The Way We Talk About Our Bodies Is Deeply Flawed
Words like ‘fat’ and ‘thin’ ignore a vast spectrum of size and experience
I made a mistake.
A friend recently asked me what I was writing about next. I told her I was planning an essay on medical neglect: the way that doctors think of and treat patients who are very fat — patients who, like me, are classified as “super morbidly obese.” In the process, I referred to this friend, a size eight, as thin, and realized my mistake immediately as I watched her bristle and hiss.
“I’ve been quite heavy,” she snapped, voice thick with condescension and sharp with defensiveness and something else — fear? “You just didn’t know me then. I was fat.”
Surprised, and more than a little ashamed of myself for making such a basic mistake, I asked after her experiences as a fat person.
She feels that I have erased her experience; I feel that she has appropriated mine.
“I was almost plus-size,” she tells me. “I was wearing a size 12, and people started telling me to diet.” I feel myself bristle before quickly repressing my own hiss. I feel stalagmites rise up from my floor, hard as rock, jagged and unforgiving. She is, of course, referring to the time when she was her fattest. I am, of course, referring to an experience that is largely unique for very fat patients: doctors’ outright refusal to treat us at all. She is talking about her feelings about her skin; I am talking about the way individuals and institutions treat me, regardless of what I say or how I feel about myself. I abandon the conversation before it begins. Like a trailer that gives too much away, I already know how this exchange ends.
It is an exhausting and common routine, and one for which, in this case, I only have myself to blame. She feels that I have erased her experience; I feel that she has appropriated mine. We are now both entrenched and wounded, struggling to move past our own body trauma to have a more concrete conversation.
But in moments like these, I struggle to know how to refer to thin people in a way that recognizes their privilege but doesn’t trigger this woundedness, this defensiveness, a drawbridge raised with a moat to ford.
As a fat person, the world feels clearly divided by a bright line: people who wear plus sizes, and people who don’t. My experience as a fat person — a size 26, just shy of 350 pounds — isn’t just a matter of feeling fat, it’s a matter of being actively excluded and underserved because of my size. For me, being fat isn’t about how I feel about myself, it’s about how the world reminds me, sometimes violently, of my own inferiority, and the ways in which even basic needs are withheld from me.
But despite the certainty of that experience, the lives of our bodies are much more complex than a simple, tempting binary. Size, like so many things, is a spectrum. But that spectrum doesn’t progress smoothly or evenly. There are harsh drop-offs within it: the moment when you are forced into the “plus-size” or “big & tall” section of a department store. The moment when even those sections no longer fit, and you need to shop exclusively online, because no brick-and-mortar establishment carries clothing that will fit around your body, regardless of whether it fits well. The moment when a doctor stops making eye contact, stops listening. The moment when your size means you won’t be hired, won’t be promoted, or will be outright fired. The moment when strangers begin to shout at you on the street, throwing trash or mooing as you pass.
These moments, abrupt changes in the quality of that size spectrum, deserve to retain their integrity. We’ve got to be able to name that the experience of a size eight differs dramatically from that of a size 18, which differs, too, from that of a size 28, who may not be able to fathom the experience of a size 38. That will require self-awareness of all of us, a willingness to acknowledge our own hurt and stretch beyond ourselves to grapple with someone else’s.
But without the language to name our bodies, none of this will be possible.
Later, I pose a question on Twitter. I ask people who don’t wear plus sizes what words they use to describe themselves. The answers leave me feeling crestfallen, frustrated, isolated.
“Normal,” says one.
“Regular,” says another.
“Healthy.” As if thin people don’t have disabilities, chronic illnesses, any health challenges at all. As if health were a monolith. As if thinness somehow made a person immortal.
“Average.” Over 50, people like “average” despite its categorical inaccuracy. In the United States, the average is plus-size.
Some balk at being asked at all, demanding to know who would be so callous as to describe their size. Who wants to know? Why? What do they have to do with anything? I sigh to myself, preemptively exhausted at the amount of work it would take to bridge the gaps in our experiences. When you’re fat, no one asks what to call you — they just say whatever they want, however they please. I had thought this a courtesy; they experienced an attack.
Regardless of their answers, they all share one common thread. “Healthy,” “normal,” “average,” even those who protested at being expected to name their bodies at all — they all erase the bodies of thinner people, and shine a blindingly bright spotlight on fat bodies, casting us as the center of so much unwanted attention. If they are normal, we are deviant. If their bodies are healthy, ours are unhealthy, as if every larger body was suddenly riddled with cancer or doomed to near-immediate death. If they are average, we are aberrant, unthinkably fat, and all of their preferred words.
