On the Reclamation of “Fat”

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 keepĀ  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.

5 Replies to “On the Reclamation of “Fat””

  1. Reclamation is such a thorny topic. It’s a really tough one! I know I, for example, use “queer”, because, with my slightly atypical gender identity, there aren’t many other words I find fitting well. But I understand why some people are still uncomfortable it, and I’m still uncomfortable with words that some other people toss around fairly freely (like f—-t).

    Re: ‘fat’…I think it really is the best word. There’s no other word that gets the job done as neatly, and ideally, it would be no more loaded a term than ‘brunette’. But in practice, I’m not sure if it works out that way in every situation…

    I don’t know. Like I said, thorny topic. I love thinking about language, so it’s the sort of topic I like to try and disentangle, but it’s a complex question.

  2. I do think it’s important to acknowledge that for all the parallels, different words are in different situations. Fat is not retard is not fag is not cunt is not etc.

    Some words have advanced so far that there’s little room in society for any positive connotations to take hold (I feel strongly about “retard” being such a word). Whereas others, for various reasons, are still almost always derogatory, but there seems to be a space there to use it in such a way that it at least complicates people’s feelings about the word. (Also feel strongly that “illness” is such a term – mental illness especially, but also chronic illness, sick person, etc.)

    When I have no claim on a word, I back off — it’s not my place to decide whether or not it can be used positively. I let the people who have claim on it use it as they see most fitting, and point people their way, rather than presuming to be able to use it that way myself.

    When I do have claim on a word… well, I tend to be of the “I’m not going to stop doing this work because someone might take it wrongly, so fuck off” school of thought. But I think it is also an essential skill to be able to evaluate your situation, the people in your company, their knowledge of the issues, their tendencies, etc. before deciding how you are going to speak. And often, it’s just that gut intuition, that unexplainable feeling that something is or isn’t appropriate. But we can inform that intuition by delving deeper into these issues later on.

    I don’t think I have any thoughts that aren’t meandering.

  3. Good point, amandaw, about the fact that some words have progressed so far that they cannot be reclaimed, while others are more salvageable. “Fat” is definitely more on the borderline, it is used as an insult, it’s used as an adjective, and it’s used as a positive reclamation. I’m hoping that these last two uses can outweigh its use as an insult, over time. A word like, well, the R-word, there’s no salvaging. But I may also say that because I have no claim on the word and feel that it’s not appropriate for me to engage in discussions about reappropriating it.

    Queer is another borderline word I used as an example in this post; I’ve had it used as an insult (including against me), but I don’t view it as one and I use it proudly in any/every setting. (Unlike “fat” which I tend to be a bit more careful with.)

    I think it’s good to be able to evaluate given situations and make decisions on a case by case basis, rather than making blanket statements about language use which might bite you in the bum later.

  4. I have a somewhat blanket view on reclamation of words/terms/phrases, which is that they can only be used acceptably by the person in the oppressed group to which they apply, and then only self-referentially – i.e. it’s okay for me to call myself fat and talk about fat acceptance, but it’s not okay for me to call another person fat unless they have made it clear they identify as such, because it’s not my place to label people with identities they may not have claimed for themselves or feel comfortable with.

  5. Interesting (to me anyway) that queer is still used as an insult. I had never heard of the term until doing women’s studies at uni – where we were told that queer was the most pc term to refer to glbt-folk as a whole. Perhaps I’m too young to have heard it as an insult… fag and more often than not, ‘gay’ said with a disdaining tone is used with normality, tho.

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