Subscribe to Bitch—an award-winning, 80 page feminist magazine. Image Map

Size Matters: I'm Not Fat, I'm Big-Boned

Sometimes it seems there are as many euphemisms for fat as there are fat people. What's wrong with "fat" as a descriptor? Plenty, if you go by the number of different words people use. Plus size, chunky, curvy, zaftig, fluffy, squishy, big boned, BBW, thick, stout, round, husky, brawny… These synonyms speak to the fear of fat that is so prevalent in our society, and they serve to create a sort of hierarchy of size. But what do they represent in terms of body type? Certain body types seem to be labeled with specific euphemisms that are not used to describe other body types and these are often discriminatory. Then there's the issue of qualifiers to the term "fat." "In-betweenie," "death fat," "small fat". There are certainly differences in the lived experience of people who are "in-betweenie" fat and those who call themselves "death" fat. How do we present a narrative of shared fat experience when there are so many different individual experiences of fat?

"Death" fat, or "morbidly obese" people are going to experience more discrimination, more shaming and more insults than "in-betweenies" (those that fall somewhere between "normal" and "fat"). That's just the facts. There is privilege there, in being a smaller fat person, that must be acknowledged and interrogated. Words like "curvy, thick, chunky" are going to be applied to more smaller fat people than larger. These words are viewed as more positive than words that may be used to describe larger fat people such as "obese" and "blubbery." Of course, smaller fat people are not immune to the frat boy "fatass" drive-by shout out, but they're more likely to be viewed as sexually attractive (case in point: Sara Ramirez). Because of this disparity, there is sometimes dischord between different sized fat people, with the larger fat people accusing the smaller fat people of being privileged and not truly fat, and the smaller fat people lamenting the policing of fat identity. In a way, both sides are right.

"Fat" needs to be reclaimed and turned into a value-neutral descriptor, this is true. But "fat" is currently such a nebulous concept that it's really going to take the elimination of euphemisms to describe it for it to coalesce into a firm identity, and we're going to have to lay all our cards on the table when it comes to size privilege. We're also going to have to convince fat people to call themselves fat, which in today's fatphobic society is a somewhat scary thing when you're not wholeheartedly dedicated to fat acceptance. We're so used to defending ourselves from the word "fat" that euphemisms are comforting. Yet in order to move forward, we've got to face our fears.

Unfortunately, size privilege is going to exist as long as the narrative remains that fat=bad. And fat euphemisms will continue to be used by the general public until that narrative changes. As fat people, however, we can change the tune in our own movement.

Enjoy reading this article? Good news! Our quarterly magazine, Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture, is packed with 80+ pages of feminist analysis, reviews, illustrations, and more. Subscribe today!

Subscribe to Bitch

Comments

19 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Fuck euphemisms

I recently wrote a blog post about euphemisms for fat and how much I hate them and one of my friends had a really great comment: "Euphemisms are not our allies. In fact it's really useful to think about them as language tools to uphold certain discourses and oppression." I just loved that, and think it's so true in MANY situations (not just with weird names for fat).

Also, there is not just SIZE privilege but SHAPE privilege. You can be a "small fat" or "inbetweenie" but you won't be called the "nice" names (like curvy, voluptuous, etc.) if you carry all of your weight in your belly or have a flat chest or are otherwise NOT hourglass-shaped. When someone calls me anything other than fat, especially when it seems to be coming from a place of discomfort with the word itself, I have to be adamant that I am FAT and that is perfectly okay. :)

i refuse to use euphemisms

i refuse to use euphemisms for myself. i am fat. Some might consider me a "smaller (than what?) fat", and i have an understanding of what that means in my specific context: i understand clearly that there is shit i don't have to deal with that fatter folks do, regularly. That's not about comparing oppressions, it's just the facts of the matter. If i try to pretend that those difference don't exist i'm doing no one any favours. If i walk around without that understanding (and many folks do) then i need to do a whole lot more work, because it's so very clear that folks with more fat on their bodies, or in different places on their bodies, get the lion's share of the shit when we're hanging out. If i allow the voices of some folks bigger than me who have doubted my own fat reality and if i turned that around and tried to say our experiences are the same (when they are just not), i would be making a mistake based in hurt not reality. And if i want to be in solidarity with other fat folks (and i do) i need to be able to recognize this kind of stuff regularly.
Thanks for this article.

fat therapy

i was in a "group" therapy with the therapist and just one other person. i don't know how to quantify "fat" or whatever, but the fact was she was a size 10 and i was a size 28, so that might give you a clue to how fat each of us were (still are), and she went on and on and ON about how fat she was, and one day i was like, "i am so sick of hearing this shit," and the therapist (whom i adore) cut me down quick. her problems were her problems regardless of my problems. and the truth was, she was more uncomfortable with her body than i was with mine.

i don't know what i'm even saying. i mean, i have a hard time traveling by air b/c the plane seats are smaller than my ass is. my clothing options are very limited (i'm just outside the largest size at lane bryant). i get thigh-rub rashes. sure, because i'm "so" fat, i have "issues" less fat people have, but ultimately, it seems like it's up to each of us as individuals to accept or reject our bodies, and apparently how actually fat (or not) any one of us might be really has nothing to do with anything. or does it!?

i think that how actually

i think that how actually fat we are most definitely has everything to do with everything when talking about fat :) i hope i didn't give the impression that i dont think fat matters, because that is exactly the opposite of what i was saying. To me, fat definitely matters. The differences matter. i can (though i dont) deny them all i want, but they are there and they have real consequences.

