This past weekend, I had the great pleasure of sitting on a panel about body image, specifically about how women see themselves and how men and women contribute to our toxic beauty culture.
On the panel, I addressed an issue that has always bothered me: the way we say or use the word "fat" around others.
As a society, the word "fat" is one of the last few acceptable slurs we can use in public. Rarely do we flinch or say anything when we hear somebody comment, with intentional negativity, on another person as "fat." And we don't think twice about making a comment about our own bodies in front of others. I often hear people making statements with an angry inflection like, "My ass is fat," or "I feel fat."
My friend Lisa (all names and identifying details have been changed) is the mother of two teenage daughters, both of whom have been grappling with body image issues for some time. She has been an incredibly supportive mother, doing her best to love her children and to help them see their bodies in a healthier way. But the other day, as she was making dinner in the kitchen, she told me -- in front of her kids -- how her "ass is fat" and how she can no longer fit into her jeans.
Later on, I asked her why she would speak negatively about herself in front of anyone, especially her kids, who she knows are grappling with major body image issues and as a result, have developed unhealthy and extreme eating and exercise habits. She looked at my confused face and said "I wasn't saying their asses are fat, I was saying my ass is fat."
Lisa didn't notice how making comments about her own body in front of daughters who are currently dealing with body image issues could exacerbate their struggle.
But our tendency to throw the word "fat" around is not just about the potential of affecting people we know who have been dealing with a body image issue. As I pointed out in my post last week, "Think Twice Before Praising Someone For Losing Weight," we will never (and I mean never) truly know how someone is dealing with body image on a mental and emotional level. It doesn't matter if someone has the "perfect" body or whether they're skinny or plus-sized; most of the authentic feelings we have about our bodies are trapped inside our head and not shared with others.
So even if we are talking about someone being "fat" in front of someone who has a "perfect" body, we won't fully understand how our "fat" comments can secretly impact their body image. When someone who is plus-sized hears you say the word "fat," what else are they expected to think except that you are including them in the insult? When it comes to someone who is not plus-sized but grappling with poor body image or an eating disorder, when you, someone this person probably respects and trust, hurls the word "fat" in front of them -- this move could very well make them feel terrible about themselves... even if it's not about or directed at them.
When I asked my friend Melanie about this issue related to the word "fat," she brought up something I have repeatedly heard: people who are skinny or "fit" using the "fat" word as a slur in front of friends, family members and colleagues who are not as skinny or "fit." Melanie, who is plus-sized, deals with this scenario all the time.
One of her girlfriends will often use the word as an insult weapon against men and women: "He's so fat, gross," or "Wow, did you see how fat she's getting," or "Ugh, I didn't work out this week, I feel fat."
Melanie wondered, "Does she not see that I'm sitting there? That I am clearly a plus-sized woman, usually bigger than the people she's talking about. Doesn't she think it hurts my feelings? How could I not think that she feels the same way about me? Hello?!"
When Melanie confronted this friend about her tendency to use "fat" as an insult, her friend responded, "Oh I don't think of you that way, you know I love you."
Yeah, but that doesn't make things better... not at all.
These issues over the word "fat" that both Melanie and Lisa deal with come down to one dysfunctional perception: When we use this word with a negative connotation, we think it's compartmentalized, that the negativity only applies to the person we are insulting, rather than the person we are making the comment in front of -- that Melanie won't be affected when her friend is insulting another "fat" person. That's foolish.
I am going to be extremely careful in how I make this point because I don't want to compare body to race. However, would most of us never even think to comment about our skin tone or the skin tone of someone else in a negative way.
Imagine saying to someone else (specifically a person of color), "He's so black, gross," or "I got too tan this weekend at the beach, my skin is too dark... nasty."
Again, I want to avoid the direct comparison between body and race, but I think that is an interesting comparison to think about and consider.
This isn't just about the use of the word fat, but it's also about our tone when we do use it. As a society, when we say the word "fat," we tend to say it with a forceful, angry inflection -- whether we're saying it about ourselves or someone else.
I am not suggesting that we should avoid talking about how we feel about our bodies with our loved ones -- not at all. In fact, we should always encourage thoughtful conversation about body image as well as physical and mental health.
This exploration into the word "fat" is not just about being thoughtful and considerate in terms of how others may take our use of the word, but it's also about thinking carefully about how the word "fat" is wrapped up in all these problematic and negative connotations and who ultimately gets affected when we use it as an insult or even as a descriptor.
Because the word "fat" doesn't just impact the person we are trying insult or the person standing within earshot, the word "fat" also affects the person saying it.
And that doesn't feel so good... does it?
This column originally appeared on The Current Conscience.