As A Plus-Size Woman, I’ll Never Be Comfortable With The Word Fat

Photographed by Savanna Ruedy
The other week, before I had even had breakfast, I was called ‘fat’ by three different people. Once by an internet troll (easily disregarded) and twice by well-meaning peers in an indirect way. One was referencing another friend who they said were “fat too” and another was looking to speak to a “fat person” for some research — the implication being that I fit the brief.
With the ease of someone who has grown up in a body people often like to make reference to for its size, I quickly deflected any emotional sting that the association between myself and this word may have provoked. I quipped something along the lines of “I preferred it in the noughties when only people who hated me called me fat,” before nudging the conversation along with a little “haha”. 
Despite my best efforts, though, my brain simply couldn’t move on with the same ease, and the word lingered in my head all day. Around it swirled, each time drawing out another (mostly painful) memory from both the recent and distant past, many of which I’ve tried very hard to forget. 
The experience left me wondering if, despite my best efforts to try to reclaim the word “fat” from bullies like so many others have been doing, I will ever truly be comfortable with it. 
You see, the tide has turned in recent years when it comes to usage of the word ‘fat’, thanks, in large part, to body positivity. Started by Black women in the 1960s, the movement has seen a rapid expansion in support and recognition since the arrival of Instagram, by virtue of a wide range of hashtags, as well as popular influencers who champion them. One key focus of the movement has been the reclamation of the word ‘fat’ — in the attempt to return it to its rightful position as a descriptor rather than an insult. 
According to linguistics expert, Maxine Ali, the word wasn’t always used to admonish people. “Evidence of ‘fat’ in an unfavourable sense potentially dates back to Old (Anglo Saxon) English, and so it’s difficult to disentangle the term as a descriptor from its pejorative history entirely, despite past usages also framing it as a neutral or even positive attribute (in the sense of wealth and abundance),” she tells Refinery29. “‘Fat’ as an attack on one’s appearance and personhood became a dominant sense, however, particularly in the wake of two cultural shifts: the increased visibility of women outside of domestic spaces (enabled by women’s rights movements), and the move from public health as the responsibility of the state to individualised regimes of ‘self-care.’” 

I have so much respect for those who have managed to decouple the word from their trauma but I’ve made peace with the fact that asking myself to embrace something that has caused me so much pain in the past, might just be asking too much.

rose stokes
Ali says that use of the word as an insult became a way for societies to ‘regulate’ the appearance and behaviours of individuals and maintain social norms. “The threat of being stigmatised (in theory) keeps individuals from transgressing the boundaries of what is seen as an ‘acceptable’ body.” she says. “In a nutshell, it’s all about social control and keeping us so preoccupied with hating and trying to ‘fix’ our own bodies so that we don’t have the time, energy or mental bandwidth to disrupt oppressive social norms.”
In this sense, body positivity has been a huge disrupting force, with many prominent people in the public eye, such as comedians Jo Brand in the '90s and, more recently, Sofie Hagen, picking up the mantle. For Brand, as is written in Georgia Pritchett's book, My Mess Is a Bit of a Life Other, calling herself fat or insulting her own appearance before the audience could was an attempt to take control of the narrative and protect herself.  
For writer of Fattily Ever After and prominent body positive activist Stephanie Yeboah, though, it is about much more than simply beating the trolls to the punchline. “For me, it's always been important to reclaim the word 'fat' as it's a way for me to take the power and the negativity out of the word,” she tells Refinery29. “I don't see it as an insult, because fat is what I am [...] it's just a body type — the same as thin, muscular, Black, white, etc, and bears no reflection on me as a person with regards to my looks and personality!” She also says for her it’s a word that has no bearing on her attractiveness. “I'm fat, and I also consider myself attractive, so if someone uses the word against me thinking that 'fat' is the worst thing a person can be, then I'd like to think I'm doing rather well for myself.”
On an intellectual level, I can relate to everything Yeboah says, and am so happy that for her and other body positive activists, emancipation from the hurt that this word has caused has been possible. I envy it.
But the truth is that if you asked me today to name the word I am personally most afraid of in the English language, I wouldn’t hesitate. One word, three letters, packed full of trauma. 
There is no other word that strikes more fear into my heart upon actually hearing it launched in my direction, or even imagining so. No other word that, over the course of my life, has caused me more sleepless nights, anxiety, pain, mental health problems or emotional torment. 
Ali says this makes sense. “Words play a significant role in how we experience and make sense of our reality, and so how we feel is intrinsically tied to the language we’re exposed to and the narratives we internalise and recycle about ourselves in our own conversations.” Additionally, she says, for those who have been on the receiving end of fat-shaming comments, their understanding of the term might be marked by this trauma. “Words are invariably anchored to our personal histories, and painful experiences become part of our personal definitions of terms.”
And yet there is also no other word that I have spent so much time trying to neutralise in my head, in order to reduce the significant power it yields over me. I have tried, so much, to make myself okay with the idea of being referred to as ‘fat’ but I simply can’t. I fear I will never be able to.
When you are overweight, you become used to being described by your size rather than any other prevailing characteristic you may have. By those wishing to be kind there is a wide range of adjectives I’m used to hearing. To those people I am ‘plus size’; ‘larger’ (than what?); ‘chubby’; ‘cuddly’; ‘curvy’; ‘voluptuous’; and everyone’s favourite implicit fat identifier, ‘bubbly’. These words have less painful connotations for me, and I am therefore able to tolerate them.

