Last week I was at a flea market, and I found a little treasure trove of plus-size clothing I loved. I could tell from the look of the garments that they were probably my size, but when I went fishing for the tags all that was left were the frayed remnant of where tags had once been. Running my finger over that missing bit pulled me into a memory.
I’m a recovering tag cut-outer.
I remember the searing shame I used to feel whenever I went shopping and I saw the tag that indicated my size. The word “extra” (as in “extra large,” for example) felt like a judgmental finger wagging in my face. I remember trying to force my body uncomfortably into clothing that didn’t fit simply because the size listed on the tag was smaller, and made me feel less terrible about myself. The moment I got the garment home, I’d pull out my scissors and cut that tag out.
Why did a couple of numbers or letters printed on my clothing feel so high stakes? The answer to that is simple: internalized fatphobia.
What is internalized fatphobia?
Let’s break it down. Internalization is when something - like a cultural belief - works its way into your worldview and your belief system. When you internalize something, it no longer merely lives out in the culture. It lives in your thoughts, how you see yourself and how you see others. Fatphobia is a form of bigotry against fat bodies. So, internalized fatphobia is when the cultural bias against fat bodies becomes part of how someone sees others and themself.
Cutting out that tag was a ritual. It was a way of saying to myself, “I hate myself. I hate this body. I will do anything in my power to erase it and any evidence that it ever existed.”
People of any size can have internalized fatphobia, and it’s very common for people with fat bodies to have high levels of internalized fatphobia. A fat person with internalized fatphobia is likely to experience self-loathing, which leads to behaviors like avoiding mechanisms of self-recognition or mirroring: like cutting out tags, avoiding friendships with other fat people, etc.
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Cutting out the tag didn’t erase the reality of my fat body. It simply allowed me to deny it and distance myself from it. This type of denial and distancing is very common when a person has been taught to feel ashamed about something fundamental to who they are.
I couldn’t bear to witness the tag because I couldn’t bear to witness to myself and my body. I lived in fear of the tag popping out of my dress or my top. Other women often assisted without prompting, helping me tuck my tag away and hide my dress size like it was a dirty secret. I saw the number or letters on the tag as a complete summary of my worth, my value, and my sense of well-being.
When did that change?
Okay, to be perfectly honest, I don’t remember the exact day I stopped cutting the tags out of my clothes, but at some point the impulse to do it stopped. Before the impulse went away, however, I made the intentional decision to stop. I didn’t want to hate myself anymore. I didn’t want to keep believing that there was something wrong with being fat because I had seen how much that idea had harmed me and others around me.
When I laid those scissors down, I began to take the power away from the tag - and consequently, the culture that had taught me that my body size was the most important thing about me. That tag is there for me. It’s a useful piece of information. Our fatphobic culture is what turns that tag into an emotional experience. I don’t need to erase my body. More importantly, I don’t want to.
I don’t cut the tags out of my clothes anymore because they are part of a public record - an archive. I want the record to show that people like me did, do and will continue to exist.