Fat As Metaphor: Don’t Do That, Everyone Will Know You’re Fat!

The prevailing social attitude about fatness is that it’s disgusting and gross, something people should be ashamed of and cover up in order to prevent anyone else from being subjected to the horrors of seeing a fat person out in the wild. People believe that fatness is foul and they are entitled not to see it, and they also believe that fat people accept this notion and are horrified by their own bodies, so they want to cover them before going out in society. These fundamental attitudes lie at the root of so many strange and hateful beliefs about fat and fatness, and they’re also behind damaging social behaviours when it comes to interacting with fat people.

As, for example, in the use of fatness as metaphor, where fat alone is used as a stand-in for something bad in an explanation to people about a given situation or practice. In a classic example, people learning about social media and presenting themselves (and their brand) well will be told that bad behaviour on social media is comparable to a fat person going out onto the beach in a bikini.

Subtext: Fat people do not belong on beaches, especially not in bikinis. Such an idea is laughable, but also gross and uncomfortable. You must have a ‘beach body’ to present yourself in a bikini, which is a highly sexualised piece of swimwear; you don’t wear a bikini unless you are attractive, and a fat woman is not attractive. Thus, fatness is used as a metaphor here to describe grossly inappropriate behaviour on social media that makes you look bad and creates negative public associations with you and your brand.

This comparison, which I’ve heard more than once, assumes firstly that there’s a problem with a fat person in a bikini. The whole metaphor falls apart if a fat person in a bikini is no big deal, and if there’s nothing wrong with being fat. ‘Don’t do that because people might figure out you’re fat’ doesn’t work as a teaching lesson when fat people don’t care if people know that they’re fat, and neither does anyone else. Thus, a simple metaphor becomes a reinforcement of the social attitude that fat is shameful and needs to be covered up in order to avoid damaging tender eyes, because it relies on affirming that belief.

The use of this teaching tool in social media training and other contexts also assumes there are no fat people in the audience. Which is remarkable, given how people like to bleat about the obesity epidemic and how fat people are everywhere. What do these people think fat people are doing? Oh, right, lying on our couches and eating all the time, not starting businesses, taking classes, and engaging in other social attitudes. Thus, it’s perfectly okay to use fat-hating metaphors in teaching materials because it’s not like it will harm one of the students in the class, as there will be no fat students.

Or if there are, they’ll be self-hating fat people who won’t mind having the fact that they’re disgusting reinforced by someone in a position of power. When an instructor knowingly looks around the room or puts a picture of a fat woman in a bikini up on a webinar screen to make sure everyone gets the point, those students are supposed to cringe, knowing the reference and feeling bad that their bodies are so disgusting that they can never go out in public in them.

Self-confident fat people, of course, don’t exist. Certainly fat people who wear bikinis to the beach, and elsewhere, and don’t give a flying fartle when it comes to what anyone else thinks about it, don’t exist. To admit that they did would be to break down the metaphor entirely, shredding the idea that fat people are disgusting and their bodies can be used as metaphors for something undesirable and even perhaps a little bit dirty and gross. If it doesn’t matter if a fat person wears a bikini, it doesn’t matter if you use a lot of blue language on your Twitter feed even though you’re trying to develop a career as a middle grade author—at least, if you’re going by the assumptions made by the leaders of these kinds of workshops.

It’s troubling to see fat people and fat bodies used as metaphors throughout society, but it’s especially damaging in situations like these because it inherently involves the use of power to exert more ownership over fat people, and to reinforce the idea that fatness is disgusting. It further advances the idea that people should be ashamed of being fat: it’s so universally-understood that fatness is gross that fat can be used as a shorthand for bad behaviour, for greed, for doing something distasteful in public. Wearing a bikini to the beach is evidently exactly like abusing your followers on Tumblr when you’re having a bad day. Or at least, so I’ve been told by so-called social media consultants.

There’s nothing wrong with being fat, and with showing off your body in a bikini, no matter what size, shape, or colour it is. Whether you have scars or wear prosthetics or use a wheelchair for mobility, it’s your body, and if you want to celebrate it, you most certainly can. If the weather is hot and you’re more comfortable in a bikini, you go right ahead and wear one. You don’t need to cover up for anyone, and your body sure as hell isn’t a metaphor or a teaching lesson for people looking for a quick reference for an audience.