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How body positivity activists are changing the word ‘fat’ as we know it
”Fat” is not a dirty word.
A few months back, I wrote about plus-size women in bikinis, and without much thought, I included the word “fatkini” in the title.
It’s a descriptor that I find personally empowering and useful for building community. And while many found the featured images inspiring, some took issue with my word choice in the headline. When the post was shared on Facebook pages for various blogs, including The Curvy Fashionista and Garner Style, I started seeing outrage in the comments.
One commenter wrote, “Can you stop calling it a ‘fatkini?’ It’s just a bikini!” Another wrote, “Labels create segregation and shame.” The reactions shocked me. I have found a sense of acceptance through the word “fat,” and it made me wonder how two plus-size women could still have such different experiences with one word.
The word “fatkini” is often credited to blogger GabiFresh, who first posted a bikini photo in April 2012 and created a fatkini gallery for xoJane in May of that same year. However, Re/Dress owner and creative director Rachel Kacenjar told me in an e-mail that the word was first used in January 2011 by Jessica Luxery-Legay on her Tumblr, Tangled Up In Lace. In one post, Luxery-Legay cut up one-piece swimsuit and turned it into a low-rise bikini. The below photo shows her in the original suit and the belly bearing two-piece that she called a “fatkini.”
“The word ‘fatkini’ actually bears a really important cultural significance to our movement, and I think the people should know that it came from a working class poor person’s DIY effort to make a bikini for her fat body,” Kacenjar said. “She was the first to come up with the concept, and out of struggle to find a two-piece suit that was cute and affordable, she used her keen dime-store-diamond imagination to make that fashion revolution happen. She dared to be sexy and bold on a budget and empowered so many of us to do the same. There is struggle and a resulting embodiment and empowerment behind the ‘fatkini.’”
These days, bikinis for fat bodies are available in a variety of price points and styles. But it’s important to note that it was only four years ago that Luxery-Legay had to make her own bikini—because it didn’t exist.
And just as mainstream, plus-size fashion has grown, I know my own personal self-love and acceptance journey has come a long way in those four years, too. Like many plus-size women, I haven’t always felt comfortable using the word “fat.” The first time I remember being called fat was when a kid named Bryan called me a “fat bitch” on the playground in the third grade. I wanted to punch him and his dumb bowl cut, but I’m pretty sure I just cried on the bus ride home.
Kacenjar remembers being called fat for the first time in kindergarten.
It’s important to note that it was only four years ago that Luxery-Legay had to make her own bikini—because it didn’t exist.
“It hadn’t occurred to me that I was different from other kids until that moment and it really destroyed me,” she said. “I remember having a lump in my throat all day but being too embarrassed to tell on him, and going home and just sobbing to my mom. I will literally never forget that kid.”
Fat feminist, writer, and author of the blog Chronicles of a Mixed Fat Chick, Pia Schiavo-Campo has said she first her the word used as an insult by her family members. For fashion blogger Tiffany Tucker of Fat Shopaholic, fat shaming came both from kids at school and family members.
“It happened to me so often that it all just kind of blurs together, but I do remember one instance where I was out with a parent and I was hungry,” Tucker said via email. “They didn’t want to get me any food outside because as they said I was ‘big as a house.’ After begging I was reluctantly taken to a McDonald’s where I was cursed out, called fat, and shamed for being hungry the entire time because ‘all I think about is food.’”
Regardless of current personal views on the word “fat,” many plus-size women who grew up fat have traumatic experiences associated with the word. Efforts in removing that stigma are not something that happened overnight, though. In fact, some of the stigma has been shed thanks to years of purposeful work from activists.
“I think its really important for folks who are new to the fat acceptance movement to read about their history,” Kacenjar said. “Fat activism has been going on since the late ’60s, and it can be really grounding to know about the work that was done before you joined the party!”
Annie Maribona, co-owner of Portland’s Fat Fancy, first remembers seeing the word used in an empowering way when she was in high school in the late ‘90s.
Many plus-size women who grew up fat have traumatic experiences associated with the word.
“The first thing that comes to mind is a Bikini Kill lyric that goes something like, ‘I’m fat, I think I’m queer, there’s someone following me, yeah,’” Maribona told me via email. “I came to it through riot grrrl and queer music, zines, and message board communities. That was my first taste.”
