Why I Still Use the Term “Fat Acceptance”

A lot of people don’t. They prefer “body acceptance” or “size acceptance,” to be more inclusive of people of all sizes and abilities who struggle with body image. And I totally respect that. It’s already come up a couple of times in comments on my posts that this culture encourages body hatred (and garden variety self-hatred), especially in women, period; that is not by any means the exclusive province of fatties. And in my ideal world, for sure, all people would be content with and grateful for the bodies they’ve got, and nobody would shit on them for being too fat, too thin, the wrong color, the wrong shape, too hairy, not hairy enough, whatev.

BUT. I still see fat acceptance as its own thing, and I’m going to keep calling it that, for a couple of reasons.

First, it’s important to me to reclaim the word “fat.” It’s not a bad word. It’s not intrinsically insulting. All it tells you is that this person has more visible fat on her frame than a thin person does — and since in my case, that’s the plain truth, I don’t have any problem with being described that way. I have a problem with people who would describe me that way with the intention to wound, but not with the word itself. I’m short, I’m blonde, I’m pale, I’m hourglass-shaped, I’m fat. Some of those characteristics are more desirable in this society than others, but all any of those words tell you is what I look like. Not what I eat, not how much I exercise, not whether I’m healthy, not how strong my moral fiber is — hell, not even what my natural hair color is. (Very, very dark blonde. Maybe even brown by now; I haven’t actually seen it in years.) They just tell you what I look like right now. And as such, I should have no fear of them — they’re certainly not revealing any big secrets.

Second, and more importantly, fat acceptance may be a subcategory of body acceptance, but — with all due respect to naturally thin people who have been called names and thin people with serious body image issues (and disabled people and people with eating disorders who have a whole other set of challenges to contend with) — it is a lot harder to be fat than thin in this culture. Trust me on this one; I’ve been both. And it’s a lot harder to be extremely fat than only sort-of fat, like I am.

There’s a simple reason for this: Fat people are hated. And I mean hated. As people have explained over and over on this blog and others like it, I can be irritated or even hurt if someone calls me a honky or a breeder, but I still don’t get to say I understand the experience of racism or homophobia because, hello, white, straight people do not suffer in this culture for being white and straight. Those insults don’t have the weight of cultural and institutional hatred behind them, so no, they don’t fucking hurt me just as much as the equivalent racist or homophobic words hurt a person of color or a gay person. Any reasonable person knows that to pretend otherwise is flat-out absurd.

And it’s the same with fat. No, I don’t necessarily mean fatphobia is equivalent to racism or homophobia — I don’t even want to open that can of worms. I just mean that anti-fat comments do have real cultural and institutional hatred behind them, whereas anti-thin comments just don’t. People aren’t denied jobs because they’re thin. People aren’t paid less because they’re thin. People aren’t routinely accused of being lazy, smelly, disgusting, unhealthy, and morally bankrupt because they’re thin. People aren’t encouraged by the media, the government, their friends, and their families to hate themselves for being thin, and to spend any amount of money to become less thin. Surveys don’t show that a frightening percentage of people would rather lose a limb than be thin, or that even kindergarteners don’t want to be friends with the thin kids.

So if people call you “bag of bones” or “beanpole” or accuse you of having an eating disorder because you’re naturally thin — or worse yet, go on about how what a lucky bitch you are for being thin — I’m sorry. Sincerely. That’s mean, and it sucks. I have naturally thin friends who have been hearing that shit all their lives, and I know it’s really hurtful, and really damaging to your body image. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

But it is still just not the same thing as being treated badly because you’re fat. It’s not even in the same universe.

So to me, saying, “I believe in body acceptance, not just fat acceptance” is like saying, “I believe in humanism, not just feminism.” I believe in both — but we damn well need a fat acceptance movement, just as surely as we need a feminist one, and for the same basic reason: fat bodies are last on the list of potentially acceptable bodies, just like women are second of two on the list of human beings. We’re playing catch-up. It’s that simple.

Furthermore, I get this queasy feeling that some people only use the terms “body acceptance” or “size acceptance” because they’re afraid that the words “fat acceptance” will get them laughed out of the room. Or maybe off the planet. Like, hey, maybe if we include thin people and point out that they have some of the same problems, people will actually take us seriously! Sadly, that’s probably true, to an extent. But it’s also incredibly depressing. And it’s exactly why fat acceptance is and always will be a whole other ball of wax.

