Content warning: This article touches on instances of disordered eating, as well as size and weight, that some readers may find upsetting.
In 2019, I realised I was more than just fat. It had taken me my entire lifetime to come to terms with that word. For decades, I’d done almost anything I could to avoid anyone using the word fat as a descriptor for my body, including losing (and regaining) more than 40kg…twice. But after a few years in treatment for an eating disorder, during which I discovered the Health At Every Size movement, I had finally made peace with the term fat — only to discover I had more work to do.
Binary thinking was and is a hangover from my eating disorder and I’m ashamed to say how long it took me (despite having lived in a larger body for most of my life) to work out that it’s not as simple as being ‘thin’ or ‘fat’. Looking at statistics alone, with 67% of the adult population considered “overweight” or “obese” according to the ABS, there’s inevitably going to be a lot of variance in how people experience different levels of fatness. In fact, the ‘average’ Australian woman is actually plus-size, a fact which led me to create a size-inclusive brand called AmpleFolk. We sell products designed especially for plus-size people, starting with 2.2 metre-long towels, and we are also currently working on a patent-pending, radically adjustable sports bra.
Despite the majority of us Australians falling into the ‘overweight’ category, we can’t even agree on a term for people living in a larger body, with some preferring ‘plus-size’ while others like ‘curvy’ and some favour ‘fat’. These descriptors and identifiers are so deeply personal, but thanks to the work of some incredible fat activists, we have what’s known as a spectrum of fatness, or, ‘fategories’, as Linda Gerhardt puts it.
As the fat activism movement has evolved and embraced intersectionality (although we still have a long way to go), various labels have emerged to describe different positions along the fatness spectrum. These categories serve as a shorthand for individuals (mostly those who identify as women) to express their placement on the scale and encapsulate their experiences of navigating the world in their bodies. While no system of labels can perfectly capture every person's lived experience, these terms have gained prominence within fat communities as a means of fostering understanding and solidarity.
I am by no means an expert in this field, nor a representation of the fat community as a whole. But I believe that knowledge is power and the more pause for critical thought and an understanding of the experiences of others (especially those less privileged than you), is always a positive thing. I want to acknowledge my own privileges living in a ‘large fat’ (see descriptors below) white, cis-gender, able body. I also want to recognise that the body positivity movement was co-opted by straight-size, cishet, white people, despite its roots in black fat queer culture.
The below details the most commonly used placements on the fatness spectrum:
Small Fat (AU women’s size 20 and below)
Many consider this as "entry-level fat." Many small fats are visibly plus-size people, however, some can (for lack of a better term) ‘pass’ as straight-sized. Small fats are included in all plus-size clothing ranges and can also shop in multiple straight-size clothing ranges. They may still face size oppression, albeit to a lesser degree. Access to public spaces is generally available to them, and they are not systematically excluded from various aspects of life solely due to their weight.
Mid-Fat (AU women’s size 22 to 26/28)
When it comes to clothing, mid-fats rely primarily on plus-size retailers and face limited options in brick-and-mortar stores. Discrimination in healthcare, weight stigma in various contexts, and difficulties accessing certain spaces become more pronounced for mid-fats. However, they still experience some accommodation compared to those on the larger end of the spectrum.
Large Fat (AU women’s size 28/30 - 34)
Also labelled ‘Lane Bryant fat’ by writer Roxane Gay, this term denotes those on the larger side of the middle range within the fatness spectrum. People who fall into this category are usually the largest size at plus-size retailers and have limited options (i.e. only being able to shop at the American plus-size store Lane Bryant), the majority of which are only available online. They face further discrimination and bias when moving around the world, particularly in healthcare, air travel and public seating.
Superfat (AU women’s size 36 and larger)
This term emerged at the NOLOSE conference in 2008, created by the fattest members of the community seeking recognition of their unique experiences and needs. Originally evoking superhero imagery, the term aimed to foster unity among the largest fats within the fat community. Over time, its meaning has shifted, with some individuals now using ‘infinifat’ (see below). Nonetheless, identifying as superfat generally indicates being on the larger end of the size spectrum and facing significant barriers in daily life, including being unable to find clothing at almost all plus-size retailers.
Infinifat (AU women’s size 36 and larger)
Coined by Ash Nischuk, host of the podcast The Fat Lip, ‘infinifat’ designates individuals who face significant barriers due to institutionalised sizeism on a daily basis. Infinifats are the most underserved members of the fat community, excluded from mainstream plus-size retailers and forced to seek custom-made clothing. Discrimination, mistreatment in healthcare settings, and exclusion from public life are all too common for those falling within this size range.
Death Fat (no specific size range)
Created by writer Lesley Kinzel in 2008, the term ‘death fat’ allows fat individuals of any size to reclaim their "morbid" fatness without specific size constraints. It serves as a powerful statement of self-empowerment within the fat community, challenging societal notions and promoting body acceptance.
I personally have found myself at many different points on the fatness spectrum and felt the privileges and burdens of each one. I do not have lived experience as a superfat or infinifat. Recognising where you fall on the fatness spectrum and your weight/size privilege doesn’t take away from the pain or negative experiences you have faced, but it does help to make space for those who are more marginalised. If I had a dollar for every straight-size person who has said to me, “I never thought about towels not being long enough to fit larger people”, I could fund my business for many years into the future. It’s not about chastising them for not knowing or thinking about it, it’s about creating awareness and a framework for which to share the needs of those most maligned.
In the past few years, we’ve seen an influx of businesses that claim to be ‘size inclusive’ but only make clothing for small fats and some mid fats. Most plus-size influencers sit in the small to mid fat range. Again, it’s not about taking anything away from people in these bodies — it’s about making space for people at the more marginalised end of the spectrum. As I pointed out earlier, the “average” Australian woman wears between a size 16 and 18, making them a small fat. So, statistically speaking, more people are likely to fall in the small and mid fat ranges, so it makes sense logically that there are more influencers who fall into this category. But elevating the voices and experiences of those in even larger bodies is only going to benefit people of all sizes. We can’t do better unless we know better.
If you or anyone you know is struggling with disordered eating, please contact the Butterfly Foundation at 1800 33 4673. Support and information are available 7 days a week.