My friends can be crass, but they never say the “F” word out loud. They’re very discreet whenever they utter it, downcast eyes, hushed tones, the whole shebang. The whole world can hear “bitch,” “shit,” “asshole,” and “cunt,” but someone actually hearing us describe someone as “fat”? Not if we can help it!
We’re not alone in having taken this vow of omission. Society has made us think that “fatness” is not only unacceptable – it should be ignored. “Fat” is a way to describe someone and an even worse thing to be. If you happen to be fat, you had better bear the shame in silence and be fucking thankful that people not mentioning it is a kindness and a service to you.
As a fat person myself, I feel like this has put a muzzle on how my friends and I can talk to each other. It wasn’t until the end of 2017 that I started feeling comfortable saying the word out loud to myself. I inducted it into my vocabulary the way I did all of my other curse words. I whispered it to myself, muffled against pillows, against my forearm, quickly and with my eyes shut so it didn’t really feel like I said anything bad. I wrote it down in corners of papers, in the smallest handwriting and hastily scribbled or ripped it out.
I didn’t feel that same illicit rush as I did the first time I said “bitch.” My face didn’t grow hot like the first time I wrote “fuck you.” I did feel a bit sick and shameful after I said “I’m fat.” My tongue tripped over that one syllable and it felt so foreign in my mouth. Sometimes a sharp inhalation would happen after I uttered it. There are still times when I still can’t utter it in front of my friends.
When I say I “can’t” I mean that literally. The timid few times I’ve tossed it out there it was quickly beaten back with “No you’re not!” and “Don’t say that about yourself!” and “You’re so pretty!” and “You have such a great personality, looks don’t matter!” I think I understand their motivations. They believe that by not saying it, they somehow avoid insulting me, and I let them do it. Even though that makes me feel bad about myself in a way that they might as well have insulted me straight to my face.
Sometimes we would be having a lovely conversation and then in the middle of a story it becomes necessary for the teller to use the word “fat” to describe someone. Suddenly, the conversation falters, they can’t quite meet my eyes, they chuckle nervously, their hands come together and then apart, seemingly this is all sign language for fat. With a quick glance at me they’ll say, “You know…”
Eventually a compromise is reached with “big” or “not thin”. Always said in a rush, (if they don’t enunciate than it should be alright, right?). Always in a lower register, (if I don’t actually hear then it doesn’t count, right?). They’ll angle their bodies and slightly turn their faces away from mine for a moment. This way they can pause my existence for a moment. Then they’ll glance at me quickly to see if I’ve understood what they meant and if I understand the subtext that they didn’t mean me, of course and if I’m hurt than they’re so, so sorry.
I get it and I can’t really find it in myself to blame them. We’ve been socialised to associate fatness with comedic sidekicks or toadies, always the butt of the joke or the afterthought. All of your movie and novel heroines have been svelte and lithe. Under the guise of “acceptance” we’ve seen stories that end with the heroine having lost weight and the happiness they have gained despite it.
We believe “Fat” to be a rude descriptor because we are told constantly to lose it, or to not mention it because it might make the person feel bad. We have so many negative associations with fatness that it just becomes easier to never mention it at all so that you can come off as “nice.”
We think of “Fat” as an unfortunate situation to be in with an easy remedy: eat less, move more. And because the solution sounds “easy” anyone who doesn’t take it must be stupid or lazy or both. These negative attributes are constantly leveled at people who don’t conform to an ideal body type.
It becomes easier and easier as we grow up surrounded by these messages to either turn a blind eye or start believing that fat people are inferior either implicitly or explicitly. Usually when you get mad at someone and start either ripping into them or ranting about them to your friends, attacking their looks is the easiest thing to do and you can lie to yourself and feel justified that the person kind of deserves it.
It’s been easier for me to pretend not to notice this than to say, “Hey guys, I’m fat. You can say ‘fat’ in front of me.” At first I could believe them when they said they “didn’t mean me.” I said “Yup! Yeah! Whatever! It’s cool!” as quick as I could because I also wanted that moment to be over. I wanted it to be done and forgotten as quickly as possible. I wanted to ignore that tight, twisting feeling in my stomach.
I couldn’t ignore those feelings for long though because I started to detect a pattern among all of these indecencies. The common vein that all of these little stories had was that “fat” was being used negatively. It was used to describe someone disgusting or ugly, bitches and sluts, anyone they had a negative interaction with or didn’t like. Whether or not the people they were describing were fat, I don’t know. What’s the sliding scale when you calculate how “fat” someone is? Is it relative to you? Is it a specific weight? I don’t know, it’s never specified, but they all end up basically meaning the same thing: Repellent.
It’s easy to believe that you’re above falling for subliminal messages, especially when they’re wrapped up in good intentions (they are not, after all, talking about you.) Yet I gradually found myself being more acquiescent than I wanted because even though I love my friends and I believe that they love me there is a tiny drop of fear that if we should get into an argument or they’ve become upset with me, I will actually become that “fat bitch” they don’t like. I would become that funny joke they could laugh at.
It’s exhausting living like that all the time and I’m over it. So now I’m going to catch their eyes before they flick them away when they tell another story about some “fat idiot”. I’m going to shrug and say, “wow, that’s crazy” when they complain that they’re feeling fat. I will supply them with the word “fat” when they struggle for a euphemism. I’m going to be understanding because I know how difficult it can be to break a bad habit. Before I could believe that it was unintentional due to how we’re socialised and they never had to probe and wonder why they had negative connotations about fatness since it ultimately had no bearing over their lives.
Learning to be kinder to yourself is also tied with unlearning some harmful behaviours. I never felt confident or deserving enough to ask them to take some time to think of me or to take my feelings into consideration. To be fair, I had never vocalized this or had the nerve to… but now I have and I will continue to do so. I’m growing and changing everyday through their influence and I hope mine can help them to grow as well.
Because no matter what I’m still going to be the same person who’s funny and clever and interesting. And fat.