08 December 2011

Fat activists and language - what do you call it?

My friend sizeoftheocean posted on Twitter the other day that she really dislikes the term 'fattist'. I also dislike this term and hoped that she, being very smart, would be able to shed light on my own ire. She said that it has a defensive tone to it and is used by people who are not otherwise into fat stuff. I agree. My own dislike also extends to its linguistic construction – yes, my snobbery knows no bounds – sexist, racist, classist, disablist, heterosexist, fattist, right? You'd think it would work because it's consistent an allies fat with other kinds of identities. But I still can't get on board with it when I have 'fat hatred,' 'fatphobia,' 'fat oppression' as means of naming the same sort of thing, concepts that are rooted in histories and cultures of fat activism, rather than something that seems tacked-on. I feel similarly about 'looksist,' which to me seems too shallow a way of describing the systemic marginalisation of people who represent difference; it's not just about the act of looking or one's 'looks'.

I've been thinking about other terms that people use to describe what I think of as 'fat stuff,' or simply 'the movement,' or even just 'fat.' 'Size acceptance' and 'fat acceptance' are popular, though they are not for me because I find them too limited; I think self-acceptance is fine, but social acceptance is not enough for me, I'm more invested in social change. I want to change things more than I want to be accepted, in fact I realise that acceptance is not something that motivates me very much at all. 'Size' or 'weight' are too euphemistic for me. I tend to use 'fat activism,' sometimes 'fat politics,' occasionally the more restrictive 'fat rights,' but often feel that I could do with more language here.

As I've been researching, I've noticed a few references to 'fat pride.' Like fattist, these tend to be made pejoratively by people who feel burned by the movement in some way, and/or by people who would be less likely to understand the association between fat pride and queer or LGBT pride movements. Here pride is a slur, fat people shouldn't be proud because it connotes arrogance, the valuing of one type over another, smugness. In this context the ultimate goal is for fat to be stripped of any value, good or bad, just let it be what it is. I agree with this to some extent, but I also think that even if there were no negative connotations to fatness, I would probably seek out some kind of pride in myself, a pride that is associated with self-respect, pleasure, confidence, feeling as though you have value. As it is, fat pride is a useful concept in the current climate, which looks unlikely to change very much any time soon, and where there are many daily attempts to stomp these feelings out of fat people.

Again, 'the fat and proud movement,' or 'the fat pride movement' are not terms that I would use these days, perhaps I have become sensitised because of these attacks. I'll never forget an interview in which Shelley Bovey talks about "the fat and proud brigade", and compares the movement to fascists. I've wondered if this is a reference to me because of the title of my first book, in which I expressed misgivings about some of her work. Brigade is an interesting addition, it implies some kind of officious, blundering Dad's Army set-up; a group of pompous buffoons. Whilst there are many pompous buffoons in fat activism, including me, not to mention other extremely annoying people, this description doesn't really fit the diversity of the movement, it is a barbed caricature.

We could probably talk about preferred terms for how people think about fat until we are blue in the face. I agree that language creates meaning and that there is a lot of language in the world that denigrates fat embodiment, there are many terms I dislike. But policing language is problematic because the contexts in which words are used vary so greatly, being forceful around good and bad words is unacceptable, it's too close to censorship. Some words work for some people and not for others, where I feel uncomfortable about language I try and look for the intention rather than blame the form of the words; often people are just a little ignorant about fat and language. What I want is more words rather than fewer, I think the more fat language there is, the easier it becomes to think and talk about fat.

Are there any linguists in the area? Can you illuminate any of this?

References

Brooks, L. (2002) 'Size Matters' [Online]. Available: http://www.shelleybovey.com/frameset.html?/sizematters.html [Accessed 9 March 2010].

Cooper, C. (1998) Fat & Proud: The Politics of Size, London: The Women's Press.

7 comments:

Sleepydumpling said...

I am so glad you (and sizeoftheocean) brought this topic up. I've been hearing the word "fattist" bandied around a bit of late, and it just never sits right with me. Mostly because I never hear any actual fat people using it. I've only heard it used on dodgy current affairs programmes and morning television shows when they're REALLY talking about fat stigma or fat hatred/loathing, but want to dumb it down.

Personally, I used to use the term fat acceptance but more and more I feel I've outgrown that one. These days, I prefer to identify as a fat activist or refer to myself engaging in fat activism.

I get why people use fat liberation or fat pride, but those terms just don't seem to fit me at all.

It would be interesting to hear from some linguists indeed.

K x said...

I've been active on pages, boards and forums expressing my anger or enlightenment (depending on the crowd) about fat people needing to be treated with respect and dignity just like any other human. You've no doubt noticed the same arguments and insults being put forward all the time. Even though many people are not interested in information regarding fat and health, I've got my arsenal of informative links and blog articles with which to back up my argument.

