What’s in a Name?

by Rachel on May 20, 2010

I’ve mentioned this before, but I’m really into the Healthy at Any Size movement. I discovered HAES back in the winter of 2009 via Kate Harding’s blog and it had a really strong influence on how I thought about health, diet, weight loss, and how I — and our society — treat other people.

Kate Harding is one of the most vocal leaders of the fat acceptance movement. The fat acceptance movement is all about saying that — gasp! — fat people are people too! People who don’t need to change or be punished or shamed! I seriously read pages and pages of her old entries (she does not play and it’s so inspiring how she holds her own), but one of the things I found most interesting was her discussion on the idea that it’s OK to call people fat.

“HOLD UP, Rachel,” I’m sure you’re thinking. “You don’t believe in talking shit about women’s bodies. So how could you call a woman fat?”

Well, I wouldn’t call a woman fat because I know she’d be offended and hurt. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about this question: What if we just decided that “fat” is…just an adjective?

Here’s the thing: in American society, the word “fat” is associated with “bad.” A woman is offended when you call her fat because when we hear fat, we think it means…

  • Being ugly.
  • Being unhealthy.
  • Being lazy.
  • Eating all the time.
  • Being out of control.
  • Being single.
  • Being depressed.
  • Being unlovable.
  • Being a joke.

But it actually doesn’t mean that. It just means having more of a certain type of tissue on your body. And describing body tissue actually isn’t an accurate way to describe a person’s personality or being.

Kate Harding actually wrote an awesome article for Salon last year about why fat is not a dirty word. She wrote that when a friend says, “You’re not fat!” they really mean…

“‘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.

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….Telling me I’m not fat is a goddamn lie.”

So really, when we talk about women and body image, it’s not about saying, “You’re not fat!” I guess we all say that because we “have” to. But that’s something I think we could change at the root. We need to say that no matter what your physical characteristics are, they are just that — physical characteristics. Being fat doesn’t mean you’re any less lovable, beautiful, wonderful, worthy, healthy, or happy than having brown hair or blue eyes does. And not being fat doesn’t mean you’re any more of those things.

You are who you are. You feel what you feel. You deserve what you have and probably more. And really, adjectives have nothing to do with it.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jenny May 20, 2010 at 1:18 pm

Wow. Wow! This post needs to be broadcasted across the Web stat! This post made me feel empowered and worthwhile. Thank you!


2 Bess May 20, 2010 at 1:29 pm

I would like to marry this post!!!

It’s so true that the word “fat” wouldn’t be so awful if there wasn’t such an implied negative connotation to it.

I also feel like “skinny” and “thin” should be just an adjective as well, instead of being viewed in our society as the “be all, end all”.

I personally think “healthy” “happy” and “strong” are the best adjectives to strive for.
.-= Bess´s last blog ..Peek Into Rachel’s Palate =-.


3 Laura Georgina May 20, 2010 at 1:39 pm

I love this post–and what Kate Harding has to say! It’s been a real eye-opener to live in the Caribbean and have people tell you you look “thick” and speak so openly about your body (large OR small) with so little stigma or connotations attached to the size of the body they see. I would love to see more of that kind of judgment-free openness in the mainstream media (and in the US media in particular.)

I’ve also been loving a slew of “fatshion” blogs I ran into recently–it’s so refreshing to see ladies of all sizes doing cutting-edge style that makes them stand out in a crowd. Two of my favorites:
.-= Laura Georgina´s last blog ..Trini Tales: The Elections Special! =-.


4 Alexa May 20, 2010 at 1:42 pm

While I do love the bulk of this post – fat just meaning having lots of body fat – I’ve never been able to get behind the “fat acceptance” movement. Of course fat people are people. But we’d never see a “diabetic acceptance” movement, or a “cancer acceptance” movement. Celebrating and encouraging unhealthy lifestyles is irresponsible.

Again, I’m not saying that fat people aren’t just as human as I am. I’m saying that we shouldn’t tell them that they’re really “perfect just the way they are” in a physical sense, for the same reason we wouldn’t tell a cancer patient that she doesn’t need to change at all because she’s just fine as she is.


5 Rachel May 20, 2010 at 1:58 pm

Alexa — That’s sort of why I prefaced this with the Healthy At Any Size movement. I just do not consider being fat a sickness like diabetes and cancer. And I know a lot of people do, but from the research I’ve read, I just don’t think it’s so. And people of all sizes can be healthy (and unhealthy for that matter). I also don’t believe that shaming people for their bodies is a way to encourage them to change their habits. And really, I try to focus on healthy habits that are good for you and make you feel good about yourself.

From the HAES web site…

Health at Every Size is based on the simple premise that the best way to improve health is to honor your body. It supports people in adopting health habits for the sake of health and well-being (rather than weight control). Health at Every Size encourages:

* Accepting and respecting the natural diversity of body sizes and shapes.
* Eating in a flexible manner that values pleasure and honors internal cues of hunger, satiety, and appetite.
* Finding the joy in moving one’s body and becoming more physically vital.