"Curvy"? Really??

"Curvy" is now a euphemism for fat? I always thought it referred to a more hourglass shape such as Marilyn Monroe, Betty Page, or Mamie Van Doren. "Fat" suggests something a bit different. You can call them "priveleged" all you want but you can't call them fat.

I think designating everything beyond a size 4 as some form of "fat" may be just as harmful and confusing for womens body image as some of the crueler terms you're writing about.

Yes and no

I agree that "curvy" is different than the rest of the terms in the list. Certainly some use "curvy" as a euphemism for fat, but I also frequently hear it as a euphemism for "thin with large breasts."

Still, I don't think I agree with, or perhaps understand, your final statement. I see no indication that s.e. or other fat-positivists are trying to "designat[e] everything beyond a size 4 as some form of 'fat.'"

I've heard this setting

I've heard this setting aside of euphemisms and reclaiming the term fat for oneself referred to as "coming out as fat." I think that is an interesting term considering that it is difficult to be a closeted fat person (no pun intended). However, I kind of like the idea of being out as a fat person.

Thank you for this post.

Thank you for this post. Having been at every whistle stop on the fat train, I feel very strongly about fat solidarity. Currently, an "inbetweenie" (mostly due to height and not necessarily weight) I speak out when it's important for me to do so, but I am under no illusion that my fat is the be all and end all nor do I believe my voice should drown out the voices of fat folks whose size marginalizes them in ways I haven't had to deal with recently. I have dealt with the taunts, the "you have a pretty face", the bargaining with medical providers for TREATMENT and have faced medical discrimination because of my size. However, I have also been in a better position to advocate for myself because of my size. I think it's important for folks at the smaller end of fat not to feel defensive (I struggle with sometimes) when our fatter cohorts remind us of the relative size privileges we as smaller fats enjoy (and we do) and ask that we reflect on those privileges and acknowledge that our blues ain't always like theirs. Even our ability as smaller fats to come to acceptance of our size sometimes is accompanied by large amounts of privilege that we fail to realize and desperately need to unpack.

________________________________________
Snarky's Machine, your friendly comment moderator
Did someone say Comments Policy?

don't forget...

"you have such pretty eyes."

There is nothing wrong with

There is nothing wrong with commenting someone who is fat on their face because a lot of larger people have low-self esteem and complimenting them helps with that. I was told when I was in middle school that I had such a beautiful face and I'd look great if only I'd lose some weight. I had already accepted I was fat but I never stopped to think I was pretty. Now I'm at a much healthier weight because someone gave me encouragement. I'm an in-betweenie and love it! I'm healthy, not rail thin, and have some flub flub to keep me warm in the winter. ^.^

I love descriptive words.

I agree that trying to avoid the word 'fat' because of it's negative connotations is supporting our fat-phobic culture, yet there are many people who actually are big-boned, husky, chunky, plump, round, thick, jiggly, heavy, soft, meaty......i could go on and on. None of those words are what I consider neutral. They all come with major sensory baggage, but that's why they are such good descriptors.

Fat people are not all fat in the same ways. Maybe it's asking a bit much for people to appreciate the many different fat bodies when most people can only see fat and not a fat person. But I think descriptive language can be a tool for self-expression, and thus a path towards owning ones image/fat acceptance. I'm skinny, but I don't like it when people call me skinny. It seems so....1 dimensional, childish, even gross (skin-y...like all I am is skin) I prefer lithe, willowy, or slender. I can only assume there are many fat people who don't want be be described by only one of their many cells: fat. Trying to convince people to call themselves fat, in a way, is pushing them to join some broadly defined nation, when they might not see themselves as so narrowly defined...and neither should anyone else.

i have fat

thanks Ria. I describe myself a million ways depending on the environment or what I intend to do with my body; bring sports into the picture and suddenly I'm "athletic" though hardly what many people associate with that word. I'm sure I have privilege related to my size the same way I have oppression and prejudice relative to my size, and I'd be interested in exploring that. I couldn't tell you where I fall on that bigger/smaller fat dichotomy since I've never heard it expressed that way.

I have fat cells, just the way every other human being has fat cells. I may have more than some, or they may be more swelled than others, or they may be located in areas those who objectify me would rather they weren't. But I am NOT my fat cells, so I don't own that word as a primary descriptor, even while I use it when I deem appropriate. Do I recognize that we need fat-solidarity? Totally. Do I own my societal assessment as "fat"? Completely. Do I ever use fat as a pejorative term? NO. Do I make sure people who do are schooled on the problems with doing so? You bet. But I'm not proud of my fat, anymore than I am ashamed of it. It is. And that is all. I prefer to focus on my humanity, not the relative roundness of my body.

