It gets used a lot. We've all said it. Some of us sparingly, some with carefree ease. It gets shouted across streets, across rooms, casually thrown into conversation to make a point, sometimes in jest and sometimes out of spite. Other times it's just a plain old description.
There, I said it. Shocked? Probably not. It's not a swear word; it's not even technically a descriptor for something inherently bad. Why then (and please pardon the pun) does it carry so much weight?
Lately I posted something on my Instagram about being a 'fat girl running'. It was just a comedic tag line to go with a comedic photo, and it was an accurate description - I am fat, and I was going running. One person immediately responded: 'you're not fat!'. Oh really? Tell that to my BMI. They then went on to list all the 'nice' things I was, presumably as a counter-measure to the F-word I had deployed. I assured them I considered it possible to be all those things as well as fat; the two states (niceness and fatness) were not mutually exclusive. They seemed to get my point and the whole exchange was really very amicable, but it highlighted something to me that I had been increasingly aware of for a while - the very obvious fact that for most people, 'fat' is a dirty word, and means a hell of a lot more than just what the dictionary will tell you.
This won't be news to anyone reading this, so I won't patronise you with definitions from said dictionary, but I'm starting at what we know: that words are capable of taking on meaning and emphasis way beyond their original purpose. Moral weight is applied; social norms are considered; much can be implied in the context of use. When I was in primary school I learned that fat was a storage method for extra energy, used by our bodies to help keep us warm, and often accumulated just before a growth spurt and puberty. I might have learnt that it wasn't healthy to have too much fat, but I can't remember that part being emphasised, to be honest. I never worried about whether I was or would become fat, I just knew what fat was. It was only when I heard others discussing fat as a thing to get rid of, to be ashamed of, and began to compare myself to the girls and women around me, that any kind of moral meaning appeared for fat. Older sisters of friends would pinch at their bellies in apparent disgust, swap diet tips, describe food as 'naughty', and call other girls fat in a tone that implied fat meant all sorts of other, worse things. Even as a pre-teen I was starting to learn the F-word and why I should so obviously fear it.
There are other, older blog posts I've published about my own body image struggles - weight loss, weight gain, self acceptance, all those sorts of things - so I don't want to go into that as much here. What I'm really interested in right now is the anatomy of fat as a term - why it has this power, whether it should, and how people are addressing it. So right off the bat, here are all the meanings I've seen ascribed to the term 'fat', and what they imply by extension.
Lazy (you can't be bothered to lose weight to be thin, thin equalling normalcy).
Dirty (if you can't be bothered to lose weight you're not looking after your body, therefore you can't be bothered to wash and you probably sweat more because you're fat).
Stupid (clever people would know that being fat was bad).
Slutty (you're not conventionally attractive so obviously you'd say yes to anyone).
Poor (you can't afford healthy food or a gym and you don't get good jobs when you're fat).
Unattractive (because only thin is attractive, to all people everywhere).
Unhealthy (fat people are only fat because they clearly don't exercise).
These are just the ones I've observed personally enough times to convince me it's a widespread mode of thought and not just a few people using the F-word this way. I think it's fair to say that of this bunch, the only one which a lot of people would argue was justifiable is the health argument; we live in a health-conscious society and the responsibility to maintain our health for the good of our families and society, so we don't become a burden on the health services, has been a strong feature in public discussion for some decades. I would argue this is a wider issue than fat, although fat plays a part, and that unless someone is medically qualified and familiar with a person's medical state, they probably shouldn't be making that call. Often concern for health seems a thinly-veiled excuse to call someone out on the unacceptability of their fatness, regardless of the degree of fat, whether it's under that person's control, or the fact that plenty of health problems are not fat-related and occur in non-fat people, or cannot be externally diagnosed. Fat is a factor in health: that's a fact. But it's not the only one.
When you've got all these assumptions to contend with, no wonder fat has become a dirty word. Why would anyone want to be fat, or identify as fat, when that's what people take it to mean?
Something that has interested me along this vein lately is the terminology used by body-positive activists, the plus-size clothing and model industry, and others involved in the broader discussion of bodies in the media. The vast majority of these are women, not because the issue doesn't apply to men or because they are excluded, but simply because women's bodies are so much more politicised in society than men's are; women are told so much more what they should or shouldn't look like. The ideal is always before us, and the ideal in the Western world is not fat. Interestingly, those groups and industries which are involved in promoting body acceptance regardless of size, or providing clothing for fat people, are often still shying away from the word 'fat'. The most popular alternative term is 'curvy'; it's innocuous, it can be applied to any woman, any human for that matter, but 'curvy' has become a loaded term as well. For some, it sums up the epitome of hourglass, full-figured yet still attractive womanhood, a code for 'acceptable fat', implying that some kinds of fat are ok, but others aren't. For others, it embraces all degrees of the female body, but shies away from the negative connotations of fat. Recently the hashtag 'curvy' was removed by Instagram due to a vast number of pornographic images which had been uploaded using the term, but was re-instated after widespread outcry that this was an example of punishing women for the appropriation of their word by others who had sexualised it. It wasn't just the loss of a word that was the issue - it was the fact that this word represented an entire community, a mindset, a collective attitude toward the female body that thousands of people felt was positive and necessary. 'Fat' has probably never had that kind of power.
And yet, it is just a word. It is just the state of having stored energy attached to your body, possibly in larger amounts than biologically necessary. It isn't a descriptor for all that a person is; it doesn't have to mean more than exactly what it is. And it doesn't have to be taboo. To take back the F-word and strip it of its negative power is simply the work of deconstructing the myths around it, challenging the assumptions, and not being afraid to call a spade a spade. To question meaning and social constructs is a healthy part of our personal development but also, in my view, a crucial action in a society which is still image-obsessed and fraught with emotional and physical dangers for those growing up into it.
I am fat, in that I have fat on me, approximately two stone more than a BMI chart tells me I should. I am fat, and I carry this fat with me, and it contributes to a shape I have learned to love and will continue to love whether it loses fat or gains it, because this is my body and I will live in it for the rest of my life, whatever size it happens to be. I am fat, and I do exercise and eat healthily most of the time, even if my physical appearance doesn't indicate it in the expected and accepted way. I am fat, and I do not believe that this makes me, or anyone else, less valuable as a person.