And Kacenjar came to the word “fat” in a similar way. She attended a Sleater-Kinney concert in 2000, and The Gossip happened to be opening up for them. She described The Gossip’s lead singer Beth Ditto as wearing a shirt with the word “SEXY” written on it in purple cursive.
“I had never met a confident fat girl up until that day,” Kacenjar said of seeing Ditto. “During the show, Beth writhed out of her clothing as she sang and was glowing with sweat, standing on stage in her underwear and screeched, ‘This goes out to all of my fellow fat girls who feel the struggle.’ I started to cry because the word filled my heart with pride instead of the usual pinching discomfort it caused me to feel.”
Ditto was the same initial image I had of a confident fat women, though it would come years after Kacenjar’s experience, when I was working at an internship for a zine turned women’s music mag in 2009. The first blogger I saw using the word “fat” in an empowering way was Tucker, who started Fat Shopaholic in 2009. I first met her (or should I say admired her) from afar but was too scared to talk to her at a plus-size clothing swap in Chicago that was co-hosted by Luxery-Legay. When I asked Tucker about why she decided to use the word “fat” in the title of her blog, the answer was simple.
“The two blogs I followed when I started used the word ‘fat’ in their titles so I did too,” Tucker tells me. “When I started blogging, I didn’t know what I was doing and still figuring about how to be an individual so I followed what everyone else was doing. With that being said, I’m glad I did it; it was kind of a fake it ‘til you make it thing. Naming my blog Fat Shopaholic is one of the many things that gives me confidence.”
Although Tucker’s influences were already using the word fat in 2009, the word “curvy” was still the word of choice for many other plus-size bloggers who started around that time. Schiavo-Campo’s blog Chronicles of a Mixed Fat Chick was called Curvy, Sexy, Chic when she first started nearly five years. But a year and a half ago, she changed the name.
“I started to cry because the word filled my heart with pride instead of the usual pinching discomfort it caused me to feel.”
“I changed the name to Chronicles of a Mixed Fat Chick about a year and a half ago, when I began to embrace the word ‘fat,’” Schiavo-Campo said. “The blog became more of a vessel to tell my truth as a fat woman of color. The name felt like a way to be transparent and political at the same time.”
The word “political” is important here because there’s something about using the word “fat” that is very much tied to activism. “Anyone who uses the word ‘fat’ in a neutral or positive way or who interrupts negative body/fat/diet talk is contributing in some way,” Maribona said.
And Kacenjar echoes that sentiment, about how the word is both a descriptor and an indication of politics.
“Its an adjective,” she said. “I’m fat; he’s thin. I’m short; she’s tall. Obviously it carries more meaning for me when someone uses it as an identifier. Like, if they’re going out of their way to tell me ‘I’m trans, queer, and fat,’ I know that they are trying to tell me that they use the word to punctuate their body politics with fat acceptance and they most likely believe in autonomy and body freedom.”
There are a lot of activists who have been influential in the shift of the word from being a traumatic insult to an empowering descriptor. One name that was brought up by Kacenjar, Maribona, and Schiavo-Campo was Virgie Tovar.
Tovar has written and lectured extensively on fat discrimination and body image. She is also the editor of the 2012 book Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion, which celebrates everything from fat go-go dancing to creating inclusive spaces. And this summer, Tovar is once again creating her own space as she hosts “Babecamp.” The four-week virtual intensive class is designed to challenge the way people relate to their bodies.
Whether virtual or in-person, the word “fat” has played a role in building community and there’s a need for that among marginalized groups. Maribona hosted her first clothing sale in her Portland apartment in 2007 and since its inception, her store has been called Fat Fancy. This was a decision she was purposeful in making.
Maribona told me:
I definitely thought a lot about using the word “fat” in the store’s name. I could have chosen another name that may have been more palatable for more people but in my opinion, the direction to move towards is to take the sting and the stigma out of the word. I didn’t want to hide it. I don’t call myself curvy. I’m fat. Every other word that is used instead of fat, like “fluffy, curvy, etc,” are all euphemisms. The online dictionary says a euphemism is a “mild or indirect word or expression substituted for one considered to be too harsh or blunt when referring to something unpleasant or embarrassing.” I don’t consider being fat to be unpleasant or embarrassing. Let’s just use the word that we actually mean. You’re saying it without saying it. Just say it. How are we going to advance fat acceptance if we are afraid to use the word in a way that’s positive or neutral?
