Being Fat vs. Having Fat

my name isReader Jennifer let me know about a Facebook meme that says “You are not fat.  You have fat.  You also have fingernails.  But you are not fingernails.”  I’ve seen this in plenty of version and I think it’s problematic on a lot of levels.

First of all, as regular readers have probably already sussed out, I would be much more comfortable if this was written from the perspective of how someone feels about/for themselves instead of dictating to others how we should feel (ie: “I’m not fat, I have fat” instead of “You are not fat, you have fat”.)  People are allowed to look at their bodies this way because, hey, underpants rule.  That said, I think it’s an idea worth some exploring.

First of all, let’s consider some other examples: You are not brunette, you have brown hair.  You are not tall, you have above-average height. When I’m flying in for a speaking gig I often tell the person who is responsible for picking up that I’ll be the short, fat, brunette  (in the blue dress or whatever).  People often respond by telling me not to call myself fat, nobody in my life has ever told me not to call myself brunette.  Therein lies my problem with this – it seems to me that the reason to draw a distinction between being fat and having fat is that we are considering fat to be a negative thing from which we want to disassociate, and or we want to see it as so temporary that we don’t want to be identified as fat.

I don’t think the research suggests that many fat people will remove our fat.  Regardless, knowing that it’s possible that time and circumstance might change the size of my body, I don’t think that’s a reason to not identify the way that it looks now. I call myself a brunette even though it’s basically a certainty that I will someday have hair that is gray and not brown. So even though there’s the possibility that my body may someday not be fat (through illness etc. – it’s certainly not a goal of mine) I’m still fat right now. So why do I want to find a semantic way out of it?

The problem is the way that people with fat bodies are stigmatized, stereotyped, bullied, marginalized, and oppressed. I’m just not sure this can be solved by “having” instead of “being” fat. To me the fact that identifying a body as fat is considered an insult is a symptom of a problem, not the actual problem – so this can’t be solved through wordplay.  If brunettes are being oppressed I don’t think there is much to be gained by saying that I’m not a brunette, I just have brown hair.

Similarly, since fat people are being oppressed, I don’t think there is much to be gained by saying that I’m not fat, I just have fat.  Mostly because no matter how I describe myself, people can still see me and these oppressions are based on how I look to others, not on how I describe myself.  I also understand that the word “fat” has been used as derisive and I understand that not everyone is into using it as a reclaiming term.  For me, using the word fat to describe myself without apology tells my bullies that they can’t have my lunch money any more, and avoids pathologizing my body in the way that terms like “overweight” and “obese” do.

It’s possible that people would give me slightly better treatment (however begrudgingly) if I said that I’m not fat – I have fat, or if I characterized myself as being overweight in a way that indicates that I believe there’s a problem with my body.  I’m ok with passing on that “approval”, because  I am far more interested in calling out and fighting stereotyping, stigma, bullying and oppression, than I am in trying to avoid it through wordplay or concessions that I can make to my oppressors.  Other people may see this differently and/or make other choices than I do and, of course, that’s completely fine. But as for me, I am fat because I have fat and I’m fine with that.

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41 thoughts on “Being Fat vs. Having Fat

  1. Hey, one day you might be mistaken for me!!
    “I often tell the person who is responsible for picking up that I’ll be the short, fat, brunette … ” That is my “pickup-line” whenever I meet a colleague who has not seen me before. They never fail to recognize me, thus it must be true!

  2. Or …..when people use that terminology, maybe they are just tying to be nice, to let you know that your fatness is not the end of the story, is not the only thing that defines you as a person.

    Another case I have always felt was like this, though it is indeed a disease, is diabetes. I’ve always felt that it’s kinda disrespectful to refer to a person as “a diabetic”. I prefer to say that they “have diabetes”, because to me this acknowledges the fact that they are much more than just “a diabetic” ….they are not defined by the disease alone, or even by the disease above all else. It is but one aspect of who they are.

    Maybe the same can be true of fat people? Or, is our fatness so overwhelmingly important that it really is the primary factor that characterizes us as a person?

    I’d like to think it’s not.

