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 seen as unloveable, undesirable, unwanted, excluded.
For any of us, it’s hard to have a body. There’s comfort in denying our skin, insisting there’s some essential us that exists outside of the rolls, wrinkles, and perceived flaws so many of us long to eschew. It is easier to distance ourselves from our bodies than to embrace what we’ve so long been taught to disdain.
At the same time, many of us use other people — those who are fatter than us — to reassure ourselves that “at least we’re not that fat.” We comfort ourselves with shows like My 600 Pound Life or The Biggest Loser, quietly calming ourselves with the horror stories we imagine daily life to be for those who are, like me, undeniably fat. And when people — especially people who don’t wear plus sizes — gain weight, it’s a great comfort to reassure ourselves that we’re still “not that bad.”
It’s comforting in part because it allows us a reprieve from the constant negotiation of living in an ever-changing body. But it’s also comforting because it allows us to sidestep deep, important work to challenge our own biases. It is deeply, unquestionably cruel to look at another human being’s body with revulsion, then use that revulsion to bolster our own self-esteem. Phrases like “you are not fat, you have fat” become a way to negotiate our own changing bodies without challenging the biases we wield so ruthlessly as weapons against those fatter than us. They allow us to hold onto our judgment of fatter people while still letting ourselves off the hook. After all, we still aren’t “that bad.”
So instead, we separate ourselves from our very bodies. We don’t think of this as magical thinking: The idea that our selves lie outside our bodies. And we don’t think of who benefits — and who’s hurt — by that line of thinking.
For those of us who are undeniably fat — like me, at a U.S. women’s size 26 — too many of us are reminded at every turn that we are fat. Irredeemably fat. Dangerously fat. Disgustingly fat. That perception impacts when and whether we find jobs. If we do get hired, it impacts how much we’re paid — according to some surveys, fat workers in the U.K. make up to £1,940 (about $2,500) less than thinner counterparts each year. Others’ perceptions of our bodies make it extraordinarily difficult to find a doctor, especially when many health care providers harbor some level of unchecked bias against their fat patients, and that bias, in turn, weakens rapport, impacts the care they provide, and worsens outcomes for fat patients. Those perceptions, and the stigma that come with them, mean that if I board a plane, I don’t know if another passenger will complain about my body, which may lead to me being kicked off the flight, no longer permitted to keep the seat (or seats) I paid for.
Those around me make it clear at every turn that I don’t have fat, I am fat. Remarkably, unforgivably fat. I don’t define myself by my fat body, but nearly everyone else seems to. And too often, their perceptions turn meeting my most basic needs into a minefield.
Denying that some of us are fat may feel comforting, especially for those who aren’t universally regarded as fat. But to me, it feels like a denial of a fundamental life experience that has significantly impacted me. It’s not just a denial of my size, but a denial of the biased attitudes and overt discrimination I contend with all too often.
Saying that I simply “have fat” lands as a refusal to believe a core part of my life experience. But acknowledging that anti-fat bias exists and hurts their fatter friends would require thinner people to grapple with the ways in which they have upheld and perpetuated that bias. It would require a reckoning for which they feel unprepared, an earthquake that would shake their sense of self as good friends and egalitarians.
It’s hard to face the ways in which we may have hurt the ones we love. So instead of taking on that larger task, many thinner friends default to reassuring me that I “have fat.”
But “you have fat” doesn’t just sting because of its refusal to acknowledge the all-too-real and all-too-prevalent anti-fat bias. It stings because it quietly encourages leaving that bias intact. This rhetorical reframe proposes that it’s just fine to leave our prejudice unchallenged because we aren’t fat people — not like them. Keep treating fat people however you want. It’s okay. You can rest assured that you’re not one of them.
It’s a quiet and troubling kind of gaslighting, albeit unintentional: repeating to fat people that our bodies, the most observable and surveilled parts of us, aren’t actually who we are. It’s all in our heads. All of that may feel comforting in the short term, but in the long term, it still allows anti-fat bias to go on, unchallenged. And that, in turn, makes life harder for fat people — and increases the temptation to distance ourselves from an increasingly stigmatized group by somehow, magically, divorcing ourselves from our very skin.
Phrases like “you are not fat, you have fat” may feel like solutions, but ultimately they’re Band-Aids on catastrophic wounds — and they’re Band-Aids that we’ll bleed through eventually, whether we “have” those wounds, or whether we “are” them.
Instead of opting for the simple and tempting work of reassuring ourselves and those around us that we aren’t fat, let’s look at the root cause: how we think of, and treat, people who are fat. It’s time to do better by ourselves and the fat people we love by not simply distancing ourselves from anti-fat bias, but by dismantling it. Here are some places to start.