The other f-word: On the use and misuse of “fat”

After finishing my eating plan, I promptly went up north with my family and boomeranged in the other direction. The cottage up north is a land filled with Cheetos and licorice and s’mores and beer. Our altar is the kitchen counter. It’s one of my favorite things about the cottage. But after doing my eating plan, my senses were attuned to the way we talk and think about food and our bodies. None of the men apologized for having some licorice or some chips with their sandwich. All of the women did. We apologized to each other or to ourselves or to the world.

“I shouldn’t have these cookies. But fuck it, I’m on vacation!”

“I don’t even want these chips. But I’m eating them anyway.”

“I should go running after this. But instead I’ll just be fat!”

We were transgressors. Inwardly I patted myself on the back like some kind of smug asshole for having the light beer or for drinking water instead of pop. You don’t want to get fat, I tell myself. As if getting fat is a disease you can catch; as if it’s the worst thing that could happen. I don’t own a scale and never really set much store by the numbers anyway — I’m a tallish and a little muscular, so striving for any number is never something I cared about.

Instead, I found other ways to care. I measure with my fingers how much fat does or does not spill over the front of my pants or how much my jeans fold around my thighs. I pinch the undersides of my arms to see how soft they are. I feel for my collarbone. I didn’t even realize I was doing it or that it’s a problem behavior until I heard it named online: “body-checking.” I was physically measuring my imperfections, checking to see if the disease had spread.

What was I afraid of? Why was I so afraid? I was a twiggy little kid. I grew up with a mother who ate healthily and exercised, but who was always loving and never shaming, never said anything negative about my body or appearance. I was occasionally teased for my crooked teeth or ridiculous hair, but only in the way that kids are sometimes mean, never to the extent of cruelty or bullying.

I watched and learned from the way other girls were treated that fat was bad. Fat was ugly. Fat was something I never wanted to be. With my frizzy hair and braces, I already had two things that the pretty girls did not have.  I was average-looking. If I got fat, I knew I’d be officially ugly. (I know this sort of thing inspires a chorus of people saying nice and reassuring things, which is so kind, but I am really not fishing for compliments. That was how I saw the world. I observed and paid attention and learned who was considered pretty and who wasn’t, and knew I was somewhere muddled in between.)

I figured that, if I could only stay thin, I could have a chance at being pretty. I’m grateful I have never crossed into eating disorder or excessive exercise territory. I never needed to be stick thin and I wanted to be strong. But I still spent plenty of time hating myself for the paunch on my stomach or the way my inner thighs always touched no matter how many squats I did. When I said, “I’m fat” or “I feel fat,” what I really meant was that I felt ugly. Fat was a bad word. (AN F-WORD IF YOU WILL.)

And then one of my friends said the following: “PSA: Using the word ‘fat’ to describe yourself when you are not actually fat (a yardstick is being able to shop in non-specialty mall stores) is kind of rude. As someone who has actually faced real, tangible, public discrimination for being fat, I would really appreciate it if we could put a hold on that word.” And then I started doing some thinking and doing some research. I watched this video. (HI IF YOU DON’T READ ANY OF THIS, YOU SHOULD DEFINITELY JUST WATCH THIS VIDEO.) And I realized I was being a huge asshole (if unintentionally) to others and to myself. It never occurred to me that when I’m lost in my own neuroses, I could be hurting other people. All my fat-hate had been focused on myself and never on others, but it didn’t matter. I’d been using the word fat as a scapegoat, which is really just as awful and discriminatory as using the word gay to mean that something is bad or stupid.

So I’m trying to retrain myself. I’m trying to teach myself that fat is not a bad word. Fat is not an insult and shouldn’t be used as one, whether toward myself or toward others. Fat does not mean ugly or lazy or stupid or mean. Fat is fat. Some people are fat. I have some fat on my body. You can be fat and be still healthy. Being fat does not mean you’re ugly — my lovely friend who helped me to start thinking about these things is gorgeous as hell.

It’s difficult. It’s really difficult. But especially as a writer, I want to be conscious of what words mean and how I use them and try to not use them to harm myself or others. And fuck apologizing for that extra slice of pizza.

Jill Kolongowski is a writer and editor living in San Francisco. When she’s not cooking, running, or reading, she sometimes blogs at Follow her on Twitter at @jillkolongowski.

2 Responses to “The other f-word: On the use and misuse of “fat””
  1. Anna says:

    Men never feel the need apologize. Why is that? I went to your cottage prepared and happy to eat cookies and Twizzlers to my heart’s content and still. Why is it a relief to say, “I shouldn’t have this, but I’m going to”? Even though I’m adamantly anti-“sinful” and that type of language. Why is saying it out loud, that you shouldn’t be having something, such a security blanket? Like if I don’t project that I know that eating 15 Oreos is bad, other people will somehow care about it, when they don’t. But I still want the cookies. AND STILL EAT THEM. What is happening. And then looking back, the food didn’t matter at all, it was all the other stuff that mattered.

    • Jill Kolongowski says:

      I was wondering that too! Why bother? Does it make us feel better to acknowledge that we’re eating unhealthy things? Is it some sort of self-punishment pattern to make ourselves feel worse? I don’t know, but I do know that I now want Oreos. xo

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