Marianne explains the basic etiquette of talking to your fat friends about their bodies and their health.
Editor’s note: While this article is primarily about a female perspective, it applies equally well to men and men’s issues. Body shame and body image insecurity are stereotyped as women’s problems, but as I know all too well,men suffer from them too, and can benefit from the advice in this article. —Noah Brand
I think it’s pretty well established at this point that I, like many other people in America and around the world, am fat. There’s nothing really special about being fat, of course — so many of us are, to varying degrees. But there’s something about fatness as perceived by American (and many other) cultures — it’s like my big fat body just invites people to make (often rude) comments.
But you, you are not an asshole. I know this because you have told me so. And because you are not an asshole, I feel like I can say these things to you, in the hopes that you will think about them the next time you hang out with a friend who might be fat — or even the next time you interact with a fat person that you don’t know.
You don’t want to be like that friend of mine who went on and on, drunkenly, about how gross it probably would be to have sex with President Taft without realizing that I weigh more than he did when he was President. Right? Right.
I also want to note — most of this stuff doesn’t apply only to thin people with fat friends. Fat people are culturally encouraged to police themselves and other fat people with a quickness. Nor is this an exhaustive list; people are always thinking of new and creative ways to be dicks to other people, after all. As this unintentional series of articles demonstrates, right? (I had no idea people were dicks to people at the vet because it’s the VET!)
1. Please Don’t Tell Me I’m Not Fat.
Listen. I’ve seen myself. In fact, I’ve seen myself naked! In addition, I’ve been to the doctor and been informed in no uncertain, very serious terms that I am fat. So it’s not like my fatness is a surprise.
When I say that I cannot wear something (like the size 14 shirts at Banana Republic, for example), I am not offering commentary on my body or passing value judgment on myself. I’m just saying, hey, the Gap cannot contain the ampleness of my bottom.
So please, y’all. Don’t tell me I’m not fat.
I think what’s going on here is that the person saying, “Oh, you aren’t fat!” is reacting to the negative social messaging about fatness that we’re all soaking in. When a friend says, “Oh, you aren’t fat!” often what they are really saying is, “Oh, you aren’t smelly or lazy or unhealthy (even though there is no way you can know that by looking at a person) or any of those other BAD THINGS that are associated with fat!”
Yes, that would be a mouthful to actually say. And it would not be without its own problems, because it depends on a lot of assumptions about fat people. But I do recognize, my friends, that the intent is good.
Unfortunately, intent is not the end-all, be-all of communication. And when you say I’m not fat, what I really get out of that is a confusing welter of “Does she really have no idea what size my body is?” and “Is she just trying to make me say that I am fatter than her?”
From an identity politics perspective, there’s also the chance that by telling me I am not fat you are denying me part of my lived and experienced identity. You’re essentially calling a fat person a liar about their own body. That’s never cool.
Special note to other big fat fatties: This is also not cool to say to your smaller fat friends. See above, re: identity politics. “Fat” is harder to define when it’s those liminal 12-16 sizes but come on. Let’s not be dicks either.
2. Please Don’t Assume I Hate My Body.
There’s this bonding thing that a lot of women (especially women but I have heard men do it as well) do, often over dinner or some other food-eating event. One woman will start by saying something like, “Oh, well, if I had your arms, I could wear sleeveless.” It’s a compliment, right?
Sort of. It’s a compliment based in a self-denigrating statement. It plays into that thing where women are supposed to compete with each other. And it always makes me feel bad because my awesomeness shouldn’t depend on someone else not being awesome.
Almost inevitably, other women chime in with things they dislike about their own bodies. Then it feels like an evening spent rolling around in self-loathing and if I wanted to do that, I’d go to a Coldplay show or something. (I kid, I kid. Mostly.)
The funny thing is that this is meant to make other people feel better about their bodies but can have the opposite effect. If our bodies are similar, for example, and you’re telling me how gross your thighs are, that’s going to make me wonder a) why I’ve been sitting there content with my thighs when they are obviously so flawed and b) what you think about my thighs that you haven’t been telling me.
You probably haven’t had any thoughts about my thighs; we’re our own worst critics and the things I would pick at about myself are things I wouldn’t even SEE on another person. Even so, body image is not strictly tied to logic.
RELATED: This also means that you shouldn’t assume I am on a diet. Or, for that matter, that I have a preference for any particular food item, like doughnuts.
