Writer


Molly Mead argues why we should stop using the word 'fat' altogether and instead find a new vocabulary that does not attach negative connotations to a person’s size.

CW: Eating disorders.

Seemingly obvious yet systemically suppressed, a crucial fact to arm yourself with is that bodies come in a vast array of shapes and sizes, all of which are deserving of respect and appreciation. With that in mind, it could be a valuable exercise to create a non-medicalised vocabulary to describe, recognise and affirm the existence of bodies that have been othered and side-lined in recent history. 

To formulate this language, we can recognise that it’s not only those who are visibly larger who have issues with compulsive eating, a habit I refer to as eating when you are not physically hungry. By acknowledging that this issue impacts people who are “thin” as well as everyone in between, “fat” people are no longer shamed as the only ones who are “out of control” around food. It also dissuades us from deducing meaning, like an individual’s relationship with food, solely from someone’s appearance – or question why we make that assumption in the first instance. By widening the range of bodies being invited into the conversation about language and bodies – including smaller ones generally subject to less cruel judgements – we not only dismantle our assumptions of “fat” people but find solidarity in the amount of people suffering from compulsive eating patterns. 

"It also dissuades us from deducing meaning, like an individual’s relationship with food, solely from someone’s appearance – or question why we make that assumption in the first instance."

Some propose to positively reclaim the word “fat” as part of this new language. While it’s important for communities to have the language to describe and represent themselves and their experience, “fat” is not a neutral descriptor of physical appearance. Not only is it wildly subjective, but it holds a myriad of negative connotations. In Fat Is A Feminist Issue (1978), psychotherapist Susie Orbach provides several examples, one being: “To be fat means to have no needs, to be a constant embarrassment to yourself and your friends”; and: “...having to wait until you are thin to live”. All bodies, especially those that have been relentlessly side-lined from living freely, deserve descriptors that do not confine themselves in and perpetuate simplistic binaries. In a moment when we are assaulted by visual culture with images of westernised, digitally manipulated, fetishised human bodies – particularly female ones – we have to be imaginative and thoughtful moving forward. Why reuse a word that has been so divisive and done so much damage to people’s relationship with their body and others?

Furthermore, the word “fat” is so loaded with emotion and blame; it atomises people. It prevents us from asking important questions that locate the cause of compulsive eating in the external world. A politically-conscious approach would consider bodies as the manifestation of various circumstances, like what types of food are financially accessible or who gets to be educated about food. We can remember that having the time and energy to consistently cook a meal is a privilege. Others point to social relations - for example, Susie Orbach suggests that women are particularly affected by compulsive eating because it’s a response to their secondary social position. The word “fat” works to break down collective solutions to troublesome relationships with food and body-image, in spite of it being painfully commonplace.  

Crucially, an overhaul in language presents the opportunity to accommodate compulsive eating as a reasoned response to a difficult situation. A politicised approach removes the anxiety and fear around fatness and prioritises having a nourishing, comfortable relationship with food and your body permanently. Discussing and sharing the diversity of our experience enables support networks to be built to deal with these issues communally.

If you would be interested in joining a support group to discuss and work through your issues around food and body image please email: [email protected]


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