I totally agree with Maribona, which is why the initial fatkini comments struck me so hard. My gut reaction was that commenters still hold the belief that fat is synonymous with ugly, which is still very much a societal message that we as fat women receive. But Kacenjar said there’s more there than just a tired societal beauty standard being self-policed.
“At a NOLOSE conference two years ago, fat genius TaMeicka Clear who was a keynote speaker, talked about how in her experience, the black women she knew struggled with using the word as an identifier, due to several other oppressions at play when folks are considering taking agency of their bodies,” Kacenjar said. “I think its important to meet people where they’re at with the word and know that while it may be ‘normalizing’ for some folks to use it, it is still difficult and oppressive for others. I think white people already come from a place of privilege, so to use the word ‘fat’ as an identifier for myself is one thing, but I have to keep in mind that it bears weight (no pun intended) on different people in different ways.”
Schiavo-Campo’s breakdown also helped further my own understanding of that concept of intersectionality:
I think because race, gender, and size are so hierarchical, it can be hard for women of color to embrace a word that they feel oppresses them even more than they already are. Think about it—if you are a woman, you are beneath men. If you are a woman of color, your looks are on the low end of the attractiveness scale as compared to white women in our culture. So to be called “fat” in a society that worships young, white, cis, able, thin bodies, can feel like another way to delegitimize our beauty. The word “curvy” can feel more empowering for some women of color. And while it’s not a word I use much anymore, I don’t begrudge anyone the decision to use whatever adjectives feel good to them.
When it comes to descriptors, individuals have a personal choice on which word they use to describe themselves. Many people have a personal preference but having a strong aversion to any one word can be tricky because you can’t decide how others will choose to describe you or someone who looks like you.
Much like the strong backlash to the Drop the Plus Campaign, all of the women I spoke with said that we still need words like fat, fatshion, and fatkini. Tucker said she can see both sides of the coin when it comes to these words, but that there’s still work to be done until these terms are not necessary.
I think that there are women now who have reached the point where they feel like they’ve gained confidence as a fat person and now they would like to have mainstream acceptance and when you continue to use terms like fatkini and fatshion, you continue to put fat bodies in a niche space and in a niche market so I understand why women feel that way. But at the same time I think there are so many women who still need those communities. I wish there was a way for both to exist in at the same time. I wish there was a way for mainstream media to respect the community that still needs to gain confidence but also to acknowledge the women who have done the work to gain that confidence and treat them the same way to treat straight-size women in terms of fashion.
Plus-size fashion and fat acceptance (which are two distinct entities) have progressed over the last few years, but there’s more work to be done in changing the minds and hearts of humans who hate fat people, which is why eliminating these words can be dangerous.
“We’ve come a long way, but have so much further to go,” Schiavo-Campo said. “A fat body is politicized body. And when you intersect that with gender, race, ability, and age, the levels of oppression multiply.”
When it comes to descriptors, individuals have a personal choice on which word they use to describe themselves.
Words like fat and fatkini don’t create shame but rather they are a reflection of a society that would still like to render us invisible. And don’t let one People magazine cover fool you, there’s still a lot of societal stigma associated with the word fat and, more importantly, with being fat. I don’t think I would get told to kill myself or called a whale on a regular basis if there wasn’t still a stigma.
While the Internet gives people across the globe access to safe spaces that they may not have otherwise had available to them, everyone’s individual self love journey is still experienced differently. And interviewing all of these body positive women reminded me that we have to all work on meeting people where they are and understanding viewpoints different from our own. Maribona—who also does body positive life coaching—offered this piece of advice to anyone who is struggling with fat acceptance:
One idea that really resonated with me was this: How much time do you spend in your head, thinking about food, weight, or thinking bad things about yourself? How much space does that take up in your life? Are those authentic messages? Are they truly things you believe about yourself in you heart of hearts? Who told you those messages? Where did you learn them from? Just imagine how much space you could clear up in your head and your life if you could work on shifting your focus from self hate/body hate towards self acceptance and self love. What could you think about instead? What could you fill your life with if all that head-space and time opened up?
So basically, when it comes to using the word “fat,” the personal really is political.
Screengrab via Glitter Odyssey/YouTube