Last month one of my favorite bands was on tour in Europe. A lot of people met them, took pictures, and subsequently (and graciously) shared those pictures on social media. The pictures were adorable and fun to see, but I lost count of how many of them came with one of the following captions:
“I look totally gross and fat, but here’s my photo.”
“I look horrible and fat in this but I have to post it anyway.”
“I look so fat in this pic, but here it is!”
100% of the attached photos contained a young woman of average to small size, usually quite pretty by conventional standards.
Look… I know what calling ourselves “fat” when we are quite obviously not fat is code for. It’s coded language for, “I feel insecure about how I look because the world constantly reminds me that I’m worthless outside of being beautiful, so please please please reassure me that I am.” And these girls inevitably got what they were looking for, a virtual tidal wave of internet assurances that they were not fat, and that they were beautiful. I get it, believe me. When I was younger, I did that.
Women who do this generally fall into one of two categories; they are seeking social reassurance as described above. Or they are suffering from something called body dysmorphic disorder and actually cannot see themselves as they truly appear. I’m not speaking to the body dysmorphic in this article, that problem is a whole other kettle of fish. I’m speaking to the women of socially acceptable size who insist on using the word “fat” to seek reassurance of their beauty or to explain that they’re having a day where they don’t feel so good about their appearance, even though they know full well that they fall easily into the parameters for acceptable female body size.
Here is why that behavior is so harmful:
It reinforces the social standard that “fat” is synonymous with “ugly by default”. Fat being accepted as universal shorthand for “ugly” and “undesirable” and “unwanted” means that people like me – who actually ARE fat – are reminded constantly that our innate (and largely unchangeable) body shape is utterly unacceptable. The fact that I have and will continue to lose weight does not change that fact. At goal I will be 170 lbs. I will be healthy, strong, fit, and still completely, totally and unacceptably large by American female standards. I actually aspire to look something like the gorgeous Hilda (pictured below) when I am finished, but since my natural size is quite large, once I’ve fought down well below that weight I will continue to sag and droop like a melting ice cream cone. My body is NEVER going to be what fitness enthusiasts refer to as a “beach body”. Fat has been and will be a descriptor that applies to me and that is not going to change.
But I’m a grown up. Although I get hurt (sometimes to the point of tears) by the depravations of this fat hating world, I’ve got a grownup’s thick skin and ability to realize that people are trying desperately to build themselves up when they do these things – it’s got little to nothing to do with me.
What worries me more is when it starts – in childhood. Normally sized, healthy kids screaming the word “FATSO!” at other normally sized, healthy kids. Fat as kid-code for “yuck” and “gross” and “I just want to feel superior to you!” leads to my friend having to comfort her eight year old when she comes home crying from school because the other girls told her she was fat (and had bugs). At eight years old that strong, outspoken, intelligent girl is already totally aware that fat is a terrible, horrible thing to be.
But what if it wasn’t?
What if saying, “Hey – do you know Carolyn? She’s the fat girl with crazy red hair and secretary glasses over there. Yeah, the pretty one.”
Was exactly the same as saying, “Hey – do you know Carolyn? She’s the tall girl over there with crazy red hair and secretary glasses. Yeah, the pretty one.”
I understand that people being the wretched things we are, if we remove the stigma from this descriptive term kids are only going to find another way to torment one another, but go ahead and call me Don Quixote because I am still going to advocate for removing the sting from fat.
One way to do that is if average sized woman would please stop using a word that simply describes my physicality, like “tall” or “short” or “fair” or “freckly” as a lazy way to say they don’t feel great about themselves today.
It’s actually totally okay to just say, “hey – you know what? I feel really down about the way I look today.” Since people are told constantly that the appearance of their face and body far outweighs the content of their character that is a totally natural and understandable way to feel. I for one am happy to build a friend back up when they’re feeling beaten down.
But not one more time am I going to tell somebody who isn’t fat yet insisting to me that they are, “you’re not fat.” Because that’s tantamount to reassuring them, “don’t worry – you don’t look like me.” I’ve worked way too hard stitching together the tattered shreds of my own self esteem to carve and sacrifice it up for the sake of yours.