Why words like “overweight” bother me.

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Juan Carreño de Miranda‎'s

Image via Wikipedia

If you’ve been paying attention the past several years, you’ll know we have an “obesity epidemic” on our hands.

Well, that’s what they like to call it. I don’t, because it makes it seem like we fat people are the disease. The way we get treated by most people, you’d think we were.

I don’t mind the descriptor “fat”. In fact I embrace it. It’s completely devoid of any negative or positive denotation — all it means is that I have an abundance of adipose tissue on my frame. That’s it. Simple, to the point, accurate. I am fat.

However, the connotations associated with the word — well, that’s another story. Here’s the skinny (pardon the pun) on denotation vs. connotation, in case you’re not aware: denotation is what a word actually means. Connotation is what people think it means. And because what people think as a whole shapes our society and thus, our language, connotation will quickly become denotation.

That’s why pejorative words are pejorative. They get used as an insult long enough and soon that’s all they are, regardless the actual denotations of the words themselves.

Connotations are completely valid ways of understanding the definitions of words — words mean things, and they don’t exist in a vacuum, separate from society. However, as I am a member of certain groups that are constantly marginalized and referred to in pejorative ways, I’m very invested in the idea of reclaiming pejorative words to remove the negative connotations.

So, when I say “I am fat” I realize that there are a ton of negative connotations surrounding that simple, three-letter word: stupid. Lazy. Gluttonous. Ill. Ugly. Jolly. Nice hair. Great personality.

Ok, so the last three are not universally considered negative things — but believe me, when they’re all people know you for (and it’s obvious they don’t know you very well if they think you’re jolly): definitely gets negative, very quickly.

Which is why when I say “I am fat” and people respond with “Oh, don’t be so hard on yourself!” I ask them if they would say the same thing if I said, for example, “I am Dutch” or “I am well-read.” The first thing only means I have an abundance of adipose tissue, the second and third respectively denote my heritage and the fact that I read a lot. They are all simple descriptors.

This usually stumps people. They ask why I can’t use a “nicer” euphemism for fat, like “bigger” or “plus-sized” or “overweight” or “curvy” or “voluptuous.”

For starters, here’s the definition of “voluptuous”.

vo·lup·tu·ous

[vuh-luhp-choo-uhs]

adjective

1. full of, characterized by, or ministering to indulgence in luxury, pleasure, and sensuous enjoyment: a voluptuous life.
2. derived from gratification of the senses: voluptuous pleasure.
3. directed toward or concerned with sensuous enjoyment or sensual pleasure: voluptuous desires.
4. sensuously pleasing or delightful: voluptuous beauty.

Yeah, ok, I’m not seeing anything in there about size. Everything to do with the word voluptuous has to do with sensual pleasures, enjoyment, desire, luxury…so if you want to use voluptuous only as an euphemism for fat, you are basically saying that all fat people are hedonists (and thus, why they’re fat — bastards can’t stop eating, right?).

I’m not going to argue that personally; I’m a total hedonist. But painting us all with such a large brush stroke? Rude, to say the least. (Especially to those of us who have eating disorders. Bet you didn’t know this, but it’s possible to be fat and have anorexia. I know — I’ve been there.)

Next — “curvy”. This is something women should want to attain, especially fat women — because it means we’re not fat anymore, and what’s worse than being fat? (Apparently NOTHING.) So, again, curvy does not denote size — it denotes shape. A shape that can be held by slender and fat people — Katee Sackhoff is curvy and I wouldn’t say she’s fat. Unless she wants to call herself fat; I’m not going to say she’s not “fat enough to join the club”. (There’s a nasty history of that and it’s bodysnarking, which I won’t do.) I’m sure there are people out there who would bodysnark her because she’s larger than a size 8. (I have no idea what her size is. I’m guessing a 12 or 14.)

However, in our cultural paradigm, curvy really only means one thing — that you have curves in all the right places, ie your tits and your ass. You shouldn’t have stomach at all as a curve — it should be flat. Big tits, a round ass, slender hips and stomach and thighs — that’s what “curvy” means to the general population.

And it’s a fracking lie. I have curves – not only do they consist of my tits and ass but they also consist of my belly, hips, haunches, thighs, calves, upper arms, and neck fat. Still curvy, that. Just the “bad curvy”. (Or “deathfat,” as it’s sometimes referred to.)

So, ok, let’s get to the last three of the “nice” euphemisms for our simple three-letter descriptor: bigger. Plus-sized. Overweight.

Do you see a theme with these words? A clue as to why they might be the biggest problem of all?

Big-ger. Plus-sized. Overweight. They all dictate that there is an ideal size, an ideal weight, that we should all strive to be — and if we’re not 150 pounds, or a size 10, or 5’5”, then we’re overweight, plus-sized, bigger. The key part here is that we don’t get to set that ideal weight for ourselves — an external force does so and denies us our agency.

Look, if I say I’m overweight — that means I want to lose some weight, that I have set a weight I wish to be at and I’m over that weight right now. That is completely different from someone saying “You’re overweight,” or “She’s a bigger girl,” or “The plus-size is right over here, and I hope you like big shoulder-pads, sequins, and leopard print because you’ll never find anything else.”

I do not like it when people try to erase my agency. Using words like overweight — “nicer” words than that nasty “fat” — does just that.

You can call me voluptuous and curvy, so long as you say “and fat” as well. Otherwise you’re leaving out a descriptor that’s sort of important to the whole picture.

Do not call me overweight, plus-sized, or bigger. Those are the worst pejoratives you could use, because by doing so you are telling me that I do not live up to your standards, that I am too fat to be breathing your precious oxygen, that there is a weight I should be and you have set that weight as lord and master of the universe. That is an attitude I will not take from anyone.

Words mean things. Sometimes, they don’t always mean what you think. So, think hard next time you call someone overweight or bigger. They might prefer something else.

As always, if you’re not sure — the best thing to do is ask.


A small addendum: I was reminded of another nicer euphemism for fat while reading this to my partner. “Rubenesque.” My feelings on this word are mixed; as the definition specifically denotes “referring to works of the painter Rubens” OR “a plump and pleasing figure”, it could either be a simple descriptor (body by Rubens) or it could be a cloaked way of saying “You’re one of the good fat people, not one of those hideous deathfatties.”

So in the case of the word “Rubenesque,” intent would seem to matter quite a bit — and we all know intent is fucking magic, don’t we? Seriously though, I’m really not sure how to feel on this one. If it’s coming from an Art History major I probably wouldn’t mind, but then again I think an Art History major would see that I don’t actually look like the women in Rubens’ paintings. (However I am Dutch, so perhaps that counts for something.) If it comes from anyone else, I may just use it as a Douche Alert.

(My partner, if you’re curious, calls me “fatty fat fat kid” and I love him for it.)

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