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Why the Word ‘Fat’ Desperately Needs Redefining

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at PSU chapter.

I’ve never been proud of being plus-sized, and the world always told me to equate fat with ugly. Growing up different in any way leads to a poor self-image and lack of popularity, but living your life as something that everyone around you is terrified to become is often another level of alienation. It was common to hear my friends say “I look so fat today,” followed by “no you don’t, you look pretty!” 


I quickly learned that plus-sized and unattractive were synonymous, and I tried my hardest to hide my body in hopes of disguising the thing that made me so undesirable. 


Until recently, I never considered the fact that ‘fat’ could simply be a word. What if we used it only to describe, and not to belittle? Why is it said in such a negative way, either to insult ourselves or others? The history and misuse of this word boils down to a hatred and a fear of plus-sized bodies. 


As a society, we have painted such a horrid picture of those who dare to exist in a fat body that we associate them with inferiority and unsightliness. ‘Fat’ desperately needs a social redefinition–one that can be used freely as a neutral adjective–in order to stop this fear, rejection, and oppression of plus-sized individuals. 


YES! Magazine defines fatphobia as the “irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against obesity or people with obesity,” and this plays a large role in the way we view plus-sized individuals. The author cites a study which outlines that around 45% of people in the U.S. frequently obsess over their weight, and half of girls ages 3-6 are scared of becoming fat. 


Person standing on scale
Photo by I Yunmai from Unsplash

What kind of society do we live in that instills this phobia in children so young? At that age, this is not simply a health concern. We have engraved a fascination of beauty that begins so early, it’s no wonder ‘fat’ has become a taboo and degrading word.


The implications of this are somewhat obvious, but not any less devastating. ANAD.org states that 28.8 million Americans–that’s 1 in 11 persons–will suffer from an eating disorder in their lifetime. The demographic in which these disorders are most common is teenage girls; most of this concern with weight is not due to being health-conscious as seen through these damaging and harmful disorders, it’s due to a fear of becoming fat. Disordered eating is any relationship with food that strays from normal eating habits but does not necessarily constitute an eating disorder, and the number of individuals who experience this is too high to accurately measure. 


However, MonteNido.com estimates that 75% of American women have negative feelings toward food, their bodies, or both. Associating the word fat with such negative connotations perpetuates the idea that it is one of the worst things you could be, and with such high pressure on women especially to adhere to beauty standards, it seems impossible to have a peaceful relationship between the body and mind. This could change if ‘skinny’ and ‘fat’ weren’t so closely associated with positive and negative traits, respectively. 


It’s easy to hide behind the notion that fatphobia is a result of health conscious individuals who want to “end the obesity epidemic,” but this is actually quite unlikely. The word ‘fat’ is not fearful in the same way that the word ‘cancer’ is fearful. Both are scary, but fat is demeaning, mockable, and shameful. ‘Fat’ is a word that anyone can use– no matter their body shape or size–in order to announce feelings of disgust or anger with their body. 


Alyned Together

A thin person can describe themselves as fat while squeezing into skinny jeans after a big meal, anyone can call someone fat behind their back as a heated insult, and this word is often uttered alone while looking in the mirror at a tear-stained face. It’s rare to hear someone describe themselves as fat in a neutral way; it often turns into a friend’s shocked rebuttal of “don’t say that about yourself!” Having a large build should not be so shameful that plus-sized individuals have to hide from these observations and deny what they look like. 


Fatphobia is not a result of personal preference that can be fixed overnight; it’s a bias that has been created systemically over centuries, resulting in the fearful obsession of it that our society continues to uphold. We see examples of this on TV shows and movies, advertisements, and social media everyday. 


Sit-coms like Friends and New Girl degrade fat people, and both have plotlines in which one of the main characters used to be plus-sized. They comically pick fun at these individuals and their past, noting how lazy they were, showing them eating all the time, and displaying how unpopular and estranged they were among their peers. However, both Monica and Schmidt are now known for getting dates easily and being highly popular among the opposite sex, and a common bit among the other characters in both shows is to bring up their “fat past” in order to embarrass or mock them. Sadly, this is not uncommon, and the more you think about it, the more you’ll uncover the frequency of this trope. 


