Fear of Fat

Gabi Gregg of Young, Fat, & Fabulous

What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘fat’? Do you think of Nutrition Facts labels and the first column you look at before deciding whether to buy the crackers? Or maybe you think of elementary school, when the best insult little boys could come up with for girls was “well… you’re fat!” (Good for you, little boys. You’re… dumb.)

Well, I don’t think of anything – or I try not to. To my editor’s dismay, I generally refuse to use the word, except when referring to this blog post. (“What are you working on right now?” “The ‘Fear of Fat’ blog post… Social networking…” “Hey, you said it! You said ‘fat’!”) She thinks “fat” should be used as an adjective, just like “thin,” or “tall,” or “short.” It shouldn’t be a negative thing – not if it’s true. I have a hard time agreeing with her. Nobody wants to be called “fat,” is my rebuttal.

But why not?

It’s not that I have memories of being called “fat” as a kid. In fact, despite being technically – or pretty close to – a “plus-size” (even though I refuse to buy plus-sized clothing, but that’s just a whole other story) for most of my life, I don’t ever remember being described that way. I still have friends who call themselves fat to get others to argue that they aren’t – something else I refuse to do. Be warned: if you call yourself fat, I’ll probably just agree with you, even if you’re a size 4. Because, what’s fat, anyway?

A few weeks ago, I stumbled across Gabi Gregg’s blog, Young, Fat, & Fabulous. “She’s almost the same size as me,” I thought. And she is. And she calls herself fat without cringing. And she doesn’t feel bad about it.

Can you tell me what you think of the word “fat”?
I think the word fat is unfortunately extremely stigmatized in our society, and that needs to change. Just because someone is fat does not mean that they’re lazy, unhealthy, unworthy, ugly, sloppy, or any of the other things that many people unfortunately associate with the word.

The word seems to have several negative connotations – many people I’ve talked to have said this is because “nobody wants to be called fat.” Why do you think that is?
We grow up in a society that tells us that being fat is a bad thing. We are constantly inundated with messages and images that portray thinness as the ideal and fatness as this “evil” thing to avoid at all costs. That’s why many people don’t want to be called fat, even when they are fat. It’s understandable because of what we are taught, yet that does not mean it’s okay. People should reevaluate the word! Being fat is simply a description of someone’s body type.

What do you think of the common association of “fat” with poor health?
I think that there are healthy fat people and unhealthy fat people, just like there are healthy skinny people and unhealthy skinny people. I don’t think anyone is arguing that it’s good to sit around all day and eat ice cream for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. However, it’s important not to assume anything about anyone’s health based solely on their weight. A size 16 woman might well be healthier than a size 6 woman. It depends, and it’s important to realize that other people’s bodies and health are not anyone’s business but their own.

My editor thinks that the word should be used as a descriptor, just like you would call someone thin. Nobody would get mad at you for calling them thin, but some people would definitely be offended if you called them fat. What do you think about that?
I agree 100%. It would be nice if the word fat could be de-stigmatized and used simply as a way to describe people. That is how I use it.

With your blog, you refer to yourself and other plus-sized girls as fat. Clearly you are working to change the meanings or associations the word possesses. Why do you think it’s important to embrace the word “fat”?
I think that giving other people power over the word does no good. Once fat people embrace the word “fat” and stop fearing it, they don’t have to walk around wondering if other people think they are fat or not, or be afraid someone will use the word against them. When someone calls me fat now, I just nod. It’s not an insult to me. I use the word in my blog, because too often fat people are thought to be ugly and unfashionable. I wanted to juxtapose the word fat with fabulous and show people that it’s possible to be stylish at any size.

- Stephanie Fereiro. Photos from YoungFatAndFabulous.com.

16 thoughts on “Fear of Fat

  1. I think you made a really good point Steph, there are always girls who call themselves fat as a put down in hopes of having others tell them that they aren’t. While women like Gabi are embracing the term and all the connotations, we are a long way from have societal body acceptance.

    I for one think we should use the word. What is the point of trying to beat around the bush and use other language, when fat is a fine adjective? One of my best friends is really fat phobic, and believes a lot of the stereotypes that our culture defines fat people by (lazy, sloppy, etc.). If we refuse to accept that there are real people, out in the world, who are fat then we will never be able to change the minds of people who think being fat is an abomination.

    We live in a culture where fat women are seen as undeserving of love, or simply disappear from lack of visibility. It’s a scary thing, no doubt. And I think it’s really the driving force behind the “fear of fat”. An association to the word can halt the success of a celebrity’s career (think Jessica Simpson). With all this negativity floating around, fear is an understandable response. But by accepting the humanity of everyone, and using the word fat respectfully (and joyfully) I think we can reclaim a little more autonomy over our bodies which we are taught to believe are not our own.

  2. I love the idea of taking away the power from the word “fat.” All in all, a great post to read. Love your blog, Gabi—just added it to my blog bookmarks!

  3. Wow, this was a fantastic read Stephanie! To be completely honest, this is an issue I basically never think about but I really do have to agree that we shouldn’t be afraid to use the word fat because it doesn’t HAVE to have negative connotations. Reclaim fat! The world is too politically correct sometimes.

