Beauty / Society & Culture

‘Do You Think I’m Fat?’: How We Talk About Weight

The day before Lisa Marie Basile’s article The In-Between Girl: I’m Not Fat But I’m Not Skinny (And Everyone Wants Me To Pick A Side) went up, we were texting about her weight. “Do you think I’m fat?” she asked in a mock-jokey way, undermining her real question with other language meant to lighten the mood and protect her momentary vulnerability. As I tried to respond I was surprised to feel useless: I still don’t know how to respond to this question. And what’s more, I thought that I did.

The Nymphaeum by William-Adolphe Bouguereau

So, what is the best way to respond to this as a fellow woman and as a fellow human being? I wanted to be a Pre-Raphaelite women in high school, still do (hence my obsession with flower crowns), but despite that I still lack a useful vocabulary for that body shape, so every time I talk about it, or think about it, or write about it in poetry or text messages I too often turn to clichés.

The ‘Pre-Raphaelite body’ to me is in many ways still an ethereal thing rather than being what it is–human. Maybe this doesn’t sound like a problem, maybe it isn’t. For the most part I feel great about thinking this body type should be glorified. But at the same time I can’t help but feel I’m failing to understand the body issues of my friends that were blessed with these figures by putting them on pedestals. I’d rather be able to understand and support them than keep making them into goddesses. Leave the latter to my poetry.

I view the terms ‘curvy’, ‘womanly’, ‘shapely’, etc. to be wholly complimentary, but that doesn’t stop them from being words of comparison and ones often used by many in place of the word ‘fat’. In many ways our words are not our own, but belong to the history of that word as much as they do our particular conversations. So, you might say ‘curvy’ to your friend, but all they can hear is ‘fat’.

Lisa says it best when she writes, “I’m not carrying my weight. I’m existing.” That’s what so many of us, including myself I’m ashamed to say, have a hard time understanding or remembering. While I’ve always envied girls with more body than me, and even at my smaller size have suffered the fear of being labeled ‘fat’, I have to assume I don’t understand everything about what it’s like to go through life being larger than a size 4. People expect a certain thing of my body that I’ve always felt it couldn’t deliver, but I still feel there’s something I don’t understand.

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Thanks for trying, Dove. Maybe next time you’ll show more than plus size models.

Ways I almost responded to Lisa’s text:

1. “Curvy women are the most beautiful!”
2. “I WISH I had your body!”
3. “You carry weight well! Not like me.”

I’m intending to be complimentary and doing a pretty good job I think, but from another angel those almost texts 1. highlight the size of her body, and 2. agree with her fear that her body falls into the category of “not acceptable” by using words like ‘curvy’ and ‘carrying weight’. Am I being nitpicky? Maybe, but being a supportive and helpful friend and learning to see the world for what it really is are two of the most important things to me, so these are things I think about.

When we tell someone how they look it’s not just us talking, it’s us and everyone else that’s ever said anything be it person or magazine. This has to be taken into account.

It’s a fine line, but they can easily be taken as back-handed compliments when said to someone who’s already feeling vulnerable. Depending upon the people in the conversation, they may also diminish, fetishize, or objectify her (which doesn’t get us any closer to a solution) because they focus on how her body looks–what we think we’re being asked about.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t compliment each other’s bodies, because there’s no problem with that, and let’s all take a moment to remember that this article discusses only a fraction of the topic of body image from one of a million angels. But in this situation she wasn’t really asking about her body or her weight. I know that’s what the words are saying, but words are tricky things. What she’s asking is, “Am I OK?” Like, as a human being, because the way we look (we’re told) is ultimately the sole determiner of our worth. So, that’s the question I needed to respond to, and telling her I wish I looked like her doesn’t do that. Saying that or that ‘big is beautiful’ is avoiding the issue she’s broaching.

What we have to dissolve is the stereotypes of what body types “mean”. Those mass and blind opinions are meaningless. Sure, a person’s body can in ways direct how they are as a person, but it’s not some sort of in-born determinant.

Blonde bather by Renoir

What I owe her, myself, and the rest of us is to look again and again at how I’ve been taught to view bodies, own up to any fetishes or prejudices or whatever else I harbor, and do something about it, because we are not decoration, or objects, or here for each others’ pleasure or to knock each other down, and we’re all “fighting a hard battle”. I have to do this not just in practice with becoming comfortable with my own body, but in understanding other people’s, which is really just an exercise in understanding the world. It will help not only her, but all of us.

As is so often the case in learning to talk about things in a constructive and accurate way, a new vocabulary or way of understanding needs to be decided on.

What I wish I’d said, and what I really meant:
1. “You don’t need to change.”
2. “You are beautiful.”
3. “I understand. Society has lied to you about what you need to be; stop drinking the Kool-Aid.”

If these sound like clichés or things meant to pacify it’s because you, my friend, don’t believe in people.

-Does the world judge us by our looks? Sure does.
-Does that negate the fact that there are millions of people who can look past our appearance and see our worth fully, or who disagree with our unflattering image of ourselves? No, it doesn’t.
-Are the people who can see past our looks all fat, ugly, or unimportant, though? Nope.
-At the end of the day, though, come on, let’s be real, isn’t it still our looks that matter? Only if you keep believing that. No–really.

There is no world, my friends. There are bodies, and structures, and objects, and we’re just walking around in it. The way that you think about the world and yourself in it is literally the determinant of what your world is. It is not something that exists outside of you, it’s inside. I’m not exaggerating.

Alyssa Morhardt-Goldstein is the founding editor of SOUND: a weekly literary magazine on contemporary musico-poetics, and an associate editor for Rattapallax. She received her MFA in poetry from The New School, and her BS in classical vocal performance and literature from Mannes. Her chapbook, Quiet, was selected by Matthea Harvey as The New School’s 2012 Chapbook Contest winner for poetry. She is currently writing the libretto for Jonathan Dawe’s operatic re-telling of Tamburlaine. @Elkawildling

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5 thoughts on “‘Do You Think I’m Fat?’: How We Talk About Weight

  1. I really love that picture comparing the VS women with the Dove women. You can talk about real beauty all you want, but when you actually see the differences, it’s astounding

  2. I loved your usage of imagery in emphasising your arguments. This is a well crafted article. You make your points well, and you raise the issue in a sensitive manner.
    Like you, I do not know what it is to go through life being larger than a size … well 8 in the UK – not quite sure what the American equivalent for this is.
    I was skinny as a pre-teen and skinny as a teen – yes. I think it may have been size 0. For a long time I thought there was something the matter with me for not being abler to put any weight on. I longed to look womanly, and it took me a long time to accept my body for the shape it is. I do think it is womanly now, even if it does not fit perhaps into the expectation that word implies. I do have curves, even if they are nor pre-Raphaelite.
    Beauty to me comes in many shapes and sizes. I wish we stopped comparing and contrasting and simply accepted our bodies for what they are and be comfortable with them. As long as we are healthy and fit, it does not matter whether we are a size 4 or a size 20.

    • Thanks so much for your thoughtful response, Vic. I’m in the process of writing an another article I think you’ll like on what it’s like to be thin and how we’re not allowed to talk about weight.

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