Fat is Not an Action Word.
I’ll admit it: As a long-term grammar geek, I can get a little giddy identifying parts of speech. Hell, I once defended my over-abundant use of the word “like” to my equally nerdy uncle, by claiming that some “likes” are interjectionary and some are adverbial. So when I post here, to clarify that “fat” is not a verb, you might read it as further nitpicking from an officer of the grammar police. You might discard it, brush it aside with the times I’ve refused to join your facebook group because you used the wrong “your,” or pointed out that — unless you are talking about an imaginary beast — A Lot is two words. But just as I feel I have good reason to argue that “anorexic” and “emaciated” are not synonyms, I feel it’s important to speak up against “fat” as a verb. And not just because I spent two years as an English major.
To be fair, I don’t actually hear people saying they “fat” something or that they’re “fatting.” I don’t hear “fat” used as a verb, per se. But I do hear, continually, the discussion of fat as something you can do. It’s not that I hear friends claim they’re “doing fat” in a radical West and Zimmerman sense. I don’t mean I hear it used to imply we perform fat. Rather, this use of “fat” is strikingly conservative, downright mainstream. It equates the “fat” body with compulsive overeating and a lack of willpower. It deems the extra curves a “failure” at restricting calories. Being “fat” in this sense is not about the body. It’s not about having fat (as in fatty tissue), ingesting fat (as in nutritional lipids), or even appearing fat (as in the socially defined category “overweight”).
Instead, it’s about eating.
My friends will say, “I’m going to be a fatty” as a cue that they’re going back for seconds, or that tonight they’ll be eating dessert. “Fat” in this context might mean eating, period, or it might mean cleaning one’s plate, or cleaning one’s plate and a friend’s. It might mean that they aren’t choosing from the diet menu, despite the fact that all they’re friends have ordered salad, with dressing on the side. “Being fat” is used as a precursor to resistance, a refusal of the norms that make “simple” choices (cream cheese on one’s bagel, a brownie with ice cream) feel borderline criminal. That resistance is powerful, and the fact that most of my friends make a point of eating what they want, when they want it, is part of what leads me to adore them. I appreciate their willingness to be “deviant” — by eating and enjoying food. But I don’t appreciate the language they use to qualify that deviance.
Fat bodies, it turns out, have quite a bit less to do with calories than they do with genes. (Ditto thin bodies, and bodies in general.) Yet, a primary component of sizeist thinking is the notion that fat people could be smaller if they would only choose to make the effort. Eat better, exercise more, and you will suddenly transform into a waif. Using fat as an action word accepts this kind of thinking. Much like mentioning that you “don’t need” this dessert, or that this meal will go straight to your thighs/ hips/ etc, this language conflates an action with a state. It moves beyond “If I eat this, I will be fat” and creates an ideology of “When I eat this, I already am.”
There’s a big push in the Size-Acceptance Movement (a.k.a. the Fat Acceptance Movement) to “take back” the word “fat,” as other populations have worked to take back “queer,” “bitch,” et cetera. Maybe this is what my friends intend when they make these statements. Maybe they’re pushing to redefine fat as a way that they live in their bodies, a way of making “fat” mean, “I will enjoy my Ben and Jerry’s, damnit” or “I will savor this Cadbury Egg.” I can’t speak for what they intend. But for me, the point of reappropriating “fat,” as a term, is to use it to contradict the mainstream definition. It’s an argument between the revolutionaries and the systems of oppression. As such, it’s most effective when it doesn’t passively incorporate the status quo. “Fat” can be powerful and positive, and we can rework its meanings to push it toward that definition… We can use it as a tool to manage the exploitation of fat in our culture. But if we buy into the notion that “eating equals being fat,” how radical are we being?
I believe in being able to eat another course, get my bagel with schmear, or finish a pint of Ben and Jerry’s, solo. But I don’t want shame to be a prerequisite to these everyday rebellions. I don’t want to claim that my body type requires these choices or that it results from them. Rather, I want to say I’m eating this cookie because it’s a cookie, damnit. I’m eating this sandwich because it’s delicious. I’m not being fat. I’m being an eater. And while neither of the two should be shameful, they should also not be synonymous.