For many women sizes 14 and up, the word “fat” comes with a lot of baggage. Whether it’s because of childhood teasing or discrimination in adulthood, the objective term has been charged with negativity and judgment for decades. Some women in the body-positive movement are changing the narrative to destigmatize “fat,” both literally and figuratively. Writer Marie Southard Ospina is one of those women. Keep scrolling to find out why.
One of my earliest memories of being called “fat” is from the first grade. A pee-wee football player—husky like myself, but protected from bullying due to his popularity—shoved me out of the way. “You’re so fat,” the 6-year-old screamed, making his way out of the classroom door to catch the school bus. I was less surprised by the insult itself than by the tone in which he delivered it. There was hate in his voice. Disgust. A type of negativity I wasn’t all that familiar with yet, but that I inevitably would be as I got older, fatter, and harassed for it more frequently.
Once you are made aware of your body—of the space it occupies and the shame you are meant to feel over your mass—the word “fat” becomes pervasive. It is quite literally everywhere. You may hear it when your mom analyzes her body in the mirror. “I can’t wear this. I look so fat.” Or when your elementary-school nurse introduces you to the concept of BMI and says that if you don’t lose weight, you will die.
You’ll see it in advertisements for diet supplements and aerobics class memberships. It floats in bubble letters atop the “before” photo of a “before and after” transformation composite. You’ll hear the fear in people’s words as they discuss feeling fat, being fat, becoming fat. Not just the ones in your real life, but those in films, in shows, in books. You will learn all about the (often toxic) depths folks will go to in order to avoid looking like you. You may even dive into them yourself. You don’t want to look like you, either.
Growing up, I certainly didn’t want to look like me—and, more than that, I didn’t really want to live until I didn’t look like me. I didn’t believe I could. The experiences those around me were having—like boyfriends, girlfriends, travels, first jobs, cute clothes, beach trips, sex, joyfulness—were not ones I allowed myself to participate in. I used to blame my body for that—as if the fat itself was holding me down. In reality, though, it was me. It was the internalized notion that fat people don’t deserve anything good, that our bodies do not allow for it anyway, and that we shouldn’t even try.
For over two decades, I never once saw the word “fat” used neutrally, let alone positively. I never heard a single fat person say they genuinely liked their body. I never heard people of any gender express attraction to fat partners. I never saw brands or designers speak proudly about catering to fat consumers. I never met a doctor who would treat my symptoms, any symptoms, without first blaming my body. I never knew living a life outside of weight-loss aspirations—a life in which you do not relegate yourself to the tragic before-picture status—was possible.
Until it was. The possibility of a different kind of life happened slowly. It’s still happening now. It happened a little the first time I landed on a plus-size fashion blog in 2012. It happened again when that led me to the discovery of fat-positive advocacy. It happened the first time I saw a photo of a fat babe in a bikini, smiling effortlessly at a public beach. It happened when I started reading about traveling while fat—about shamelessly asking for a seat belt extender if you need a seat belt extender. It happened as I saw images of fat people in love. It happened as I fell in love with someone who valued me, all of me, and never once felt the need to make an excuse for my body. Who never once avoided touching any part of it. It happened as I gave myself permission to look at my figure—to acknowledge the nuances of my fatness rather than avoiding my reflection in the mirror. It happened as I began choosing clothes that brought me joy—not clothes meant to hide everything my body is.
Re-framing the meaning of the word “fat” in one’s life is not easy. There’s no magic button. There is probably no solitary experience that needs to happen, no one blog post or self-love book that needs to be read, or ensemble that needs to be worn. It’s a long process and an emotional one, too. One in which you will need to unpack this word’s impact on your life. You may begin to realize all that you have missed out on because you allowed the word to hold you back. To diminish your joy. To inhibit you from saying “yes” to so many things you wanted or needed. Maybe you let people treat you like crap because of it. You didn’t think you deserved any better. Maybe you treated yourself like crap. Maybe you were actually doing pretty okay, for the most part, so long as you didn’t think about your body, or look at it, or acknowledge it at all.
This kind of unpacking is hard, indeed, but it is so terribly worthwhile. It may start with thinking of the word “fat” as a neutral descriptor. A word that is not unlike “thin” or “brunette” or “blue-eyed” or “muscular” or “broad” in its simplicity. Eventually, it may be more than just neutral. It may even become positive: a trait that you respect, that you see beauty in, that you feel good about, that emboldens you or connects you to other people or makes you feel like yourself.
And when that happens, everything can change. It definitely did for me. As soon as “fat” stopped being an insult, it became my armor. It became a simple truth of my reality—and then something I genuinely appreciated and enjoyed. The aspiration of looking like someone else—someone smaller—melted away, and as a result, I finally started living my life. I began opening myself up to meaningful friendships, to romantic experiences, to fashion, to adventures both big and small, to work opportunities, to the kind of person I might have always been if I had showed myself more kindness, and expected kindness from those around me.
Now, as a mother to two little girls, I have no doubt that it’s making me a better parent as well. My daughters will never hear me belittle my body. Within the walls of our home, they will never hear the word “fat” used negatively. They will never see me picking apart my supposed flaws in a mirror, only to mimic this behavior as they get older. I may not be able to change the rest of the world, or influence their experiences when they begin school, but I can change the way we run our household. I can make the home better, safer, and more inclusively minded than it has been for so many of us, at least in this respect.
It’s important to remember that re-framing the F-word for yourself won’t mean that, suddenly, people stop trying to use it against you. I am no less bullied for my body today than I was at 6 or 16 years old. Granted, there’s less playground heckling (and fewer pee-wee football players) and more online trolling or curbside commentary.
What has changed is very often my reaction to these experiences. What used to have the power to send me home in tears, further berating my body and wishing so deeply that I could disappear, no longer does. Instead, I can see the flaws in the people saying such things, and in the cultural systems that make them believe they are justified in their fatphobia. Even in the moments when it gets to me—when I feel sad, which is okay—I am more equipped than ever to move on quickly.
I remember, all at once, that I am so much more than a body. But, perhaps more importantly still, that my body is never something I need to apologize for.