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Is it OK to use the word ‘fat’ when describing bodies?

The term ‘fat’ comes with many connotations, far beyond the actual definition of the word. So who is allowed to use it, and when is it appropriate?

Language is much more powerful than we think. Especially in today’s highly digitalised and oversaturated world, we often forget about the power of words. 

But words still matter more than we think, especially when it comes to how we feel about ourselves.

This is especially relevant in the context of how we talk about our bodies and the use of the word ‘fat’.

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“The word ‘fat’ has so much history and weight to it,” says Demi Lynch, founder of inclusive news platform Kaleidoscope News and podcast Faternise.

“For decades now, being ‘fat’ is considered to be the worst thing a person could be in society. We still live in a world that’s catered to thin people and shuns fat people. 

“From the seats we sit in every day, to the lack of size diversity in fashion, to the billion dollar diet industry – fat people are either excluded from the narrative or feared by society.”

“The word ‘fat’ is often used as a derogatory term to belittle, stigmatise and pathologise people of larger body size/weight”, says Rachel Roberts, a clinical counsellor at Make Space Counselling and Rough Patch Affordable Counselling. Unfortunately, this is still where the word fits into our mainstream language today. 

“If you were to do a word association for ‘fat’, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear words like lazy, greedy, unintelligent, selfish, ungroomed. These words reveal a culture-wide attitude towards not just the word fat, but fat people – an attitude that isn’t just unpleasant, but is actively harmful,” says Roberts.

People have been trying to shift attitudes and language around fatness since the 60s. All the proof we need is in the Fat Liberation Manifesto, published in 1973, which shows just how long activists have been working to redefine what ‘fat’ means.

The word ‘fat’ has been used to denigrate, humiliate and coerce people into changing their bodies for decades,” adds clinical psychotherapist and founder of Rough Patch Affordable Counselling, Amber Rules.

“It’s become such a judgement-loaded word – when really it’s just a descriptor; the same way that tall or short is. Language is a deeply powerful, nuanced thing; words become loaded with meaning (and even change meaning) over time.”

Language has the power to instil this kind of passive ‘knowledge’ in us; we feel like something is true for us, without actually knowing where that truth came from. For example, the messaging around thinness being a defining feature of feminine success directly leads us to believe that being ‘fat’ is more than unsuccessful; it’s an insult.

Just think about it: when have you ever heard the word fat as a compliment? Or even simply as an adjective, without a weighted meaning?

Perhaps only recently, celebrities like Camila Cabello, Billie Eilish and Selena Gomez have publicly responded to body-shaming comments and spoken openly about how negative comments are impactful. 

But even still, the use of the word ‘fat’ rarely finds itself in a mainstream context with a positive spin. 

We are much more likely to see content around “getting fit”, being “toned” and “losing fat”, than celebrating what being fat really means. Hell, there was an entire reality TV show in Australia based on losing fat – and it celebrated those wins.

And while yes, you could argue there is science behind the fact that weight can impact our health, it’s unique for each individual and can’t be judged on a one-size-fits-all basis. 

While there has definitely been a shift in size representation and talking about our bodies with more positive language, the progress is slow, says Rules.

“The ‘body positive’ movement has increased visibility around the harms of body shame, but it has also co-opted fat liberation ideas in harmful ways – namely, erasing the radical roots of fat liberation, often by well-meaning influencers who are often white, conventionally attractive and smaller-bodied. 

“People are always going to find it difficult to love their bodies as they are if there is still a loud majority who believe that fat is bad, unhealthy or undesirable.”

But then there are influencers like April Hélène-Horton, also known as @thebodzilla, who bring nothing but honest, inspiring and meaningful messaging around body acceptance and fat positivity.

“I don’t feel negative about describing myself as fat. I am fat. I am tall. I have a very loud voice. Those are facts about me, physically, that doesn’t affect my ‘value’ as a human,” Hélène-Horton tells Body+Soul. 

However, she didn’t always have this outlook. from childhood up until about four years ago, all of her experiences with the word ‘fat’ were negative.

“I can remember having someone say it to me as a 15-year-old while I was working in a fast food restaurant as I tried to smile through the discomfort and being white hot with rage that my friend would say that to my face.”

But nowadays, it doesn’t have the same effect on her, Hélène-Horton says.

“It’s not that I think others aren’t saying it to either hurt me or to somehow get across their feelings of disdain for fatness – but I just know that it doesn’t matter that I’m fat. It doesn’t make me a bad person, or a failure, or any of the things I’ve been told fat people are. 

“I am who I am, and I’m also fat. I reclaim that word for myself and for anyone who wishes they could take the sting out of it. Fat? Yep. And I’m OK with that.”

Similarly, Demi Lynch realised that there was nothing wrong with being fat. Despite getting trolls in her DMs all the time, telling her she’s fat, it doesn’t upset her like it used to.

“I’m a fat woman on the internet, and people hate that,” she says.

“Once I reclaimed the word and started describing myself as fat, the word no longer felt like an insult.”

Rules says that changing your relationship to a word or concept is something that is integral when it comes to defining negative language. It may not be a streamlined journey or something that happens overnight, but it’s certainly possible. 

“If you find yourself averse or repulsed by certain bodies, ask yourself why. Is it because of moral judgements – this body is unhealthy or unsafe? Is it because that’s what our culture has taught you to believe – that certain bodies are desirable and others are ugly? 

“A good place to start is by diversifying your social feeds; follow people who look different to what the dominant culture tells you is acceptable, and interrogate your feelings about these people. Remember: preferences aren’t innate, they’re learned – and they can change.”

It’s also important for proper diversity representation, says Katie Parrott, founder of the inclusive Australian fashion label Ecclestone

“The challenge with language is that we can’t assume everyone is in the same place,” she says.

“For example, I wouldn’t categorise or call someone ‘fat’ unless that was a thing they’d established they were comfortable with themselves. It’s not my place to tell other people what words they feel comfortable with.

“But I do think that proper diversity and representation requires us to have language that talks to the realities that people experience. And the reality that I experience as a larger-bodied person, as a fat person, is different to the reality experienced by smaller-bodied people

“For me, I’m happy for that language to include ‘fat’. The word ‘fat’ is only offensive because we’ve made it offensive. In and of itself, it’s just a word that describes size.”

Overall, it’s important to acknowledge the power of language.

“Words matter – they convey meaning and attitude, can reinforce stereotypes, and acknowledging the power of language means we can harness it to align with our values,” Rules says. 

It’s not the word ‘fat’ that is the problem, but the meaning we’ve attached to it. 

Hélène-Horton suggests that instead of avoiding the word ‘fat’ or coming up with a new word, we change the way we speak to ourselves and others.

“There are already too many euphemisms for fat. We came up with ‘plus’ and ‘curvy’ as a way to subcategorise bodies in a way that let them be seen in places like fashion.”

What we need, she says, is a new way of speaking to ourselves and others – with a lack of judgment; without assuming we know things based on physical appearance.

“You can’t know someone’s gender, if they have a disability, or whether they were breastfed by their appearance. But you can definitely know whether or not the way you treat them makes them feel good or bad about themselves. 

“Let’s not just change how we use the word fat. Let’s try and change the way we look at, speak to and treat fat people in our everyday lives.”

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