The Fat Fight is Far from Over

DefendA while ago I discussed NAAFA (the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance)’s discussion about changing their name to eliminate the word fat.  I recently came across an interview about this with NAAFA’s board chair in which he said something that I found to be highly problematic:

The reason the word ‘fat’ was kept in the structure of our communications was it was an attempt to reclaim the word so it wasn’t seen as a bad word. Unfortunately, that part of the media war has been lost.
I think that this is a big deal because it’s someone representing himself as a leader of our community saying in national media that his organization is giving up identifying as “fat” because the “media war is lost” for the entire movement.  I understand that NAAFA is a struggling organization looking for a new direction, I know that they’ve done a lot of great work in the past and that they can do a lot of great work in the future.  Things change and that’s ok –  when the NAAFA constitution was written it included the passage
We choose to use the word fat to describe ourselves in order to remove the negative connotations normally associated with larger-than-average body size.
I understand if they no longer feel that they can lead that fight, I don’t disagree.  But I don’t think the fact that they haven’t gotten it done yet and no longer want to keep trying means that “the media war has been lost.”  I think it’s just time for others to pick up the mantle, thank NAAFA for the great work they’ve done, and start moving it forward from here.
I think that there is actually a lot of momentum in this area.  This year alone Time, CNN, NPR, and Yahoo Shine, among others, have published articles using fat as a neutral descriptor.  A piece I wrote for the Ms. Fit magazine called “Hail the Fathletes” has received almost 18,000 hits in four days – the most in the history of the magazine. Awesome writers like Marilyn Wann, Leslie Kinzel, Nudemuse and Virgie Tovar (and plenty who I’m forgetting at 4am) write using fat as a neutral/positive descriptor.  Almost all of my work for NBC’s iVillage uses the word fat in this way and my editor never bats an eye.  Golda Poretsky was invited to do a fabulous TEDx talk called Why It’s Ok to be Fat.
NAAFA’s past work deserves part of the credit for this progress and I really appreciate them for that.  It sounds like they don’t think it’s their path anymore and that is ok.  There is plenty of work to do and there is no shame in backing down from one fight and picking another one, I’m just not ok with their leader taking to the media to say that the “war is over” because the NAAFA board doesn’t want to fight it anymore.
I think that reclaiming terms are important.  My personal use of the word fat is one of the ways that I tell the bullies of my past that they can’t have my lunch money anymore, and that I get to choose the words that describe me – so for me this is a big deal.
The media war around the word fat is far from over. In fact, I would suggest that – however slowly, however painfully –  we are winning.  I wish NAAFA’s board the best of luck with whatever name and direction they choose.  Nobody is required to self-identify as fat and it’s totally ok if organizations or individuals don’t want to take up the “fat fight” for any reason. But let’s be clear that lots of people are still fighting it, I’m one of them, and if this is important to you then I hope to see you on the battlefield!

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21 thoughts on “The Fat Fight is Far from Over

  1. What they aren’t realizing is that the “fight” may be easier in the days of social media. Its not all stapling newsletters and maintaining hand-written lists.

  2. The only people who hide what they’re really about for the purposes of politics are people being manipulative. If the goal is to achieve parity for people who are fat, then you have to call it that. Otherwise, what do you stand for? If they want to be an organisation about ‘size’ so they can get sponsorship, what will they be telling the sponsors? That they’re also pressing for equal rights for little people? Do little people want to be co-opted in this way?

  3. One of my classmates brought her 3 year old daughter with her to study group yesterday. The child asked her mother, “Does that lady have a baby in her belly?” (Apparently they had just learned about ‘pregnant’.) I smiled and told her, “No, sweetie, I’m just fat.” I didn’t say it sarcastically, just matter-of-fact. Her mom fell all over herself to say, “Oh no! You’re really not, please excuse her, etc., etc.” We moved on, kept doing our work (occasionally taking time out to talk to the kid or get her re-settled) while her daughter colored. At the end of our time, I was handed a lovely – well, scribble – and the child told me, “See? That’s you. You’re beautiful!” Kids get it, as long as they haven’t been told already that fat is a bad word.

