The Fat Rant 3 thread is dying down now, so I want to highlight a comment Deborah Lipp just made toward the end of it, and my response.
It’s an awesome video, but I don’t love what she said to the kids. She said (close paraphrase) “I’m fat. People come in all different sizes.” And while the different sizes thing is wonderful to say to kids, “I’m fat” sounds like it was spoken by someone who doesn’t have kids of their own!
Joy is teaching positivity, but she’s forgetting that kids repeat EVERYTHING, and at the least opportune moment. The vast majority of fat people are not okay with being called fat, and a positive person like Joy indicating it’s okay to call people fat is likely to be hurtful to some third party down the line. Because 24 hours later, those two cute kids will walk up to a fat woman and say “Is there a baby in your tummy or are you just fat?” and that woman might be devastated.
Fat is a word that FA people are reclaiming as honest and direct, but we are a small minority, and children can’t make that distinction.
But the same woman would likely also be devastated by a mere “Is there a baby in your tummy?” And certainly by “Is there a baby in your tummy, or do you just have a big belly/are you just overweight/insert other euphemism here?” Problem one is that children need to learn that commenting on other people’s bodies is rude, period — and that’s not the job of those whose bodies they comment on.
But I hatehatehate that people teach their kids not to call anyone fat or bring up people’s weight specifically — as opposed to just teaching them not to comment on bodies in general. That’s not just because I don’t think fat is a dirty word — it’s because A) that ultimately drives the myth that fat people don’t know they’re fat unless you point it out to them — which leads to people thinking if we’re ever going to solve the “obesity crisis,” we need to shame fat people more, because they’re apparently just not getting it. And B) It’s also what drives our hypothetical non-fat-accepting woman to be devastated by the question in the first place — she, too, has been brought up to believe that someone else acknowledging her fat is a terrible thing. It doesn’t matter how it’s phrased, because the power comes from the idea that there’s nothing more humiliating than someone noticing that you’re fat and saying something about it.
The problem isn’t the word “fat” (any euphemism hurts just as much), it’s the agreement, shared by many thin and fat people alike, that if nobody says anything negative about your fat, we’ll all just pretend it doesn’t exist. Which also leads to people saying, “You’re not fat” to people who clearly are, because too many people just can’t get their heads around the idea that a person can be fat and attractive/kind/smart/well-groomed/accomplished/whatever. Pretending the fat doesn’t exist means denying a huge part of that person’s experience and contributes to making fat people invisible. So I really don’t know what else you could say to a kid that wouldn’t reinforce the notion that being fat is such a terrible thing, we dare not speak of it.
My sister J. often jokes that she’s nervous about people in her real life finding out she hangs around on fat acceptance blogs, because then they’d know she’s fat! Obviously, she’s aware of how ridiculous that is, or she wouldn’t be making the joke — but the joke wouldn’t be funny if there weren’t a nugget of truth at the heart of it. So many of us go through our lives as fat people doing our very best to ignore our bodies entirely, to pretend they’re just not there, because thinking about these shameful vessels we live in is so painful. (Which is one reason why exercise can seem like such a daunting task when you’re new to it. It means actually acknowledging your body and inhabiting it, instead of keeping your mind — the good part of you — comfortably separate from its housing.) Even if we rip ourselves apart every time we look in a mirror, on some level, we can convince ourselves that no one else sees it, if they don’t comment on it. I mean, fat is such a horrible thing, if other people really knew how fat we were, how could they even stand to be in the same room as us? When people treat us like normal human beings, they must not be seeing it.
We also work to make sure they don’t, I might add. A few years ago, before I’d fully embraced fat acceptance, I was sitting on my porch with one of my oldest friends (who’s thin) and I kept shifting my weight and adjusting my shirt so she couldn’t see my belly rolls. Finally, I did realize how insane I was being and acknowledged it: “Christ, you’ve known me for 15 years, and I’m sitting here driving myself nuts trying to make sure you can’t see my fat gut.” Her: “Was I staring?” Me: “No. I’m just a paranoid idiot.” Her: “‘Cause if you ever catch me staring, it’s probably at your boobs.” Not the response I was expecting, to say the least.
See also: wearing tent-like clothes because we can’t bear to reveal our actual outlines. Wearing all black because it’s “slimming.” Keeping our hair long to hide our fat faces. Stuffing ourselves into Spanx. Dieting and yammering about it constantly, so at least everyone knows we’re not like those pathetic fatties who aren’t even trying to do something about it! When we’re working that hard every day at appearing five pounds thinner, a little less lumpy, and appropriately self-loathing, of course it’s fucking devastating when someone says, “You’re fat.” Cat’s out of the bag. All that effort was for naught. You’re one of them, no matter how hard you tried not to be.
I trust I don’t need to explain why the problem there is not with the word “fat.”
Fat people know we’re fat, and everybody else knows it, too. But somehow, the first part of that sentence is often news to thin people, and the second part is often news to fat people. As absurd as that sounds, it’s the logical (sort of) consequence of being brought up to see acknowledging another person’s fat as taboo. The thin people think we don’t know — how could we, and let ourselves remain fat? — because no one ever says anything about it. And the fat people, on some level, think other people don’t know — how could they, and still like us? — because no one ever says anything about it.
Does this mean the answer is for everybody to start talking about it, and for us to teach kids to point out every fat person they see? No. Unsolicited comments on another person’s body are still rude, period. But imagine if more fatties started acknowledging our fat in non-self-deprecating ways — by, for instance, saying to children who ask if we’re pregnant, “No, I’m just fat. People come in all shapes and sizes.” Or by asking for seats that accommodate our bodies without being ashamed of needing them. Or by telling friends who insist we’re not fat that we are, actually — and what’s wrong with that? Or by wearing clothes that show our figures, going swimming in public, getting sassy pixie cuts that leave our double chins exposed.
Then imagine if other people acknowledged our fat in value-neutral ways — by, for instance, offering us armless chairs, because it occurred to them that those might be more comfortable for us. Smiling at us when we’re trying to decide whether to sit next to them on the subway, to let us know it’s okay if our thighs happen to touch theirs. Suggesting we go shopping together and including Lane Bryant or LeeLee’s Valise or Vive la Femme on the list of shops to hit, instead of “politely” pretending they don’t see that we can’t wear anything in the boutiques they want to visit. Saying, “You’re beautiful, and you rock,” instead of “You’re not fat!”
Wouldn’t life be a hell of a lot more fun that way?
I know you can’t change society overnight, and in the meantime, with the taboo against acknowledging fatness as strong as it is, some people’s feelings will be hurt even by well-meaning kids pointing out their fat. (Let alone nasty little kids who have already learned that it hurts.) But what’s the alternative? Continuing to act like fat is both a dirty word and a fate worse than death, just because so many people believe that?
Shapelings, any ideas for better responses to curious children?