Reappropriation can be a powerful act of linguistic protest. It’s essentially a process symbolic of taking back control over language that has been previously weaponised against you, and that can be incredibly affirming for one’s identity.

Maxine Ali, linguistics expert
But ‘fat’ feels different. I remember so clearly the first time someone called me it in a way intended to cause harm. I must have been 7 or 8, queueing for lunch at school. I hid in the toilets for the rest of the break crying, and was inconsolable when I got home. At the time, I was barely larger than my pals, but being singled out in such a vicious way instilled a deep, deep fear in me that has in many ways underpinned the rest of my life. Not only was this the beginning of the shattering of my self-esteem, which has taken most of my adult life to rebuild, but it was also my first brush with diet culture, prompting me not to hide my food in my pockets during lunch so no one knew I wasn’t eating. 
For me, the word and the numerous traumatic events in my life I have experienced because of it, mean I doubt it will ever truly be neutral. Yeboah says that’s OK. “When it comes to others not taking to the word, I think it's absolutely fine!” she says empathetically. “It has an incredibly long, negative history of being associated with unattractiveness [...] everyone is on their own personal journey when it comes to how they view their bodies, and in a perfect world, being called fat would not be an issue at all.” But while we are still living in an imperfect world, Yeboah says it makes sense for people to want to protect themselves from harm. “Until we can get to a point where society at large can unlearn the toxic narratives surrounding fatness, there will always be people who will feel uncomfortable with the word, and that's okay!”
The idea that the word might lose its potency as an insult over time gives me a lot of reassurance. “Words can go through a process of amelioration, where they take on more positive connotations over time,” Ali says. “This is usually caused by shifting cultural norms and attitudes towards the referent of the term”. Although amelioration can take place organically, she says, often with terms that are conventionally used as slurs or insults, it takes conscious effort and labour on the part of stigmatised communities to transform what the term represents. “This is called linguistic reappropriation, and it essentially involves an intentional reversal of the social norms of language in order to bring a stigmatising term into acceptable or even empowering use.”
Reappropriation can be a powerful act of linguistic protest, says Ali. “It’s essentially a process symbolic of taking back control over language that has been previously weaponised against you, and that can be incredibly affirming for one’s identity [...] it’s not easy for words to shed their harmful semantic history completely and so, understandably, many people might prefer to reject or escape terms that carry painful memories for them.”
In my case, that’s where I’ve landed. I have so much respect for those who have managed to decouple the word from their trauma, and I am committed to making sure my children have a better understanding of bodies and acceptance for their own, regardless of its shape. In the meantime, though, I’ve made peace with the fact that asking myself to embrace something that has caused me so much pain in the past, might just be asking too much. And that’s OK too.

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