Why We Should Stop Saying "You're Not Fat, You're Beautiful" For Good

A lot of folks don't like fat people. When I was 13, I came across a New York Times article that reported, "According to studies cited by the National Eating Disorders Association, 42 percent of girls in first through third grade want to be thinner, 81 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat, and 51 percent of 9- and 10-year-old girls feel better about themselves if they are on a diet." Back then, I could relate. Ten years later, reports still revealed that "young girls are more afraid of getting 'fat' than they are of cancer, nuclear war, or losing their parents." To be fat is just about the worst thing conceivable for a lot of humans, particularly young women, because that's precisely how they're taught to perceive it. So it makes sense than when some of us encounter a person we care about who is criticizing their body for being fat, or wishing they looked somehow different, we respond with, "But you're not fat. You're beautiful."

Despite what Scooby Doo! and films like Wall-E might have us believe, fat is not a bad word. The three letters paired together hold no moral connotations or implications. Fat says nothing about a person's character, occupation, or even health (at least not more than having a freckly face or naturally athletic-looking shoulders or blonde hair might). It doesn't necessarily say anything about how often a person does yoga versus how often they frequent White Castle (#CheeseSliders4E). And believe it or not, it says nothing about how attractive an individual is. It's just a "natural oily or greasy substance occurring in animal bodies," and one that often results in what some folks might consider "excess flesh." 

I don't believe our fear of fatness has all that much to do with health. Health control trolling — whereby people decide it's OK to judge, critique, or comment on the bodies of others using their perceived concern over the person's health status as justification — is definitely real, and it's a pain in the ass, to say the least. But I never really buy it. The stranger emailing me to say he's "just worried" I won't live past 30 unless I "undergo a substantial lifestyle change and reevaluate my priorities" probably doesn't care all that much whether I live or die. More than likely, he just doesn't fancy fat people very much. 

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But let's get back to the friend who's criticizing their own body. If we care about someone, we typically don't want to hurt their feelings or worsen the crappy feelings they're already experiencing. When someone says seemingly negative things about their bodies or lives, it's usually our job as friends or family to try to commiserate. Someone tells you, "I just feel so stupid," and we often respond with, "You're one of the smartest people I know," or whatever feels genuine and appropriate. Another acquaintance muses, "I'm having a bad hair day," and we say, "Nonsense. I wish I had hair like yours," provided it also feels genuine and appropriate. 

When it comes to fatness, however, things get a little more complicated. If you're sitting next to a plus size friend, and that friend says, "I'm so fat," "I hate my fat body," or, "I wish I wasn't this fat," a knee-jerk reaction in this fat shaming world of ours might be the aforementioned, "You're not fat. You're beautiful," line. We don't want our friend to feel worse about themselves by confirming that their biggest fear is actually rooted in truth, right?

But this response poses two issues: If the friend actually is fat, you're basically just lying to them. And likely adding to their evident confusion about and disillusionment with body image. Secondly, you're kind of suggesting that a person simply cannot be both plus size and pretty.

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Let's start with the second point. The truth is that a person can, in actuality, be fat and beautiful. Oftentimes haters of body positive activism will say things like, "I'm never going to think fat is pretty, so stop trying to convince me otherwise." And in a sense, that's fine. One human could never convince every other person the world over that any given characteristic is attractive. We vary far too much person to person for that to work — our preferences as well as the body types and traits we're attracted to are unique from individual to individual.

In fact, efforts in fat positivism and body positivism were never supposed to be about changing everyone's definition of pretty. When it comes to dissecting aesthetic beauty, the point was more to highlight the notion that we all define pretty differently; that saying, "Fat is ugly," is inherently incorrect because no one person gets to decide what constitutes "ugly" or "pretty" for another. Thus, any such statement that doesn't end with an "in my opinion" disclaimer afterwards is simply factually inaccurate. 

