Being fat is something that has inadvertently shaped my life and my career as a writer. Despite learning a lot about body positivity and fat positivity in high school, I never really began to accept and be into the fact that, yes, I am bigger than a lot of my female friends and peers (and that that’s OK) until college. Since then, I’ve learned quite a lot about what it means to be a hot, unapologetic fat girl in a society that makes money off demeaning and shaming girls like me. Here are some of the biggest (pun intended) lessons I’ve learned:
“Fat” is an identity and not just a descriptor.
In fat positivity/fat feminism, there are terms used to distinguish the privileges and oppressions of those of us who fall under the vague umbrella categorization of “fat.” Two distinctions are used to describe the “type” of fat a person is within their rhetoric: small fat, or someone who has definitely been called fat as an insult and has dealt with discrimination for being “fat,” “chubby,” “big,” etc.; and death fat, or those categorized as “morbidly obese” by the medical industry using the Body Mass Index (trigger warning for those who decide to google “death fat definition” — the results redirect to a lot of medical websites talking about “the dangers of obesity.”) The distinction between small fat and death fat is one of varying levels of oppression — while small fat people certainly face oppression for their size, they are still much more privileged in terms of beauty standards, access to inexpensive and stylish clothes, seat availability on flights, etc., than death fat people, who deal with serious discrimination from doctors, friends, families, loved ones, and randos on the street, who often couch their discrimination and intolerance in discussions of the death fat person’s health.
I fall under the small fat end of the fat spectrum. As I’ve learned about fat positivity, I’ve realized that I can be and quite often am privileged over my fatter comrades by being fat, but not “too fat.” In my deliberate decision to identify as fat, I’ve been met with one recurring argument from people outside the community — that I’m “not fat,” but rather, am “curvy.” Their intention is to make me feel better about myself, because in our culture, the word “fat” has such negative associations that most of the time when a non-activist calls themselves fat, they are insulting themselves and their bodies. What actually happens when someone tells me that I’m “not fat” is that they are invalidating my experiences as a fat girl and in effect telling me that I’m identifying the “wrong” way.
It’s through these sorts of conversations, in which people have actually argued with me over whether or not I’m fat, that I grew to realize that my personal reclamation of the term “fat” is one of the most radical life decisions I’ve ever made.
That leads me to my next point — about who does and doesn’t want to be called fat.
Calling yourself fat in a positive way does not make calling other people fat alright, no matter how good your intentions are.
Coming to the realization that one is fat, that being called fat is OK, and being fat is attractive and the rest of the affirmations fat activists use when they first find fat positivity, is great. It’s extremely validating to look at yourself in the mirror and see yourself as fat and not see that as an ugly, unattractive and unworthy human looking back at you.
An interesting — and extremely problematic — thing occurs following the initial “I’m fat, so what?!” stage of fat activism. Now that a person has accepted and is beginning to celebrate their fatness, they begin to look around at other people whose sizes put them outside the typical standards of beauty and see that they, too, are attractive and worthwhile people. The realization that other “big” people are hot is another radical aspect of fat positivity, particularly for those of us who used to look at other “larger” people and see them as ugly and project our own body discomfort on them.
The problem starts when fat-positive people (fat-positive female-identified people, specifically) put the label of “fat” on those other people, and particularly when they call other people fat.
The lesson can’t be stressed enough: one individual reclaiming the term “fat” does not give them the right to call anyone else that unless they know that that person identifies with the term and has a fairly stable relationship with using that term to describe themselves.
It’s often difficult for beginner fat-posi folks to grasp that just because they are newly-identified as fat, it doesn’t mean that other people want to be called that. While there is a small subset of people who are reclaiming the term, it remains a very serious and hurtful insult to those who have not, for whatever reason, decided to do so. Moreover, those people are not “behind” in their activism — the choice to reclaim the term “fat” (just like the choice to reclaim the word “slut”) is exceedingly personal, and those who don’t want to use the term for whatever reason are not to be shamed for doing so. That’s just as bad as shaming them for being big, y’all!
The lesson here is simple in theory and surprisingly difficult in practice: The only time it’s OK to call someone else fat is if you know that they have reclaimed the term for themselves, and even then, it’s problematic, because even the most fat-posi folks out there have days when they feel fat in a bad way. Don’t ask people “do you identify as fat?” — if they don’t, you are reminding them of something that is used as a tool of dehumanization and psychological pain. Don’t ever assume someone identifies as “fat,” no matter how you perceive their size or confidence level. What I’m basically getting as it that reclaiming “fat” is highly personal and that everyone’s journey is very different and making assumptions about how other people identify is always erroneous. That’s Identity Politics 101!
There are men who want to take advantage of us fat girls.
A myriad of terms exist for men who are interested in fat women: chubby chasers, fat admirers, etc. Disregarding how creepy, fetishizing, and offensive it is to prefer specific body attributes over another, I will admit that there are some men who are genuinely interested in fat/bigger women as people and find our bodies beautiful and attractive (as they should!)
There is also a subset that I’ve personally found immeasurable due to being the fetishized body type in question — the fat saviors. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that most fat women who have OKCupid accounts have encountered this specific breed of misogyny: They tell us that we are beautiful and our bodies are perfect just the way they are, and that “real women have curves,” and we should never feel bad about ourselves and if we need a shoulder to cry on, they will be there.
Don’t get me wrong — all of these statements (minus the “real women have curves” bit, which is marginalizing and transmisogynist) can be innocuous on their own. But when couched with the predatory nature of this type of man, who exploits the insecurities associated with being fat in our society (not to mention assuming by looking at a fat person that they are insecure and hate their bodies) in order to get them in bed. These type of men can be difficult to identify at a cursory, polite glance — and the same politeness and thankfulness that is ingrained in young women is employed heavily here, because not only are we supposed to assume that a stranger (even, and often especially, a male stranger) being “nice” to us is someone to be trusted, but fat women are also supposed to feel thankful for any and all attention paid to them. Fat saviors are aware of this, and use it to their advantage. This is the type of man who took a photograph off of my blog without my permission and posted it to a “curvy women” subreddit — when I looked at the other things he had posted, nearly all of them were photographs that appeared to be self-taken of girls whose bodies resembled mine.
The lessons I’ve learned as a fat girl don’t end with realizing that men objectify me just as much as they objectify other women. Next week I’ll be discussing shopping and fucking while fat, so stay tuned to read part 2!
Written by Noor Al-Sibai
Header image of Gabourey Sidibe, courtesy of Interview Magazine