The Quiet Prejudice of ‘You Are Not Fat, You Have Fat’
This popular phrase might be comforting, but it also perpetuates weight stigma
“I’ll give you my old dress! You’ll love it.”
A family friend is offering a kind gift: a dress she thinks I’ll like. She is a size 10. I am a size 26.
“That’s so sweet of you,” I say. “But I don’t think it’ll fit.”
“It’s got a lot of stretch!” She chirps. I wonder what kind of dress stretches to three times its size.
“I’m happy to try it on,” I offer, “but some plus-size clothing doesn’t even fit me, so I don’t want to assume this will. I am a fat lady.”
She looks at me with shock and pity. “Sweetie,” she says, as if speaking to a child, voice syrupy and sympathetic. “You are not fat. You have fat. You also have fingernails, but that doesn’t make you fingernails.” She laughs at the absurdity of it all.
“You are not fat. You have fat.”
She offers the phrase as a comfort to me — the kind of comfort it has clearly brought her. I wonder about the times that she has pulled at her own skin in a dressing room mirror before reminding herself she “has fat.” I wonder what fate she thinks would befall her — or me — if we were fat.
It clearly brings her consolation. Still, it brings me isolation. Suddenly, I feel split from myself, like a tree being split for firewood. The person I am is unmanageable: I can either be myself or my body, but both together are too much for her to hold. I am being cut down to something she can use, make sense of. I am being divided from myself.
Too often, fat is a shorthand for being seen as unloveable, undesirable, unwanted, excluded.
“You are not fat, you have fat.”
I understand why this simple rhetorical shift means so much to so many. Fat is a term that holds a great deal of power for a great number of people. It is hurled as a weapon, a ruthless mace tearing through too many of us. We respond with Pavlovian fear, overtaken by our own instincts to self-preserve. Too often, fat is shorthand for being…