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Feminspire | April 23, 2014

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Fat Girl 101: The Most Important Things I’ve Learned From Being Fat

Fat Girl 101: The Most Important Things I’ve Learned From Being Fat

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

  • Litost

    I am confused. Nowhere here was the dangers of being extremely overweight mentioned. People should never feel like they have to lose weight to look a certain way, ever, but what happened to encouraging healthy eating habits and exercise? Eating as much as you want whenever you want but choosing healthy foods? CERTAINLY a lot of people maintain a “bigger” look even with a healthy lifestyle and that is wonderful and beautiful because what matters most is health, but this article doesn’t seem to differentiate between women who are naturally big and healthy and women who are bigger because they are unhealthy.

    • http://www.feminspire.com/ Rhiannon Payne

      I don’t think that was the point of the article. At all.

      • Litost

        Yes, it’s about fat positivity, or embracing your body shape in a world where it’s deemed unacceptable by our society. But why encourage women to embrace a lifestyle that’s unhealthy? Unless it’s natural of course, as I said. The majority of people who are on the bigger side (now, by “on the bigger side” I don’t mean “not thin” just to clarify) are on the bigger side because they live unhealthy lifestyles which leads them to be at high risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, fertility issues, and a world of health problems as they age. Many bigger ladies do have genetics that leads to the shape regardless of how healthy they are but there’s no mention of the difference here. To me this article is about praising yourself for being a certain body shape, and if you are this shape because you eat unhealthy, why encourage that? I would react the same way to an article praising being thin that didn’t differentiate between anorexia/bulimia and a naturally thin body shape.

        In fact if the same article was published about embracing your thin body I bet there’d be a fire of critique about encouraging eating disorders unless referenced otherwise in the article that the intention was to encourage naturally thin women to accept their bodies.

        I totally understand too that because there is so much encouragement toward the smaller body types in the media, a lot of these “big is beautiful” articles are to counteract that and show bigger women they are beautiful too. And they are! And because of the enforcement from the media that they’re not, it’s necessary they get more attention from other sources like feminist articles. But a lot of the time I’ve noticed it comes at the price of either a) shaming smaller women or b) not differentiating between a natural shape and an unhealthy lifestyle. I just felt this article was guilty of b.

        I didn’t mean to offend anyone or make anyone angry, just wanted to assert the importance of encouraging good health for all women! It’s really a small criticism that isn’t meant to imply “big is beautiful” articles shouldn’t exist but that they should encourage women to be their healthy, natural shape whether that’s big or small!

        Flash to some cultures where it’s unacceptable for women to smoke, an article about the inequality of women maintaining a perfectionist image would really have to include some sort of paragraph or clause about the dangers of smoking in order to not come across as encouraging women to smoke; just an analogy so that you may better understand the point I am trying to convey here.

        • Sara Luckey

          You’re way off point. You don’t get to put stipulations on which people are or are not allowed to be accepting of themselves or who can and cannot love themselves. Health is a fluid concept and there are a lot of different ideas about what is considered ‘healthy’ that pertains both to diet, culture, and lifestyle. You’re opinion is not the litmus by which all other people must evaluate and judge themselves. The overall message here is both positive and informative. This article doesn’t have to differentiate between a natural shape or an unhealthy lifestyle because it is irrelevant. Humans should be able to love themselves as they are without stipulations from you regarding who is or is not worthy of self-acceptance or self-love.

          Not every person who is big wants to be smaller or can be smaller, and they are just as entitled to love and accept themselves and have access to the same rights and privileges as everybody else.

          • Litost

            I feel like you didn’t read my full comment. I know they are long, but please read the entire thing before you reply regarding my intention.

            Exact quote from my comment “they should encourage women to be their healthy, natural shape whether that’s big or small!” Also, it’s good to avoid being confrontational and accusing when debating with someone or pointing out flaws in their argument. Nowhere did I say I was telling anyone they couldn’t love their body, or that I set the limits for what people could love, and the above part of the comment I quoted should represent that.

            I’d like to point out that I exercise 4 days a week 60 minutes a day and am larger. Not that this makes my argument anymore valid, but it does show I can relate immensely to the prospect of being large in an ideally-thin world. I eat extremely healthy; it’s my natural body shape. To make matters worse I work in a dessert bakery, so I get a lot of looks and associations. However I am just a naturally bigger girl, ESPECIALLY my lower body. I love my natural body and feel good, and agree and relate with many things this girl is saying! It especially irks me some people associate being larger with an unhealthy lifestyle, because I’m healthier than many of my smaller friends. Much of this article could have been written by me; she took the words right out of my mouth in a lot of cases. The negative associations with “fat” is something I am very familiar with. However, many women the same shape as me have a natural shape that’s not large but they are large because they are unhealthy putting them at risk for many crushing diseases. Heart failure, stroke, breathing problems, etc.

            Like I said above, something you ignored, if the article was reversed and about loving your extremely thin body shape it would certainly not be published on a feminist website without differentiating between a thin shape from exercise and healthy eating and a thin shape from an eating disorder. I think we need to be fair to all body shapes here and treat everyone equally.

