I remember very clearly the moment I finally understood that being fat doesn’t make me ugly or unworthy.
It was my junior year of college, and as someone who had recently learned to crochet, I was utterly obsessed with Pinterest. During one Pinterest binge, I came across a meme that literally changed my life. It was a photo of a manatee with its hand bashfully covering its mouth, and it said, “You’re not fat, you’re beautiful … Actually, I’m both.”
Suddenly, it dawned on me that I could be both. I could be fat and beautiful, fat and successful, fat and smart, and fat and worthy of love.
So when my girlfriend was standing in my bathroom a few days later, criticizing her body in a full-length mirror, I said something I probably shouldn’t have. She asked me, “Kassie? Does this dress make me look fat?”
I was still riding the high of my body-positive awakening. So instead of saying, “No, honey, you don’t look fat,” I practically shouted, “YOU’RE FAT AND BEAUTIFUL!”
For a few moments, there was silence.
Then, her face fell and she whispered, “I can’t believe you just said that.”
You and I both know very well why she reacted that way, but “fat” hasn’t always been an offensive word. At its most basic definition, fat is just “any of several white or yellowish greasy substances, forming the chief part of adipose tissue of animals.”
Over time, society has layered negative connotations on the word — stemming from the idea that having more than a certain amount of fat makes a person unhealthy. Now, “fat” can be synonymous with “ugly,” “stupid,” “disgusting,” and many more unflattering descriptors.
And for many fat women, understanding that the word itself isn’t inherently negative — that just the way we use it is negative — is an important step toward embracing their bodies.
“Being fat just is. Like being tall or short just is,” says Sonya Renee Taylor, founder and “Radical Executive Officer” of The Body is Not An Apology. Taylor describes herself as “an unapologetically fat, black, queer woman,” and says that we need to start allowing bodies to just be, without placing them on a hierarchy that determines which bodies are good and which are bad.
Yet, the way women use the word — even when describing themselves — can contribute to that hierarchy. There’s a certain type of Instagram or Facebook post that often goes viral: A mom recognizes the toxic way she has been speaking about her body in front of her daughter and how that could shape her child’s own sense of self-worth. She posts a photo of her body and vows to never again call herself fat.
That’s all fantastic — experts say that older generations of women have an important impact on how a young girl views her body, even if they just speak negatively about their own bodies — but it still relies on the idea that “fat” is a bad word.
“It’s a word that has really defined my life, and for a long time, negatively,” author and activist Virgie Tovar says. She, like Taylor, eventually realized that the word itself isn’t inherently offensive. It’s the way we use it that gives it meaning. “It’s a word that describes my body, and other people don’t get to use my body or that word against me,” she says. “I decide how it feels to me.”
But here’s the thing: We all have to decide how words like “fat” feel to us. And for many people, fat is still loaded with negativity — those of us who choose to view it neutrally or positively can’t force that neutrality or positivity on others, no matter how much better we’re certain it will make them feel. Tovar, Taylor, and I all defined “fat” for ourselves. When I told my girlfriend that she was both fat and beautiful, I defined it for her — and that’s not how it works. It doesn’t matter that I had the best intentions, that I meant it as a compliment, or that I was just so excited by my own realization that I wanted this woman who I loved to share in that.
Just as Tovar doesn’t allow others to place “fat” on her as a negative term, I couldn’t place it on my girlfriend as a positive one. She was fat and I was fat, but I had no idea how the word shaped her experiences.
At that time in her life, my girlfriend hadn’t reframed “fat” into something positive and powerful, and to hear me — the person who was supposed to love her most — literally shout it at her could easily have been traumatizing.
Luckily, it wasn’t. A deep apology, a hug, and a kiss made that situation better.
We’re no longer in a relationship (for a completely unrelated reason), but we do live together, and in the last four years she has picked up the fat positive movement and run with it.
We were sitting at the kitchen table a few weeks ago, eating dinner and talking about work, when she said, “You know what I love? Food.”
“That’s because you’re fat,” I said.
This time, she just laughed, nodded her head, and said, “Yeah, that’s true.”
Read these stories next: