrest my own experiences from the jaws of a powerful, pervasive narrative that says I ought to be ashamed of the body I have always had, the body I am learning to take care of, as we all are. It allows me to carve out a space to say that the treatment I receive isn’t deserved just for looking the way I look.
When I call myself fat, I feel a wave of relief, calm, strength and certainty. Like coming out as queer in high school, I have owned something that is undeniably true about who I am now, stating it as a simple fact.
We all have things that we wrestle with: parts of our identity that we can’t quite reconcile, that our families struggle to accept, that our friends and partners can’t quite respect. That struggle for acceptance — internal or external — keeps us cloistered, cold and isolated from embracing ourselves or fully engaging in our relationships. Over time, the cold sets in, sinking into our bones, and the isolation becomes a way of life.
When I call myself fat, I step into the sun. I feel the warmth rush over me. Suddenly, I can see myself — and be seen — for who I actually am, and the body I actually have. It is a moment of arrival to a sense of security and assurance in my body, and myself, that was out of reach for so long. It is a homecoming. I am home. I am fat.
Like this post? There are more like it, including A love letter from your fat friend and What happens when you call your fat friend beautiful.