I’m a “Small Fat” and Why that Matters

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I’m fat.  I’ve been fat all my life.  I say this not as a degrading remark, but as a descriptive statement.  Being fat is a trait no different than having brown eyes or being tall.  Or, more accurately, it shouldn’t be any different.

If you’re moving through the world in a body right now and you’re a woman and/or you’re not naturally lithe, you are all too aware of how having fat on your body earmarks you for bullying.  You’ve probably been given “friendly” dieting advice from complete strangers, been criticized for eating in public or for wearing unflattering clothing, been told no one will ever love you…

It’s a cruel, cruel, thin-centric world out there.  Make no mistake, thin people get shamed and criticized and feel insecure about their bodies too, but if you’re thin you’re still considered a person.  If you’re fat, you’re sub-human, animalistic, unworthy, unlovable.  (You’re also average, but I guess that’s besides the point.)

Fighting fat stigma is one of the many causes close to my heart.  I personally practice Health and Every Size (HAES), which is the radical idea that you can start practicing healthy behaviors no matter what size and shape your body is (as opposed to the idea that if you’re fat you need to exercise, for penance usually, but you’re also not supposed to be seen exercising in public unless you enjoy being oinked at or having eggs thrown at you).
Having been in the “fat-o-sphere” for a while (a corner of the internet where fat people can discuss fat problems without being trolled), I’ve come to realize that I am in fact a “small fat,” and yes, it does matter.So, where is the line between fat and thin anyway?  Hard to say, it really depends on what store you’re shopping in and who you’re asking.  The fashion industry insists “fat” starts at size 6.  Your average department store usually carries “straight sizes” up to a size 12 or 14, and considers anything larger than that to be plus size.  Likewise, plus size clothing stores usually start at size 14 and go up to at least size 28.  So, for the purposes of this post, we’re going to consider American dress size 14 and up to be “plus” sized.

Depending on the brand of clothing, I wear anywhere from a dress size 16 up to a 22.  Yes, brands vary THAT much.  And, for what it’s worth, it’s rarely my jiggily stomach that prevents me from fitting into clothes, it’s my very broad back and shoulders, which I’ve learned while trying to buy women’s clothes is apparently very “unladylike.”  How dare my body not be shaped like the designer’s image of what a body ought to be shaped like! It’s a little maddening, actually, and one of an array of reasons why I often shop in the Men’s departments (you need to only know your measurements instead of dealing with inconsistent vanity sizes and bizarrely tailored garments).  All that said, I’m still considered to be on the “small” side of “plus” size.

Now, I know what you’re thinking.  How could that possibly matter?? Well, to be honest, I don’t know why body size is even remotely related to self-worth in society’s eyes, but since it does, it does matter.  And it matters not because I consider myself separate from folks larger than me, but because while I’m still stigmatized for my body size, I am treated with the slightest bit more dignity than my larger-than-me friends.

It means that, once in a while, I can get away with shopping at a “straight size” store instead of only being able to shop at plus-sized shops.  It means that sometimes I’m assumed to a be “good fattie”– someone who sincerely repents for the size of their body and is doing everything they can to lose weight.  It means that well-meaning friends say very offensive things like, “Well at least you’re not THAT fat” while passing judgement on folks fatter than I.

It must seem strange that there’s a delineation between “BBW” (a term adopted by many fatties meaning “big, beautiful woman”) and “SSBBW” (a “super-sized” BBW) and you would be correct.  It is strange.  But it’s no stranger than determining a person’s worth, intelligence, work ethic, beauty, health and self-discipline based on an arbitrary sizing system.  And yes, I included “health” in that list because you CANNOT tell a damn thing about a person’s health by looking at them.

One thing fat people are common accused of, particularly if we are not openly remorseful about our body size, is “promoting obesity.”  How dare you not hate yourself 24 hours a day! (Personally, I try to limit my self-hatred to 12 hours a day.) Let’s be clear (and I’m going to take a page from Ragen’s book here): Health and size are NOT the same thing and neither one is a barometer of a person’s worth.  The choice to prioritize health is just that– a choice.  And if you’re thin, we accept this is a choice.  You want to eat McDonald’s all day everyday?  That’s fine as long as you’re thing.  But I promise you, there’s nothing healthy about that, no matter how skinny you are.

