‘Fat’ is a journalist issue…

Thanks to a bit of shoddy journalism and a lot of intelligent friends, I’ve been having a very interesting discussion about body shape, ideals and weight with some fantastic women on Twitter (you should follow them all: @foreveramber, @evarley, @Keris, @dianeshipley, @GemmaCartwright). Although the subject started with UK Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone apparently – but not, on closer examination, actually – endorsing the lovely Christina Hendricks as an ‘ideal’ role model for women, it’s taken a bit of a tangential line for me.

I’ll let you catch up with it all if you’ve not been following by pointing you to Amber’s summary of the issue on Β The Fashion Police. I’ll wait here.

Okay, now, all reasonable people will now be agreed that:

  • There is no ideal shape / weight / size. You can only eat well and do adequate / ample exercise.
  • A mixture of physical role models is lovely an’ all, but role models based on achievement, rather than appearance, would be even better.

If you’re not reasonable, then good luck to you. I might publish your comments anyway.

Now for the tangential bit. Ms Featherstone went on to clarify that she did not mean what the Daily Mail said she meant, which I have no trouble believing. But she also used the term ‘stick insect’ to describe thin women, which is a bit off, from where I’m sitting. I’m happy to use the word ‘skinny’ – my husband is skinny, and looks great, thanks very much – because in my head it’s a description, not an insult. But there’s no way to read ‘stick insect’ kindly.

Yet, for the bigger woman, Featherstone used the accepted euphemism of the day: ‘curvy’. I understand that the word ‘fat’ is upsetting to many because it’s been used as an insult for so long that people have forgotten that it’s just a fact. Of course, not every person wearing a size 14 plus IS fat. Some of them are genuinely just big. Or muscular. Or so tall they wear a bigger size but are still perfectly toned. But, equally, not everyone wearing a size 14 plus is curvy. Some are straight up and down. Or, like me, they’re just a bit overweight.

Actually I’m curvy AND fat, and a UK size 14 (US10-ish). I have weight to lose, and muscles to tone. As soon as I’ve recovered from the imminent birth of my first child, I plan to start building up to doing more regular exercise cos I’m unfit and that makes me tired and fed up and there’s heart disease in my family. But when I use the word ‘fat’, people wince and look uncomfortable. They think I’m fishing for compliments, or being unnecessarily self-hating.

So, in many ways, bloggers and journalists are caught between a rock and a hard place. They feel they can be blithely rude about thin women, but even if they’re sensitive enough not to be insulting are safe using ‘thin’ or ‘slim’ or ‘slender’ because these are factual. But ‘fat’ is equally factual – in some cases – and yet it’s completely unthinkable to use it. I hesitate to use it about anyone but myself because I know how hurtful it can be; it’s taken me years to accept it because I know with what vitriol it’s usually delivered.

My compromise is to stick to ‘bigger’ as it’s still factual yet not as mealy-mouthed as ‘curvy’ ‘plus size’ / ‘out size’ (out of WHOSE size?) or ‘voluptuous’ (‘voluptuous’ is to ‘fat’ what ‘flamboyant’ used to be to ‘gay’), although there are probably times when both curvy and voluptuous are appropriate as well – just not as a description of SIZE. They could apply to very small women too. No one could realistically call Salma Hayek fat, but my Lord is she curvy.

We’ve been working so hard to reclaim one F-word (feminism, in case you were wondering), that we’ve lost another one. It’s no longer safe to describe someone as fat, even when they are. Yet it’s okay to demonise thin women and liken them to pretty unpleasant things – I kept stick insects as a child and I can assure you there’s nothing alluring about their appearance. They’re also very boring.

So what is a writer who cares about women feeling happy, confident and healthy and wants to write about these issues to do? Fly the fat banner with pride, or prevaricate around the point? I genuinely don’t know the answer.


  1. Excellent post πŸ™‚ I wish there was an easy answer: I know I’ve been dodging around the “F” word for years now on my sites because it HAS become insulting, and I think most people are clever enough to know that, but “stick insect” etc is thrown around by people with no qualms whatsoever.