Just one question....

"We’re also going to have to convince fat people to call themselves fat, which in today’s fatphobic society is a somewhat scary thing when you’re not wholeheartedly dedicated to fat acceptance."

And who decides who is fat and who is not? Where is this line of "fat" and "thin"?

Not a Fan of Euphemisms...

...unless I'm calling myself omgdeathfatwtfbbq, but that's difficult to pronounce.

You mentioned that euphemisms can be comforting for the person using them and I agree. On the other side of the equation I would say that euphemisms actually indicate a lack of comfort to the listener on the part of the speaker. If I call myself pleasantly plump (good lord I can't imagine saying that) I think at best it's going to leave the listener with a general sense of unease and at worse it's going to sound like I think there's something wrong with my body and so I'm working too hard to try to put a positive spin on it.

In some cases the use of euphemisms ends up being snarky to other body sizes. (For example "Real Women" or "Real Women have curves" in reference to women who are not thin - as if flat chested, narrow-hipped women are somehow not real.)

I feel it's time for the term to be reclaimed from the bullies and given it's proper place as a descriptor of body composition and I think it starts with fat people.

What the author of this

What the author of this piece doesn't seem to consider is her own assumption that 'fat' is somehow the 'original' word in describing people that don't fit into Western cultural norms regarding size/shape specifically, and that we thus must use specifically that word to political ends. I personally think that is incorrect.

Why are other words, i.e. 'curvy', 'round' or 'chubby' apolitical or euphemistic when used by us?

Radical politics, in my opinion, isn't really radical when we base/build our resistance directly against a norm, in this case, phobia against the descriptor, 'fat'.

I applaud reclaiming 'fat', but I think in our community there are other ways to talk about ourselves that aren't necessarily non-political because we choose not to use the word 'fat'. Some people will choose to call themselves fat, some people will choose to call themselves another name.

I didn't come away from this

I didn't come away from this piece with the impression that Tasha considered fat to be the original word. It is, however, one of the most generic descriptors used to describe the presence of body fat (regardless of the amount), be it negative or positive. Fat describes fat. It literally describes fat, and it does it well. Curvy, round, and chubby only describe shapes, and other clever little euphemisms are all over the map (like the example in the title: big boned). Curvy and round also refer to specific body types rather than the existence of fat; they're also often used in that brilliant "oh you're not fat, you're [insert anything but fat] here!" method of physical appraisal. Because of fat's ability to be generic coupled with its ability to act as a pejorative slur -- which curvy, round, and chubby (typically) do not -- that's precisely WHY it's such a vital descriptor to reclaim.

Must Respectfully Disagree.

I dunno about this one, Tasha. I think discarding less bold but more descriptive adjectives is ill-advised.

I'm fat. When I talk about fat--and I talk about fat a lot--I use the word fat. But not to the exclusion of the other words you've listed. I love that my mother tongue often includes multiple words describing the same concept, and still more detailing the nuances of that concept. Having a varied and expansive vocabulary is necessary for good communication, and I think it'd be a crime to needlessly omit these words from my descriptions.

Fatties thinking ill of other fatties of different sizes and shapes? Yeah, that's fucked up. And are some of the pre-moistened alt fat descriptors over-used or used inaccurately? Absolutely. 'Curvy' is the 'random' of fat. But that's not gonna keep me from using 'curvy' when 'curvy' is called for. (Though I've forsaken 'random' for a while now, as well as 'fail' and 'win,' so who knows? 'Curvy' may be on its way out, too. But that would be a shame.)

I regularly encourage my associates of all sizes to join me in using the word fat, and I think we've made considerable headway in detaching judgement from the word. Every day or so I'm pleased to find it being used in a venue or media outlet where it previously was not.

'Curvy' is the tastes like

'Curvy' is the tastes like chicken of fat euphemisms. Whenever I hear a person describe themselves as 'curvy' I just assume they mean fat and have more apprehension of the word curvy than the fat we're told it's supposed to describe. Of course folks can be both curvy and fat, but for the most part, when curvy has been appropriated by those who find the word "fat" upsetting it tends to expose what it seeks to hide.

I use "chubby" often, but mostly because it's my experience that due to my shortness, some folks simply do not read me as fat, particularly larger fat people. The conversation around fatness seems to start at 5'3.5 and tends to erase the way fatness is experienced by folks shorter than that. My proportions scaled to someone 5'6 would definitely be read as fat in nearly every situation, which is something I find interesting. Again, this isn't to suggest it relieves me of acknowledging relative size privilege.

_____________________________________________
Snarky's Machine, your friendly comment moderator
Did someone say Comments Policy?

Agree with this whole

Agree with this whole comment (and post for that measure).

I am at the other end of height spectrum, but I find that the results are quite similar: I'm not usually read as fat because of my height (5'11) and shape (pearish) - I don't get much of the scorn or accessibility barriers and my weight is usually vastly under-estimated. I'm read as (and more often publicly identify as) big or large rather than fat (and thus don't usually identify as small fat or smaller fat).

But at the same time, I definitely claim the identity of fat, and find a lot of power in that identification.