I’m not ‘having a fat day’ (and neither are you)

I grabbed the wrong t-shirt today, and realised only about half an hour later that I was wearing one that makes me look very oddly shaped and quite unlike my actual figure. Bugger, I thought, I look ridiculously fat today. And then I caught myself.

It’s been a few years since I tried to cut fat out of my vocabulary as a critical descriptor of my figure. I’m not fat, and I don’t think fat is a bad thing to be. I’m being neither accurate nor appropriate. It’s still a really difficult habit to shake, which probably shows exactly how engrained it is into women’s mindsets that the default response to unhappiness in self-image is ‘I look fat’.

It seems like a lot of us don’t really look into that thought process. If you extrapolate from that phrase you get: I don’t like how I look -> I look fat -> fat is something to dislike -> fat people don’t look good. Except… that’s not true. Fat people can look good or bad, as much as thin people can. The word ‘fat’ is not a synonym for the word ‘ugly’. That is – or should be – common sense.

Okay, the media don’t think it is. The advertisers don’t think it is. The Daily Mail would get this far in this post (should they be very bored at work) and split their sides laughing. I’d like to think most of us are smarter than that. It is hard, though, to hold up a properly feminist and equality-driven set of beliefs on body image when you’re bombarded from all sides by: Get a beach body! Snack packs of biscuits, 100 calories! Figure-enhancing and very uncomfortable tights!

What will you gain when you lose? asks a cereal company. Bad restrictive food behaviours and an inroad to obsession over my intake, say I (but that’s another story.)

There are pat answers thrown around – have a body; put a bikini on it – but they’re a patch, not a cure. Ridding yourself of the pattern of thought behind ‘fat = to be avoided’ requires an understanding of the root of that pattern. Isn’t it odd how women get so much more pressure than men to ‘look after’ our bodies? A feminist angle on that question puts the matter among the societal limits put on women. We are to be dainty, petite, restrained people, and we are to be neither seen nor heard, for the most part. Being fat – being anything above waiflike, to be honest – means that we take up space in the world. It means that we have to confront the fact that our bodies don’t equal the idealised image constructed for us. Being a woman who’s proud of her muscular physique, or loves how her curves look in a dress, or doesn’t give a damn that she’s wearing something unflattering for comfort’s sake, is a challenge to that ideal. It’s a statement we make by our mere presence.

And it’s intimidating, don’t get me wrong. Piloting a non-airbrushed female body around means you’re open to uncouth remarks from (mostly) men, and unpleasant comparisons between yourself and the images in the media. How are you meant to feel okay in yourself when someone who’s six feet tall and a size eight looks so much more sleek than you do in a dress? How is a six feet tall, size eight, woman meant to feel when she’s told that wearing heels makes her look ridiculous? It doesn’t matter what you look like – eventually someone, somewhere, is going to say something that makes you feel like Gregor Samsa, post-cockroaching.

Here’s where ‘having a fat day’ comes in – when you have that thought, you’re expressing something internalised from your experiences in society. You’re not actually after becoming twice your size, nor have you instantly added several inches of saddlebags from eating a plate of chips. You feel like something is off about your appearance, and the way you process that is: I feel fat. You’re saying that you feel misshapen, or wrong, or uncomfortable, but the narrative that we’ve internalised translates that vague feeling of off-ness into a conviction that you’re too big, you’re taking up too much space, and you’re straying farther than you should be away from the ideal.

Well, ladies, that’s some bullshit we put up with, right there.

It’s bullshit from both angles. It’s demeaning and embarrassing to people who are fat and are living comfortably, or learning to live comfortably, in their bodies. It’s too simplistic an answer for those of us who feel a dysmorphic discomfort in ourselves – because if we just blame fat, we can avoid the disagreeable procedure of figuring out what’s actually going on in our heads.

Saying ‘I don’t feel right. I don’t know why. I think I look bad, but I can’t tell where. I don’t like my body.’ is difficult but honest. Saying ‘I feel fat’ is careless, insulting, and unproductive – and getting that phrase out of your vocabulary is the first step toward teaching yourself to understand what emotions are leading you to use it. It’s a hard habit to break, but I really feel it’s worth it – even (especially, really) if you just do it to be one less person making women feel bad about themselves.

We’ve got a long way to go when it comes to reclaiming our relationship with our bodies. Thinking about that might make you uncomfortable. It’s okay.

But you’re not ‘having a fat day’. Trust me on that.

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