Why We Shouldn't Be Afraid Of The Word "Fat"

Blogger Kate Harding wishes people would just call her fat — in an essay in Salon, she explains why.

Unless she's trained them otherwise, Harding says, people tend "to respond to any mention of my weight with 'You're not fat!'" But she says what they really mean is, "You're not a dozen nasty things I associate with the word fat." She lists the nasty things, and they include ugly, unhealthy, smelly, lazy, ignorant, undisciplined, unlovable, and just plain icky. Harding says "I want to be called fat because it's the simple truth" and points out that "the vast majority of people classified as obese are about as fat as I am, in the BMI 30-35 range." But her larger point is that being fat shouldn't actually associated with any of the nasty things she lists. It should be a neutral descriptor, like "tall" (not that this, or any visual descriptor, is actually entirely neutral), not a value judgment. "I am a kindhearted, intelligent, attractive, person, and I am fat," she says. "There is no paradox there."

But there's another side to the reflexive "You're not fat!" response. We're trained to say it, not just because we have negative cultural associations with fatness, but because saying, "I'm so fat" has become part of an ingrained cultural script. When someone complains that they're fat, they often mean that they feel unattractive or undisciplined or any number of the other qualities on Harding's list. And so we learn to contradict them, because we want them to know we don't think they are any of those bad things. If you grew up in America, no matter what your BMI, you're probably not used to people like Harding who speak of their own fatness in a value-neutral way.

Harding is awesome for teaching her friends that fat ≠ gross, but in order for the lesson to work, we all have to watch the way we talk about our bodies. Just as we shouldn't assume that a fat person is smelly or lonely, we shouldn't complain about our bellies or our thighs when what we really mean is that we're feeling down on ourselves. There's a world of difference between "I'm so fat!" and "I'm feeling bad about my body," and we'd all do well to learn it.

Does my butt look fat? [Salon]