A few weeks ago, I went out for dinner in Manhattan with a friend I’ve known since high school. We went to a typical restaurant in the West Village, which is to say a place with seating for 30 in the approximate square footage of a refrigerator box. Along one wall was a banquette with tables lined up in front of it, close enough to one another that if you ordered anything requiring the use of a knife, elbowing a stranger in the chin would become a real concern. So when the hostess led us to one (which is to say, she took two steps and pointed at a table) smack in the middle, I immediately turned to my tall, thin friend and said, “The squishy seat is all yours. No way my fat ass is getting back there.”
I watched her eyes flash and her mouth open slightly before she caught herself and chose not to say the words she’s said about nine gazillion times to me over the last two decades: You’re not fat!
We’ve talked about this. She knows that I blog every day about body acceptance, that I believe fat is a useful adjective that should be no more emotionally loaded than blue-eyed or curly-haired, and that I am indeed significantly wider than she is. And she knows that for all those reasons and many others, the words “You’re not fat” drive me up a goddamn wall. But old habits die hard. Since we were teenagers, she’s been conditioned to respond to any mention of my weight with “You’re not fat!” — as automatically and mindlessly as I would murmur “And also with you” to a priest. She makes a real effort not to say it anymore, bless her heart, but it’s going to take either a couple more decades of practice or a course of electroshock therapy to get her to also stop making the “I want to say it” face.
The thing is, at various points during the time we’ve known each other, it was true: I wasn’t fat. During high school, when I’d reached my full adult height of five-two and weighed around 135 pounds, I really wasn’t fat by any rational standard — unfortunately, adolescent girls aren’t known for their rational standards regarding weight, so I fully believed I was the Fattest Girl in Recorded History. When I was dieting in my twenties, there were times when I clearly wasn’t anything approaching fat, yet I still wasn’t satisfied with the amount of weight I’d lost; when I’d gotten myself down to size four jeans and extra-small T-shirts, all I could focus on was getting a pair of size-two jeans past my thighs. People telling me I wasn’t fat didn’t make a damn bit of difference to my profoundly warped self-image in those days, but at least they weren’t lying.
At other times, though, they were. For much of my adult life, I’ve worn plus sizes, struggled to fit into airplane seats and been clinically obese according to the body mass index (BMI) charts that determine everything from the price of my insurance premiums to whether doctors will hand me a Weight Watchers brochure when I see them about an ear infection. I once asked a doctor for help with excruciating knee pain following a spill down some stairs, and the only prescription she offered was “Lose weight.” (Oh, OK. But since I’m probably not going to lose enough to reduce pressure on my joints in the next 10 minutes, and my knee hurts RIGHT NOW, do you think maybe you could MAKE WITH THE PAINKILLERS, BITCH?)
I was once standing on the street talking to a business contact I hoped to impress, when a homeless man came up and asked us for change. The man I hoped to impress said he didn’t have any, and the homeless guy spat, “Oh, fine, you just keep talking to the fat girl, then!” Which meant the business contact spent the next five minutes sputtering about how that guy was crazy and I shouldn’t think anything of it, while my face flamed and I stammered, “It’s … OK, really, it’s … please … it’s fine.” So much for the awesome professional image I was hoping to project.
I may not be as big as some of my friends and family members, and I may not be the size most people mentally associate with the word obese, but I am bloody well fat, and I have been most of the time since college. The homeless man might have been crazy, but he wasn’t wrong. The friends who kept insisting “You’re not fat!” were the ones out of touch with the truth.
But then the truth was never really the point. Thin women don’t tell their fat friends “You’re not fat” because they’re confused about the dictionary definition of the word, or their eyes are broken, or they were raised on planets where size 24 is the average for women. They don’t say it because it’s the truth. They say it because fat does not mean just fat in this culture. It can also mean any or all of the following:
Just plain icky
So when they say “You’re not fat,” what they really mean is “You’re not a dozen nasty things I associate with the word fat.” The size of your body is not what’s in question; a tape measure or a mirror could solve that dispute. What’s in question is your goodness, your lovability, your intelligence, your kindness, your attractiveness. And your friends, not surprisingly, are inclined to believe you get high marks in all those categories. Ergo, you couldn’t possibly be fat.
But I am. I am cute and healthy and pleasant-smelling (usually) and ambitious and smart and lovable and fun and stylish and friendly and outgoing and categorically not icky. And I am fat — just like I’m also short, also American, also blonde (with a little chemical assistance). It is just one fucking word that describes me, out of hundreds that could. Those three little letters do not actually cancel out all of my good qualities.
That’s what I told my old friend about a year ago, when I finally mustered the nerve to ask her to quit telling me I’m not fat, on the grounds that we both know it’s a crock. And like I said, she’s stopped. But thin friends aren’t the only ones who insist that I really do magically appear skinny everywhere except in doctors’ offices, on the street with strangers, on airplanes, in dressing rooms, and in my own mirror. Since my blog about body image and fat politics has developed a strong readership and I’ve become more visible in the fat-acceptance community, I’m getting it from the other side now, too: According to some people bigger than me, I’m not fat enough.
