Reclaiming Fat: Language, social constructs and just shaddup about it already.

fat cellsToday over at Bitch Magazine, Tasha Fierce wrote a great post on Fat Activism. One of the comments got me thinking about the fact that I haven’t really professed my feelings on the word Fat out loud. This won’t be anything new to seasoned activists, but perhaps it might give folks who haven’t had the opportunity to explore this topic something to think about.  It starts out kinda wordy, but it gets more applied towards the end.

Language as a Social Construct:

A social construct is, in simplest terms, a concept or a practice that is constructed by a particular group.  With this definition, we see that language itself is a social construct.  A tree is a tree because, somewhere ages ago, our indo-european ancestors took a look at that thing over there with bark and leaves and tiny little birdies sweetly nesting in its branches and agreed that the collection of sounds “deru” was an appropriate audio representation.  Through the years, language evolved and spread and from the tendrils of that original choice, English language speakers have thus far settled on the word Tree to represent the same thing.

As for you and I, even if we weren’t around at that original planning meeting, we have passively contributed to the construct by not challenging its meaning. A tree is a tree because we still agree that it’s a tree. At any point, a (massive) wave of disagreement could change that. Society invents new words constantly and grants and revokes new applications for words that already exist. Of course, we’re not likely to be passionate enough about the word Tree to decide we want to change it en masse — but sometimes we’re not talking about what a tree is — sometimes we’re talking about what being a tree means – and that’s where it gets sticky.

Buried in the Construct

As we name things in the literal sense, society grants and revokes figurative and metaphorical meaning to words in much the same way. These, too, are social constructs, but they are more dangerous because, rather than simply describing the existence of a thing, they begin to assign more arbitrary judgments to those things — rank/worth, value and behavioral expectations.

So enough about trees already.  Let’s talk about the word fat. If you look up the definition of the word fat, you’ll find that the definition starts off literal and then drops into more subjective descriptors; negative words like “too much” and “unnecessary excess” mingle with more positive words like “abundance” and “best of.” All of these definitions are commonly-held enough to be validated by inclusion in the definition, and yet some directly conflict with others.

This is great because noticing this allows us to entertain the notion that we can decide for ourselves what the word fat means, and how we apply it to ourselves and others.

Don’t Call Me Fat

There is some debate amongst body image activists about using the word fat blatantly in application to fat individuals.  Some choose to use more euphemistic terms like “of size”, “overweight”, “plus-size” and “larger” or even gentler/veiling words like “zaftig”, “rubenesque” or “fluffy.” These well-intentioned choices have both positive and negative effects.

The positive effects lie in the ability of these words to address the issue of fat in a less-threatening manner in a culture where the word fat has become loaded with negative stereotypes, oppressions and humiliations.

The negative effects lie in the unintended reinforcement of those negative stereotypes by allowing them to remain unchallenged. Shying away from the word fat can be seen as an implied agreement. “You’re not fat, you’re just ‘fluffy’.”

Using more euphemistic terms can sometimes be a backhanded compliment.  Terms like overweight, plus-sized and larger imply that there is a norm, and that the party to which the term is being applied falls outside of it.

Overweight — over whose weight?
Plus-size — plus whose size?
Larger — larger than who?

Challenging the Construct

Of all the words we could possibly use to describe people who have an abundance of fatty tissue, the word fat is actually the least judgmental.  Fat is a thing. It is a thing that some people have more of than others. Fat is what it is and, in its most literal sense, fat is not good or bad.

The trouble comes when we defer to the parts of our social construct that imply that having more fat indicates that we are lazy, unintelligent, unattractive or incapable. When we accept those meanings and shy away from using the word fat, we leave those assumptions  unchallenged.

Using the word fat as a descriptor for your body and refusing to use more euphemistic terms in order to placate or comfort others is an effective way to challenge the social construct and remove the power of those negative assumptions.

That said, I do think there is a time and place for gentler language. Not everyone is ready to accept the word fat as part of their identity, and in efforts to reach out to the folks in our society who haven’t gotten there yet, well-chosen applications of euphemisms can avoid alienating more sensitive folks.

However, the more frequently this happens, the less quickly we move forward. My suggestion is to integrate the word fat as much as possible in your activism and to be mindful about when and where you choose to gentle your message.