    The one that really bothers me is the “she needs to eat a sandwich” comment, which is posted on The Fashion Police several times a week, directed at various celebrities. I always imagine how utterly patronising this must sound to people who ARE actually struggling with eating disorders (Which are, after all, mental health issues, not fashion choices). I mean, just eat a sandwich you silly girl, that’ll solve everything! I also wish people would stop trying to diagnose health conditions from photographs – that never ends well!

    I also agree with you about the stick insects: I had them too as a child. Why?! Worst. Pets. Ever.


    1. Indeed, they really are. I inherited the class stick insect, and to my credit kept it alive. But really… why?!

      I do think anything that starts with ‘she needs to…’ is not going to end well. What we (by which I mean the commenting public) need to do is stop telling other people what they need to do. Except when I just told them what to do just there. You know what I mean. πŸ˜‰


      1. We need to stop commenting on other people’s weight as much as possible, I’d say. It rarely ends well, is unnecessary, and only promotes the idea that it should be a top priority. It’s just SUCH a prevalent tendency, though.

  2. I absolutely agree. I stopped buying most magazines when they started pushing the “skinny is disgusting, real women have curves” message for a number of reasons:

    1) I am slim and have curves.
    2) By curves, they solely mean fat or ‘bigger’ regardless of actual shape, so they are suggesting I am not womanly.
    3) They are hypocritical because they then without fail will always use a slim model in their editorials, and in doing so succeed in pissing off any of the ‘real’ women they claim to celebrate.


    1. Too true!

      By the way, sorry about the delay in publishing this; it was accidentally dumped in the spam bin by WP.


  3. Great post. And I think I’m going to have to blog about this too. Big fat ramble (no offence, ho ho) coming up soon…

    I’m not sure if it is possible to reclaim “fat”. I’ve read Wendy Shanker’s arguments on the topic but as a erm, larger woman, I feel uncomfortable with the term, it feels like I’m insulting myself and others. I think the reason is that fat people are very stigmatised, it’s not morally neutral. E.g. — when black people and gay people are picked on, any right-thinking person knows that’s wrong. But a lot of perfectly nice people would say of an overweight person that they brought any shame and insults on themselves by being that way. Being fat has become the worst thing a person can be, and society’s in a huge moral panic about it which isn’t making it better.

    Thanks for the Twitter rec and for saying such nice things! Back atcha. πŸ™‚


    1. Sadly, I also think we might be beyond it. There is a wealth of fat-positive stuff out there (I hugely enjoyed reading Marilyn Wann’s book: http://www.amazon.com/FAT-SO-Because-Dont-Apologize/dp/0898159954) but I’m pretty sure that’s always going to be treated as a bit niche. In that patronising kind of ‘you go girl! As long as no one calls ME fat, I’m really glad you’re reclaiming fat’ kind of way. Which I’m sometimes in danger of doing myself.

      I look forward to reading your big fat ramble!


  4. Haha, I know what you mean. For me, it’s more “I really admire you for being able to do that, but I’m too socially conditioned to feel comfortable with it myself”. Which is annoying of me.


  5. Excellent post, you make some really good points. I think it’s interesting that ‘stick insect’ seems to be the negative term of choice for females ‘bean pole’ is still a popular one for males. I’ve lost count of the number of well-meaning family members who’ve referred to my brother as a bean pole whilst they avoid mentioning my shape completely. A random thought but you’ve made all the other points I could think of.


    1. Damn, I should have mentioned you in the Twitter list. I know what you mean about ‘beanpole’. It does seem to apply to men mostly, doesn’t it?


  6. Sorry to fill up even more of your blog with my ramblings, but I thought you might be interested to know (if you haven’t seen it already) that she’s now edited her blog post and replaced “stick insects” with “ultra thin”. Good to see that the message got through, but I was still a bit suprised that she made the change without alluding to it other than a brief “agreed – language changed” in her comments section, which new visitors might not even see. You just can’t re-write history like that: I’d have had more respect for her if she’d posted an update saying she’d had a chance to think about it and realised it was a poor choice of words, rather than just editing it out completely.


    1. Oh dear. I reckon that’s a rookie blogging error I made right when I first started out – I’d thank a person for a correction in the comments and then fix it without attribution. Now I know better! A proper update addressing the issue, either as an edited part of the original post or as a new post linked to from the original is definitely a much better way to go. Caches, screenshots, comments, discussions – they all make rewriting history embarrassing and silly.


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