What do you know about size-based discrimination? You’re not fat!
What do you know about how hard it is to find clothes that fit? You’re not fat!
What do you know about trying to find a partner in a culture where fat is almost universally considered unattractive? You’re not fat!
One more time for those who missed it: Yeah, actually, I am fat. Granted, I am not fat enough to have suffered truly vicious discrimination from medical professionals, employers or landlords. I’m not fat enough to have been asked to buy two seats on a plane; I’ve never had fast-food containers chucked at my head while I was out for a walk; and I don’t have any trouble getting around or taking care of myself. I am incredibly grateful for all of that and conscious of my relative privilege, but it still doesn’t make me not fat. It only makes me less fat than some, just as I’m fatter than others. It makes me kinda small for a fat person. If I were thinner than the average American woman, I might call myself “kinda big for a thin person” instead. But I’m not. I am, as it turns out, fat.
It’s OK to say it out loud. It’s also OK to point out that I’m not that fat, so I’ve never personally been the victim of the worst fat hatred our culture has to offer — that’s the plain truth. But telling me I’m not fat is a goddamned lie.
In response to a similar ornery outburst on my part, I once had a commenter on my blog say, “I’ve never seen anyone work so hard to convince people that she is fat.” I’m honestly not sure if that was meant as an insult or an amused observation; either way, it cracked me up. But in all seriousness, let me tell you why I’m so bulldoggy about hanging on to that word and refusing to let go.
Because I have taken shit for my size — the kind of shit my thin friends rarely observe and can’t quite imagine — and that’s an ineradicable part of my history. Telling me I’m not fat doesn’t make those wounds disappear.
Because fat should mean only having more adipose tissue than the average person, but it doesn’t. And every time you ignore what’s in front of your face to tell me I’m not fat because you can’t bring yourself to put me in that nasty, ugly category, you’re buying in to the idea that real fat people are all sorts of nasty, ugly things I’m not. Horseshit. I am a real fat person, and very few real fat people live up to the worst stereotypes wielded against us.
Because whenever you read an article about THE OBESITY EPIDEMIC BOOGA BOOGA BOOGA, you should know that they’re talking mostly about people who look like me – -and like your mom, your neighbor, your coworker, your kid’s teacher, not like the headless, poorly dressed, extremely fat people inevitably used to illustrate those articles (who are no less deserving of human rights and dignity than any of the rest of us, I hasten to add). Only about 6 percent of the adult population is categorized as severely obese. The vast majority of people classified as obese are about as fat as I am, in the BMI 30-35 range. I am the face of the obesity crisis everyone’s so worried about, and yet I constantly have people telling me I’m not fat. There’s some, uh, food for thought.
But mostly, I want to be called fat because it’s the simple truth. I am not overweight, which suggests there’s some objectively ideal weight for me that’s less than I weigh now, when I exercise regularly and eat as much food as my body needs. That makes no sense at all. I’m definitely not thin, which is what everyone seems to be implying when they tell me I’m not fat; I take up space, I’m curvy as a mountain road, and I’ve spent more money at Lane Bryant in the last six months than the people who sew their clothes probably make in a year. And although I know some people prefer euphemisms like big beautiful woman or person of size or voluptuous or plump or fluffy, I am really, really not one of those people. (I mean, seriously, fluffy? Are you fucking kidding me?)
I’m fat. You wouldn’t think that simple fact would be so confusing. And yet. My favorite comment ever, among the thousands I’ve gotten since I started blogging, is from a woman who wrote:
“Back when I first saw pictures of you, in your personal history entry, I felt so cheated and disappointed. ‘So that’s her? The poster child of fat bloggers? Just another thin girl with body dysmorphia? Big deal for HER to accept her body.’ I could just barely restrain myself from writing a righteously enraged comment about that. [Recently], I finally found the courage to step on a scale after several years. I was so scared, sweating and shivering like it was a bloody bungee jump. And I found that I’m almost exactly your size. That makes my initial feelings wrong on so many levels, I don’t even want to start on it.”
That right there might be the number one reason why I stubbornly claim the word fat for myself. Because too many women look at me and think, She can’t be fat –she looks fine, then look at themselves and think, I’m so fat — I can’t possibly look (or be) fine. Even ones who are built exactly like me. As long as the horseshit stereotypes persist — that fat women can never be healthy, smart, driven, disciplined, fashionable, attractive and eminently lovable — women who are all those things and fat will keep seeing themselves as fundamentally disgusting and unworthy. So every time someone tries to tell me I’m not fat simply because I don’t fit those stereotypes, I’m gonna keep telling them I am, too, fat, dammit! Le fat, c’est moi. This is what fat looks like.
I am a kindhearted, intelligent, attractive, person, and I am fat. There is no paradox there.