I love my thin friends, and I’d like to smack the people who call them names and try to make them feel bad about the way their bodies are naturally built. I absolutely welcome thin allies to the fat acceptance movement. And I would like everyone — fat, thin, in-between, disabled, temporarily able-bodied, short, tall, hairy, bald, with any skin tone or texture, any shape or bone structure — to feel good about their bodies.

But fat acceptance is still what I’m talking about specifically here. And that is a whole different thing.

(Cross-posted to Shapely Prose.)

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18 Comments

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18 responses to “Why I Still Use the Term “Fat Acceptance”

  1. Melissa McEwan

    First, it’s important to me to reclaim the word “fat.” It’s not a bad word. It’s not intrinsically insulting. All it tells you is that this person has more visible fat on her frame than a thin person does — and since in my case, that’s the plain truth, I don’t have any problem with being described that way.

    I totally agree; I’ve blogged about this same thing before. Every once in awhile, when I refer to myself as fat, someone gently (and good-heartedly) admonishes me not to be hard on myself. Except…I’m not being hard on myself, lol. I am fat, and I don’t consider it self-deprecating to say so. It should be a morally neutral word, like the other words I use to describe my physical self: short, brunette, blue-eyed. But it isn’t. That I treat it as a morally neutral word is often shocking to people.

    fat bodies are last on the list of potentially acceptable bodies

    Yes. Which is why, as I’m so fond of saying, being fat and happy is a radical act. From a January post:

    It remains a radical act to be fat and happy in America, especially if you’re a woman (for whom “jolly” fatness isn’t an option). If you’re fat, you’re not only meant to be unhappy, but deeply ashamed of yourself, projecting at all times an apologetic nature, indicative of your everlasting remorse for having wrought your monstrous self upon the world. You are certainly not meant to be bold, or assertive, or confident—and should you manage to overcome the constant drumbeat of messages that you are ugly and unsexy and have earned equally society’s disdain and your own self-hatred, should you forget your place and walk into the world one day with your head held high, you are to be reminded by the cow-calls and contemptuous looks of perfect strangers that you are not supposed to have self-esteem; you don’t deserve it. Being publicly fat and happy is hard; being publicly, shamelessly, unshakably fat and happy is an act of both will and bravery.

    Rare indeed is the fat chick who manages to find contentment in her own skin, because everything around her is designed so that she will not. Thusly, the idea of a culture that maintains a rational attitude about a spectrum of natural (and acceptable) shapes and sizes is almost impossible to imagine—and yet important enough to imagine and set as goal nevertheless, because the girl who is healthy but fat is not being served by our scorn, and the girl who is unhealthy but thin is not being served by our approbation. And that is to say nothing of the boy who suffers under this grand delusion as well, of whom I know less, since he has never been in my mirror.

  2. Kate Harding

    Being publicly fat and happy is hard; being publicly, shamelessly, unshakably fat and happy is an act of both will and bravery.

    Oh, yes, yes, yes.

    To all of it.

  3. Kate Harding

    Every once in awhile, when I refer to myself as fat, someone gently (and good-heartedly) admonishes me not to be hard on myself. Except…I’m not being hard on myself, lol.

    Oh, and I linked to this post earlier, but it’s probably worth one more link here.

  4. I’d much rather be called fat than any of the alternatives. Fat is just an adjective. Its descriptive, nothing more. Any value to the word is external. Would I rather be “overweight”? What does that mean? Its defining me not by what I am, but what I am not. The implication being that it defines me by what I have failed to be. Or perhaps go to “obese” from the Latin. A means of defining me as diseased. A clinical label. And even the Latin implies overeating. Its a judgement of behavior, not an adjective.

    I’ll take fat, thank you very much. Everything else worth saying in response to this post I already did at your other home and won’t bother repeating here.

  5. nightshift66

    Kate,
    I posit that sometimes, the person really is NOT fat. Because our culture is so obsessed with not being fat, many perfectly healthy people (but mostly women) think they are fat when they aren’t.

  6. Kate Harding

    nightshift66, sure, absolutely. I just think that’s a different kettle of fish. (Or ball of wax, as I said up there. Anyone else got another hoary cliche for me?)

    I would posit that, if our culture actually accepted fat bodies, we could all exhale and take a more realistic view of what size we are, since there wouldn’t be horrible judgments attached to deviating from a very narrow (pun intended) standard. So, just as men need feminism, you could argue that thin people need fat acceptance.

