The Soapbox: On Jessica Simpson, Fat-Shaming & Reclaiming The Word “Fat”

Fat-shaming. Maybe it’s happened to you, or maybe you’ve perpetrated it against someone else. Fat-shaming is making people feel uncomfortable, wrong or bad for being overweight or obese. Some fat-shamers will tell you that they’re doing it as a means of encouraging the overweight person to lose weight, but most, oh, sane people will argue that fat-shaming does little in the way of motivation, and actually harms.

There are more subtle aspects to fat-shaming, like as Lesley Kinzel over at xoJane points out — the idea that if you’re fat, random strangers have the right to advise you and comment on every aspect of your life, because hey, you’re fat, what do you know?

Fat-shaming is effed up because it presupposes that there is more value in being thin than fat. That fat people are somehow not living their best lives — or could be so much better if they just lost some weight. And therefore if you call someone — or yourself — fat, you must be insulting them.

But here’s an idea: Fat — just like any other word — is only as powerful as the meaning we give it. And imbuing the word with a negative connotation, rather than as a neutral descriptor of someone’s physical stature, is an easy way for women to cut each other down. 

As fat activist and blogger Marianne Kirby writes (BTW, her bio says, “Hi I’m Marianne Kirby. I’m fat!”):

As long as women are taught to obsess over their bodies, the perceived flaws of their bodies, and why their bodies cannot possibly be pleasing to men if they are fat then women will not be spending their time obsessing over making truly significant strides forward when it comes to social issues, work issues, and the like. As long as women are taught to value their bodies only insomuch as their are pleasing to men, the self-worth of women will be dictated by men’s evaluations of those bodies. And you and I both know that is a bullshit way to live.

Sooooo not to be all “it’s all the work of the patriarchy and a conspiracy to keep women down,” but if the crap hegemonic power fits, well…

And that was why yesterday, when I posted on my Facebook wall that I “just won $10 bet because I knew that Jess Simpson wasn’t having some kind of extremely large baby — she was just mega fat,” I didn’t expect to be called out for fat-shaming. One of my Facebook friends accused me sarcastically of “cool pregnancy body shaming!” which was surprising. I’d only meant to post about the lighthearted bet between Amelia and I over the weight of Jess Simpson’s baby — would the kid be born over or under 10 pounds? But when my friend read the post as fat-shaming, I thought, Is that about what I said, or about how she read it?

To me, the construct of fat-shaming is similar to slut-shaming, in that it again tries to mandate what a woman does with her body and how she should feel about it. And just like the term slut did (with the creation of the slut walk), fat loses its negative connotation the more we as women choose to reclaim it, own it and determine its use for ourselves. As I noted to my Facebook friend, “Calling someone fat is only body shaming when you think being fat is shameful. Which I don’t.” Or, as feminist fat activist Kate Harding notes:

It’s important to me to reclaim the word “fat.” It’s not a bad word. It’s not intrinsically insulting. All it tells you is that this person has more visible fat on her frame than a thin person does — and since in my case, that’s the plain truth, I don’t have any problem with being described that way. I have a problem with people who would describe me that way with the intention to wound, but not with the word itself.

That’s exactly what many fat activists are doing in reclaiming the word — trying to forge a new association with the term in order to say it’s no longer going to be used as a weapon. (And by the way, let’s just remind ourselves that the construct of “fat” being negative is a particularly white middle-class ideology and that many, many other cultures espouse a generally much more positive view of fatness.)

But back to Jessica Simpson. As a woman whose body has been publicly fat-shamed before (because fat-shaming can happen to women of every shape and size) it was refreshing to see Jessica Simpson really own her pregnant body. If there’s one thing that’s remained true, it’s that women in the spotlight are heedlessly subjected to body-shaming. Celebrity culture is obsessed not only with pregnancy bumps but with how women will handle their pregnancy weight gain (and just how many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches a pregnant woman should eat). Simpson seemed to actually enjoying her pregnant body — maybe because pregnancy is the one time during a celebrity woman’s life when body-snarking and fat-shaming are off limits. Then again, I could be projecting — it’s said that she’s already signed a $3 million deal with Weight Watchers to lose her pregnancy pounds.