Like most women in every corner of the earth, I grew up knowing there were two insults that caused immediate and irreparable damage to one’s ego and one’s reputation. The first: fat. The second: whore. Pair the two together and good Lord…chances of recovery are all but non-existent. My first encounters with the F-word are cemented in my memory and occurred when I was just 10 years old. For those of you currently with a mental picture of an overweight, homely child with Doritos residue on her fingers, I have news for you. I looked like this:
Of course, I have a t-shirt draped over my body because I was ashamed. Ashamed at 10 years old. Ashamed to be existing in my perfectly healthy, thin by all standards -including the BMI- body. Ashamed to have to wear a swimsuit to compete in a sport I loved. Where did this shame originate? The only answer I can come up with is my peers, and more specifically, my male peers. I was a bit taller (5’2″ at 10 years old, and I never grew another inch after that!) and thicker than all of my best childhood friends, who were of most definitely of the skinny variety. And as early as 5th grade, this difference was paramount. It was this difference that meant my friends had “boyfriends” and I didn’t (even though those boys called me every night on the phone. We’d talk and laugh and play each other our favorite songs off our Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Weezer, and Green Day cassette tapes, guessing at what the lyrics meant.) It was this difference that allowed the boys to sing “Baby Beluga” at me on the soccer field. But don’t go feeling sorry for me, either. I’m well aware that I’m lucky. I was not unattractive and I was smart. Always the teacher’s pet, I was on student council, the Editor of our school newspaper, and always front and center in dance performances. But by the tender age of 10, I had already acquired haters. And now at 29 years old, with no shortage of haters and the end of said haters nowhere in sight, I’ve also realized that for a woman (especially a white woman – whose thinness is especially coveted), if she is not obviously stick-skinny, the go-to insult is to call her fat. And we, as women, are conditioned as early as elementary school to swallow this insult, let it seep into our thoughts, influence what we think of our reflections, and allow us to feel shameful.
I carried that shame with me when I was 10. I carried it when I was 12 and 117 pounds and hunched over a toilet throwing up my food for the first time. I carried it in dance class as my eyes scrutinized every body in the studio, comparing them to my own. I carried it on the soccer field when I felt disgusted at the way my shorts bunched up around the inside of thighs. I carried it in high school every time my mother told me to “suck in.” I carried it when I was 18, getting my belly button pierced – I was 130 pounds and I said sorry to the male piercer at the tattoo studio when I lifted up my shirt to expose my belly. I apologized for subjecting him to my “less-than-perfect” stomach. He took my money all the same. I carried this shame when the effects of PCOS caused my body to swell and stretch and I found myself in bed with my high school boyfriend who was unaccustomed to the extra weight. I apologized then, too, but he made love to me all the same. And in the years that followed, I began to break underneath the weight of my shame. It finally became a burden too heavy for me to carry. I felt apologetic for even being alive. I felt sorry for my parents, for my boyfriends, for anyone who had to look at me or claim me. And any time I felt a little strength churning somewhere deep inside – any time I dared to let it out – I let the F-word stifle it. So many times I let the shame envelope me and silence me just to avoid the inevitable: I just wanted to avoid being called fat.
Once, when I was 21, I was dating my then-fiance whose roommate had an inside cat that often escaped outside. One night, as I was coming in, he bolted for the door and ran out before I could grab him. Later that evening, I saw the roommate (who was also my “friend”) had posted an away message on AIM (this was before Facebook, and passive-aggressiveness was not as far-reaching) that said, Due to obesity, my cat ran away. I was incensed at this. That damn cat got out all the time. My stomach rolls and flabby arms didn’t have a fucking thing to do with why his cat hadn’t come home – but attributing it to my fatness was easy, so he did. This was also one of the first times I’d ever worked up the courage to defend myself. I told my fiance, the most non-confrontational man on the planet at the time, that he needed to confront his roommate. I could do it myself, but I thought it may have more credence man-to-man, roommate-to-roommate. Hours later, the roommate softly knocked at the bedroom door, and I opened it a few inches, I’m sure using the door both as a physical and metaphorical shield to protect my fatness and my feelings. He apologized.
