I’m Not Fingernails, But I Am Fat

Pink Background, a black and white image of thin woman in a dress and heels leans on a table and waving. Black text says "Wait, Come back. You forgot your bullshit." someecards user cardYou’ve probably seen the meme on social media:  “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’s come up in a number of conversations recently and 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.” You’re not thin, you have thinness? 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 problem isn’t that fat people exist. The problem is the way that fat people are stigmatized, stereotyped, bullied, marginalized, and oppressed. I’m don’t think 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. I don’t think that the oppression created by weight stigma can be solved by making “fat” the Voldemort of adjectives.

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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7 thoughts on “I’m Not Fingernails, But I Am Fat

  1. It is now almost 50 years since NAAFA was founded. At that time the acronym stood for the National Association (to) Aid Fat Americans. Quite much later its name was altered to National Association (to) Advance Fat Acceptance. The real pioneers of the movement were the Californian fat feminists who created The Fat Underground. So, from the very outset it was intended that the word “fat” had to be seized back from those bigots who used it as a pejorative. The distinction between “being fat” and “having fat”? Ragen has quite correctly addressed that. Me? I always use “fatness” instead of the odious term “obesity” (although that term must sometimes be placed in quotes when referring to bogus “studies” and public perceptions…they don’t know any better).
    Now: I am a damnably old coot. My personal commitment to fat activism predated my acceptance of my personal fatness by a year. I joined NAAFA when I was 20. I finally rejected dieting when I was 21, a decade after I had been put on my very first diet, which of course only made me fatter. At 15 I felt so worthless that I attempted to end my life. A bystander (at the Milton station of the Boston MTA) prevented that. All subsequent attempts to make my fat self “acceptable” made me fatter.
    Fast forward: please join me in thanking Ragen for her crystalline intellect, the precision which she employs, and the importance of every thing she writes.

  2. Agree. People can claim for themselves whatever terms they wish when needing descriptors. From the outside, some see “having” as freeing one self (and others) from labels. On the other hand, “having” could be code for possibility of removing in future…

    I have 380-410 pounds regularly since the nineties., so I feel qualified to own having, have, had, and any myriad of descriptors of my selfage, minus obesity of course, ugly, nasty shaming word. Greek or Latin, to eat up, I believe. So, one big damn assumption there.

  3. I don’t mind being called fat. I do mind being called “obese,” which I think is a very offensive word and should be stricken from the lexicon. My body type is the result of multiple factors. It isn’t as simple as calories in, calories out, as “obese” postulates. Call me fat, call me heavy, call me large, chunky, plump, full-bodied, or big. Do not call me obese.
    I’d actually like to see the term diabetes replaced with hypopancreatitis, which would be a more medically accurate term. Diabetes is a Greek term which loosely translates to “evil pissing” because of the increased urination associated with the condition. I say it’s time to get with the now. Why do clinicians use terms like hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism for thyroid dysfunctions, but use an old colloquial term for dysfunction of the pancreas? Diabetes has become a loaded term and needs to be replaced.

    1. Correction: I should have said “hypopancreatism” and not “hypopancreatitis.” The suffix -itis implies inflammation.

  4. I’m a Mormon, and I remember 1976, when the then-governor of Missouri decided that the unconsitutional executive order by a previous governor of Missouri (The Extermination Order), that “The Mormons should be treated as enemies, and expelled from the state or exterminated” was wrong, and he repealed it for the bicentennial celebrations, in honor of the spirit of American Independence. Back in the days of the Extermination Order in Missouri, if some Mormons could have stayed there, without being oppressed, simply by saying, “I’m not a Mormon. I have Mormonism,” they still would have claimed their faith.

    1) No one is so stupid as to believe that the bullies will just say, “Oh, you aren’t X, you just HAVE X, so I should leave you alone, while I continue to bully all the other people who actually claim their X-ness? SURE!”
    2) Even if it did work, their un-oppressed life, at the price of lying to themselves about their own identity, while seeing their identity-claiming friends and family continue to be abused and oppressed, would taste like ashes in their mouths.

    Yeah, there were a few Mormons who denied their faith to avoid being expelled or murdered, by order of the governor, because in Missouri, at the time, the First Amendment apparently did not apply to Mormons. But the vast majority of Mormons said, “I guess we’d better leave Missouri and trust that we’ll find a better place elsewhere, where we can be who we are, in peace.” And the ones who did deny their faith and identity, for the sake of security, mostly didn’t last long (guilt/shame/pain making them up and follow their siblings out West). I suppose some of them did stay in hiding for the rest of their lives, but I do not believe they had very happy lives. And anyway, their numbers were certainly very small.

    So, maybe that tactic would work for 1% of fat people, but the 99% either are not going to fall for it, or will try it, and just see that it doesn’t make them free or happy.

    Denying your identity to please the bullies works about as well as long-term weight-loss. A few statistical outliers making it work are NOT a good argument for embracing that strategy.

    I am fat. It has shaped my life, and IS part of my identity. My fingernails have had virtually no impact in my identity, so yeah, I “have” them, and no one has bullied me about my manicure. But I AM fat! And I am a survivor of fat-hatred and oppression and bullying because people didn’t like the way I look, and I’m still here.

    I AM FAT.

    1. Agreed. Ever gonna here I’m not thin, I have thin? No. It’s an othering. You can’t “Be” what I disapprove of. You “Have” what I disapprove of. Now fix it! Don’t think so.

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