Why Do You Say…

Every now and then, I am in casual conversation with someone and I say a “bad word” which references the identity of a particular group to which I belong and it causes immediate affront and offense. More often than not, I am given a gentle correction, usually from someone who does not belong to the group to which I am referring.

What people do not seem to realize is that this act is an act of marginalization, not inclusion. By telling someone who belongs to a particular group that he or she is using the “wrong word” to refer to that group, you are stripping that person’s identity away. You are telling people that self-proclaimed identity is trumped by socially acceptable identity, and that you know more about that personal identity than they do. And believe me, it is usually clear from context when someone is using the term as a member of a particular group, or as an outsider discussing that group.

I find it comic, and kind of sad that people feel the urgent need to correct me when I use “fat” and “queer,” and sometimes I try to educate them, but other times, I just don’t have the energy. So consider this post my act of education.

Why do I say “fat” or “fatty”?

People are often shocked to hear me use this word, whether in reference to myself or others, which just goes to show you how thoroughly fat hatred has penetrated society. People who are trying to be sensitive can’t imagine using a very common and very accurate adjective to describe someone, because they have internalized the idea that to call someone fat is to insult them.

I use fat and fatty interchangeably, as do many (though not all) in the fat/size acceptance movement, because these words are just adjectives. That’s all. They’re also accurate, and I find them far less offensive than euphemisms like “curvy,” “full figured,” or “portly,” which are just designed to avoid using the F-word because fat is bad and therefore, when you call someone fat, you are really calling that person bad.

Yet, like a lot of loaded words which people are trying to reclaim, fatty can be used like a weapon, instead of being used like an adjective. I think that there are serious issues with a thin person using “fatty,” although less so with “fat,” unless that person is very well versed and active in the size acceptance community, and he or she is willing to educate people about why the word is being used.

Using fat, reclaiming an adjective as an adjective, is part of my personal belief in embracing all sizes, in living publicly, and in living loudly. I’m not going to hide behind a damn euphemism, and neither should anyone else. Yet, I’m also careful about how I apply it to other people, because of the fact that fat is perceived negatively in society; I will refer to fellow members of the size acceptance movement as fat, but I wouldn’t necessarily call the average fat person fat, for fear of causing offense and alienation.

Why do I say “queer”?

“Queer” is another word which well-meaning, politically correct people think is offensive, and it makes them uncomfortable when people call themselves queer. Yet, queer is also the only appropriate descriptor for some sexual and gender identities. Even if I explicitly tell people that I am queer, that I want to be called queer, they won’t use the word because they can’t bring themselves to do it, and that actually marginalizes my identity and hurts me, just like it does when people refuse to call me fat, because they are telling me that I do not belong in a group with which I identify.

This word really highlights the instance of a community reclaiming a word which may not necessarily be safe for people outside that community to use. Word like homo, faggot, and fag are also all generally offensive, but they are also used by gay men reclaiming their identities (though I would be reluctant to use them unless explicitly invited to do so). Likewise, I don’t use words like tranny or dyke as generic descriptors, although I know people within the transsexual and lesbian communities who do use these words to identify themselves, and will use those words to describe those individuals if they have requested that I do so.

Queer was at one point used as an insult, and I guess for some people, it’s still considered a valid insult, although the people doing the insulting are exclusively outside the queer community (unlike “fat,” which is used as an insult by people of all sizes). I personally just find it amusing to be described as “queer” in an insulting tone, and I was actually deeply pleased when someone referred to me as “it” when complaining about a perceived offense (which I didn’t commit) to a former employer. For queers, “queer” has largely lost the power of insult, although queer hatred and homophobia and a whole list of associated hatred and prejudices are still a serious problem.

2 Replies to “Why Do You Say…”

  1. It occurs to me that using words like queer, fatty, fag, is a way to protect oneself from those words being hurled at oneself or their friends. If a group reclaims or otherwise waters down a word then the fuse is gone. Someone may come along and call a gay guy a fag but if he says that all the time to his friends and loved ones and has snatched the word up for himself then the sting is not there. The insult just falls flat since there is no fuse.

    It’s interesting that it sounds like you won’t say that someone you don’t know is a fatty or is fat “for fear of causing offense and alienation”. I think it is an act of offense and alienation to use words that some people find offensive. But it is also a highly effective secret handshake. It tells you quickly and effectively who thinks like you. Who has chosen to reclaim words and disarm them of their stinging power. Ironically, the same can be said of bigoted people who use those same words and others in a derogitory way. It immediately tells them if a person agrees with them in their hatred or fear of gays/blacks/jews/athiests/whoever.

    Thanks for the article this is interesting stuff to think about and chew on. 🙂

  2. I’m with you on the secret handshake, Laura, except that you make a critical point there when you talk about the fact that using a word like, say, “faggot” could be interpreted as either “I am a gay man reclaiming this word,” or “I am a bigoted asshole,” and therefore it’s a word that can’t be thrown around indiscriminately. Secret handshakes go two ways.

    I can’t force people to reclaim terms for themselves. If I’m in casual conversation in a group setting and I refer to myself as a fatty and a fellow size acceptance activist hears that and knows what it means and connects with me, awesome. When I’m not feeling totally tired of having the burden of education thrust upon me and someone takes offense because I say “fatty,” I will take the time to tell that person why I use that word, and to hopefully get them thinking about size acceptance as a result.

    But I would never point across a room and say “hey, look at that fatty” in reference to someone I don’t know, because they might take that statement as hurtful and cruel, and it would make it that much harder to get them interested in size acceptance. Unless I know that someone is comfortable with having a word which is sometimes used (unfortunately) as an epithet applied to them, I’m not going to apply it to them.

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