That Fat and Fingernails Thing

that's not how this worksEvery once in awhile a meme starts going around social media 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. It must be going around again because I’ve been getting a bunch of requests about it, so I’m re-posting my response.

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 – can you imagine Facebook memes that say “You are not brunette, you have brown hair” or “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 being 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 most 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 definitely fat right now. So why would I want to find a semantic way out of it?

The actual 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 were 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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14 thoughts on “That Fat and Fingernails Thing

  1. For the most part I agree with you, but I found the “have fat” concept very useful and reassuring when I had to deal with my daughters being bullied about their size. They didn’t internalize the negativity and were able to stand up to the bullies and break the cycle of third graders creating an in crowd/ outcast social structure. In the long run my girls are happy with who they are even though the discrimination continues ( it has been 25 years ). I send your column to the fat bashers in my family and I think we’ve chipped a few holes in their thinking. Thanks!

  2. Brilliant 😀 I love this. Your world view is so inspiring. I am fat too, and I like reading your posts because I have become so much happier with myself since I read them. They make me feel strong and powerful, and they show me that I am not the wrong shape, I am a perfectly valid shape. And I love your underpants rule 🙂

  3. Society does not mistreat the word “fat.” It mistreats the people the word “fat” describes. If every last fat person decided to call ourselves something else, we’d still be mistreated, because we would still be who the word “fat” describes. When the government and large companies talk about waging a War on Obesity, we’d still be who they meant.

    And personally, I think calling myself fat stops the person who’s attacking me from distancing themselves from what they’re doing. Too many people try to wriggle out of the responsibility for their fatphobic actions by saying they only hate and want to be rid of fat, not fat people. That’s like saying you hate the way my head is attached to my neck and would love to “fix” that, but care about me as a person just the same. It is not actually *possible* to insult, bruise, or cut my body without insulting, bruising, or cutting me. Calling myself fat- or, rather, *pointing out the indisputable fact that I am fat*- makes it a lot harder to pretend otherwise.

  4. That doesn’t even make sense – fat is an adjective as well as a noun. Fingernails is not an adjective. That’s why it doesn’t work and sounds dumb. oy.

  5. I agree with everything you say. But you are not short to me! 5’4″ is not short when you are 5’1″, it is average! Then again, I have a friend who is 4’9″ and she tells me I am tall for a short person!

  6. I am cool with people identifying however they want, but I do find myself not really liking the term ‘fat’. But that’s because it’s a noun. Using it as an adjective is weird. And also not exactly accurate anyway, because body size has a whole lot to do with a lot of things, and not all of it is about fat content. Which everybody has. Like.. yes you have fat. Everyone has fat. The whole term feels nonsensical to me. Like instead of saying ‘I am brunette’ it’s saying ‘I am melanin’.

    That said, I find the meme pretty judgemental and wrongheaded. As an autistic person, it reminds me a lot off person first language. I am totally cool if someone wants to say they are a ‘person with autism’. But insisting that I use it is bullshit. So regardless of how /I/ feel about the word, I sort of feel gross about how often this is perpetuated.

    1. But, fat IS an adjective. As is thin.

      Fat, as an adjective, is descriptive of size alone, regardless of fat content, such as a fat line, in drawing. As for the “all bodies have fat” argument, then what about thin bodies? Do they “have thin”? Nope. Fat and thin, as adjectives, describe the size, alone.

      English is a weird language, and many words are both nouns and adjectives, and some are even nouns and verbs. Lie, for instance. A lying liar who lies also tells lies.

      And that’s the problem with ordering us to use the word fat in only a certain way – it not only tries to take over our underpants, but it limits the language, and by limiting the language, is an attempt to limit our thoughts.

      Goodspeak was an attempt to limit people’s thoughts, by limiting their ability to express those thoughts. If the words don’t exist (or exist, but are not allowed to be used), then how can a person express their thoughts?

      And you’re right – person first language is something that the individual person can, and should, choose for themselves.

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