I don't specifically recall the first time that someone called me fat, but I certainly remember the way the word made me feel. I was in elementary school, too young to realize I could possibly reclaim the word fat or understand that I didn't have to hate it. It was an insult, and each time it was uttered my eyes would burn, my face would flush, and I'd pack my purple Jansport with the crushing weight of the F-word: I was fat, and fat was no good.
When you're a chubby child, all of the usual kid-on-kid teasing more often than not goes back to your weight. You're not just a nerd; you're a fat nerd. You're not just ugly; you're fat and ugly. Most fat people have had experiences like these, but perhaps that's all beginning to change. Because now, fat women are asking themselves a question that they never thought could have an answer: What if fat wasn't an insult anymore?
Instead of internalizing the hatred behind the word when it's used maliciously, many fat women are reclaiming it as their own. When a word intended to be harmful is stripped of its power, unusual and liberating things begin to happen. I asked 21 fat women via social media and email to tell me why they reclaimed the word fat as their own, and their answers were totally inspiring.
1. Rachael Balstad
For Rachael Balstad, it was important to reframe the word and take it back as her own, as it was used to hurt her in the past. "I started using the word because it was a way to take back something that had been used against me for so many years," she tells me. "It was a thing that I and others could use to tear me down. But using it as a self-descriptor is a way for me to take the pejorative association the word often carries and turn it on its head."
2. Hannah Rush
"One day I looked in the mirror, sick and tired of being told how great I could be if I weren't fat," Rush says. Instead of letting those words get to her, she went a different route. "I decided that yes, I am fat. I am fat, and 6'0", and smart, and funny, and a whole bunch of other things."
3. Natalie Hage
Natalie Hage is a popular fashion blogger and body positive social media presence, and she had some strong thoughts on the word fat. "The day I realized that the three letter word 'fat' was nothing more than a descriptor of body composition, I was free," she explains. "The look on people's face when I use the word fat casually and confidently is worth all the years of hiding behind ill-fitting clothing and tricky camera angles to hide my body. My response to being called 'fat' used to be tears. If people call me 'fat' now? my response is, 'Yeah? So what?'"
4. Sara A. Griswell
"I refer to myself as fat because I am fat, and I have been most of my life, and I'm no longer willing to allow the word to hurt me. It's simply a descriptor, it is not an insult unless we give it the power to be." Griswell also looks to other sources of inspiration to help her navigate her own body image as well. "Body positive bloggers like Rachele Cateyes, GarnerStyle, Jes Baker, and Ragen Chastain have been a huge inspiration to me in the last few years," she says. "I have been learning to embrace the beauty in my own round, soft, wiggly body and do my best to help others do the same!"
5. Ingrid Rachel Taller
For Taller, reclaiming the word fat was about reclaiming her strength and sense of identity. "I identify with the word fat because it helps me be in control over how my body is viewed. As most people experience, I was bullied through most of my life, and even now, cyber-harassment is a new playing field. As I become more in control of the words once used to hurt me and changing them into something less harmful to my mental health, the stronger I become."
6. Meagan Kerr
"Fat is a word that is whispered behind my back, shouted from a car, hissed from behind a keyboard," Kerr says. However, she wasn't going to let the words of others bring her down any further. "People often mean it to hurt me, but when I decided to stop giving it the power to do so, I realized that the word fat is a physical descriptor — it is no different than redhead, Maori, or woman, three other words that describe me."
7. Minerva Siegel
Minerva Siegel uses the word to exist in the world without apology, and her explanation can be inspiring for others. "I use the word fat to describe myself unapologetically because I refuse to be offended by a descriptor and have embraced myself, size and all," she says. "For so long, it was a word used by others to describe me with a negative connotation; I won't give them that power anymore and have taken back the word."
8. Paris Michele
For Paris Michele, finding the word fat was about finding her power, and it took her quite a long time — and a good amount of work — to do so. "Because my fat isn't an instant death sentence, I choose to roam this earth loving whom I choose, eating what I choose, and wearing what I choose," she says. "I dare to do those things while being fat and unapologetic. Fat isn't weakness; fat is power. To roam this world as a fat, black, bisexual woman is power. It took me 20 or so years to realize the power I was blessed with."
9. Riley Lauren
As for Lauren, reclaiming the word fat was about proving to her friends that they don't need to tell her she's not. "I have had conversations with close friends in which they've said to me, 'I don't view you as fat, I just see you as a person, and as my friend.' As if I can't be both? I can. I can be fat and beautiful, I can be fat and smart, I can be fat and amazing, I can be fat and anything else I damn well please!"