            Also health and medicine is a science, not a fluid concept. In fact it’s the most intricate science that proves itself every day through thousands (millions?) of doctors working with millions of patients to solve problems with their bodies. It is a proven scientific fact that being a larger person who is larger because of a bad diet and lack of exercise is more prone to terribly dehabilitating diseases. You can also be thin and have a terrible diet and lack exercise but it is much much less likely.

            Maybe where we are disagreeing is that in an article about loving how thin you are you shouldn’t need to mention that you should love your natural shape and not an unhealthy starvation shape? And what is the difference between that and the other side of the spectrum, the bigger side? Including a clause about how being thin from anorexia is wrong would be welcomed in a thin-praising article, but the mere suggestion of a clause about how being larger from an equally unhealthy lifestyle is scorned? I am so used to being marginalized as a bigger woman I refuse to treat smaller women and small-shaped publications differently, this is all it comes down to. I feel like if smaller women embracing their shape would be required to differentiate, so should we.

          • Sara Luckey

            This is a direct quote of your own words: ‘but why encourage women to embrace a lifestyle that’s unhealthy? Unless it’s natural of course, as I said. The majority of people who are on the bigger side (now, by “on the bigger side” I don’t mean “not thin” just to clarify) are on the bigger side because they live unhealthy lifestyles which leads them to be at high risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, fertility issues, and a world of health problems as they age. Many bigger ladies do have genetics that leads to the shape regardless of how healthy they are but there’s no mention of the difference here.’

            This is what I find problematic with that:

            1. Nobody is encouraging anybody to embrace a lifestyle that is unhealthy. It is being encouraged that women accept and love their bodies. That is not a lifestyle.
            2. You don’t know why ‘the majority’ are bigger or not. You have no way of knowing that and it is disingenuous to claim otherwise.
            3. You do not know for certain that any mention of anorexia would be mentioned in an article about accepting your thinner shape. If I were writing it, I actually wouldn’t mention it. What you’re doing is taking the concept of self-love and self-acceptance and putting caveats on it. The author isn’t doing that. You are imposing those standards because that is your perspective. This piece is about acceptance and it is not a piece about health. You could always pitch an article about health and submit it, if you felt like it, but you cannot expect/demand that any article on body acceptance also make stipulations about health simply because you feel that is necessary or mandatory. This author clearly didn’t. I agree with her.
            4. There’s no mention of ‘the difference here’ because that would be putting limitations on who should or should not be allowed to love themselves just as they are with no obligation to change. You keep insisting that there be an addendum or mention of health, not realizing that by arguing that it MUST be mentioned or SHOULD be mentioning, you ARE puting a stipulation on who can and cannot love themselves exactly as they are.

            People can be fat from unhealthy choices, that’s true. And that’s totally their right and they are perfectly entitled to love and accept themselves and they do not have to try to be thinner or even healthier if they do not want to, but they are still worthy and deserving of self-acceptance and self-love if they want. So by urging over and over again that we make these exceptions and point this out, you actually are putting stipulations on who should and should not be able to openly and freely accept themselves by indicating that if a person is not healthy, they should not feel free to love themselves unless they are working to change that.

            And yes, health is a fluid concept. Some Dr.’s will tell you that whole grains and a macrobiotic diet are best. Some will tell you that a paleo lifestyle is best. There are a lot of opinions (the majority of which are based on peer-reviewed scientific data, but it’s not a monolith and there are opposing studies out there) out there as to what is ‘healthy’ or ‘best’, and that doesn’t really make sense because people’s bodies and needs vary and mental health is never brought into this conversation.

            It’s good, before you accuse somebody of being confrontational or argumentative without understanding your comment, that you pay attention to your own context and subtext and realize that you are not speaking into a vacuum and the words you say have cultural and historical context and that yes, by insisting on a caveat about health you are, indeed, placing stipulations on who should feel allowed to love themselves as they are.

            Congratulations on all your exercise and healthy eating! Good for you!

          • Litost

            Actually I just read a comment by a user below and I think you guys are right. Body acceptance articles are not the place to discuss health. My original thoughts were that as I read articles about not excluding women who are naturally thin from body acceptance, they always have to mention “not induced by an eating disorder”, and I felt it should be the same for these articles. However I retract my stance on that because “not induced by an eating disorder” shouldn’t HAVE to mentioned in an article about including thin women in body acceptance. I should be fighting the fact that they feel they have to mention an eating disorder with the mention of thin, and not fighting FOR the mention of unhealthy and large.

            That having been said I still disagree health is a fluid concept. No doctor will tell you smoking is okay, or a diet full of sugar-filled and fat-enriched foods is healthy. Usually women my size are associated with such diets, and usually it is the case that the association is correct, but not always, so you can never EVER assume. Nor should this be discussed on an article about body acceptance, which I see now! Health is private, body acceptance is general and public.

          • TryingToLoveMyself

            Thank you so much for this comment. It really helps me feel good about myself. I am someone who struggles immensely with shame and guilt for being overweight due to “eating unhealthily”. My “poor” eating habits are very much entangled with my mental health issues, and it is extremely frustrating and challenging for me to deal with.