6 Kathy May 20, 2010 at 2:07 pm

Completely, absolutely loved this.

I’m going to steal a quote from Bess, “It’s so true that the word “fat” wouldn’t be so awful if there wasn’t such an implied negative connotation to it.”

I wonder how we get beyond that, and if it’s possible to ever change what we think of when we hear that word.

Does anyone recall old movies where the word ‘gay’ mean happy? Boy did that meaning change over time.


7 Rachel May 20, 2010 at 2:11 pm

I think you (& Kate Harding) make a lot of really good points. Although there are a lot of people out there who are skinny and healthy, there are plenty of people out there who are stick thin but don’t work out, constantly eat terribly and don’t take care of their bodies. I definitely think that society needs to put more of an emphasis on being healthy and taking care of your body (whatever that means for you) and stop making the issue so black and white (fat = bad, thin = good)


8 Bess May 20, 2010 at 2:22 pm

Here is an interesting video clip from the Today Show about being “skinny fat”…they estimate that 30 million Americans are considered “skinny fat”.

.-= Bess´s last blog ..Peek Into Rachel’s Palate =-.


9 Ali @ Redhead Reports May 20, 2010 at 3:37 pm

Great article! The points in this post were completely valid and really makes you think about how one word (fat) has taken over to mean so many other things.
.-= Ali @ Redhead Reports´s last blog ..Three Cups of Tea =-.


10 Annabelle May 20, 2010 at 8:48 pm

I just want to say THANK YOU for this post. I have a few friends who literally loathe their bodies because of their physical appearance, and have fairly low self-esteem as a result. It really saddens me, because they’re really such INCREDIBLE ladies that anyone would be lucky to know, and yet one, unimportant thing is enough to damage their self-value so much. Even on ads for gyms and workouts today, you hardly ever see them advertise the amazing health benefits that come along with working out, just how fit/hot/sexaaaay you can get from it. It’s ridiculous.

In the grand scheme of things, what you look like on the outside has so little to do with who you really are, compared to your personality and everything else. I really wish more people understood that. Until our society stops being completely backwards, though, preach it, sister!
.-= Annabelle´s last blog ..Goal for tonight: =-.


11 D May 21, 2010 at 7:41 am

I don’t agree with this movement at all. I agree with accepting people without physical judgement, I agree that physical attributes do not change personality traits, I agree that making rash and hurtful assumptions are wrong, and I agree that being healthy is more important than size. However, I believe that the movement has/will become a way to avoid the facts. Being “fat” might mean having too much of one type of tissue, but regardless of whether or not that person is healthy on the surface, having too much of that type of tissue is medically unsound. It can cause long-term effects that are not apparent on the surface, and may not become apparent for a while.

I think that “fat acceptance” becomes a sort of false self-confidence motto, and often comes along with a huge sense of denial. No, you do not need to be a size 8, or 10, or whatever, to be healthy. But, medically, you cannot be healthy at ANY size. And the support for this argument often comes along with, “but skinny people can be sooo unhealthy too!”. Well, yes, they can. But where did anyone say that was okay either? Fat IS just a physical attribute, and nothing more, but when it comes to the consequences of that attribute, there is an issue there that should not just be accepted in the name of being socially appropriate. You can describe a skinny person as a “smoker” if they are, or an overweight person as “fat” if they are, and it doesn’t change who they are, but they both lead to health complications. Everyone knows someone who knows someone who has an uncle who smoked since age 12 and was fine, but should we say that it applies to every smoker? And not say that it’s still wrong? And for every overweight person who is a healthy as can be, there are plenty more who will have health complications from even an extra 10 pounds.


12 Rachel May 21, 2010 at 11:00 am

D — Like I said, I have a pretty strong stance on this and it’s fine if you don’t agree. But if you’d like to read some of the research behind why I feel this way, Kate Harding has a really good round up of all the info. There’s a lot in there but it’s worth a read!


And even if someone is technically unhealthy (high blood pressure, increased risk of lung disease from smoking) they still deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. We can encourage people to be healthier without shaming them into being healthier.


13 Jenn May 22, 2010 at 3:01 pm

Again, popping up with some cultural feedback–in Spanish, they love to talk about people being fat! In some Spanish-speaking cultures, being a little fat is seen as a good thing.

But here, in Argentina where stick-thin is more desirable than healthy with 20 extra pounds, it’s still used a lot. And it’s kind of shocking. I have about 5 extra pounds…nearly all in the belly. No one would ever venture to mention anything about it (or even probably think anything) in the U.S., but here, I’m gordita–a little bit fat.

It took some getting used to…knowing that a) they don’t mean it as an insult, and b) I’m really okay with my 5 extra pounds, since they don’t hold back my fitness, and allow me to enjoy things I love. And they find it SO weird that in English you can’t call a fat person fat.


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