Who’s hurt by being called “fat”?
Conventional wisdom says it’s mean to call plus size people fat. But who does “fat” really hurt?
I am at the airport security checkpoint when I hear a small and tender seedling of a voice behind me. “Look at that fat lady!”
I turn around, meet the bright eyes of a three-year-old, and smile. Her mother’s face is stormy, voice sharp. “Don’t call her that.”
“It’s okay,” I offer. At 340 pounds, my size is undeniable. “She’s right. I am fat.”
“No, she’s not. That’s not nice.”
“Some people don’t like to be called fat, but I really don’t mind.” I look to the girl. “You’re right — I’m a fat lady,” I say, puffing up my cheeks.
The child smiles tentatively before her mother cuts in again, her angular voice coming out in jagged shards. “Don’t ever say that word. It’s a bad word, and I never want to hear you say it again, do you understand me?”
The child bursts into tears. Her mother, all sharp edges, shoots me a serrated glance. She is a knife and I am her steel.
“Now look what you’ve done.”
As a fat person, this has become a regular feature of my life: trying to convince straight size people — that is, people who don’t wear plus sizes — that I am not deeply wounded by the word fat.
When I refer to my own body as fat, I’m met with a knee-jerk, syrupy, “Sweetie, no! You’re not fat!” When children observe plainly that my body is fat, their straight size parents reliably make a scene, sharply disciplining their children, insisting fat means pain, and that fat bodies are not to be seen, discussed, observed, embraced. Their children’s sense memories of daring to say the unspeakable word are always imbued with deep embarrassment, confusion, and sometimes humiliation.
I regularly try, and almost uniformly fail, to convince thin people that I do not mind the word fat, and that I strongly prefer it to kid gloves euphemisms like curvy or fluffy, and to medical terms like obese that make me a whetstone once again.
I am fat, yes, and I am also tall, blonde, 34 years old. These are simple facts of my body, none more insulting to me than another. But what I call my body does not seem to matter to the majority of straight size people I meet. They cannot seem to stand the thought that I describe myself as fat, so they run between my body and the word that describes it like a bodyguard taking a bullet.
When I talk to people who are my size, though, they often feel similarly. The hurt doesn’t come in naming our bodies for what they are, it comes in the harm that is visited upon us for being visibly fat. It comes from the street harassment, the fatcalling, the pervasive medical discrimination, and the everyday silence of thin people when we are bullied.
But when I talk to thin people about the word fat, I find myself an unwitting archaeologist, excavating deep histories of fear and hurt, frozen in amber. The fat people I know don’t mind being called fat, in large part because we are — what’s the use in denying that? But straight size people are disproportionately mortified, unable to neutralize one of the harshest words they can fathom.
For those straight size people so deeply wounded, the pain of being called fat seems to lie in its inaccuracy. I am fat’s target; they are its collateral damage.
Most of us have been called ‘fat’ at one point or another.
Sometimes it’s said with malice. Sometimes contempt. At other times, it drips with pity or sags with emotion. But whoever we are, being called fat is often a feature of our lives — especially if we are women.
For the most part, I am not called fat as an insult by other fat people. I am called fat pig by a thin server under her breath at a buffet, even before eating. I am called huge f***ing heifer by a muscular man leering out his car window. I am called fat c*** by men I reject. And I am called fat b**** by a middle aged woman shouting at me on the street. These moments strike me sometimes as laughable, other times as cutting. Either way, these moments pass.
Thin people are often surprised to learn that those are not the instances that hurt me. The moments that hurt most are when thin people use euphemisms while they harm me. A physician assistant says we don’t usually have such sturdy patients when she tells me she doesn’t have a blood pressure cuff that will fit my arm. Unprompted, a stranger at a bus stop tells me don’t worry, a lot of men like a curvy girl. In a waiting room, a woman whispers to me that big girls shouldn’t wear belts. They look disgusting. These are reminders of my place in the world: always impossibly fat, always an outlier, always on the edges. And the reminders so often come from the very people who place me there.
This, then, is what thin people are afraid of: not a changing body, but a subjugation to the thin person they once were — a thin person who passed judgments on fat people, or who let others’ judgments go uninterrogated and uninterrupted. The fear of becoming fat, as Michelle Alison has noted, is a fear of mortality. But the fear of being fat is the fear of joining an underclass that you have so readily dismissed, looked down on, looked past, or found yourself grateful not to be a part of.
The fear of being fat isn’t a fear of a body type. It’s a fear of what thin people have so long attached to fatness. The fear of being fat is a fear of being slothful, gluttonous, greedy, unambitious, unwanted, and, worst of all, unlovable. Fat has largely been weaponized by straight size people — the very people it seems to hurt most deeply. And ultimately, thin people are terrified of being treated the way they have so often seen fat people treated — or even the way they’ve treated fat people themselves.
In that way, thinness isn’t just a matter of health or beauty or happiness: it is a cultural structure of power and dominance. And being called fat cuts so deeply because it hints at a dystopian future in which a thin person might lose their cultural upper hand.
Arguably the greatest trick of anti-fat bias is its insistence that — regardless of health, genetics, environment, (dis)ability, or any other factors — thinness and weight loss are universally accomplishments. Even for thin people with disabilities or chronic health issues. Even for thin people who struggle to put on weight. Even for the thin people who can eat whatever I want and never gain a pound. Even cancer patients and others struggling with illness are told that, on the bright side, you look thinner than ever.
I have never known that sense of innate accomplishment, nor the pride that comes with it. It must be excruciating to think of losing it.
I have gingerly shared this theory with thin friends whose faces reliably sink when they hear it. Some insist that they have never treated fat people poorly, even as they stare at my rolling stomach or give me tips on how to lose the weight they never carried. Others concede that sure, some thin people treat fat people badly, but they don’t take part. But not remembering treating fat people badly isn’t necessarily a sign of having treated fat people well — it’s just as likely a sign of having so deeply normalized poor treatment of fat people that we don’t even remember when we’ve done it. After all, turning a blind eye to abuse of fat people isn’t an exception or the actions of a few bad apples — it is the status quo.
Even as these dear friends discuss fat, they still cannot muster the word. Not even when I use it to describe myself. Not even when I ask them to say it, just to try, many cannot even manage that.
And ultimately, that is in itself a kind of marginalization. Insistently avoiding the word fat continues to stigmatize my body and insist that describing my skin must be an insult. And correcting me for calling myself fat is a seemingly kind way of snatching my identity and my body away from me. It is dominance in action. You clearly can’t care for your wretched body, and you certainly can’t describe it. And ultimately, avoiding the word fat preserves its power and pain, regardless of its use, its context, or its speaker.
Fat is not a knife; I am not its steel. I am not the keen blade of a breakup text from an ex who said they were no longer attracted to you. I am not the sharp teeth of your mother’s voice when she tells you you could stand to lose a few pounds.
My body is not a thorny harbinger of the world to come, not a ghost of Christmas future in your fever dream. My body is more than a prop, more than the moral of some cautionary tale.
Let me name my body. Let yourself say fat. Say it again and again. Say it until its blade dulls, until can’t hurt you. Say it so you can stop hurting me.
Like you, I am just trying to exist in a body in this world. Please, just allow me that.
Like this post? There are more like it, including To the Writers of “Insatiable.” You can also find Your Fat Friend on Facebook and Twitter.