Dozens of synonyms for describing larger-than-average people have been invented. On the positive, euphemistic side are words like fluffy, plus-sized, curvy, bodacious, generous, Rubenesque, statuesque and cuddly. More ambiguous are terms like large, chubby, bigger and hefty. Medical terms include overweight, obese and morbidly obese. And then there are the insulting terms, which range from truck to whale.
In general, “fat” and “fatty” are decidedly in the negative category. The word is perceived as demeaning, insulting and overly frank. Yet fat acceptance advocates are notably not “curve acceptance advocates” or “fertility goddess acceptance advocates.” Why is the adipositivity movement reclaiming an offensive term?
Reclaiming the Word “Fat” Takes Power Back
Fat-positivists aren’t the first people group to take back an offensive term – LGBT grounds and even, historically, the Quakers have embraced terms initially applied to them as insults. The reasoning is that once a term has been enthusiastically adopted for self-identification it loses its power to wound. As Marilyn Wann puts it in Fat! So? (p. 18):
“Aunt Gladys tells you you’re fat, and you say, “Yes I am. Thanks for noticing!” Does she blink? Yes. Does she go up in a puff of smoke? No. Does she stop pestering you? Most likely.”
The Word “Fat” is More Accurate Than Other Terms
Media sources often tiptoe around the concept of fatness to avoid offending people, using euphemistic terms instead. The trouble is, these terms often do not fit fat people as a whole. Not every fat woman is “curvy,” a term which implies buxomness and an hourglass figure. Most fat people are not Rubenesque. The term “fluffy” is more appropriate for a kitten.
“Fat,” on the other hand, refers factually to the adipose tissue which is more ample in fat people. It is not a cutesy word, nor does it have implications of a friendly huggable mama-figure like some euphemisms do.
The Word “Fat” Avoids Pathologizing Fatness
Many fat acceptance bloggers express a particular dislike for the terms “obese” and “overweight”. The words are medical words which come from a perspective of viewing fat as pathological. “Overweight” in particular implies a judgment: the person in question is “over” a weight which is not specified, but certainly not tailored to that person’s particular genes.
Because of their medical origin “obese” and “overweight” are typically used in anti-fat media reports with a sensationalist or doom-laden ring, such as “Obesity Crisis” reports. This contributes to the negative associations of the words, suggesting that obese/overweight people are problems or hazards to be fixed.
Issues with Sensitively Reclaiming the Word Fat
Reclaiming the word “fat” for oneself is one thing, but using it to describe others who may still find the word offensive is another. Many fat bloggers, aware of this, use the term only to refer to themselves and are careful not to include other people in the category without ascertaining their views on the term. This leads to some difficulties in normalizing the word – the aim to have fat as a neutral descriptor requires repeated uses of the word in the proper contexts, but this risks people feeling insulted and shamed.
As with any language, it is polite to refer to people as they self-refer. Thus, while it is acceptable to refer to fat advocates as fat when no malice is meant, it is not advised to call other people fat, even meant positively, without ascertaining how they would prefer to self-refer.