Warner Bros. Television

Movies like Pitch Perfect and The Nutty Professor employ fat people as the butt of the joke, not to mention all of the children’s movies that present the villain as a big, scary, fat person. The Little Mermaid, Alice in Wonderland, and Dumbo are just a few examples. No one considers the implications of a little girl’s favorite show or movie shaming one of her undeniable, highly visible traits. Overtime, these things condition you to understand that being mistreated or deemed unworthy is understandable and justified. It also creates a space for others to use ‘fat’ as a criticism, or fear belittlement from that word themselves. 


Advertisements and social media influencers that promote quick-fix diets and detoxes, claiming that they will give you your “dream body” in 30 days, get rid of unwanted fat, or get you to a weight you can feel proud of continue to perpetuate the notion that fat is always a thing to be ashamed of, but lucky for us, is fixable. Diet culture is the encouragement and support of diets and dieting that so many innocent people, big or small, get sucked into. 


two hands holding white and red pills

NationalEatingDisorders.org states that “Diet Culture creates a belief that it’s ok to risk the life of a fat person in order to make them a thin person. [It] wants fat people to be thin or dead, and doesn’t seem to care much which.” This is a toxic ideology that supports the tear down of the plus-sized community, and claims to care about health while simultaneously promoting starvation, disordered eating, and unsustainable methods of weight loss. 


Fatphobia remains constant because of diet culture, and diet culture exists due to fatphobia. The two are interconnected and create a cycle of body hatred and detrimental habits that enforce the notion of “skinny is best.” MonteNido.com indicates that 95% of diets fail, and 65% of people regain all or more of the weight lost from a diet within 1-5 years. However, diet culture remains a multi-billion dollar industry, counting on the fact that the word ‘fat’ is scary enough to keep people trying. 


They also note another study which reported 91% of women on college campuses attempt to control their weight through dieting, with 22% stating that they are always or usually on a diet. Seeing this on TV or on my Instagram newsfeed day after day is exhausting, and reminds me that I am doing something wrong by existing as a plus-sized woman. The looming idea of being plus-sized is enough to keep funding these companies that profit off of self-hatred, and continue polarizing the term ‘fat.’


In a perfect world, ‘fat’ could be used like any other adjective: “I have blonde hair, I’m tall, and I’m fat.” If fat weren’t such a scary thing, this wouldn’t have to be unfavorable. The plus-sized and body positive communities are moving towards neutralizing this word, but it still has yet to fully branch out. Most people wouldn’t dare describe someone as fat, especially if they actually are, because it’s such a derogatory term; when trying to indicate that someone is plus-sized, it’s often pretty uncomfortable. 


Allgo An App For Plus Size People
AllGo - An App For Plus Size People / Unsplash

Usually it’s followed by a lot of ‘ers’ and ‘ahs,’ and sounds something like “yeah, she’s um…uh… I don’t know. A little bigger?” Is it really such a bad thing to be fat that we can’t even use the word as a description? Avoid fat at all costs, unless someone makes you mad or you’re being self-deprecating, right? 


My biggest hope is that one day, fat wouldn’t have to be so bad. We wouldn’t have to beat around the bush when talking about an obvious, unavoidable truth, because being fat wouldn’t be appalling. Understanding the stigma around this word and how it got that way is the first step in taking away its sting. It’s not a slur, and it never was, but it does pack a punch due to the weight we allow it to have. 


Next time you think about using ‘fat’ as a way to bring yourself or someone else down, understand that you are in turn, letting all other plus-sized individuals know that their bodies are tarnished. Take a minute to rethink why you wanted to blurt this out as an insult. Diet culture and negative plus-sized media portrayal contribute to the clouded view of the word ‘fat,’ but with an understanding of where this anxiety stems from, and an appreciation for all people and the unique beauty they possess, we can begin to undo the negativity encompassing the word. 


‘Fat’ and ‘beautiful’ are not mutually exclusive terms; in fact, I am both.
Class of 2022