No, I Won't Ban The Word "Fat" From My Household
At about 6 years old, I penned my first love letter. It was simple and to the point, reading, "I like you. Do you like me too?" Below the question, I wrote a "yes" and "no," followed by a request that Thomas circle one or the other. It was a format I had seen utilized by my peers before and one that I'd see again until the end of middle school. Motivated by uncharacteristic boldness and childish whimsy, I handed him my confession come lunchtime and went back to my desk. Moments thereafter, I could hear him giggling. Moments after that, I could see him elbowing his best friend, urging him to look at what I had written. They exchanged a few whispers, and then Tommy approached me. He handed the note back with stoic composure, walking away quickly while keeping his gaze very clearly on me. As I opened up the folded piece of paper, I could see that "no" was heavily circled. In broken handwriting next to it, he'd written, "You're too fat. Oink." My face sunk as his guffaw ascended.
My understanding of the word "fat" was under-developed at this point. I had heard adults around me use it to describe people they didn't seem to like. I had heard my sisters chastise themselves for allegedly becoming fat as they aged. I thought I knew what it looked like, and I definitely knew that it was not something anyone should want to be. But it had yet to occur to me that I was fat myself, despite having a belly that poked out or housing more than one chin on my face. It had also yet to occur to me that my body could somehow be cause for intolerance or cruelty by others.
From that moment on, I'd continue to hear the word. From the hairdresser who urged me to lose weight at 13, to the uncle who didn't appreciate how I looked in family photos, to the future love interests who'd feel much the same way Tommy did all those years ago, to the magazines claiming that belly fat (or the lack thereof) could make or break a summer fling, I learned that demonizing my body and its fatness was the road everyone seemed to want me on. Fatness and visibly fat people were problems to be fixed. We were comparable to farm animals. We were an epidemic.
I started looking at myself in the mirror, seeing a fat body looking back at me, and embracing the word as my reality. I was and am fat. So are a lot of other amazing and badass human beings. And that's precisely why I'll never reject or ban the word from my household as I prepare to raise my own daughter.
It wasn't until my 20s that I'd be presented with neutral and even positive usages of the F-bomb. Through social media, through feminist publications, through self-identified fatshion bloggers, through size-acceptance activists, I started to realize something: Maybe it wasn't my fat body that was the problem. Maybe it was the cultural narrative. Maybe it was the diet industry. Maybe it was ideologies about aspirational beauty, conditioning everyone to want to fit into a homogenous box of acceptability.
The more I started to conceptualize the word "fat" as a characteristic — a part of my body that could be totally meaningless but also totally beautiful — the more I started to use it. I started looking at myself in the mirror, seeing a fat body looking back at me, and embracing the word as my reality. I was and am fat. So are a lot of other amazing and badass human beings. And that's precisely why I'll never reject or ban the word from my household as I prepare to raise my own daughter — regardless of whatever fat she does or doesn't have on her own body as she grows up.
As body positive discourse has become more mainstream in recent years, conversations about fatness have erred on either side of a coin: Folks have largely continued to favor its vilification, deeming fat activists a "threat" to the wellbeing of children everywhere and making sure their feelings on all fat people being disgusting blobs are heard the world over. But on the other hand, some have adopted an "all bodies are good bodies" mentality. They have started to come to terms with the idea that body shaming of any kind is never justifiable. But the notion that fatness, in and of itself, is not a wholly negative thing hasn't quite left their picture, and many have unfortunately continued to fat shame by condemning the term (and subsequently those who embody it).
Take, for example, Jennifer Lawrence's musings on the word fat in 2013. She told Barbara Walters during an interview,
I just think it should be illegal to call somebody fat on TV. I mean, if we’re regulating cigarettes and sex and cuss words because of the effect it has on our younger generation, why aren’t we regulating things like calling people fat?
Here, she framed the word as a negative: An insult and, once again, something people would obviously not want to be. In reality, it's the stigmatization of fatness that needs to end. Not the identifier.
