Things “Fat” Doesn’t Mean

Reader Kele sent me this question (and gave me permission to blog about it!)

A friend of mine, who is herself fattish, shared a screenshot on Facebook today. I commented that in a way I understood where the poster was coming from, but I didn’t like the fat shaming aspect at all. My friend responded that she “didn’t mean to body shame, but when she hears the phrase ‘fat ass,’ her mind automatically translates it to ‘lazy.'” I told her equating fat with lazy is exactly body shaming, and she asked me to explain why! I did my best, but I have to say it’s so obvious to me and I was so confounded that a smart woman would pose the question that I’m not sure I did a great job.

Kele FB Meme
“How dare you say “what happened” to an aging actor while your fat ass is covered in butter and sour patch kids in a reclining theater seat.”

I have found that this is a common problem.  One of the ways that marginalization of fat people is kept in place is through this kind of “stereotype and substitute” situation. Instead of stereotyping all fat people as lazy (which is bad enough), people just start to use the terms interchangeably.

A good example of this was that ridiculous “fattest thing you’ve ever done” things which was actually just story after story of people who ate a lot one time.  That’s not “being fat” that’s eating a lot one time, and if there’s anything that meme proved it’s that people of all sizes do that.

Stereotyping like this creates issues in a number of ways:

First, it creates situations where behaviors are considered fine for people who look one way, but not for people who look another way.  For example, consider the likely reaction to a sitcom scene where a thin girl who has just broken up with a significant other is wearing sweats and no make-up, eating a gallon of mint chocolate chip from the container and squirting whipped cream into her mouth. Now imagine if it was a fat girl doing the same thing.  This type of stereotyping creates appearance-based double standards, and that’s bullshit.

It can create intersectional oppression for fat people who also deal with issues of racism/healthism/ableism that may come with stereotypes/preconceptions of laziness. Also it leads to “lazy” (by whatever definition) fat people being treated dramatically worse than “lazy” thin people, when neither is really anybody’s business.

This meme is particularly irritating to me because speaking out against celebrity shaming is important, and this totally botches it by employing the terrible strategy of fighting celebrity body shaming with fat body shaming. Based on this meme I might get the idea that it’s ok to shame celebrities as long as you are thin and eating kale chips in an uncomfortable chair.  That’s not how we make things better.

This kind of stereotype/substitute also creates a situation that encourages people to project their shame about behaviors in which they engage onto fat people to try to make themselves feel better.  If they feel like they eat too much or don’t get to the gym enough they can lash out at fat people, and then feel better about themselves. But fat people don’t exist to be punching bags for thin people with self-esteem issues, and using us that way is unacceptable.

Finally it takes an adjective that accurately describes people’s bodies, and turns it into an epithet used to shame and bully.  That, in turn, contributes to a climate of bullying and oppression in which people, like Kele’s friend, actually forget why it’s not ok to stereotype type people or substitute a behavior for an appearance.

Here are three easy steps to prevent this:

  1. Don’t confuse body size or appearance with behavior
  2. Don’t use an adjective that describes a group of people as an insult
  3. Think before you meme

Speaking of memes let’s see if we can’t make some improvements:

Aging Actor Meme
Same meme, but now with everything but “How dare you say “what happened” to an aging actor” crossed out.

There, fixed it!

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12 thoughts on “Things “Fat” Doesn’t Mean

  1. “Don’t use an adjective that describes a group of people as an insult.” Oh my gawd, if everyone could follow this advice, imagine what a better world we would live in!

  2. Who covers their bottom with butter? Is that some sort of new skin-care treatment? Like a honey facial, or lemon juice exfoliant?

    Also, why aren’t celebrities allowed to age? It’s not right. I mean, some of the most beautiful people I know are old. They’re beautiful because all those experiences they had made them wonderful people, and those lines and wrinkles and scars tell that story, and I love it.

    So, if you’re going to ask “What happened” to a person, you’d better be ready to smear some butter on your bottom, sit in a reclining chair with some sour patch candies, and PAY ATTENTION for a few hours! You’ll probably learn something valuable.

  3. This, in a way, speaks to the root of a lot of my trauma around being fat. Kids would insult me by calling me fat, ugly, stupid, crazy–and, because I thought I was fat, I thought I deserved all the other epithets as well. My fatness proved that! (Never mind that I was later astonished to find out I was absolutely in the “normal” range of the Bullshit Measuring Index: that did absolutely nothing to prevent my bullies using “fat” against me, and, if I had been of the right turn of mind and genetics, might very probably have triggered a serious eating disorder.)

    And never mind that fat does NOT equate with anything else: lazy, ugly, stupid, unhealthy, crazy, weird, whatever. Possibly if I had realized THAT as a teen I would have ended up a lot less crazy and weird. Still getting over the stigma of teenage bullying.

    If I had never accepted that the thing I could see (fat) was inextricably linked to the other things I couldn’t, I think I could have defended myself better. Thank goodness that now, a hundred pounds heavier than I was then, I have some self-esteem.

  4. I just stopped reading a book last night–bam! I’m done! because of exactly this. I was enjoying this particular novel until I got to a certain character’s first scene, in which her body was used as a stand-in for a good half-dozen negative personality characteristics. Instead of just saying that she was greedy, materialistic, narcissistic, mean-spirited, and so forth, or using nasty actual behaviors to delineate her character, we get paragraph after paragraph of descriptions of her “bulk”, her “lumbering” gait, her double chins, and so forth. It was clear that the narrator (it was written in third person) so, the author, was revolted by this character’s physical self.

    And people don’t get it. I have said in my book club that I have stopped reading other novels on account of this sort of thing, and they just don’t get it.

    1. Yep, I do the same with movies and tv shows as well. When they go the bs fat shaming route, then it’s not worth my attention, view ratings, etc. Our time on this planet is limited, I refuse to give any of that precious time to people who go out of their way to contribute to making the world a harder place to live in for people like me.

  5. While we’re at it, “fat” does NOT mean “greedy capitalist” or “non-affluent rural person who votes Republican” or “coward who dies first in horror movies.” I an always disappointed when so-called progressives use fat as short-hand for undesirable traits of those whose politics they dislike. I am strongly in favor of social programs that help the poor, but I’m fat, so that must make me a patrician jerk in a top hat or a member of that militia in Oregon, right?

    1. Preach it. I get so tired of hearing Rush Limbaugh described as a big, fat idiot (I am looking at you, Al Franken). Really? Of all the heinous things Rush Limbaugh has said and done, his size is what we’re concentrating on? (Not that “idiot” is a winner either.)

      As to the question that brought on this post: tell your friend to say what they mean. What are they taking issue with? Laziness? Then say that. Bored with the same old words? They might use the opportunity to expand their vocabulary: apathetic, lackadaisical, lethargic, dilatory, comatose, indolent, idle, laggard, loafing, slack, slothful, somnolent, torpid, dopey, sluggish, hebetudinous.

      There. That should tide your friend over when chiding people for quite a while, without once calling them “fat” like only a lazy and uneducated chider covered in butter and sour patch kids would do.

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