“Plus Size”, “Fat,” and The Imagined Future

So, I’m about to start a big conversation.  I don’t even know if I’m ready for it.  Also, I will preface this by saying that I know this issue is a tender one, and I am absolutely ready for this to blossom into a larger conversation.  You may disagree with what I say, and that’s okay.  Let’s talk.

Last week, I attended a really thought-provoking panel at Hey Gorgeous called “The Future of Plus Size Fashion.”  It was a well-curated panel, and some really smart mainstream plus-size fashion mainstays were in conversation with one another.  One topic that came up was the term “plus-size,” and the panelists were invited to sound off on their feelings about it.  The topic came up because of the whole Amy Schumer thing where she disagreed with being included in Glamour magazine’s plus-size issue where they grouped her with women like Melissa McCarthy and Adele.  The general fat public’s reaction to Amy Schumer’s disagreement ran the gamut – a lot of folks were insulted that she was pissed to be called “plus-size.”  Honestly though?  I totally agree with her.  She…isn’t plus-size, guys.  She is not in the least bit fat.  She has loads and loads of thin privilege, and no, I don’t think we should be making an example of Amy Schumer’s body as a fat body – because that’s just not her reality.  Saying her body is “plus-size” further alienates and stigmatizes folks who really ARE fat: folks who are terrified to travel lest they be kicked off a plane for squishing other customers, folks who cannot find clothes in their size in most plus-size stores, folks who cannot get jobs or adequate healthcare because of gatekeeping and respectability politics.  So, all of Amy’s righteous anger aside (was she even angry about it, or just confused?), no — I don’t believe she should have been in that issue either.  

But it brings up in interesting conversation about words, doesn’t it?  Now, I had my fat “coming of age” in a very unique time and place.  I first gained a political consciousness around my fat in the early 2010s.  I was in college, I was queer, I was involved in queer organizing on campus, and I dated someone who gave me my first thoughtful language around being fat.  This is a very unique (and privileged) way to start a fat consciousness.  And while I would never, ever remotely suggest that the political fat movement is white (Like most revolutionary political movements, people of color were talking about it way before white people were, and continue to carry the heavy load of the movement.  White people come in, say the exact same things, and get all the notoriety.), I think the size-acceptance movement has been somewhat co-opted/stolen by young, white, relatively able-bodied, educationally-privileged fat women.  Because of this, I think some of the do-or-die encouragement to stridently reclaim the word “fat” while simultaneously casting all other similar words aside as “euphemisms” (curvy, plus-size, BBW, thick, full-figured, etc.)  comes from a liberal college-educated fat consciousness steeped in whiteness and is just…intense and really wrong.  

Political fatties talk a lot about how words like “thick” and “full-figured” are loaded with apology and conformity to being the “right kind of fat,” i.e. small fat, hourglass figured, etc.  I come from a very educationally privileged queer world where large people who don’t proudly claim the word “fat” as a part of their identity are given a pitying sneer and thought provincial and backward.  And, I will be honest, at one time I would have agreed with that, and I would have loudly and pushily encouraged people to embrace the word fat as if their politics depended on it, as if their acceptance into the radical fat family depended on it.  There is an idea in current liberal fat culture where you have to say fat OR ELSE.  Or else, you’re just one of those unenlightened rubes who still tragically falls victim to diet culture. Don’t I as well, though?  I proudly identify as “fat,” and I am still working every day to undo all this mess.  I too come with all the trappings of the thin-obsessed culture I was born into and survive in today.  I think the intentions behind reclaiming the word fat are good – after all, reclamation of perjorative language is a powerful tool.  However, who are we to say which words should make someone else feel good?  If someone feels more comfortable using the word “curvy” because it makes them feel beautiful in a world that is constantly telling them they are worth nothing, who really cares?  And if I, with all my immense white/educational/shape/economic privilege, feel comfortable using the word “fat,” isn’t that fine too?  As long as no one is trying to evangelize diets to anyone else, we’re good.  You will live your truth, I will live mine, they are both valid.  And this is not some “meet folks where they’re at” nonsense, which implies that the place someone else is at in life is inadequate and that they should be in motion towards someone else’s ideal.  We are all simply trying to survive, some with more difficulty than others.  Who are we to say what words should affirm someone else’s existence, someone else’s body, their corporeal being?  In a world where we are all fucked by the white capitalist patriarchy, and fat people especially so, who are we to police the kinds of words other people use in order to survive?  In my circles, “fat” is THE word.  But my circles are limited.  I feel like we’re fabricating this way to be the “right” kind of fat activist just like rich white men fabricated the way to be the “right” kind of fat person.  If we recreate respectability politics for ourselves we will just be alienating folks who do not deserve to be alienated.  I understand the instinct to attack words, because in a world where we are deprived of control over our actual bodies, we can control word usage.  However, I do not believe that pouring our energies forcing other people to call themselves fat when they don’t want to is remotely helpful.  Twisting another fat person’s arm is CERTAINLY not going to change the reality of the oppression that fat people face.  

Why police verbiage, and to that end, the types of folks that get an invite into this family?  There are so many different words for the same thing.  We all know what we’re talking about.  And so who is to say those who use the word fat are more free?  Who sets the bar for what freedom looks like?


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