Pause for a beat. A slight recoil. Shoulders tense up. These are typical reactions when I use the word “fat” in conversation.
I am a Health at Every Size aligned dietitian. I practice from a weight-inclusive lens, and I treat individuals across the weight spectrum. Why, then, do I use the word fat in such a cavalier way?
We have negatively charged the word fat for as long as I can remember. As long as my mom, and your moms, and our grandmothers can remember. My first memory of “fat” was at age six. I got on a scale at a beach house we were renting and worried if the number was high enough to label me as “fat.” It starts early, it runs thick, and it is nearly impossible to avoid.
How we use the word fat
Picture this: you are out to dinner with friends. You all take a picture, and the group gathers to evaluate the photo. Inevitably, someone interjects, “Delete that! I look fat, we need to take it again.” Another friend jumps to her rescue, “oh my god, you do not look fat!”
Estimates vary, but data shows that somewhere between 69%-91% of women experience body dissatisfaction related to weight, regardless of their position on the weight spectrum (McLaren & Kuh, 2004; Runfola et al., 2013). If the hypothetical situation in question involved a group of six women, then we can deduce conservatively that at least four of these six women face some degree of body dissatisfaction.
These four women hear their friend agonizing over the fact that a photo makes her look fat. They then internalize the message that fat is unacceptable. Further, we assure one another that we are not fat. It’s just a bad angle, an unflattering dress, or bad lighting, or a burrito baby. Inadvertently, this conversation perpetuates the message that should you ever be labeled as fat, your body will need to be fixed urgently. It perpetuates the paternalistic idea that if you are fat, you should be ashamed. This pattern repeats itself, ad infinitum, throughout the lifespan.
Society’s expectations regarding the word fat
I had a well-meaning professor last semester explain to our class of aspiring mental health counselors why she has banned the word fat from her home. She explained why she interjects every time her niece calls herself fat. This was followed by how she swiftly replaced the term with the euphemism, “The F-Word.” While there was no doubt in my mind that her intentions were pure, what her niece was hearing time after time was, fat is something bad, fat is unspeakable, and fat is something to be avoided.
The truth of the matter is, that some people are fat. Many of these people likely will remain fat, despite the lifestyle patterns they adopt. We know the allostatic load imposed by weight stigma and weight discrimination yields worse outcomes than the weight itself. We know that the more weight shame an individual feels, the less likely they are to maintain the health-promoting behaviors that we all love to recommend.
So, why is it that we feel such a visceral reaction when the word fat is used as a descriptor?
I use the word fat in a non-derogatory way. In the same way, I might describe someone as tall, or muscular, or brunette. I do not employ the word fat as an insult. When I hear someone call themselves fat, I no longer instinctively reassure them that they aren’t. The more we use this word neutrally, the more fat individuals feel that their bodies are just bodies, without a moral judgment attached.
Changing the narrative
Without fail, every time I explain this, someone chimes in with a, “but what about their health?!”. I have a lot of thoughts on this comment, but I will summarize them as concisely as I can. First and foremost, I can’t imagine a world where telling a friend that their body is wrong would be the inspiration they needed to adopt health-promoting behaviors. Second of all, you simply cannot independently predict someone’s health status by appraising their body weight. This myth has been debunked by large-scale studies that have found that weight is a highly unreliable independent predictor of health.
Said differently, a fat individual may or may not be unhealthy, just as a straight-sized individual may or may not be unhealthy. Third, and perhaps most importantly, whether or not your friend is healthy isn’t really your business. You’re not their doctor, nor are you their caretaker, it’s not your responsibility to assure their health status. If you’re wondering how to talk to someone about their body size, I think it’s helpful to follow a general rule of thumb: don’t.
So, what can you do?
You can start by omitting pejorative fat talk in your circles. No complimenting weight loss, or noticing someone “looking skinny.” No more fat shaming yourself, or anyone else for that matter. You can replace, “do I look fat in this picture, I don’t want to post it if I do” with neutral statements like, “do you like this picture? I want a second opinion.” Call your friends out when they do the same. My personal favorite interjection when the group gets saturated with fat talk is to inform the group that I find the subject matter boring. Hearing about someone’s body size is simply not interesting to me, and I’ve learned that many others share this sentiment.
Keep in mind that complimenting someone’s weight loss can inadvertently be complimenting their eating disorder, their depressive episode, their high-stress period at work, or a number of other factors that we don’t want to positively reinforce. And if it feels comfortable to you, you have permission to use the word fat in a neutral way. It can be helpful to disclaim to others that you use the term neutrally. They might be new to the idea. Reclaiming the word fat can be a powerful step in the direction of body acceptance. We deserve to live in a world where people are taking these steps.