So, I’ve been working on the Ableist Word Profile series at FWD/Forward, and it’s gotten me thinking about language use a lot, because some of the words we are tangling with are very complicated, and a lot of people are surprised to learn that they are ableist, and surprised to learn about their origins. And some are quite embarrassed that they have been using these words all along, unaware of their hidden meanings; one commenter even suggested an ableist word as an alternative to an ableist word usage!
And it’s made me think about word reclamation, specifically the reclamation of fat. I identify as fat. I know lots of people who identify as fat. Size acceptance activists refer to the online size acceptance community as the fatosphere. The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) has long been a pretty prominent voice in the size acceptance movement.
But, some people still view “fat” as an insult, and they use it like one. I’ve long been a proponent of reclamation, but the ableist word profile series has me thinking about this a little bit more deeply, because reclamation can be a problematic act. I haven’t come to any conclusions yet, but I’ve been enjoying the pondering.
One of the common justifications I see used for ableist language is “well, my friend is ok with it” or “my friend uses it self-referentially,” which apparently justifies the use of the word. Now, in this context, people are defending the use of a word in a different sense; lame, for example. They say that because a friend who has difficulty walking uses “lame” self-referentially or in conversation, that it is then ok to use it either to refer to people who have difficulty walking, or as a pejorative to describe something they don’t like. Fat is used pretty much specifically and exclusively as an insult to refer to human beings, not as a blanket term for something which is viewed as bad.
So the circumstances are a little bit different. But I wonder; are we reclaiming this word, or are we normalizing it as an insult by allowing people to continue to use it in an offensive way because these people can point to people who use it as a point of pride and say “well, they do it, so can I.” I’ve actually had people flinch when I refer to myself as fat or describe someone else as fat, because, to me, it’s just an adjective. I have normalized the reclaimed version of the world, just like I have normalized queer in a positive sense, but other people aren’t there yet.
Other people think it’s an insult, so they’re horrified to hear it used so casually from someone whom they might think of as socially sensitive or aware. And I can either try to educate every single one of these people about what I am doing, or I can be careful about where and when I use the F word, which kind of defeats the point of reclaiming it. If you’re only using it in a positive or neutral sense among people who share your values, you’re not really doing much to advance the cause of reclamation.
I often find myself censoring “fat” from my language in casual conversation because it is tiring and frustrating to keep having to educate people, over and over again, about why I use the word and why it is an appropriate word to use.
There’s also a flip side to this problem; larger people who are not reclaiming fat. For these people, “fat” is a derogatory word, it’s not a word that they want to hear used in reference to themselves. Indeed, they would be deeply offended to hear someone refer to them as fat (or the slangily affectionate “fatty,” which I also use pretty freely). They’d be upset, with good reason, because when your only knowledge of a word is in usage as an insult, it doesn’t feel good to have that word applied to you.
In fact, one might even argue that these people could potentially be alienated from size acceptance by having people refer to them as fat. This is actually one of the reasons I stress “size acceptance,” not “fat acceptance,” because, well, 1. Size acceptance is about people of all sizes and 2. Some people don’t like the word fat, and I don’t want people to be turned off by a movement just because they don’t like the name. I want those people in the size acceptance movement, because I think they need it, and would like to know that their bodies are worthy of honor and respect. If they don’t want to use the word “fat,” that’s fine.
But, at the same time, it really annoys me when people refuse to refer to me as fat. They deny me identity in some mistaken attempt to be nice, because they think the word is offensive. Should we be allowed to force people to use words they think are offensive if those words are part of our personal identity? Should people be allowed to avoid using words they find offensive when doing so erases someone’s identity?
I’m left with more questions than answers here. Just thoughts. Meandering thoughts.