    1. I think part of the difference, though, is that fat is not a disease or disability, though many people think of it that way. And if people are going to reclaim the word “fat”, it’s best to use it as a neutral descriptor rather than as something a person “has” which is somewhat separate from themselves. I mean, you wouldn’t describe a slim person as “having thinness”, would you? In part because there aren’t all the same negative connotations with the words “thin” or “slim”. Also in part, because we don’t usually tend to think of thinness as something someone “has”, we think the person “has” a body, because a slim body is generally what is considered the norm or the standard. But fat is often viewed as excess… excess body, unnecessary additions to the “thin person” inside trying to get out.
      I think this meme is very well-intentioned, and it’s fantastic that people are putting messages out there that the size of someone’s body does not define them or sum them up. But at the same time, I understand Ragen’s concerns with it.

      1. One of my favorite things to say is, “Oh, honey – fat isn’t a four-letter word!”

        “Fat” is a mere descriptor. The negative connotations are a product of our brain’s interpretation of the word. In other words, the only person who gets to determine if I think “fat” is an insult is ME. Even if someone else intends to insult me, the only person who can choose to see the word as a weapon is me, and I refuse to allow anyone the right to harm me because of their issues.

        1. Hiya Helena …..

          Always a pleasure to read you!

          I do have to disagree here though. This is really just a variation of “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me”. As nice as that sentiment is, it’s just not true.

          Words, attitudes, and the propagation of those attitudes throughout society, have done tremendous damage to me personally.

          I don’t really mind being called fat. I can live with the insults. What I can’t live with is the discrimination I face in virtually every aspect of my life. I’ve been seriously abused by doctors and other healthcare providers. I’ve been discriminated against in terms of getting education, housing, employment, relationships, all because I’m fat.

          To be fair, I’m not just fat, I’m HUGELY fat, and always have been. So the discrimination and abuse I’ve faced may be even more extreme than most of you have experienced – or not. However, that little label – FAT, is a big part of why so many people feel free to discriminate against me in the most eggregious ways.

          It’s become so extreme, I no longer have any idea how to get around it anymore. Thanks to shows like THE BIGGEST LOSER, even my closest friends, those that I have left, are convinced that I’m just misbeahaving, and hence I deserve whatever I get, or don’t get.

          Words will never hurt me? A nice sentiment, but it’s just not true. Like it or not, my survival, our survival, is intimately connected to what other people think of us. Words, DO hurt. Badly.

          1. Back atcha, Sax! 😀

            I just want to point out that I’m not making proclamations (why does that word look like it’s spelled wrong?) for anyone else, only saying this is how it worked for me. I’ve had every fat insult in the book thrown at me from “Are you pregnant?” in fifth grade to “Walrus-girl” from my best friend’s ex-husband. I know how words can hurt.

            But at the same time, someone else on Ragen’s blog (I forget who) once posted a comment about how she had an epiphany one day that the connotations of words (positive or negative) are built in our own minds. Negative thoughts can absolutely come from hearing words (any words) applied to us in a negative fashion in our experience, but she was the first person I’d ever heard say that she sat back and recognized that she alone determined if the word was a weapon to her and she determined in that moment that it simply wasn’t and so she began embracing the word from that time.

            It was an absolute revelation to me to learn that I had the power to decide what words could hurt me and I have never felt so powerful in my life. I realized I could take BACK that power from others and I alone had the right to decide if I was going to allow them to hurt me. It was a truly awesome moment of pure rebellion against nasty folks out there. NO ONE is allowed to hurt me without my permission anymore. It is exhilarating!

            It turned out my mom was right. Words only hurt me when I give them permission to – and why would I want to do that? 🙂

            I realize that not everyone may be able to do this for themselves, or even want to, and if they don’t or can’t, it’s not my place to judge them. I only put it out here to say, “Hey – I was able to do this, so maybe you can, too.” No obligation implied (Underpants Overlord and all that).

          2. All that said, I just want to say I’m so sorry that you experience pain from your friends. That just plain frakking sucks. And however you cut it, discrimination HURTS. It’s so disgustingly, hideously wrong. I’m so sorry you have to deal with that.