  4. Reblogged this on The Cheese Whines and commented:
    I agree that it is important to reclaim “fat” as a neutral descriptor. If we allow it to become a bad word, if we don’t fight its use as an insult, then I feel that those who would like to see larger people eliminated have won.

  5. A complete change in public discussion doesn’t happen overnight, and frankly, thirty years isn’t that long in a public discussion. I wish they had decided to stick with it a while longer, because I do think the change is happening. It’s just not happening quickly. I think, though, that the rate is going to speed up soon.

    Funny thing, I was watching a documentary about the play/film The Boys in the Band a few weeks back. When it was written and first performed, it was a shocking, groundbreaking cultural phenomenon because there had never been a play that was openly and blatantly about being gay before.

    But by the time the film was made, some two or three years later, it was already considered passé and even offensive by many in the gay community. Things had already progressed that much in that short a time. A couple years later, it was a quaint relic of a bygone age, even among most straight people.

    Right now most people are scared or nervous when I call myself fat. They aren’t used to it being a neutral descriptor. But in the four years or so I’ve been deliberately doing it, I’ve become more comfortable with my body and my self-image. My close friends have gotten used to it, even if they think I’m kind of weird for it. A couple people in my circle have started using it the way I do, at least every once in a while. They’re less likely to use fat as an insult or tell fat jokes… at least in my presence.

    If more of us do this every day, the word spreads faster and more people learn the lesson. It isn’t fast, it isn’t easy, and it’s messy as hell. But it happens. And sometimes the tipping point is reached far more suddenly than we expect.

  6. I will always use the word fat. I am fat & there is not one damn thing wrong with that. After 44 years, you would think that the people at NAAFA would understand this. However, a close friend of mine quoted one of the NAAFA officers as saying to her several years ago that “we don’t want to be seen as ‘condoning’ fat.” That seriously pulled my chain & still pisses me off every time I think of it. Condoning is what you do when you approve of something bad or immoral or look the other way about it. There is nothing wrong or bad or immoral about being fat, & our fat bodies do not need to be ‘condoned.’ They need to be accepted, respected, treated with dignity, &, yes, celebrated with pride! Being fat is not a crime we have committed, it is not a sign of weakness or lack of character, &, no, it is NOT a disability. It is a normal, natural, mostly genetic variation in body size. In order for this civil rights movement to succeed, for us to win the rights, respect, & access we deserve, we cannot apologize for our bodies or beg for people to be nice to us. We need to be strong & proud & out…we are FAT, dammit, & this whole thing is about fat rights!! I have had some disagreements over the years with the way NAAFA does things, have always preferred the attitudes of the Fat Underground, but it seems to me as if they are moving further & further away from the cause of fat liberation every day.

  7. Very well said, once again, Ragen. I also find this so disappointing because I wasn’t able to begin truly accepting myself until I was able to see the word fat as just a descriptor. I’m hoping they will eventually change their mind.

  8. So much revolutionary change is about understanding the power of language to define, and reclaiming it to eliminate negativity. Whether it’s sexism (bitch, cunt, girl), classism (welfare has been transformed into so many other frameworks to mitigate it, like “social assistance”) or sizism, language is powerful and as long as it is wielding power, we NEED to own it and not walk away from it or use alternate words or phrases. It’s ok to retire from the battle, but never concede that it is lost – there is always someone else to take up the flag.

  9. I have been involved in fat acceptance for over six years, and I definitely see improvement in the way the word fat is used and seen. In fact, back then, many people in the movement often used the term “size acceptance” instead. Many, if not most, of the FA activists I followed rarely even used the word fat – settling for other terms like “big” and “large”. These same people today are proudly and unapologetically calling themselves and others “fat” and “fatties” and using these terms in positive ways. It is sad that NAAFA has gotten discouraged and given up the battle. But I am happy that there are plenty of fat activists out here fighting the good fight, and making slow but sure progress forward.

  10. Words have power. I call myself “fat” because there is nothing wrong with being fat and there is nothing wrong with me. People may try to use that word to hurt me, but they can’t, since I already own the word.

    Fat is just fat, for crying out loud!