  4. Let me start by saying the particular colour of that blue skirt makes me extremely happy.

    I think this is all a really tricky thing to navigate. Reclaiming (as we have come to call it) a word is no panacea. From what I have seen, it means that people who fall within that group then have license to use or embrace it, but it continues to be off limits to those on the outside. It may engender a feeling of power within the group, but may also serve to polarize groups on either side and result in less understanding rather than more. I’m not saying it’s impossible (we have, after all, changed a lot of people’s opinions about a lot of things), but it’s going to be a really long road. Especially when you consider that there are multibillion dollar industries relying on that word continuing to be taboo (fashion, diet supplements and pharmaceuticals, low fat foods and sweeteners, gyms, plastic surgery, Jenny Craig). They thrive on insecurity and fear. It’s hard to change any system where there’s money to be made. Just look at tobacco and oil.

    I like the idea of saying “fat” and having simply mean what it means, judgement unattached. But even more than that, I like the idea of people reserving their personal, physical commentary until they’re asked. When did we all get together and decide we could say any damn thing we were thinking? What I’d like the most is people ACTING LIKE CIVILIZED ADULTS rather than precocious five year olds. Once you’re out footy-pyjamas, it ceases to be adorable.

    BTW, years ago I was working in a vintage shop renting costumes. Every year these godawful sorority girls would come in to get their halloween outfits – which were always defined by the adjective “sexy” – “sexy flapper”, “sexy hippy”, “sexy whatever”… They would gather in packs trying on the skimpiest clothes we had and then ask over an over again, “But do I look fat?” My manager, who had very little tolerance for that sort of thing was helping one very blond, tanned, tiny girl in a cocktail dress. She assured the girl that the dress she’d chosen was lovely and fit her very well, to which the girl responded, “But does it make me look fat?” My manager looked her in the eye and replied, very sincerely, “Oh, well, we can’t do anything about our body type, can we?” The girl looked so confused and horrified I had to duck behind the counter to stifle my snort. Skinny girls who ask that question deserve what they get.

  5. I think you could have taken this “article” a lot further. You present some requisite introduction/your perspective, then you do an interview, then you say goodbye. Should you demonstrate your thoughts, post interview, more? Should you demonstrate that working on this piece inspired any thought at all? You tell us what you thought before, but you don’t say very much at all about where you stand on the issue after consideration. You could even have demonstrated your in depth thought process in writing. Something. But as it is, this piece confronts fat, then ditches it as fast as it can.

  6. There are groups of people who have reclaimed the word “fat”. My friend uses that word without the shame usually attached to it. I started to do that too, as in use it more casually. It doesn’t always come across right if you aren’t a big person. I really look forward to the stigma being taken away from fatness and the use of the word “fat”. And even the meanness often around the use of the work “skinny”. Heck, I look forward to the banishment of all stigmas and meanness.

  7. I totaly agree with Gabis opinion, but it took me a long time to clear my mind and don’t feel insulted anymore because someone calls me fat.
    If its thick, its okay but fat is slightly different. So I think we really should change our minds about the word fat and and try not to be scared about it. We have to relief your fear!

  8. rbeck: First off, this is a blog post, not an in depth article like we would feature in the printed magazine. As most of our blog posts, it’s just about what’s on our minds. I think Stephanie did a good job of putting out there what she’s trying to sort out in her head, and interviewing people who don’t associate fat with shame is a method she is using to explore her feelings. There is no tidy little conclusion, because she hasn’t come to one yet. And I’m not really clear on why she needs to? She’s still working out her personal thoughts on a matter that is emotionally difficult for her, and I strongly feel that criticizing her process is short sighted and insensitive.

  9. RE – rbeck
    I think SerahMarie said it really well: “There is no tidy little conclusion, because she hasn’t come to one yet. And I’m not really clear on why she needs to?”
    I have to say I agree. It seems to me this piece was simply a step in exploring ideas and a suggestion that others might do the same. It asks valid questions and gives people something to think about. While there are times a writer might offer an opinion or posit a conclusion, often they don’t, rather letting readers decide for themselves. I guess I’m just not seeing why that’s problematic.

  10. Thanks to all of you for your input – everyone is raising valid points. This may be completely obvious, but I don’t think reclaiming the word “fat” is just about the word itself. If the negative connotations with the word can be taken away from it, the negativity associated with “fatness” in general will begin to break as well – which is the real motivation behind the fat acceptance movement. It will take a while, but sometimes (prepare for a cliché…) good things take time.

    To Secretariat: I like the idea of people reserving their personal, physical commentary until they’re asked, too. Yes, breaking down people’s perceptions of all fat people as unhealthy and unlovable is important, but perhaps before judging someone by their appearance, whether it be thinness, fatness, whatever, we should think about why our assessment of their body is important to say out loud at all. It might sound corny, but why does someone’s appearance have to determine “who they are”? Thanks for your comments.

    To Rbeck: This post could definitely have been taken a lot further. It could have turned into a book, or a 2,000 word article for print, but like Serah-Marie and G said, that wasn’t the point. The point was to express my fear of the word, and then to show the perspective of someone who is actively fighting to change its meaning in our society – and to show a perspective on “fatness” from someone involved an industry so obsessed with “thinness”.

    - S.F.

  11. Love that you brought this up. As a life-long fat girl, I am whole-heartedly on board with using the word fat. As long as I am fat, you can call me fat. Do thin girls get offended when called thin? Not usually. It’s just a descriptor.

    Of course, there ARE still other words besides “fat” that it’s always okay to use. Like curvy, thick, voluptuous, etc. Just mix it up and know that it’s okay to say fat!

  12. what a great interview. and i totally agree with her! this statement in particular: “it’s important to realize that other people’s bodies and health are not anyone’s business but their own.” that is something we are so unaccustomed to in north american society, whether it comes to judging others eating, drinking, exercising or sexual habits. especially women’s.

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