Updated: Apr 14, 2019
No, seriously, am I fat? And what does it mean that I can even ask this question? Perhaps a better way to ask the question would be, am I fat enough? Or, even, am I the right kind of fat? The question of who is fat or the complications that arise in trying to define fat reveals layers of complexity. Fat operates as both construct and lived reality, and this requires some unpacking.
While we’re now beginning to see more nuanced representations of fat folx in the media, (I see you Shrill), this recent representation does not undo years of the “headless fatty” trope or the host of other essentializing and reductive representations of fat folx that have served as the dominant narratives for fat experiences. Fortunately, an array of voices in the field have taken on the challenge of negotiating the spaces between concepts like small fat and superfat and the challenge of intersectionality, but so much work still remains and this is where I’m attempting to enter the conversation.
As an academic, I spend an inordinate amount of time in imposter syndrome hell. As an academic who is also a fat activist, I find that my imposter syndrome also bleeds into the fat activism part of my life as well. Without providing my height, weight, dress size, and BMI, I can say with certainty that I am fat, but I do worry that perhaps I’m not the right kind of fat or fat enough to be speaking out about fat issues or for other fat people. But, that’s exactly what I’ve set myself up to do.
On the surface, the word fat operates simply as a descriptor without negative or positive connotations. In the same way that I have brown hair, I’m also fat. But, obviously, fat is so much more than that as well. According to many folx in the health professions, fat means I’m unhealthy and headed for an early death, despite empirical evidence challenging the purported causal links between “obesity” and mortality and morbidity (Dr. Laurie provides additional resources on this in her March blogpost). According to many folx in the fashion industry, fat means I’m invisible, or only visible as a foil to bodies that they value and want to clothe. According to the airline industry, I’m an inconvenience, but it also means dollar signs when fat people have to pay the fat tax (in the form of additional seats) to fly. And, according to the sadists who design furniture for university classrooms, I don’t have the same rights to a comfortable learning environment that straight sized students have.
But, it’s even more complicated than that. Fat also dances around conversations between girls on playgrounds, hangs thick between mothers and daughters at dinner time, and is a cocked weapon on tongues of every mean-mouthed bully looking to land a low blow. And, it’s SO MUCH MORE THAN THIS. Fat is food and access to food and food scarcity, fat is Oprah dragging a Radio Flyer filled with 67 lbs of animal fat across the stage on national television, fat is trying on bathing suits at Target and feeling like shit.
So, does it really matter who identifies as fat when we’re literally soaking in a culture filled with fat hatred? I think it does, but I’m going to walk a tightrope in trying to unpack the messiness of the question. Lately, I’ve been trying to hold two complicated ideas in my head at the same time. As a feminist and a queer, my impulse is to make space at the table for everyone. If a straight-sized woman says to me that she identifies as fat, I don’t think it’s my job to convince her otherwise. Part of me thinks (hopes) that if she really does feel fat, then maybe she’ll advocate for visibly fat people. But, as a visibly fat person, I’m also protective of the term fat because it means something. As a queer person I shudder a little bit every time a straight person uses the metaphor of coming out of the closet--unless you’ve actually had to utter the words, “I’m dating a woman and her name is Sara” to your mother (as just one example of coming out), then you haven’t had to come out of the closet. Similarly, if you haven’t experienced the shame of being told that you’re fat in your doctor’s office (or experienced a host of other humiliations), then maybe you shouldn’t be calling yourself fat.
Now, I also have to confess that I’m not the least bit interested in being the fat police or being policed for being fat. But, I do think that we have to agree that words matter. And, in as much as words matter, lived experiences matter too. I’m the kind of fat that often passes. By passing, I mean that on lucky days I can still shop in regular clothing stores at the very end of the dress sizes. I’m the kind of fat that still fits in most spaces. I’m the kind of fat that doesn’t draw much attention in the grocery store. This passing provides me with some thin privilege even though I’m far from thin. Similarly, the kind of queer I am allows me passing privileges as well. I’m femme and appear to be in a heterosexual relationship. I frequently have to out myself as queer and I also have to out myself as fat. These are both privileges. So, with all of this privilege, am I really in a position to be calling out others for not being fat enough or to tell anyone how they’re allowed to use the word fat? I’m still working this out. But, what I do know is that in the same way that I feel a prickle of suspicion when I hear non-queers using the term queer (do you mean it like I mean it?), I feel physically uncomfortable when I hear straight-sized women calling themselves fat or acting as if they understand what it’s like to be fat (not that this is one thing).
I worry, though, about gatekeeping. I worry too about infighting among folx in the fat community. I worry about how white, cis, able-bodied, and straight the fat activist movement is. But, the more time I spend in and among fat folx, the less I worry about being fat and the more comfortable I am saying, “I’m fat.” If I ever need confirmation that fatphobia exists, all I have to do is say I’m fat in front of my students or someone outside of the fat community--people stumble over themselves to tell me that I’m not fat. Let’s think about that for a minute. Maybe what they mean is that I’m not fat like that or that they like me too much for me to be fat. But, every time this happens, I’m reminded that to be fat is, in the eyes of many, to be a failure, to be inadequate, to be other. But, fuck it, I’m fat. So, while I might fret about being the right kind of fat and I might be self-conscious that I’m not the most qualified person to be talking about fat issues, I also feel empowered by my fat identity and this makes me bold.