These messages, that health and size are the same, does a disservice to people of all sizes.  For the fat, it leads to deplorable healthcare where we’re prescribed weight loss for literally every ailment, even and especially ones that would have other treatment options if only we were thin.  (Yes, doctors can be sizeist bigots, despite the Hippocratic oath.  For example, in 2003, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania surveyed more than 600 primary care doctors and found that more than half viewed obese patients as awkward, unattractive and noncompliant.  No, not even your healthcare is safe from bias.) For the thin, they are given the false impression that as long as they stay thin, they are healthy, no matter what their behaviors are.

But studies show that when it comes to health, behaviors are far better predictors than body size.  (This study shows how, when healthy behaviors are practiced, there’s very little difference in metabolic health between people of ALL sizes.)  A mere 30 minutes of exercise a day has been shown to be the best thing you can do for you health, again, regardless of your body size.

Still don’t believe that fat people are stigmatized?  Read “This is Thin Privilege” for about 5 minutes and you’ll be convinced.

I could go on, and on, and ON with stories of fat discrimination, debunking “everybody knows” myths like that BMI is an accurate measure of health or that obesity all by itself is disease, but I’d like to turn my attention to some positive truths.

TRUE: Body size is not a measure of worth, loveability, intelligence, health, beauty, or self-discipline.

TRUE: Body sizes and shapes naturally vary in humans just as much as our skin tones, eye color, height, or any other genetic factor.

TRUE: Body size is not something entirely within our control.  This is something body size has in common with health– both are complex and multi-faceted and, at best, only partially within our control.  Chain smokers have lived to be 101, and 25-year-old triathletes have dropped dead sudden of heart attacks.  There’s so much we can’t control, and the truth is we as a species do NOT know how to make fat people thin.  There is literally not a single study that follows dieters for at least 5 years where said dieters have been able to keep off the weight.  Ironically, if you’re trying to gain weight, dieting is your best bet.  Dieting has been proven to lead to long term weight gain, usually more than you lost in the initial phases of the diet(s). Even people who’ve had their stomaches stapled ultimately gain the weight back.  We don’t know how to make fat people into thin people, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

TRUE: You don’t owe anyone anything.  Concern trolls will insist you owe it to them, to yourself, to your friends and family, to do everything you can to lose weight and be healthier.  Besides falsely conflating health and weight, this is just bullocks.  You don’t owe anyone anything.  Health is personal choice, and body size isn’t a choice at all.  We can manipulate a few pounds here and there within the confines of a balanced diet, but our bodies pretty much know what weight they prefer.

TRUE: There’s no shame in embracing your body exactly how it is right now.  Society will try and shame you, every damn day, but this too, is bullocks.  Our bodies do so many amazing things for us, often without even needing to ask it to do them.  It keeps our hearts beating, our lungs breathing, our eyes blinking, and all that without any deliberate thought on our part.  I’m fortunate that my body can also do things like climb stairs, jump across puddles, lift boxes, and dance to that sick beat.

TRUE: YOU can help end fat stigma.  It might not seem like much, but when your friends make a joke at a fat person’s expense, speak up.  When someone posts something ignorant on their Facebook page, speak up.  When you hear people putting themselves down, calling themselves fat, going on and on about how they need to diet– speak up!  It’s not always easy, but this simple act of speaking up and out against fat stigma is how we, one by one, put an end to this ridiculous prejudice.

TRUE: You have a community.  Whether you’re fat yourself or simple a fat ally, you have a community.  Blogs like Ragen’s Dances With Fat or Jeanette’s The Fat Chick constantly have great ideas for activism and ways to connect with this larger community of body-positive people.

There are many things we still don’t understand about these amazing bodies we walk the Earth in, but we do know for certain that shame is detrimental to both physical and mental health, and frankly, I’ve never heard of someone successfully shaming themselves healthy.  The best thing you can do for your body is give it some well-deserved love.  Your body works for you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week– consider telling it “Thank You” once in a while.  It might feel weird at first, but you’ll be amazed how quickly that awkwardness turns into pride and motivation to embrace the body you have.

So thanks, bodies, for all that you do.