As I read their answers, it becomes clear that their privilege isn’t in thinking of themselves as thin. After all, even amongst people who don’t wear plus sizes, thinness is an ideal, some shining idol forever out of reach, a horizon with no point of arrival. Thinness is always distant, unattainable, a punishing standard that few feel they can meet — and those who can still avoid the term, for fear of seeming arrogant.
So instead of “thin,” smaller people reach for words that erase their bodies. “Normal.” “Regular.” “Healthy.” “Average.” These uneasy non-descriptors speak to a deep resistance to even acknowledge their own bodies and, paradoxically, that resistance is rooted in their relative privilege. Many express discomfort with having to describe their bodies at all — a discomfort that feels luxurious to me as a fat person, who is forced to acknowledge the perceived failing of my body nearly every day.
We cannot address oppression and discrimination without naming the privilege that contrasts it.
This challenge, too, is rooted in fatness as a floating signifier. “Fat” and “thin” both have no fixed meaning that we all agree to and reference with consistency. Often, both are in the eye of the beholder, with no hard and fast anchors that can carry us through conversations about medical neglect, clothing access, and street harassment with equal ease.
There are some bright lines within how we talk about fatness. The weight ratio recommended by the body mass index is one. The beginning of plus sizes is another, though that changes from country to country, region to region, store to store. But when we look at someone else, and especially when we look at ourselves, we abandon those definitions, opting instead for how we feel when we see those bodies. In our own bodies, we hyper-focus on the fattest parts of us, the parts we desperately wish to change. And in others’ bodies, we externalize those judgments, declaring anyone for whom we feel disgust, pity, revulsion, or irritation as “fat.” We don’t rely on hard and fast definitions for ourselves or others. After all, we haven’t calculated strangers’ BMIs before judging their build. People who don’t wear plus sizes often refer to “feeling fat,” regardless of the size of their clothing.
But still, there are concrete, essential conversations to have about the differences in our experiences. We cannot talk about the medical neglect of fat patients without naming that, by contrast, thinner patients more readily receive more attentive, effective health care. We cannot address oppression and discrimination without naming the privilege that contrasts it.
So, what do we call ourselves? How do we name our bodies, so that we can discuss the experiences they invite? And how do we stretch beyond our own woundedness to acknowledge someone else’s experience, and help dress wounds that are so different from our own?
Surprisingly, the fashion industry offers one answer that provides some anchor in the stormy, deep judgments we make about our own bodies and those around us. Clothing offered as U.S. women’s sizes 14/16 to 26/28 is referred to as “plus size,” while sizes 00 to 14 are referred to as “straight size.” Those whose sizes exceed the plus spectrum — those who are forced to abandon Lane Bryant and other plus-size retailers for an extraordinarily limited, online-only selection of clothing — are referred to as “extended plus size.” Of course, each brand offers their own sizing, which can blur these lines and lead to some overlap, but for the most part, these sizing ranges cover the majority of clothing manufacturers in the U.S.
Our language around size is deeply imperfect, because our experiences around our own bodies are so tender, so raw, so hurt.
Rather than offering loaded terms like “fat” and “thin” or “morbidly obese” and “normal,” charged with so much emotional energy from hurtful life experiences and deep personal memories, “straight size” offers a more neutral way to acknowledge some measure of privilege. Being straight size means being able to buy clothing from nearly any store in a shopping mall, while being plus-size means being relegated to roughly 15% of the options available to straight size bodies. “Straight size” is not a judgment, not a loaded gun or an unsheathed knife. It is simply an acknowledgment of the store where you bought the clothing that fits you best.
While it doesn’t offer the nuance that our life experiences do, it offers an opportunity to acknowledge that people who don’t wear plus sizes are freed from doctors who refuse to treat them solely because of their size. It offers a way to discuss that while internalized body image issues impact people of all sizes, external, institutionalized discrimination viciously targets people who wear plus sizes and extended plus sizes.
Our language around size is deeply imperfect because our experiences around our own bodies are so tender, so raw, so hurt. But if we can’t negotiate our own pain enough to have a grounded conversation about the experiences that spring from the size of our bodies, we won’t stand a chance of dismantling anti-fatness. We won’t build a more healing world. And we certainly won’t heal ourselves.
Name your body and own your hurt. Sit with it, so you can sit with mine, too. Find the stillness that will allow us to hear each other. Hear me so you can heal yourself.