I’m. So. Fat.
I am! I’m all kinds of belly and hips and jiggle and stretch marks. I’m fat.
And I’m sad. But it’s not for the reasons that you might think. I’m not sad because I’m fat. I’m sad because so many people couldn’t read the statements, “I’m fat,” and “I’m sad,” next to each other without assuming they’re inextricably linked. Maybe you too read those statements and thought I was being self-deprecating based on my body size.
The truth is, “fat” is just a word, an adjective, like “tall” or “brunette.” It’s a neutral descriptor for a body that carries a lot of adipose tissue. Unfortunately, society has loaded this word with all sorts of negative connotations, and these connotations are not often based in any sort of fact. For instance, it’s all too common to link the words “fat” and “lazy,” when in reality, those two qualities have nothing to do with each other. Can they exist in the same person? Absolutely. Does being one necessarily mean you’re also the other? Nope.
We have a word to describe what happens when we take a neutral descriptor, load it with false negative associations, project those associations onto the folks the neutral descriptor describes, and then treat those people accordingly, claiming power or superiority over them: oppression. By creating negative associations with a descriptor, in this case “fat,” we inherently ascribe oppositional, positive associations to the opposite descriptor, in this case “not fat” or “thin.” We create a power dynamic.
This is a wordy way of saying that by demonizing fatness, we are necessarily saying that thinness is good. Anthropologically speaking, we, as a society, reward perceived goodness. In this case, that means we reward thinness--we heap compliments on thin people, we glorify and sexualize their bodies over fat bodies, we cast them in TV and movies and pay them to appear in magazines. There are studies that show that thin people are more likely to be hired that fat people, and not just in the industries you’d most expect, like media or sports. We’re talking about retail jobs. Office jobs. Jobs in your field. We give a literal economic advantage to thinness.
^(Did you think I was kidding? In the course of writing this post I went to the Weight Watcher's website to find out what a membership costs and almost immediately found the above.)
By awarding thin people higher social status and economic advantages, we create a power structure under which thin people prosper while fat people suffer for their size. This system is reinforced every time we applaud a fat person’s “weight-loss journey” or other attempts at fat assimilation into the dominant thinness-obsessed culture. It’s also reinforced every time someone says, “I’m so fat,” with that familiar look of disgust on their face, especially when that someone is not a fat person. (Seriously, cut that shit out.)
At the same time as we’re positively reinforcing thinness with money and power, we’re negatively reinforcing fatness by handing fat people diet plans that will never make them thin and then telling them that failure is their own fault--they were too lazy or undisciplined. In reality, up to 95% of diets fail, even when the dieter stays on the diet. They don’t tell you then when you’re signing up for your hundreds-of-dollars-a-year Weight Watchers subscription, but it’s the science nonetheless.
So here we stand, each of us placed somewhere in an artificial hierarchy we may not even realize we exist in. Once you realize the extent of it though, it’s impossible not to notice it’s impacts. Eating disorders affect 30 million people in the U.S. alone, and that does nothing to account for the epidemic of negative body image that is immeasurable, pervasive, and causes harm even when it doesn’t affect eating behavior.
What do we do?
For starters, let’s normalize the word “fat” as the neutral descriptor that it is and stop using it to convey made-up negative connotations. I choose to use “fat” to describe myself, and I do so with all due self love. I understand that for folks who have had this word lobbed at them as insult for their entire lives, this may be a difficult prospect. It’s so hard to change your own perceptions of a word that’s caused so much trauma. I find it easier than I used to, but I still find myself in conversations where I cringe when I describe myself this way. If you choose to start using the word “fat” to describe yourself, be gentle with yourself when it’s hard, when it hurts, or when you can’t get the word out.
Whether you’re actually fat or not, STOP using “fat” in a negative way or to talk badly about yourself or someone else. I don’t care what you just ate, or how bloated you feel today, or whether you’ve ever exercised in your life. If you’re overfull, you’re overfull. If you’re bloated, you’re bloated. If you feel guilty about what you just ate, you feel guilty about what you just ate (and maybe you should examine your ideas about food and health). If you’re fat, you’re fat. These things are not interchangeable.
If you’re not in a fat body, you have no excuse or reason to call yourself fat. Even if you just gained some weight. Even if you used to be fat. It’s a neutral descriptor. If it doesn’t apply to you, it doesn’t apply to you.
My fine fellow fat folks, you’re not off the hook for the above, but I do want to take this closing paragraph to send you a little love, and a little healing energy, and permission (as if you needed it) to be fat AND happy. You can absolutely be both at the same time. You don’t have to apologize for it. You don’t have to wait for it, because happiness is not tied to body size. I’m sending abundant love to you, my dears, and you can write me if you ever need a reminder.
Melanie Williams, RYT-200, is a fat, queer, non-binary yoga teacher and Freed Bodyworks' Practice Manager. She is called to create profoundly inclusive spaces for wellness, self-inquiry,
and the inward journey. In addition to her management duties, she teaches group and private yoga classes, offers workshops that explore queer identity and body image, and champions diversity and inclusion in the yoga and wellness industries as a member of the Yoga & Body Image Coalition leadership team and an expert adviser on inclusion to the Yoga Alliance Standards Review Project.
Join Melanie at Freed Bodyworks for Yoga & Queer Identity on May 26th, 2018 -Register Now