I've used the word 'fattist' once after it was used by the panel of a popular current affairs show here. It felt odd - and tired - as if I was cynical myself about another "ist" joining the list of injustices and thereby diminishing its impact and absorption into the mindless masses. I've been calling my opponents "bigots" - sometimes "fat bigots", but the word on its own packs enough verbal punch. Defensive? Probably. If it conveys the disgust I feel, then so be it. I've used the term "Fat Acceptance", capitalised for effect :) However, I'm now calling it "Fat Perception". As a mature age design student, one thing I know is that the best designs are simple.

I worked for a government department that delivered services to intellectually disabled people. Initially it was called the Mental Retardation Division. I worked for a team of policy psychologists that worked towards "normalisation" and the process of engineering social change was fascinating. In hindsight, the process was rather seamless. How to apply some of the principles to a worldwide saturation of negative media / advertising / social attitudes saying "fat is unhealthy and unattractive" is making my head explode (along with my temper at times).

I feel like I'm pushing shit uphill and getting splattered in the process. But I won't give up the fight. I love words but I'm no linguist, I articulate my opposition to fat bigotry and discrimination as best as I can and whenever I can. Yet to market the idea of size/looks acceptance into the media, retailers, fashion designers, advertisers and any other bigoted group - especially when they rely on people loathing themselves - is a tricky thing. They are not likely at this stage to change their attitude and message, so its up to people who object to their negativity to speak up loudly. Whatever terminology they want to use is fine with me but equipping them with a catchy phrase, or a collective term for like minded people could fine tune the focus.

When writing to major clothing retailers, RL or online, I use the subject line "Clothing for Above Average Women". I know that's exclusionist (another ist!) and can be perceived as derogatory towards women of average or below average size, but it's my bit of fat pride.

Marilyn Wann said...

I say "fat pride." I call it fat pride community even when most people in the community call it "fat acceptance" or worse, "size acceptance." I agree that "acceptance" is not what I seek and also risks sounding like putting up with a quality one still wishes to change (which I don't!).

I also talk about celebrating weight diversity and promoting Health At Every Size®. I like these terms because they include people of all sizes. Obviously, people of all sizes can suffer intensely from weight-based prejudice, discrimination, and oppression.

I appreciate the possibility you describe, of pride being viewed (and the term used) derisively. For me, that's even more reason to use that word. Anyone who pulls a Shelley Bovey will just be outing themselves as a bigot proving how needed fat pride is. I feel inspired by lgbt use of "pride" and hope using it about fat identity works in solidarity with all forms of anti-oppression.

It's not my intention to tell other people what words to use. All the same, I am happy being public with my word choices (and my reasons for making them).

K x said...

I've used the word 'fattist' once after it was used by the panel of a popular current affairs show here. It felt odd - and tired - as if I was cynical myself about another "ist" joining the list of injustices and thereby diminishing its impact and absorption into the mindless masses. I've been calling my opponents "bigots" - sometimes "fat bigots", but the word on its own packs enough verbal punch. Defensive? Probably. If it conveys the disgust I feel, then so be it. I've used the term "Fat Acceptance", capitalised for effect :) However, I'm now calling it "Fat Perception". As a mature age design student, one thing I know is that the best designs are simple.

I worked for a government department that delivered services to intellectually disabled people. Initially it was called the Mental Retardation Division. I worked for a team of policy psychologists that worked towards "normalisation" and the process of engineering social change was fascinating. In hindsight, the process was rather seamless. How to apply some of the principles to a worldwide saturation of negative media / advertising / social attitudes saying "fat is unhealthy and unattractive" is making my head explode (along with my temper at times).

I feel like I'm pushing shit uphill and getting splattered in the process. But I won't give up the fight. I love words but I'm no linguist, I articulate my opposition to fat bigotry and discrimination as best as I can and whenever I can. Yet to market the idea of size/looks acceptance into the media, retailers, fashion designers, advertisers and any other bigoted group - especially when they rely on people loathing themselves - is a tricky thing. They are not likely at this stage to change their attitude and message, so its up to people who object to their negativity to speak up loudly. Whatever terminology they want to use is fine with me but equipping them with a catchy phrase, or a collective term for like minded people could fine tune the focus.

When writing to major clothing retailers, RL or online, I use the subject line "Clothing for Above Average Women". I know that's exclusionist (another ist!) and can be perceived as derogatory towards women of average or below average size, but it's my bit of fat pride.

K x said...

Hello. I'm curious as to why you didn't publish my comment. It's the first time I'd seen your blog and I do admit I was trying to cram a lot in. Regards, Kitt

Charlotte Cooper said...

Whoops, sorry K and thanks for the prod, I've been very busy this week and didn't notice that there were comments cued up for publishing. Your comments are all there now, thanks for contributing your thoughts.

It's a pain having to moderate comments here, but I get quite a bit of diet spam. Apologies.

K x said...

Thanks so much for taking the time to publish my comment - even though I posted it twice in error - der!