Fat and Fingernails

my name isI got a question today from reader Diane asking how I feel about an internet 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 versions and I think it’s problematic on a lot of levels. I blogged about it before,  but it’s so ubiquitous I thought I would repost this:

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.

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 and everybody gets to decide that for themselves.  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 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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26 thoughts on “Fat and Fingernails

  1. I know all too well that automatic ‘but you’re not fat’ response.

    Folks I stand 5’2″ and weigh somewhere in the general neighborhood of 240 lbs. I don’t care how you slice it, that’s fat. I’m fat.

    Also, I wouldn’t want to not have fingernails. I could live without them, but why would I choose that?

  2. As a fat child I really hated when people would say, “You’re not fat, you’re big boned!” I thought, this doesn’t look like large bones, it looks like fat. But the message was there – we shouldn’t use the word fat, and if you are fat, that’s bad. It was much easier to deal with kids who hurled the word fat as an invective than the well-meaning “You’re not fat” folks, because I’d rather deal with the truth than euphemisms.

    1. When I was a kid, I didn’t understand the euphemisms. I have always tended to be rather literal-minded, so euphemisms were too easily misinterpreted.

      Directness and clarity are good things, and you can be honest without being brutal about it. Tone and a smile, and a good attitude go a long way toward making “You’re fat,” be less of an attack, and more of a basic descriptor, like “You’re short,” or “You’re blonde,” or “Goodness! Are you OK? You’re GREEN!”

      Having been green during biology class, I did not see the statement as invective, or in any other way problematic. The thing is that green people have never really been systematically oppressed. So, no one needed to reclaim the descriptive. We have a lot of work to do, still, to reclaim the descriptive term “fat,” and make it a simple descriptor, again, and not a pejorative.

      As for weight, aren’t bones denser than fat? One would think that someone big-boned would appear thinner than someone fat, if they had the same BMI, because the heavy bones would raise the BMI, without significantly raising the clothing size. Also, bones aren’t supposed to be jiggly. So, if someone said to me that I was big-boned, I’d just have to laugh, because there’s no way. If my skeleton was this wobbly, I’d never be able to stand up.

      Then again, there are some really DENSE people who are judged to be perfectly healthy, until someone sees that blasted number on the scale, or the BMI chart, and suddenly it’s ALL about how they need to lose weight. What, bone mass? I don’t think so!

      So, conflating bones and fat in that way can become rather problematic, in my opinion. Much better to just stick to the facts.

      1. I’m kinda glad my bones seem to be larger than people my height tend to be. I’m five two and a half (the half is important) and a lot of people this height have more delicate bones, whereas I’m jiggly all over obviously and actually hit the “death fat” mark at a much lower weight than most people because of the shortness, but like my wrists are SOLID and I have a gigantic rib cage, but I also generally hope that means less risk of bone disease later in life since height/frame can be a risk factor.

        (And yet no one ever tells me to grow taller so I don’t get osteoporosis. Funny, that.)

  3. This is a lot like a discussion that runs through disability circles with “person-first” language versus “identity-first.” Person first language relegates the disability as a non-defining feature of the person, but it ignores the systematic injustices that happen to disabled folks through ableism. It’s the same thing here. My disabilities impact my identity development and so does my fat….which is why I describe myself as the fat gimpy redheaded woman with glasses (with whatever I’m wearing that day). I’m not a person with femaleness, I’m not a person with fatness, I’m not a person with disabilities….I’m a fat disabled woman!

    1. I read not too long ago that many autistic people prefer to be called autistic, rather than “person with autism,” because they live it, day in and day out, every day for the rest of their lives, and it completely does change their identity. Their families, who struggle with the idea of “autism stole my baby!” (autistic people generally HATE that saying, but it’s apparently fairly wide-spread among families) want it to be person-first, as way of denying the autism, and holding on to the person they knew before.

      But the fact is, the autistic people don’t look at it the same way. They know that autism is not just some one-dimensional disease that puts a crimp in a person’s style. It changes everything, for good, as well as for bad. Yeah, there are a lot of disadvantages, but there are advantages, too, that non-autistic people just can’t understand, like the ability to FEEL colors.

      I was gob-smacked when I read that one, I’ll tell you, because I never even imagined the possibility! But the woman who wrote about how she can feel colors, and how she loves that part of herself, and the autism that formed that part of herself, just blew my mind.

      So, I probably will never fully understand autism, but I do understand the identity-first dynamic. My body shape and size has formed so much of my life and my identity, and helped me to become the person I am today. Had I lived a life of thin-privilege, I probably would not be where I am now. Whether that’s good or bad is irrelevant. It’s different. It’s not who I am. It is not my identity.

      Still, underpants rule. If someone claims FOR THEMSELVES that they want person-first, I try to remember that, and refer to them as such, just like I would try to remember their pronouns, if they were outside the conventional. I’ll probably slip up, but I at least make the effort to remember.

      Personally, I’m a fat woman with fingernails. Some people are just people with fat, and with fingernails.

