There I was: naked, standing in front of my mirror with my iPhone in hand, desperately trying to find the best angle of my butt. Taking a nude selfie is like a game of whack-a-mole. You may perfectly capture your beautiful badonk, but then there’s too much side boob. You tuck it in, but then your face is doing something weird. You relax the duck lips, but then, where did your left leg go? Tedious as it was, taking nudes on that particular evening was a labor of love — self-love — and an opportunity to challenge myself by doing something terrifying: posting them.
Now, I get that this could be a super scary endeavor for many people. Showing someone your body makes you vulnerable in a plethora of ways. But I’m fat. And even though my size 16 frame puts me somewhere on the “fat spectrum” that affords me certain privileges — like more access to clothing, less unwarranted advice and concern over my health, and generally less vitriol thrown my way — I’m still totally, unequivocally fat. More to my point, I am definitely fat enough that the sight of my nude body is still a novel and shocking thing to our society. Posting a nude selfie is simply more dangerous for me. However, I did find a space that made me feel safe.
It was a closed, all-female Facebook group. These were intersectional feminists who loved makeup, music, and fashion, among other things. They talked about relationships and professional development. They offered each other support regularly. And yeah, they showed each other their boobs. After lurking for awhile and seeing exactly zero negative comments on anyone’s sexy selfies, I decided I was safe and posted my nude photo. And I was right. Mostly.
"You are just the cutest," one comment read, and this was the general theme of my feedback. Not, “Oh. My. Lord.” or “Yes please” or an endless string of fire emojis, or anything close to the fanfare I saw my straight-sized sisters enjoying. I even got a, “Look at that face!” Yes, thank you, my makeup was on fleek that day, but what about my ass?
When you call a fat body 'cute,' it’s patronizing and de-sexualizing.
Emotions happened after this. Self-doubt for sure, but not about my body. I had been there and done that, and had made too much progress for even outright insults to truly affect my pride. So what was I really mad about here? That I didn’t get the affirmation and validation I wanted? Maybe. I don’t think there is anything wrong with wanting people to find you attractive. Besides, no one said I was unattractive. These women had become my friends, and they all had nice things to say. I could have been overreacting, and I definitely didn’t have the guts to say something, but it just kept digging at me. They had different things to say about my body, different from what they were saying about all the other bodies. That was the real issue.
When you call a fat body "cute," it’s patronizing and de-sexualizing. It "others" us. Don’t get me wrong, there are times when “cute” is a fitting word for me. I do, indeed, have the cutest giggle ever and look pretty damn adorable in bunny ears. But when someone calls me “cute” in a setting where I am showing my body or expressing my sexuality, it plucks me right out of the narrative I am trying to create — it’s kind of like calling a woman “silly” when she is being passionate about something. When people use the word “cute,” what they really mean is cute like a baby, cute like a fuzzy puppy, cute like something that could never possibly inspire lust and passion. You know how people say, “Don’t get cute with me” in order to put someone in their place? That’s exactly what “cute” does in this context, too.
I’ve since continued to post nudes, both privately and publicly as part of body positive campaigns. “Cute” is still thrown at me occasionally, along with equally well-meaning, yet ultimately patronizing, comments, like, “I love your confidence!” That one’s also a doozy. Before you tell a woman you love the confidence it takes for her to show her body, picture her as a thin, white, cis, able-bodied, young woman. Do we ever say these things to women like that? We absolutely don’t. When someone praises my confidence, I understand part of that comes from acknowledging the courage it takes to show an underrepresented — and, frankly, hated — body type. And they’re right. I’ve got ovaries of steel for that.
But the narrative has to change. We have spent far too much time focusing on the dangers of daring to be seen while fat, queer, differently-abled and of color. We need to start lifting these bodies up. We need to start validating them. And calling someone “cute” or praising their confidence doesn’t do that. Try “beautiful,” or go out on a limb and say “sexy.” And don’t panic when you find that “beautiful” and “sexy” start to change in meaning for you. They should. These are words that belong to everyone who wants them. Save “cute” for kittens.