            And just to point out, I am also hugely fat – about 400 lbs.

    2. I take the point that the nature of (real) disease, its metaphors and associations means it can overshadow the person concerned. However, that’s a side effect of the impact disease can have on a person and their life.

      ‘obesity’ starts there. It starts with what can go wrong with genuine diagnosis! It defines the person as the disease, it deliberately seeks to suffocate and smoother their humanity.

      That’s a semantic fail, at the very least. Pointing to people as disease and attacking that is a way of attacking them without seeming to. This enables you to get over your ethical impasse. It’s quite primitive, recalling ducking stools and witches etc.,

      There is no difference between a “person with diabetes” and “a diabetic”. The latter is effectively a shorthand for the former. Key is having objectively defined diseases that can be understood distinct processes going on within a person, rather than the person themselves. A person with or without their diabetes, is a person. A person without “their obesity” is not a fat person.

      1. I never thought about this. I have diabetes. I also have bipolar disorder. There is no way to describe me as diabetes, but plenty of people would describe me as bipolar. Nope, I’m not Bipolar, I’m Cie. I have bipolar disorder!
        Ditto the thing with obese being used to describe people.
        I enjoy studying the way language works, so I enjoyed your comment.

  3. Yeah, I don’t think the way to remove negative aspect of the word “fat” is through creative word play and semantics.

    The bottom line is, we all come in a variety of colors, shapes and sizes and until people learn to fully appreciate and value diversity (and pass it on to children), we ain’t gonna progress anywhere with bullying and stigma. The whole reason why people get treated poorly by others is because they’re unique and different. And boy, does our society not like to deal with “different”! Why bother try to understand a different point of view, a different kind of beauty, a different way of living, if it’s so much easier to just sit in your cozy corner where everything is standardized and averagely “normal”.

  4. Another one hit out of the ballpark! Very thoughtful dismantling of the verbal gymnastics in our society. Thank you, Ragen.

  5. One of the best times I ever had with a bully was when after I called her out for cutting in front of me in line, she started in with the “You fat ass something or other” and I agreed, very loudly, saying “I DO HAVE a very fat ass and you cut in line” and then “fat @#$%.” Yup, I’m really, really fat and you cut in line.” I smiled, she grew more and more agitated and finally left without bothered to finish her transaction. And when I got up to the cashier, he was grinning ear to ear. Oh, and I’m a fat diabetic. It is the truth, as the disease impacts every aspect of my daily life. I own it, I live it and I’m complication free 17 years in (knock wood). Just like I used to athletic.

    1. I love how you handled this asshat!
      I was just diagnosed with diabetes. After the initial shock and upset and of course the assertion that I was to blame for getting the disease, I’ve dealt with it quite well. I’d be very happy if it went into remission, but if it doesn’t, I think I can live with it anyhow!

  6. Hey! I’m not blue eyes, I have blue eyes.

    Of course I could put in brown contacts to temporarily cosmetically change the appearance of them… but as with the fat, it’s a temporary change through unnatural means.

    I am free to choose it if I wish, but I don’t happen to wish for that. I like my eyes. I like my body. They are both part of who I am, and I happen to kind of like me.

  7. I was just talking the other day about the push to say, “person with autism,” instead of “autistic person.” Autism isn’t always viewed as a negative thing (unlike diabetes in Saxman’s example)–in fact it can result in extraordinary abilities–but people don’t necessarily want to be defined by their differences, even if they aren’t negative.

    That said, most people wouldn’t object to being referred to as a “beautiful person” or “talented person,” so it does seem like it’s stigma that results in wanting to use “person with (noun)” instead of “(adjective) person.”

  8. Points well taken. If you go from “I am fat” to “I have fat,” some people will become more insistent that you lose that fat. The new wording changes “fat” into a temporary condition. All of us fat people know that this is untrue. I bet that this is a case of intentional subversion.

  9. On one hand, much as fat is a neutral word, I can see someone who’s had a lot of bad experiences with it not feeling comfortable referring to themselves as fat.