      1. There’s some belief that changelings from mythology were often autistic or deaf or otherwise disabled children.

        It’s… really horrific when you think about it too much.

        1. Yeah, especially with sudden onset. People really can, and do, believe that THEIR child is gone, and they are saddled with the long-term care of some stranger they have to struggle to identify with, let alone love.

          Still, I’m glad that they are getting out there, more, and speaking up for themselves. The things they talk about make me think, ‘Hey! That explains so much about (X child I love), and their behavior. Now, if I take these people’s advice about how to treat them, will (X child I love) respond positively, as well? YAY!” Meanwhile, X child’s mother is saying, “You noticed that, too? It’s not just me and my imagination? Hooray!”

          Some of the stories just break my heart, though. Horrific, yes.

          And yet, most people will at least PRETEND to be unbigoted when it comes to various disabilities, and understand that people don’t have control over that aspect of their bodies, and that they are still human beings, deserving of human dignity and rights. But let fat be the issue, and all that understanding goes right out the window.

          1. That makes sense about the changeling. Your kid looks the same, but acts different now, so some creature did the switcheroo.

            Pre-modern societies needed some kind of explanation, but unfortunately some of these still continue in modern medicine. Like “fat ppl eat too much”. With the recent finding of King Richard III’s body and that he had scoliosis, it puts into perspective the medieval accounts of him, that he was evil and that led to the physical deformity. I’ve read some news articles about scoliosis and lack of treatments/diagnosis because the docs think it’s a “disease” that lazy people make up to get out of work.

          2. (Replies to everyone, I’m just trying not to make the replies to small)

            I actually have done a fair amount of research and the things that were recommended to do to fairies to try and get “your” child back are horrifying.

            Or Henry the 8th. I saw a… actually I think it was an episode of the British Baking Show that talked about his size and how much he liked to eat. And like… I’m sure he did (like most people) but also maybe the festering thigh wound had something to do with some of his health issues????

            1. That and his head wound. Henry VIII was rendered unconscious for several hours, and that was when the formerly sweet and kindly man became the general jerk-bag that history remembers. That’s just his personality, not his body size.

              He had been very athletic and active in his youth, and because he was so active, he ate heartily. After he was wounded, he continued to eat normally, but he could no longer exercise, due to chronic pain in his leg, which naturally got in the way of his favorites: riding and dancing. Then, too, the chronic pain would make him seek for comfort in whatever form he could get it, and food is comforting to the senses. For a brief time, delicious food distracts you from the pain. Plus, when he was young and active, he was just the prince, not due to inherit. Then, he became the KING, and he couldn’t just ride around willy-nilly all the time. He had massive responsibilities, and was tied to his throne. There are a LOT of reasons for him to have gained weight.

              1. And of course, when discussing Henry VIII’s health issues, let’s not forget the syphilis for both leg ulcers and personality changes… not to mention the extremely early death of his only legitimate son to survive infancy.

  4. Look! I’m holding a stick of butter! I HAVE fat!

    When I put the butter down, I AM fat.

    “Nuff said……

  5. I saw “you’re not fat, you have fat” in my FB news feed for the first time relatively recently. Then, when I found your blog, I thought, “I’d love to hear how Ragan addresses ‘you’re not fat, you have fat.'” I’ve been meaning to read some of your older posts and see if I could find anything on it, even. I’m so happy to read this

  6. The “have fat” language also seems to put an artificial divide between people who have fat and people who, presumably, don’t. Except that even very thin people have fat; it’s part of the normal anatomical makeup of humans.

    1. Exactly! Without at least a small bit of fat, the human being cannot survive. For one thing, the brain is composed of FAT. Put your babies on a fat-free diet, and watch them wither and fail.

      And the rest of the body requires some fat, as well. It’s not just for long-term famines. Without a bit of fat on your body, you wouldn’t last until dinner. Possibly lunch.

  7. Let’s try: I’m not black, I have black.
    I’m not Jewish, I have Jewish,
    I’m not female, I have female.
    I’m not gay, I have gay.
    I’m not human, I have human.

    Nopes, none work.

    PS these are just test examples.

  8. My sister tried to tell me this. Since she is a writer, and loves English, I came back to her from a linguistic standpoint.

    Fingernail is a noun. Fat is a noun, but it is ALSO an adjective. So, you can HAVE fat, and BE fat, at the same time. You cannot, however, BE fingernails.

    See how great fat is? It does double duty! Fat is PHAT! It’s like that cake that everyone wants to have and eat it, too. Linguistically speaking, with fat, you can.

  9. The English language has all sorts of “I am…” expressions, which don’t exist in other languages. We say “I am thirsty.” The French say “I have thirst.” I think we need to look at ways people express other body sizes, too. Do we say “I am thin” or do we say “I have thinness.” The people who want to morph language to soften the message are just wrong, if you ask me.

  10. It isn’t really a softening of the language anyway. Implicit in the “have fat” language is also the belief that you could choose to put it down (like that stick of butter) and not have it any more. You know, if you could just be bothered…

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