• Wed, Aug 17 2011

Blisstree Debates: Should We Ban The Word ‘Fat’?

Look at any magazine cover, open any newspaper or watch any talk show and there’s a really good chance you’re going to see a discussion about “fat”. Is a Lack of Sleep Making You Fat? 12 Fitness Tips for Fat Folks, Does Seeing Fat People Cause Overeating? Are Fat People to Blame for Global Warming? We even had a discussion last month wondering if our society was too fat-friendly.

All of this makes me wonder why we say “fat” to begin with. I’ve always been uncomfortable with this word. It’s a term, in my mind, that is derogatory and tends to label people. I mean, would you walk up to someone can say, “Hey, nice day. And by the way, you’re fat?” Not unless you wanted to get punched in the face.

My fellow (awesome) writer at Blisstree, Elizabeth Nolan Brown, and I had a healthy debate over this. Here’s what we had to say:

Deborah: So I’ve been thinking that we should ban the word “fat”–at least for a day. It just seems like everywhere I look, headlines are all about “fat this” and “fat that.” It’s a word I’ve never been comfortable using because I feel it’s derogatory and it focuses too much on labeling someone.

Elizabeth: I actually think you see the words “obese” or “overweight” more than you see fat, at least in news headlines. I guess women’s magazines and blogs do tend to use the word fat a lot—not to describe people, but as in, like, “5 Cherry Sundaes that Fight Fat” or “Is Your Cat Making You Fat?”

Deborah: True, the words “obese” and “overweight” are very prevalent too. But I think a lot of media does use the word fat to describe people. Like “Why Are Americans So Fat?” or stories about models who were “too fat” or people who were “too fat” to fly. It just seems like we’re calling them a word we wouldn’t use to their face.

Elizabeth: Haha, that’s true. You wouldn’t say that so-and-so was “fat” (at least around someone you wanted not to think you were an ass); you’d call them heavy or overweight (conversely, you’d probably say “thin” instead of “skinny”). But it’s the same thing, and everyone knows what you mean. I just feel like any of the euphemisms for fat are no better than using the word “fat” itself; no one really wants to be called big or heavy or plump either, you know?

Deborah: Exactly. So how do we refer to someone who is overweight so we don’t offend people, yet at the same time, we don’t sugar-coat things too much either. I guess I don’t mind the word “overweight,” but that brings up the question of what weight, exactly, that someone is “over”? And by whose standards? I don’t mean to get too politically-correct-ish, because we all know that often leaves us stumbling over our words and not knowing what to say anymore.

Elizabeth: Yeah, that’s just the thing: It’s perfectly nice to say, “Oh, let’s not talk about fat, let’s not use the word fat.” But we’ve got a huge problem with obesity in this country, and a media (or entire society) that’s obsessed with extreme thinness as an ideal. Until you change either of those things—and I’m not sure you can—you could could change the word fat to sunshine and it wouldn’t matter. To me, it’s a lot like the word ‘hipster.’ People complain about being called hipsters, but it’s like, uh, you’re a man wearing a deep-v-neck tee whose side project is making raw, vegan granola and sipping craft whiskeys. What else do you want to be described as? It’s just useful shorthand.

Deborah: Good point. Maybe it’s all the publicity and media attention about weight in general that irks me. I would love–just for one day–to ban the word “fat” from any morning show, newspaper, magazine and talk in general. I know that’s idealistic, but in a world where there are so many other issues to focus on, can’t we turn our attention away from our bodies and how much they weigh? Who knows, maybe we could use that energy to help others, like the starving children in Somalia or the billion people on this planet who don’t have access to clean drinking water?

Elizabeth: Oh, I could totally get behind a moratorium on fat-related articles in general for a day or twenty. ;-) But the fact is—it’s a really relatable topic. The average American (myself included) has practically no knowledge of Somalia, but everyone can relate to wanting to lose weight, or at least not gain weight, or wanting to be in better shape, or eat for better health, etc. I guess what I actually wish is that there would just be more focus on stuff like this in the media—healthy diet as lifestyle—than 100-calorie snacks or how to drop 10 pounds in 10 days. We set people up to fail all the time with this kind of stuff.

Deborah: Yep, and we just draw more attention to the so-called importance of a number versus the importance of feeling great, having energy and kicking some major ass in our lives!

I think it boils down to the way you use this word: Are we talking about things like body fat or are we just calling someone fat? And most importantly, are we using the word with respect or as a way to put someone down?

Photo: Life & Style

 

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  • taryn

    i think “fat” does have negative connotations, but maybe it’s up to the “fat” community to reappropriate the word and make it positive, like so many other originally deragatory terms have been? a certain racial slur that begins with an N, the “queer” label for gay people… it can be done! PHAT was a good start. what happened to that?!

  • curvynerd

    Fat in and of itself is not a bad word. It is a descriptive term. I would call myself fat, just like I would describe myself as tall or blond.

    The issue is, fat has become a stigmatized word (much like the term feminist), and THAT is where people get uncomfortable with it. There is a significant division in the fat acceptance/weight loss world — I have friends who abhor the word and refuse to use it; whereas I prefer to reclaim it. The real problem is that fat is synonymous with bad, because it is an ingrained notion that fat = bad; thin = good. If we work to correct this in society (oh, what a project that is), then the word fat will have less stigma.

    And, frankly, I’ll take fat over obese, or some of the awful euphemisms, like rotund, “big and beautiful,” etc.

    • cindylou

      I believe that curvynerd’s comments are right on target. As a fat woman, I have reclaimed the word, which by the way is not a four letter word. For info about accepting that word, fat acceptance and fighting fat discrimination see:

      http://www.naafaonline.com/dev2/index.html

  • wriggles

    “So how do we refer to someone who is overweight so we don’t offend people, yet at the same time, we don’t sugar-coat things too much either.”

    We think the presumption of “we” is STAGGERING. Just why does “we” think they’re in control of “us”?

  • Deborah Dunham

    Hi Cindylou — I love that you have “reclaimed the word” fat and don’t view it as a four-letter word! You are so right. Fat is not a bad word–it’s only bad when people use it to negatively or judgmentally label someone in my opinion. Thanks for writing in!