    1. I couldn’t agree more. At first I thought that NAAFA’s decision was probably not the best move, but also one that I figured might be right for them if they felt it was right. But after giving it quite a bit of thought over the time since the announcement (what was it, a few months ago now?) I’ve come to see it for what it is – a White Flag. NAAFA backing down is like they are saying “here, media, you can have the power. We’ll go ahead and bow out while you continue to use my body type as a synonym for horrible insults. I give up.”.

  11. I am fat. When I talk about my size or my body for whatever reason, I use the word fat. When people seem surprised or taken aback, I explain (when necessary) that fat is just a word and there is absolutely nothing wrong with being fat.

    I am singlehandedly able to fight and win the war against the word. If I can do it, so can NAAFA. I think it’s ridiculous that they would do this.

    Fat is not a bad word. What’s bad is the negative reaction people have toward fat people. That is what must be focused on. Being concerned with the word is a strawman argument meant to distract from the actual problem.

    1. “Fat is not a bad word. What’s bad is the negative reaction people have toward fat people. That is what must be focused on. Being concerned with the word is a strawman argument meant to distract from the actual problem.”

      Wow, powerful and so true.

  12. Yes, it is sad. But institutions have a tendency to de-evolve. Everything has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It’s a great thing that others have picked up the torch. This blog is particularly potent. It’s all gooood.

  13. As with so many of the commentators, using the word fat has helped me in my journey towards acceptance of my own body. I’m fat. I just am. Nothing good, nothing bad. I’m 5’4, caucasian, blue-eyed, fat. Big woop.

    Twistie’s comment made me smile. I’m a graduate student in a mainstream scientific field. My mainstream scientific supervisor has taken to coming up to me after presentations and talking about the use of ‘headless fatties’ and also using the word ‘fat’ on occasion when another scientist would say ‘obese’. Nearly fell of the chair the first time she did it. This is a revolution. And we will win it.

    Right there with you on the battle line x

  14. If you are trying to change or affect the language, 44 years is nothing. I was patient in 1969, and I am patient now. Yes, there’s been some real progress. 1000 times as many people now as in 1969 can describe themselves as “fat” and not feel pain. I am hoping that NAAFA will be patient (and honest) about using the word a while longer. However, its leadership does have the right to steer the ship in the direction they think best. Commenter Harry Minot is right, and it is good that size acceptance is many different facets today, not just one or two.

  15. apologies—i know i’m really late on this, i’ve had a hard few weeks. i do i have something i really wanna say. i’ve wanted to say it, in fact, since this topic arose.

    the problem word in NAAFA is not fat. it is acceptance. think about it. when one is begging, or even asking, for mere acceptance one is bringing one’s sense of inferiority right to the table. when a group of people who have been wrongly discriminated against ask only for the prejudiced to give them their own tiny corner of the pie, it is very likely that the discriminators will give them much less, if anything.

    what would really help this movement [which, since i read yr blog almost every day, i know you already know, so think of this as my having yr back] —what would really help this movement is to come from a position of strength. who cares if the rotten & foolish majority accept you, or me, or us? we can make a much better life w/o them.

    i know from seeing my own subculture sadly & badly co-opted [along w/ so many of those previous] that what will work in both the long & short runs is creating an alternative culture of attraction—not begging at the mainstream’s door to just, pleasepleasepleasepleaseplease, be allowed in. in my case, having the cultures i know destroyed by the influx from w/o, was not good. but i learned from it.

    we needed to do the impossible—we needed to shut the doors & line them in lead. in this case, though, i think the reverse is needed. the doors need to be open & a freeflow of desirable—& only desirable—congress achieved. &, instead of begging for acceptance—throw away acceptance, it’s too cheap—we need to make whats behind those doors so enchanting that people will beg us to allow them in.

    as a first gen punkrocker, i know this can be done. we were thought of, & treated like, pariahs. people were afraid of us & they despised us too. it was not fun, & as far from the mainstream as is today, quite obviously, say, a four hundred pound athlete. it is very hard for me to believe this, even this late in our sorry history, but our tiny, hated culture became so attractive that people precisely like those who attacked us, verbally always & sometimes physically, now costume themselves as us & admire people they never ever wouldve liked.

    i’ve seen it done, i have, & it can be done here too.

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