10. Leigh Rich
"I think that 'coming out' as a fat person de-stigmatizes the word and lessens the ability of others to use it as anything other than a truthful descriptor," Rich explains. It's true: The word fat is merely an adjective, and it's amazing that Rich and so many others can see it as such. "When people have a problem with hearing me say the word, it has everything to do with their negative associations of fat. I like to think that by throwing my literal and verbal fat in their faces, I can challenge people's idea that having a fat body is one of the literal worst things a person can do and that it must be avoided at all costs."
11. Chelsea Fiedler
For Fiedler, the reason to take back the word fat was simple: "I want to reclaim the word fat because if I could never again have someone shout, 'No you're not! Don't say that about yourself," when I self-identify as fat, that would be great."
12. Mandy Cantu
"When I realized it was OK for me to reclaim the word fat, a door opened in my brain and I felt free from a lot of the shame that came with living as a super fat person in a society that celebrates thinness and diet culture," says Cantu. She also uses the word as a smaller part of her larger image of herself. "Fat is a part of my identity, along with being a brown femme, and I've been hurt by the idea that it's polite to deny me of my fat identity because to everyone else, fat is bad and to see yourself as such is bad."
13. Hollie Burgess
For Burgess, it was all about figuring out that the word fat was simply a word, and that she could choose whether or not to let it hurt her. "I reclaimed the word fat when I realized the word is what you make it. It's a bit like the age-old saying, 'Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.' I realized that fat is a descriptive word and if I refuse to let it hit me as a derogatory term."
14. Ariel Woodson
Ariel Woodson is all about speaking directly. When asked why she's reclaimed the word, she says, "Because other people are quick to police who's called 'curvy' and I'm cutting out the middleman. Not everyone is curvy and that's OK! Fat is literally the most accurate way to describe my body, and I don't feel the need to mince words for the comfort of others. I'm not 'thick,' I'm not a 'big fine.' I am unapologetically fat."
15. Kelsie Kullman
Kullman's take on it is humorous and all too true. "Yes, I'm fat," she says. "But I'm also tall, a (unnatural) redhead, an actor, a friend, a sister, a daughter. I'm all of these things. One word doesn't define me. One word can't define me. Unless I was a bowl of plain sour cream, there's more than one word to describe every person."
16. Natalie Perkins
"I have used fat to describe myself for 15 years. I designed the fat typography nearly five years ago and made it into necklaces," Perkins says. For her, the most striking thing was how people reacted to it. "The funniest situation I've been in is when I was walking down the aisle of a plane, fat hips banging every seat back, and spotting people looking at me, my necklace, and glancing away. It makes thin people so uncomfortable!"
17. Ashley Brianna Capers
Capers takes the word fat and associates it with the good things in the world, rather than the bad. "I've heard, 'Why would you call yourself that,' — and I've also heard every fat insult in the book. It all used to hurt me when I still believed that being 'fat' was a bad thing. Personally, I love the word fat for more reasons than being a descriptor. Fat is soft and soft things are amazing. Marshmallows! Stuffed animals! Pillows! Kitties! Beds. Need I list more things that are soft and awesome?"
18. Amanda McCann
"I decided to reclaim the word 'fat' because I deserved to feel OK and happy in my own skin. Once you take the negative connotations and stereotype from the word fat, it is just a word," McCann says. She also added an important point about what happened after she decided to take back the word as her own: "The feeling of being so happy and so self loving and accepting: You can't beat it."
19. Krista Benge
For Benge, reclaiming the word was about realizing what she had been missing. "I let my negative thoughts about the word fat consume me for years. But now as an adult I see all the things I missed out on because I didn't want to be called "the fat girl." So I guess I want to reclaim the word fat because I want all the young people suffering these same negative thoughts to realize it's only a word. Just live your life, give no apologies or f*cks."
20. Shay Lee
For Lee, no other word will do: The rest are all simply inaccurate and a little bizarre. "I use the word fat because it fits so perfectly in the middle of my three-word description: Hot fat babe. I find polite euphemisms like 'curvy' to be really cringey. Like, come on mate."
21. Chelsea Fee
"I use the word fat because it is confrontational," Fee says. Her words are definitely spot on: The idea that one can be confrontational instead of hiding and apologizing is one that's crucial in the fat acceptance movement. "It is always met with people trying to tell me what I am and what I am not, which is unacceptable," she says. "Calling myself fat and owning the body that I am in is a way for me to assert myself and state that I have arrived and everyone is to take notice."
The more women, men, and everyone in between reclaim "fat" as a descriptor, a source of solidarity, and a characteristic that can actually be quite beautiful, the more we're bound to see weight stigma shift — at least a little bit.
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Images: Courtesy Interviewees