More to Love: Fat Semantics

On MySpace I'm "More to Love". Chemistry.com and Match.com men offer "stocky," "heavyset," "curvy," or "big and beautiful". eHarmony only permits "overweight". Everyone seems to have their own strategy for how to talk around the fat people in the room. "Big," "Heavy," "Thick" and others are trotted out to soften the "blow" of our bodies. Overweight or Obese are suggested as polite ways to refer to us. Simply calling us fat is entirely out of the question. Fat is a bad thing, you see, so it wouldn't be nice to call us that. So they come up with other words to use to call us fat while emphasizing how awful our physical state is. The body shape which dare not speak its name, if you will.

First you've got the genuine euphemisms. I don't mind a lot of this, though I get mileage may vary. The big issue is when they are used as substitutes because fat shouldn't be used. I don't mind rubenesque of zaftig on their own, but used in avoidance of "fat" troubles me. Even when used positively, if used a substitution it works to reaffirm the unacceptability of fatness.

See, I don't have a problem with fat. Not merely as a concept, but the word itself, too. At its heart, fat is really just an adjective. A description. Its neutral on its own. Negative connotations are introduced to the word rather than being inherent in it. Fat is just fat and its a word we have to reclaim. As long as "fat" is unspeakable, then fat people will be dehumanized and stigmatized. We need to make the word neutral again. We need to win it back from those who'd rather use the word as a club to beat us with than a word to describe us.

Worst of all, though, are the "polite" alternatives. These words are imagined to be non-judgmental but are anything but. Learning not to use these words should be Fat Acceptance 101. I'm talking, of course, about "overweight" and "obese".

Overweight is a no-brainer, really, except that the word has been so sanitized by its cultural dominance that the inherent hostility in the word has become background noise in our cultural fat hatred. Its there, but its become hard to notice. But like the magic clue revealed by red cellophane, there is an easy way to expose the word for what it is.

Over whose weight? I'm not over my own weight, after all. So what weight am I over? A standard I'm expected to live up to? A standard which I'm not defined by my failure to attain? "Overweight" defines us not by what we are, but by what we have failed to be. This simply cannot be tolerated in pursuit of fat acceptance and asking that question, "Over whose weight?" is important in driving the word out of our cultural vocabulary.

Obese is trickier because it has an air of authority behind it. Why its Latin. How can we argue with Latin? Obese is what we "officially" are. I'll get to the etymology of the word in a second, but don't think for a second that being the "scientific" word for our bodies is any reason we should accept the word. Obese medicalizes our bodies. It defines us as diseased. It has a powerfully dehumanizing effect. Consider Little People, for instance. As a community, they have rejected medicalized words to describe them. Even if it is the technical term, dwarfism won't get a warm reception. "Little People" on the other hand , emphasizes their humanity, their sameness with others. It doesn't compartmentalize their lives the way defining them by a medical condition. While "dwarf" may not be taken as much as an insult as, say, "midget", many little people see the benefit in looking past technical language to define them.

(For anyone who doesn't know, while the etymology of "dwarf" goes back to around the year 700, "midget" didn't originate until late in the 19th century and was coined to describe "publicly exhibited" little people. Essentially, its association is with freak shows. While I'm all about reclaiming fat, the phrase "fat lady" would garner a similar response given its close cultural association with circus side shows. "Midget" is also derived from "midge" which is a small fly which really reinforces the hostility of the word.)

A similar dynamic is found in the gay community where the technical term "homosexual" is often seen being used as a means of medicalizing their lifestyle with the technical, Latin word being used instead of the popular words "gay" or "lesbian". Again, we see a concern over the dehumanizing use of language. Like fat, "gay" is often used as an insult but that doesn't mean the word should be abandoned. Also, while "homosexual" may seem descriptive, albeit in Latin, its origin was an effort to define what was seen as a mental disorder. Just another reason to avoid medical or technical language when referring to people.

That does bring us to the issue of whether "obese" is even neutral or descriptive at its origin. While this is essentially true of "dwarf" or "homosexual", its not the case with "obese". The Latin root is the word for the past participle of "To Eat" and the prefix "ob" would mean "on account of". Obese defines someone as a glutton, essentially, and that is a negative connotation if ever there was one. Obese isn't simply a word made hostile by doctors attaching modifiers such as "morbid" or "malignant" to "obesity". The word is very much judgmental to its core and we need to look past it to define ourselves.

I like fat. While twisted by cultural use, its etymology is comparatively pure next to the alternatives. It comes from the old English word for "to cram" which isn't great, but that word also meant "to adorn". Yeah, its a rationalization, but one not available with "overweight" or "obese". My body is simply adorned, and that I'll take.

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