The next year, over Christmas break, the fiance and I drove down to Florida to visit his father who is physically disabled. His disability is not strikingly obvious, and some idiot in the parking lot was convinced that we were parking in a handicapped space illegally, even though we clearly had a handicapped tag hanging from the rear view mirror. He shouted some asinine things, and continued to harass us as we entered the Wal-Mart. When my fiance’s father was out of ear shot, I felt some courage welling up in me again. I was angry at this dude’s blatant ignorance. I turned on my heel and raised my voice. “He IS disabled, if you must know. Leave him alone!” I hissed. Without missing a beat, the man shot back, “Shut up, you fat fuckin’ whore!” When you’re a fat woman, experiences like these are par for the course. It’s a debilitating feeling – paralyzing – to know that every talent you have, the intelligence you possess, the good point you just made – none of it matters when you’re fat. It’s completely invalidated when you’re fat. Those who disagree with you, those who want to shut you up, know that all they have to do is utter the word fat and you’re sure to slink back into your cave of shame, becoming a little less inclined to stand up for yourself each time after that.
But, almost a decade later, I’ve realized that the word F-word holds zero power over me. In fact, I embrace it. I am fat. Of course, I’m a lot of other things too. I’m brunette, I’m short, I’m smart…I’m fabulous! Fat is just another adjective that someone can use to describe me and it is accurate. It’s certainly possible to disagree over the definitive word for a woman’s body (and there are so many to choose from)! What’s curvy to some is chubby to others. What’s skinny to some is bony to others. What’s athletic to some is masculine to others, and so on. But let’s be real, 350 pounds is no one’s definition of skinny, so I feel confident that everyone can I agree that I’m fat. Well-meaning men and women constantly dance around the word, afraid to offend. I’ve been called everything from “curvy” to “big-boned” to “fluffy.” These words make me cringe. Let’s get something straight – I am NOT big-boned. I’m 5’2″ and actually quite petite under all my weight. I’m not even sure what “fluffy” means in terms of a body. My body isn’t “fluffy.” It’s fat; it’s thick – and yes, it’s strong.
So WHY are we so afraid of the F-word? It’s because he word fat encompasses so much more than a physical description. Everyone knows that fat also means ugly, lazy, undesirable, stupid, and a host of other negative words, but I beg to differ with this implication. I truly believe that I’m beautiful and sexy and totally desirable. Of course, this is subjective, but I know for a fact that I’m not lazy or stupid. I’m active and I’m intelligent. These are qualities that the F-word cannot take away from me. When people see positive things in you, they refuse to call you fat because they see an incongruity there. Fat and positive aren’t supposed to go together. If I had a penny for the number of times I’ve heard the following, I’d be rich.
- You’re not fat; you’re beautiful!
- Don’t call yourself fat! You should love yourself!
- You don’t act like a fat girl.
- You sure can dance for a big girl.
- Did you meet your boyfriend when you were thin?
Statements like these show that people have a deep-seated belief that FAT cannot coexist with any other positive adjective, but I’m here to tell you that it can. Do other fat people a favor.: don’t bother telling them they’re “not fat,” as you simultaneously complain about your OWN body which is smaller. Don’t tell them they have a beautiful face, or that they’re not fat (“You’re not fat; you’re beautiful!”) All you’re doing is proving that you think fat people can’t be beautiful, but fat and beautiful are NOT mutually exclusive. You can be both! I know people have good intentions when they shy away from the F-word, but you’re doing all of us fat people a disservice. Instead, drop the F-word all together and just give them the damn compliment, but if a fat person does refer to themselves that way, don’t feel as though you have to disagree with their assessment.
I have a series of videos on YouTube called “A Fat Girl Dancing” (you can see these videos here) and I chose this name for a reason. No one else chose it for me to shame me or make fun of me. I chose it because I’m OWNING it. I’m making a point – I’m fat AND I can dance. I’m juxtaposing the two things together in a way that people think is not possible. And hopefully, I’m changing some minds about what fat people are capable of. 19 years after I first internalized my fat shame, I’m finally learning to let it go. I’ve learned how to be fat, beautiful, smart and fucking fabulous ALL at the same time. I don’t have to be one or the other. I don’t have to let F-word define my capabilities and you don’t either.
I’m a bad-ass and a fat-ass and that is perfectly all right with me.
- I’m 30! April 14, 2014
- GMALive – Dancing with Whitney April 4, 2014
- Whitney on The Morning Show – Channel 7 Australia April 4, 2014
- Whitney Breaks it Down with Steve Harvey March 12, 2014
- HLN Weekend Express March 11, 2014
- Name (Required)Keli on I’m Not “Curvy”; I’m Fat: How I Got Over My Fear of the F-word
- Casimira on An Open Letter to “Sarah Lynn”
- Ofelia on Hello, world!
- Gertrude on On Knowing When to Stand Up for Yourself
- Julia on Whitney Breaks it Down with Steve Harvey