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Dear Virgie: Should We Stop Using the Words “Thin” & “Fat?”
Do you think we should stop using words like “thin” and “fat,” since they draw attention to size differences and only increase the divide between people?
This is a complex question. On the one hand, I totally see where you are coming from. I mean, we know that “thin” and “fat” are socially constructed categories that mean nothing outside of a specific cultural story.
We have been taught in our culture to think that thinness is synonymous with discipline, morality, beauty, fitness, wellness, success and all-around superiority. There is nothing inherent about these beliefs.
We have been taught in our culture to think that fatness is synonymous with a lack of restraint, immorality, asexuality or hyper-sexuality, ill health, failure and all-around inferiority. There is nothing inherent about these bigoted beliefs.
I think what makes this question complicated is the fact that it would be very difficult to simply eradicate language and expect that to fix a greater social problem. Social problems — like size-based bigotry — are the products of ideologies. It’s true that ideologies can only exist and are articulated through language, but at the same time, ideologies can stay intact even when language shifts.
For example, there has been considerable effort undertaken by both white liberals and neo-conservatives to obscure racist ideology. One of the major ways that this obscuring has happened is through the manipulation of language — including, in large part, getting rid of more obvious racist language. That language has been replaced with coded language. An excellent example of this is the phrase often invoked by neo-conservatives: “America for Americans.”
There is nothing inherently racist about any of the words that make up this phrase, but when we dig deeper and take into account the politics of the people who are saying it, we realize that it is embedded with white supremacist meaning. “America for Americans” uses seemingly neutral language to articulate a desire for a white nation where people of color know their place and immigrants are not welcome.
What ends up happening sometimes when we decide to do away with language is that we (perhaps inadvertently) take away the marginalized group’s ability to articulate injustice, rather than eradicating the injustice itself. This unfairly favors the dominant group, which can point to, for example, “size-blind language” as a sign that there is no unfairness happening, even if people in the marginalized group say there is.
I think also for at least some fat people, we create meaning through the language of size. I don’t wish to do away with the intimacy and community-building that comes from naming my body. Fatphobia aside, my body is different from thin people’s bodies, and I want to have access to articulating that.
I definitely yearn for a world where we are all granted full humanity, but I don’t think that getting rid of language like “thin” and “fat” is where we start. I think we start with recognizing that every person, regardless of size, deserves a life free from bigotry and discrimination. If we get to a point where fat people are not stigmatized and fat people feel that the language is outmoded, then changes in the language will likely organically happen.
I hope this helps!
Virgie Tovar is an author, activist and one of the nation’s leading experts and lecturers on fat discrimination and body image. She is the founder of Babecamp, a 4-week online course designed to help women who are ready to break up with diet culture, and started the hashtag campaign #LoseHateNotWeight.