For most of my life, I was terrified of the word "fat." Now I identify with it. Changing my relationship to the word has been part of learning to accept and love my body. Today I want to tell you the story of how that happened, and then together we’ll examine a paper written by Mihaela Popa-Wyatt titled “Reclamation: Taking Back Control of Words.”
I was introduced to the word “fat” at age 5 and spent my entire childhood and early adolescence trying to dodge that word. I was called fat almost every day at school from 1st through 12th grades. On the few days that didn’t happen, I would hurry home elated and write down every single thing I’d done that day - my outfit, what halls I walked down, when I spoke, what books I carried - in hopes of replicating the result. My scheming never worked.
I had no control over when or how often these moments of searing humiliation would occur.
Even though “fat” is a tiny, little word, I had learned over time that a lot was rolled up in it. I learned that “fat” was shorthand for “ugly,” “worthless”, and “unlovable.” I learned to believe that absolutely anyone who was thinner than me was better than me, and I truly believed that this abuse was my fault because my abusers told me that their behavior was caused by my inability to “just eat less.” (Article forthcoming on how weight and eating are not as correlated as everyone seems to think)
Being afraid of that word had other, more far-reaching effects as well.
It made me afraid of being around or befriending other fat people. I figured that the more of us there were, the more likely I was to hear it, to be called that name. This isolated me from other fat people.
Being afraid of that word made me feel ecstatic with relief when someone else was called that word because I felt like the spotlight wasn’t on me. This encouraged spectatorship and disempowerment in the face of wrongdoing.
Being afraid of that word made me use it against other people who were bigger or the same size as me because my bullies would treat me like an insider when I did that. This made me part of the problem.
In my late twenties I was lucky enough to find fat activism. Immediately I was surrounded by big-bodied people who called themselves “fat.”
They loved the word “fat.”
They had “FAT” tattooed on their arms.
They wore necklaces that said “fat” (I still have mine).
They had shirts announcing they were “Fat & Ready To Party.”
They identified with cows, pigs and whales.
This should have been my childhood nightmare - but it wasn’t. It was a total dream come true. I adopted the same behavior, and slowly that word lost its negative association and, in fact, made me feel edgy, rad, and babely.
What was this powerful thing that my fat activist friends and I were doing? A political maneuver known as reclamation.
According to Mihaela Popa-Wyatt:
Derogatory language - or slur words - are “a linguistic weapon” used to “achieve power over a target group.” Of reclamation, Popa-Wyatt explains, “In-group members can disarm this weapon by using the slur term to self-refer. By self-labelling in a non-derogatory way they create a new speech act (the reclaimed speech act) that is only accessible to in-group members. This new speech act assigns in-group members a powerful role.”
She goes on to explain that reclamation has these 6 additional positive effects:
(1) Creates a sense of empowerment within the targeted group (she calls them the “in-group”),
(2) Makes it harder for out-group members to use the reclaimed slur,
(3) Creates a perception among observers that the in-group is more powerful,
(4) Slur words are perceived as less negative,
(5) The entire targeted group may be perceived less negatively, &
(6) Interrupts the dominant-subordinate dynamic and creates the possibility for the use of the slur to backfire
Reclamation, Popa-Wyatt notes, becomes a way of “roping off cultural turf.” Hello, fat as access to exclusivity!
You might be left asking, “Ok, wait, should I start using the word fat?” The answer is long, but boils down to this: it depends. If you’re fat and reclamation sounds fun or challenging (in a good way), try it. If you’re not fat, let the higher weight people in your life lead the type of weight-related language that’s used.