I'm hoping to raise a child who — whether she is fat, thin, or somewhere in between — knows beyond a doubt that fatness is not condemnable. I hope she knows that there is no amount of fatness that ever would be.
More recently, Kourtney Kardashian made it clear that she did not want the word fat used around her daughter. On a June 2016 episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians, matriarch Kris Jenner asked Kardashian, “Do I look fat?” At this, Kardashian implores her mother: "Don’t use that word in front of my daughter, please.” Both Jenner and Kardashian framed fatness as a negative, albeit under slightly different circumstances. The former used the word to describe the feeling of not looking good — suggesting that looking fat would be undesirable — while the latter implied that the term is problematic or shameful enough to warrant being banned from conversations with her impressionable child. A better response to Jenner could've perhaps been, "No, you don't. Because you aren't fat. But there's nothing wrong with looking or being fat, just FYI."
I don't doubt that there were well-meaning intentions behind both Lawrence's and Kardashian's words, even if they ultimately came across as misguided. But I also don't doubt that the perpetuation of the idea that fatness is always an insult contributes to the perpetuation of negative self-image for actual fat people and perhaps even their vilification by non-fat people.
Personally, I'm hoping to raise a child who — whether she is fat, thin, or somewhere in between — knows beyond a doubt that fatness is not condemnable. I hope she knows that there is no amount of fatness that ever would be. But I don't see how I'll be able to instill that knowledge if I throw a blanket over the word itself.
As a fat-positive writer, I use the word fat almost every day. I assign it to my body as both a simple truth and as a reclamation of all the negativity I once associated with it. I use it to describe fellow fats who I know are comfortable with the term, and I try to engage in conversations with people who aren't yet comfortable with it in an attempt to deconstruct those emotions. To me, "fat" is never an insult anymore. Confronting the idea of "looking fat" and actually "being fat" no longer has the potential to derail my sense of self or my sense of worth. Ultimately, I understand that there is no aesthetic characteristic in this world that could ever serve as justification for prejudicial actions and behaviors. So I don't apologize for my body or for the amount of space it takes up. And I yearn to see the day when this is true of all fat people; when fat shaming seems as antiquated as any other kind of intolerance towards entire groups of people.
I refuse to assign more negativity to a word that should've been neutrally-connoted all along. I refuse to teach my child to fear the term, or to chastise herself should she ever develop a few rolls of her own. I refuse to contribute to ideologies that oppress and shame people simply for existing in a body type that was rudimentarily deemed flawed.
I plan to continue to call myself fat in front of my kid. And, once she's old enough, I hope to sit her down and explain that my definition of fatness doesn't necessarily correlate to much of the world's definition of fatness. I can only hope that by presenting her with my version — and that of fellow empowered fat people who've inspired me — she can understand that, sometimes, the dominant sociocultural narrative gets it wrong.
That said, I also want to make something very clear from early on: Fat people don't need their body types co-opted. Just because there is nothing wrong with being fat (or looking fat) does not mean that the word is one that should be adopted by just anyone. So I'll also explain to my daughter that while most people have some fat (given that it is a biological necessity for survival), this does not mean everyone is visibly fat. And so, one mustn't assume the body type or identity as their own if it simply does not ring true. The same, I believe, should be the case for anything that's a source of identity and community among groups of humans.
I don't doubt that having these conversations will be difficult at times. There is a whole world out there ready and willing to fight my partner and me on our beliefs regarding all of this. There is a whole world out there full of zap-your-fat-away belts and creams and waist-trainers. There is a whole world out there of rampant fatantagonism that'll seek to condition my soon-to-be child that fatness to internalize the idea that fat is deplorable and unsightly.
Nonetheless, I refuse to ban it. I refuse to assign more negativity to a word that should've been neutrally-connoted all along. I refuse to teach my child to fear the term, or to chastise herself should she ever develop a few rolls of her own. I refuse to contribute to ideologies that oppress and shame people simply for existing in a body type that was rudimentarily deemed flawed. And I refuse to further stigmatize fat people by hiding from the realities of our body types.