    On the other, I don’t like the Orwellian logic behind, “Maybe if we eliminate all the words to describe fat people, they will somehow cease to exist,” nor do I feel comfortable with yet another attempt to separate me from my fat and pretend that the “real me” is some thinner, “better” person trapped in a disposable prison of adipose tissue (which it is then safe to hate, because that’s *totally not the same* as hating me).

  10. I hate it when people say “Oh you have fat but aren’t fat!” Then what am I? A unicorn? Rainbow?

    Or when they call me a fat (insert what ever other insult they can think of here) I go “Mhmm I’m fat anything else you would like to point out? Maybe my dark blue eyes that go violet?* or my mix of dirty and strawberry blonde hair? That I have huge boobs? We are still taking about physical traits right?” I have gotten a lot of open mouthed people doing that. You can’t hurt me with the word fat.

    *My eyes do change colour at times from dark blue to violet and it freaks people out. I found out just not too long ago I am only the second person on my mother’s side to have this genetic trait and the only one on my father’s side.

  11. I often deal with this type of argument when I identify myself as fat to my students when we are talking about body composition, health issues and nutritional needs. They are very vocal that I am not ‘fat’. I remind them it is not a put-down, it is just the facts. I have alot of fat on my body that causes my shape and body to be ‘fat’. If I were lean and muscular, I would call myself that.

  12. This might be a dumb question, but what about someone with, for example, a fat belly or fat thighs, but doesn’t have a lot of body fat otherwise? I was thinking of that as “so-and-so has (insert area here) fat”, because if they’re mostly overall thin, “fat” as a neutral descriptor doesn’t seem to be accurate.

    Any helpful thoughts?

  13. I’ve gotten the same thing if I say I’m autistic. Sometimes I choose to say “have Asperger’s” or I’m an “aspie”.
    Thanks to Autism Speaks, autistic has become a dirty word like fat. It’s sad because, like many people on the spectrum, I don’t see an autistic me vs a non autistic me. Asperger’s is a big part of my identity, it’s shaped many experiences and even my college/career path. If it weren’t for Asperger’s and ADHD, I don’t think I would’ve been so interestedin tech or disability rights. Just like being Episcopalian or a New Englander, it’s a huge factor in who I’ve become. The whole “don’t let it define you” thing seems at times like a message that it’s still not okay to be aspie or fat and proud of it. That rots! The only person who can define me is me, and if my choosing to define myself as an aspie forces someone to confront ableist attitudes, good! Preach on!

    1. One of my twin boys is Autistic. He goes to a school specifically for Autistic children. As part of the curriculum they teach them about autism and it’s likely effects on the kids, the difficulties they may face from others in society who may not understand them and so on. They also teach them strategies for how to get to do what they want within society without stressing themselves too much.

      The basis of most of these teachings at the school however is the acceptance and understanding of their own autistic traits, the schools thought being that without understanding themselves, they are less well equipped to help the world to understand them.

      So we have taught my son to ‘own’ his autism. To accept it as who he is.
      That this is how he sees and understand the world, sometimes other people see and understand the world in other ways, and that overall the world would be at its best if everyone tried to think about the other ways different people process before acting.

      Not saying it always works, he is a 13 year old boy too.

  14. I agree. It seems as if when I describe myself as fat people then feel they must assume I am putting myself down when in fact I am merely stating a fact. They thereby presume a low self concept which is not the case merely because I do not consider the word fat to be as shame ladden as they do. On the other hand I don’t like people presuming that I have a bad self concept (that label I do not want put on me by other people).

  15. Reblogged this on Sly Fawkes and commented:
    I could describe myself as the fat, older lady with long gray hair and glasses. People could easily pick me out of a crowd with that description, I think. However, I’d have plenty of people telling me not to call myself fat or old. Why shouldn’t I? They’re neutral descriptors!
    I also bet I’d have plenty of people asking me why I don’t dye my hair. After all, why wouldn’t I want to try and pretend I’m twenty-five when I’m actually nearly twice that?
    I think it’s eye-roll time!
    I would love to live in a world where a person could be what they are and not be told that what they are is unacceptable.

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