3. Please Don’t Make Fat Discussion About How Hard It Is For Thin People.
I’ve been doing this fat acceptance thing for a number of years now and one thing that caught me by surprise was how many thin women found comfort in fat acceptance as well. I haven’t been thin since I was 7 years old, so it was one of those, ooooooooh, yeah, that actually makes sense moments as soon as I thought about it.
And I totally empathize with thin women on a lot of things. Because, simply by virtue of being women, our bodies seem open to public scrutiny and commentary at all times and in all ways. It’s pretty freaking gross. But that doesn’t mean that our experiences are the same, especially when it comes to clothes.
Ready to wear has kind of screwed everyone, regardless of size. Clothes that are off the rack probably fit the fit model they were designed to fit but everyone else is likely to have some issues. This is why a lot of people have experienced the “I wear a size x at this store but a size y at this store” phenomenon.
Even clothes that are the same size can have totally different proportions — like the width of the shoulders and the size of the bust or the waist-to-hip ratio.
I’m reasonably sure that kind of thing is frustrating for folks trying on clothes regardless of size.
But, well. Clothes in my size would have to exist for me to try on in the first place for me to experience that.
Again, I think this generally comes from a really positive place — you want your friend to know that you understand how hard it is for them. Except, really, you are demonstrating that you don’t understand. Because there is a profound difference in the experience. I have issues with capitalism as a system but when I’m at the mall, it is incredibly alienating to know that, as far as clothing retailers are concerned, my money doesn’t even exist.
Let your fat friend feel their feelings of hurt and anger, please. They will totally let you feel your feelings a little bit later!
Special note to other big fat fatties: Yes, you have to let them feel their feelings, too. Even your in-between sized friends who, in theory, have twice the options. Remember, they might actually be extra screwed because “women’s” sizing doesn’t fit them at fat stores and juniors doesn’t cut it at straight-sized stores. That’s a harsh burn right there.
Special note to in-between sized people: Please do remember that there are actually different experiences to be found across the size spectrum. A size 16 experiences things that a size 26 will not — but the same is true in reverse. A size 36 has yet another unique set of challenges ahead. And so on.
4. Please Don’t Concern Troll Me.
I am your friend and you care about me — I am so very grateful for that care and affection! I love you, too. And that means I might actually be willing to talk about my health with you. But let’s try to make things about my actual health, if you have an actual concern, instead of my weight.
This means some pretty basic stuff like not asking me if I “really need” that slice of cake. Because friends don’t do that to friends. It means trusting that fat people actually are capable of taking care of themselves. And it also means maybe taking a moment and unpacking what it is that you are really afraid of when you look at my girth, sprawled across the window seat like I am waiting to be painted like the proverbial French girl.
That got away from me a little bit.
If you ask me about my cholesterol, I will totally tell you, my friend! But then I need you to believe me, OK? And if I were dealing with high cholesterol and you said, “Hey, I hear that walking for half an hour a day can help with that, let’s go to the park!” then I would totally be on the trail with you because walking at the park for half an hour with a friend sounds awesome.
5. Please Don’t Tell Me How Fat You Are.
It’s true, things like “fatness” and “bigness” are relative. But if you weigh literally less than half what I do, well. Look at our relative sizes. Maaaaaaybe I am not the best person to complain to about how loathsome and huge you are.
Honestly, if you’re my friend, I don’t want anyone to talk about you like that anyway, including you.
But almost inevitably someone says something like, “Oh, my love handles are repulsive.” And then they pause. And then they follow it up with, “But I don’t mean yours. My body is different from yours.”
While I appreciate that you make the distinction — and, I mean, yeah, this is another big case of that thing where we judge ourselves harshly — it sets off this chain reaction where I end up feeling like a bridge troll. A goat-eating bridge troll who gets a bad rap in fairy tales when it’s the goats that keep tripping across my bridge in the first place.
Honestly, I think this is largely a problem with our cultural discourse. When my thin friends say they feel fat, they sometimes mean they feel a little larger than they did previously — but they often mean they feel bloated and disgusting. Because that is the connotative meaning for “fat” right now. The only way to change that — because my body isn’t going to suddenly not be fat — is to stop using it to mean that.
Special note to all of us: Friends are the ones who get to hear all of the insecurities and fears, usually. But this is one place where we could all stand to be mindful that none of us live in a vacuum — your friend (or that stranger on the subway), regardless of size, is probably getting lots of messages about their body, especially if they are people of color or visibly disabled or wearing “funny” clothes or lots of other things all at the same time. There is no ONE universal experience because we’re all different people in different situations. If we can remember that, maybe we can all be a little less of a dick in ANY situation.
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