It’s amazing how easily the phrase rolls off the tongue, and how much sense it makes to us when we hear it. You’re not fat, you’re beautiful. She wasn’t hot, she was fat.
And it’s amazing how much meaning is tied up in that one small word, just three letters that convey so much. It should be a simple adjective, used to describe someone’s size. Instead, it’s become a stand-in for how attractive we find them — not to mention how disciplined, how intelligent, how trustworthy, and how healthy we believe them to be. You’re not fat, you’re beautiful, because the two are mutually exclusive.
Never mind that the world is replete with beautiful fat people, with beautiful, sexy, fat people. Never mind that Adele is hot as shit, that Melissa McCarthy is pretty and talented, that Octavia Spencer is hilarious and sexy.
These people are fat. To them, and to many others, that might sound and feel like an insult. But that’s not how I mean it. I mean it solely as a description of size, detached from any value judgment. These people are big; that’s it. Of course, “fat” means so much more than that that it’s foolish to imagine we can use the word without offending the people to whom we apply, just as it’s foolish to pretend we can call someone “skinny” without implying a compliment. I wish that were possible, though.
Ask yourself: when was the last time you used the word “fat” as a purely descriptive term? When was the last time you heard it said without judgment, without shame, without myriad other implications attached to it? When was the last time you heard someone described as fat and beautiful?
There are lots of things I would change about the way we talk about people’s bodies, and about our giant, fraught, omnipresent cultural conversation about size, weight, and shape. But if I could wave a magic wand and strip the adjective “fat” of all its extra meaning, I would.
When you’re a woman on the internet, “fat” is a word that gets thrown at you a lot. Like “ugly” and “slut,” it’s an all-purpose term that’s rarely intended to describe the reality of your size or shape or appearance, just as “slut” is not intended to describe how much sex you have. It’s simply intended to shut you up. It’s used to render you irrelevant, worthless, undeserving of an opinion. Because the word has so many other meanings attached to it, it doesn’t matter if the person it’s leveled at is, in fact, fat: calling her fat is a way to call her a host of undesirable things.
You hear the same dynamic at work when someone describes their mood by saying, “I feel fat today.” When we say that, we’re so rarely describing a physical state. We’re describing how we feel about a physical state: self-conscious, unattractive, worthless. Fat is not a feeling, we used to say in the eating disorders awareness and prevention group I was in on my college campus. Use the right word for how you feel: I feel worried that people don’t find me attractive at this weight. I feel insecure about how my jeans fit right now. Worried is a feeling, insecure is a feeling. Fat is not a feeling — unless you’re steeped in a culture in which “fat” is a synonym for so many other things. Because we invest so much in a person’s size and shape, it almost makes sense for fat to be a feeling, or at least a stand-in for how we make fat people feel. Fat might not technically be a feeling, but if you understand the cultural shorthand — that fat is inherently unattractive — then you understand what “I feel fat” means.
Describing your mood as “fat” falls under the heading of Fat Talk. Every year in October, the Delta Delta Delta sorority runs Fat Talk Free Week, a national initiative that challenges people to cut conversations about weight and size — “I’m way too fat to wear that,” “You look great, have you lost weight?”– out of their lives. Of course, if Tri Delt had their way, we’d do that 52 weeks a year. I’m all for reducing the amount of shit we talk about our bodies, but I think going totally Fat Talk Free is an incomplete solution. In fact, I think that simply banishing that kind of talk from our lives overlooks the way the word “fat” functions in our culture. The idea that fat and attractive are mutually exclusive is a powerful one, and it won’t go away simply because we stop engaging in Fat Talk.
We need to think about what we really mean when we use the word “fat,” and start divesting it of its value judgments. And that starts with the oh-so-common reassurance, you’re not fat, you’re beautiful.
When we reassure people (or ourselves) that they are not fat, they’re beautiful, we’re offering them cold comfort. We’re offering them a false dichotomy, and one that rests on the incorrect assumption that fat is inherently unattractive. It’s time to start unstitching that assumption, so that fat — like tall or short — begins to function as a neutral description of someone’s physical presence, rather than a verdict on their character.
Logically, you’re not fat, you’re beautiful doesn’t make sense. Culturally — for now, at least — it does. The thing is, we live in a world with lots of fat, beautiful, sexy, people in it. We need to use language in a way that reflects that reality, instead of erasing it. Are you fat? I don’t know, I can’t see you from here. Are you fat and hot as shit? Probably. Are the two mutually exclusive? Not even a little bit.