body image · fat

Fat or big: What’s in a name?

Confession: I’ve got an ambivalent relationship with the label “fat.” I do often claim to be “fit and fat” but I’m never quite sure if “fat” is the word I want. This isn’t because the word makes me ashamed. I’m all about reclaiming labels and I’m a huge fan of some of the blogs that make up the “fatosphere.”

My favourite was Kate Harding’s now defunct Shapely Prose. (If you haven’t read it, it’s worth browsing the archive.) I’m also a tremendous fan of the Healthy at Every Size movement. A terrific recent defense of using the word “fat” is in an essay by Lesley at xojane called, “Fat: Using the Other F Word.” If you want to know why anyone would call themselves “fat,” read Lesley.

Or another favourite, Ragen Chastain, the blogger behind Dances with Fat.

I also recognize that by numbers on the scale/BMI I’m significantly overweight. And I know that some people see me as fat. Others don’t though. I’m most likely to claim the label when some well meaning person within ear shot starts equating being fat with being out of shape, thinking, what exactly, that I’ll agree with them? Sometimes they say “Oh, we don’t mean you. You’re not fat really.” Then I want to remind people that I’m part of the story too.  When we start talking about the statistics, I want in.

So why the ambivalence? Well, I wear size 12 clothes–well within the range of easily available sizes–and I don’t feel particularly fat. The bits of me that have clothes issues relate to muscles and women’s clothing styles: biceps, shoulders, and calves. So I sometimes use the label “fat” but I often feel squeamish about it, as if I don’t really belong in the club.

What’s the alternative? At Aikido the other day I started to notice the vocabulary we have to describe male bodies. We often joke about how much fun it is to throw the “big” guys. Someone commented that I should pay attention to how they roll because they have to do it with more finesse to avoid crashing into the mats. (A mistake I make from time to time. Ouch, sore shoulder.) And the big men are big in different ways. Some are overweight, others are tall, some are extremely muscular such as the power lifter in the club. One of the guys is a Clydesdale weight adventure runner. But there’s no angst in referring to them as “big.”

We have other positive words too. My favourite is “brawny.”  No need for further explanation or apology. They are fun to throw. I’d much rather play Aikido with one of them than with a frail person I’d worry about hurting. Their large bodies feel resilient and strong. Why can’t we feel the same way about big women?

And please don’t get me started on all the cutesy labels women use to avoid the word “fat”: fluffy, chunky, chubby…

So “fat,” I guess. But big suits me better.

By the way, I like “big” in the title of an academic essay on women, sport, and size, for which I was an interview subject. It’s a great article, by Krista Scott Dixon, well worth reading: “Big Girls Don’t Cry: Fitness, Fatness, and the Production of Feminist Knowledge”. Sociology of Sport Journal 25 (2007): 22-47.

Here’s the abstract:  Feminists have produced a number of important critiques of the way in which fat and fit are understood. While fitness provides opportunities for women’s personal and political empowerment, in practice, because fitness is so frequently viewed as a cosmetic project and connected to achieving thinness, such opportunities have generally failed to materialize despite rapid increases in women’s sports and exercise participation. I examine the experiences of larger female athletes in strength and power-based sports to examine how they negotiate their identities as athletes and women, and how they navigate “fitness” and “fatness.”

Photo by Chih Eric Li
(C) CANBERRA PICTORIAL

17 thoughts on “Fat or big: What’s in a name?

  1. [Excuse the old commenting. Just found today via reddit.]

    In a world where none of those terms were particularly linguistically marked, I’m actually the biggest (pun intended) fan of “big” to describe my own body. I mean, my BMI straddles the border between class I and class II obese, depending on whether I also have endo bloat going on or not. I wear plus sizes, at the upper end of the range that’s commonly carried in stores. I have visible body fat (separate from any pelvic or abdominal bloat). I don’t feel that “fat” is an inaccurate term, and — used as a neutral descriptor — it’s not one that I at all mind being applied to me.

    And yet. I’m 5’8″ and decidedly large framed. Even if I were thin, I’d never be “tiny” or “dainty” or “petite.” Moreover, a lot of my flesh-oriented size is muscle, which does not particularly look or behave (to the casual viewer, in terms of movement and such) like body fat. Even if I lost all my “problem area” fat (you know, body fat that is not boobs), I’d still be big. And so I like “big.”

    “Curvy” is, for me, complicated. While it’s an accurate descriptor of my body shape, I’ve often heard it used to fat-shame by exclusion. “Oh, you’re not fat; you’re curvy,” with the implication that curvy is okay while fat is not. And I can’t really get on board with that.

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    1. Yeah, ‘big’ is my favorite since I’m both muscular and fat. But I use ‘fat’ too though usually to make a point.

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