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Plus, "beauty" — at least not conventional beauty in the way that it's presented in mainstream, contemporary media — should not be the be all and end all in any person's life either. Granted, there's nothing inherently wrong with striving to be beautiful in the way most editorial models are beautiful if that's what feels like ~your truth~. But definitions of beauty need to start evolving to be inclusive of the myriad of ways there are to look and present. That notion that there's only one way to be pretty has to be eradicated, while the recognition that there are arguably more important things to strive for than conventional attractiveness is also simultaneously perpetuated. 

This isn't something that can happen if we continue to insist that a person cannot be fat and be beautiful. But when we tell someone who knows that they are fat (and trust me, anyone who is fat has been made aware of that fact) that they aren't — that they have nothing to worry about, because they're actually "so pretty, and not at all fat" — we only feed the stigma they probably have on internal, psychological loop. Even if our intention is purely kind, and even if we just want to help our friend feel better, we have to trust that adding to the idea that fat people are naturally unattractive will only ever do more harm than good.

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And that's why lying is a relevant topic of discussion here as well. If the person doing the negative self-talk in your vicinity actually isn't fat, please try to tell them as much without implying that beauty is the opposite of fat. In a world where fat bodies are still so marginalized, it's uncomfortable, if not offensive, to co-opt a trait (and an identity) that simply isn't your own. Claiming fatness might sometimes be the result of societal brainwashing that often dictates that anything above a size eight is fat, and therefore bad. But when you are very visibly and obviously not a fat person saying the opposite, you're assuming that you understand the experiences of actual fatties — many of whom have likely been subject to consequences of thin privilege that only heighten in poignancy the fatter they are. 

However, if the person feeling frustrated over their fat body is actually living within a fat body, I don't think there's any reason to lie. Rather than claim, "You're not fat. You're beautiful," consider saying something along these lines:

  • "Maybe, but you're also beautiful and intelligent and one of the most well-read people I know."
  • "Sure, but you're also a badass at [insert activity of relevance here.]"
  • "Yes, but think of all the fucking incredible things you're capable of [and proceed to list their merits, a sport they're awesome at, or anything that makes them special.]"
  • "Yup, and you have amazing legs, and pretty eyes, and cool hair, and... want me to go on?"
  • "And your tummy would look precious in that fatkini, too."
  • "I won't lie. You are fat. But why does that have to be a bad thing?"

You can then proceed to introduce them to fat positive writers, radical voices in body positivity, incredibly stunning fatshion bloggers, or the kind of literature that's trying to combat more misconceptions about health and weight, or entertainment industry-based shaming of fatter people. Hell, show them images of actor Gabourey Sidibe on loop because she is the closest thing this modern world has to an IRL princess, excluding England's Royal Family, I guess.

In a recent conversation with blogger Ushshi Rahman of Dress Carcass, she mused over how afraid people still are of the word fat. She told me that the reason she feels body positivity grew to be the buzzword that it is comes down to our reluctance to use "ugly" terms like fat and queer.

I know it can be hard to say fat, especially when referring to other people whose relationships with their bodies are entirely their own (and are very likely complex). I'm not suggesting you go out into the world and tell all the fat people you encounter that, yes, they are fat. But if the opportunity presents itself for you to speak truthfully with someone struggling with their idea of what being fat means, please consider seizing the moment as a chance to express that being fat doesn't have to be a hideous fate. It doesn't have to be "ugly" or "unemployable" or "un-dateable" or anything other that a trait (and a soft squashy one at that). For some, it can even be a source of empowerment.  

Trust that if a fat person is telling you that they are fat, they know their body enough to recognize that truth. They're very likely not looking for you to convince them of their thinness. Speaking from experience, I know they're more often than not just seeking some kind of reassurance. For all the times I cried over being fat, chastising my "fat stomach" in front of high school friends, I wish someone had — even just once — said, "Yeah, so what?" Or even, "Yeah," with a puzzled expression on their face. I didn't really want anyone to tell me I wasn't fat, because I knew that I was. I just wanted someone to counter all the mainstream messaging and the glossy magazines and my family, and tell me it was OK. 

Image: Marie Southard Ospina (1)

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