Today 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.