            It’s so hard for me to find self love and acceptance in the now, because I am constantly comparing myself to what I used to look like, and I wish that I didn’t gain weight. I constantly beat myself up for gaining so much weight.

            I came across this article because I google searched “how to accept being fat”. I am desperately trying to find some sort of self acceptance and confidence in the now, because at times it is hard for me to even go out into the world because I feel so awful and insecure about the way my body has changed.

            I know that it is in my power to eat better, and exercise more, and that if I did that, I would lose the fat I’ve gained. But, knowing that, only makes me feel worse that I can’t seem to gain control of those things right now.

            It’s so so important for everyone to feel worth while and good about themselves in the now. Today, as is. Even if they have goals of “improving” or changing in the long term.

            You still have to be able to have some sort of confidence and self worth in the now, or you wouldn’t be able to live a fulfilling life “until you got healthier”.

            This article actually really helped me feel better, and really liked your comments Sarah. I completely agree with what you are saying, no matter what health situations you are dealing with, you still deserve to feel good about yourself in the now, and to feel worthwhile as a person as you are.

          • Sara Luckey

            I’m so glad that this was able to help you, and I hope you’re doing well. You deserve to be treated with love, warmth, and kindness, especially by yourself!

    • Sara Luckey

      This comment comes arosss as though you didn’t read the actual article. This piece was not about health, it was about appearance, social stratification, personal experience, categorization and self-identification. And for whatever reason a person might be bigger, it doesn’t matter. The FA/HAES community will still exist, small fats, inbetweenies, death fats, etc., will still exist, as will the objectification and fetishization of fat women because of their body mass. It doesn’t matter how or why they are that way, because that is not the point.

      • Litost

        Please read my other above comment above as I explain my stance on that.

  • http://www.facebook.com/colonialheathen April Garcia

    My problem is when she kinda says it is creepy to be termed a FA or chubby chaser. It’s not a fetish to like bigger women. It’s a preference. They prefer women that are fat as opposed to other men who like thin girls. Everyone has preferences. It isn’t creepy. There was some of her article that was a bit annoying because even as a “small fat woman” my clothes are just as expensive on Torrid, Layne Bryant, Aros, etc etc. It doesn’t matter what size you are, being fat is expensive. I don’t like how you felt the need to divide us as if my experience and pain is any less based upon numbers on a scale. I was still made fun of, I have felt like I haven’t fit into seats properly. Yes, it might not be “as bad”, but to belittle anyone’s experiences is bullshit. This article had some valid points but to me the bad outweighted the good with her self-entitled nonsense.

    • http://www.facebook.com/heybr0 Noor Ann

      The reason I chose to divide between “small fat” and “death fat” is because women on the smaller end of that spectrum are privileged over women on the larger end, specifically when it comes to BS like the “health” rant on the comment below this one.
      I’m sorry if you felt that was belittling yours or anyone else’s experience. I’m the writer, and I’m fat, and I know that I still get discriminated for it.

      • Litost

        I’m sorry I offended you by suggesting encouraging a healthy lifestyle regardless of being big or small! I’m also considered fat but exercise 4 days a week and eat extremely healthy; it’s just my natural, healthy shape. I didn’t realize encouraging a healthy lifestyle would offend my fellow larger sisters.

        • BostonBside

          It’s not encouraging a healthy lifestyle that’s a problem; it’s conflating healthy lifestyle with a specific body shape (which you yourself openly admit you don’t have despite your healthy lifestyle), making generalizations and presumptions about “most” larger people, and insisting that eating choices and exercise be mentioned in an article about body acceptance. It simply isn’t the place.

          • Litost

            Actually you’re right. How the person is the shape that they are is irrelevant in a body acceptance article. My original thought was to equate what I read in articles about body acceptance that fight to include thin women as “real beauty” too, and in these articles I always find some sort of mention of eating disorders. As Sarah mentioned though they shouldn’t mention eating disorders, and I should be fighting the fact they mention them in a body acceptance article and not fighting for the mention of diseases and risks in an equivalent article about bigger women. Health is important but you’re completely right it’s not the place for the discussion!

          • BostonBside

            Thank you for taking the time to read and respond thoughtfully! :)

    • Sara Luckey

      I think we are doing ourselves a disservice to pretend that women who are ‘small fat’ or ‘inbetweenies’ often face less derision, prejudice and ridicule than women who could be labeled ‘death fat’ or who are much bigger. I didn’t read this as dividing the experiences of women of various sizes so much as speaking to some of the common forms of derision or oppression women of size encounter, and how that can also vary depending on how fat somebody is.

      And actually, yes, liking only one type of body or one type of hair or one type of body modification at the exclusion of all others is fetishizing.Preference means preferred, but not the only acceptable option. And I don’t think it makes sense to pretend that some fat women aren’t fetishized by some men, because they are.

      I don’t think this is diminishing anybody’s pain or experience, so much as speaking to the different kinds of pain and experiences that various woman can encounter.

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