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…