  1. Great article Stacy and I completely see where you’re coming from, However whilst I think there is some justification in reclaiming the term it is still painfully loaded. I find that if I describe myself as fat in a room full of anyone then I instantly get a whole range of negative responses from “don’t put yourself down” to “you just want us to deny it”, it’s all very high school and can often block the way to actually having a debate about body image and terminology. Saying that though, if anyone described me as “fluffy” I think I’d become very angry indeed – fat doesn’t mean airhead.

  2. Hi Tommy – thanks for the response. As I mentioned in the last paragraph, I think there are valid moments to choose to use less loaded terms – however, my hope is that people don’t just default to that behavior. In those moments, one could choose to accept the use of less loaded terms in order to get to a different place in the conversation, or one could choose to challenge those reactions lovingly and explain why you’ve chosen to use the word fat as a descriptor. It depends on what your mission is in the moment, really. :)

  3. I like the word fat. I accepted and embraced it in the mid-80s and that’s how I refer to myself, given the choice. Right now I’m exploring and they don’t have the word fat as a possible self-descriptor – too offensive to the creators, I’m guessing. But I agree with Stacy that using an alternative descriptor can be useful at times. If I’m talking to an individual or a group who may not be into size-acceptance, a gentler word can be useful. My intention is not to push people farther away from accepting themselves, so I moderate my stance on the word fat. But that’s how I refer to myself!

    • I can’t stand OK Cupid. I deleted my profile there the second they sent out that email telling me I was designated as in the upper 50% of “hotness” and thus wouldn’t be subjected to seeing photos of people who weren’t in the same “league” as me. Ridiculous, shallow and terrible for the self-esteem of the people who didn’t get it, and reinforcing of the privilege of those who did.

      I’m all for using euphemisms if they’re genuinely called for. It’s just my hope that folks don’t default to that and will sometimes seek to challenge and educate vs. placate and coddle.

  4. hey stacy, thanks so much again for writing, i’m loving your words and activism xoxo i hear all of it on the word “fat” vs. another word, but sometimes the word fat also serves to placate. i’ve felt, so many times, in such a “catch 22” with this. if you chose to challenge someone, (and use the, (to them), the abrasive word “fat”), you risk not being heard because they assume you are in agreement with them / the norms of society on the definition of the word (as it stands in “the mainstream”). cuz in the “mainstream”, as of right now, the word is hurled as an insult. and when you use it, you risk people thinking you’re just using that insult toward yourself (that’s how they perceive it). am i making any sense? like, for example, i purposely used the term “person of size” when responding to that yelp person, cuz it’s language away from the “normal” paradigm they’re used to. the sort of tedious “person of size” term sort of forces them to take a look twice. maybe she’s never run across that word before? maybe she’s never heard of anyone trying to take language back before? “person of size” implies a shift from the “common” (expected) word, fat. that said, i love the word fat, and i see how it totally brings out all the bullshit, right on the spot. it makes people spill what they were thinking and not saying. “oh no… you’re not fat…” “don’t talk about yourself like that..” etc. i think of it like the word “dyke” vs. “homosexual” or “queer” – you spit one, you say the other. you’re right there’s times and places for all – it’s really great to have space to think about / write about these things. i love your blog xoxo

    • In those situations (where folks see using the word fat as falling inline with their own negative associations with the word) I’d choose to use the word fat, but to verbally distinguish it by saying out loud that I think fat is a fine thing to be and that I don’t accept any of the negative assumptions folks have with that word. It’s more work, but the more we do it, the less we’ll have to in the long run. ;)

  5. Cool post. :)
    The one time I’ve tried really mainstream dating sites, I got schooled in language by a lavalife employee with atrocious spelling. He insisted that my ad header “Seeking Fat Femme for Unnatural Acts” couldn’t be anything but offensive; was obviously insulting to all readers. Nothing could persuade him otherwise. Last time I checked, “queer” was also a word some sites wouldn’t allow in ads, despite the millions of folks who find the reclaimed term most applicable to describe our identities/preferences… and on and on. The policing of allowable usage tries always to steer meaning toward lowest-common-denominator directions, usually reinforcing the negative.

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