    Also, with regard to myself — since plenty of people have argued, with various motivations, that I’m not fat — one of the reasons I’m passionate about advocating for fat acceptance is that people are surprised to hear it coming from me. I don’t fit the stereotype of the “morbidly obese” person “making excuses.” A lot of people are surprised to learn that I am clinically obese. So it’s like, you don’t think I’m too fat? Great. The government does. That’s an eye-opener for some.

  7. I’ll grant that there is a point when “you’re not fat” is appropriate, but even then we need to divorce the comment from the reassurance and comforting tone it is usually delivered in. And we do need to recognize that what we think isn’t fat isn’t likely to jive with what “professionals” think. Because the experts really do think its fat most of the time, and that’s the climate we are operating in. Even if its not a good system, we need to acknowledge it to confront it.

  8. Arkades

    I am a fat gay man. I have long since accepted my sexuality, and have even come to enjoy being having a different perspective on the world. Yet I still struggle with accepting my body and physical appearance. Some days I feel fat and cute (good). Some days, fat and ruggedly handsome (even better!). Still other days (unfortunately), I feel fat and ridiculous. Like so many other people, my self-esteem continues to be a work in progress.

    It says a lot that, given how much social and cultural crap gay people have to contend with, somehow it is still easier to be Gay and Proud than it is to be Fat and Proud. Or that people tend to be more shocked and/or skeptical about Fat Pride, even though fat people in this country vastly outnumber gay people. Overcoming the shame society heaps on fat people is an enormous amount of emotional work. I know I’m not fully there, yet, myself.

  9. Actually, I love the F-word, I just don’t say “acceptance” very much, because I think it’s a measly goal. I prefer liberation! Also, there’s the possible read on “acceptance” of putting up with something you still think of as a negative thing, but living with it. And that’s not where I’m headed.

    So I say Fat Lib. Or sometimes, because I believe that thin people are not allies, but people with their own legitimate stake in ending weight-based prejudice, I say Body Liberation. And I capitalize it because it’s funny to me.

    I’m aware that most of the people in the community I hang out in both online and in person like to call is “size acceptance.” I call it fat pride community.

    I’m also aware that many people use a term of identity that relates to clothing or to dating, i.e., plus-size or BBW. I find these terms limited and closet-y. Again, I’m with you Kate, in celebrating and enjoying frequent use of the F-word!

  10. Kate Harding

    OMFG, did Marilyn Wann just respond to my post?

    *faints dead away*

  11. SarahS

    Kate,

    I love your posts, and while I’m still learning how to call myself fat without hearing the voice of my size 4 mom saying that to me as a pre-teen, I believe that reclaiming the word fat is so so important.

    I also thought you might want to check out this story “Kellogg to raise nutrition of kids’ food”. I was shocked dead away that there is nothing in the article about a nationwide obesity epidemic or blaming fat kids.

    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20070614/ap_on_he_me/kids_food

  12. Kate Harding

    SarahS, that’s awesome. I actually wrote a letter to the Chicago Tribune recently (and they published it!) thanking them for publishing an article about plus-size prom dresses without ever saying, “But of course, the best thing for these girls would be to lose weight and fit into NORMAL dresses.” Those little omissions are so exciting. How sad is that?

  13. Em

    Fainting couch, STAT!

  14. Thanks to Kate, Liss, and all the esteemed commenters for speaking up here. It does my heart and soul much good.

    I’ve found that using the word “fat” is actually very powerful. As in saying: “Yes, I’m a fat, mouthy little lesbian!” (a super-cool coming out on several levels).

    I find that unabashedly calling myself fat often resolves (or reveals) that weird, unspoken tension with people who may not really practice fat-phobia, or who are trying to become aware of and deal with their fat-phobia, but who are worried that I might have a problem with my body.

    It’s very similar to when I started to come out actively as a dyke to people — now, I’m pretty obviously a “dines at the Y” kind of gal — but I have found that straight would-be allies wereoften trying to be sensitive to my choices about how “out” I wanted to be.

    I think that getting it up and on the table right away communicates to the person I’m dealing with — yes, I’m fully aware of how my body might be perceived in this culture, and I don’t have a problem with who I am. The other person’s response often gives me a pretty direct read on how much they’ve dealt with their fat-phobia.

  15. Right on- I especially love your description of what thin people don’t have to deal with, and the way you describe the privilege of being thin, through that list. I’ve been trying to describe this kind of privilege to my (white, straight, thin) boyfriend for months, and after he reads this, I think he might finally understand what I am trying to say!

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