The Politics of Language: Size Matters

marilyn monroe thick and thinI ONCE HEARD someone say, “Fat people are the last group you can bully and get away with it.” At the time, I thought it was ludicrous. Yet, as the size debate comes up more and more frequently — with models like Tess Holliday and Ashley Graham making entertainment headlines each week — I’ve come to realize that this argument has some validity.

People outside the “normal” size range constantly find themselves on the defensive, and there’s a glaring double standard applied to the sexes. Men are encouraged to be large, while women are encouraged to be small. There are some obvious exceptions, such as the fat-shamed “Dancing Guy,” Sean O’Brien, and the pervasive concern-trolling of thin women on social media. We’ll talk about them as well, but for now, let’s dig into the inner workings of size politics.

Size matters. We live in a world where folks are encouraged to define themselves by arbitrary numbers on scales, clothing tags, and driver’s licenses. Both the “overweight” and “underweight” are vilified for being too fat or too thin, and for “promoting unhealthy lifestyles” just by existing and having the audacity to be visible.

But what does overweight mean? Is it anyone above average weight? If so, most overweight Americans aren’t. It could mean “overweight” by Body-Mass Index (BMI) standards, except that the BMI is so unreliable as to call Dwayne Johnson — AKA The Rock — not just overweight, but obese.

Overweight, then, far from being an unbiased label for an unhealthy size, is an arbitrary tag hung around the necks of those who are larger than society would like them to be. Similarly, plus-size has no real, tangible definition, either. Most American women wear sizes 8 and above, leaving that term to mean something other than “larger than the majority.”

Men, on the other hand, are encouraged to be big: tall, ripped, and hung. These body standards are no more attainable than those handed to women, yet — because of the general expectation of largeness — fat men are able to navigate society with much less resistance than fat women. Consider the fact that, after Sean O’Brien was shamed for being fat and having the temerity to dance in a nightclub, he got a party thrown just for him. How many of the women ripped to shreds on the now-defunct /r/fatpeoplehate can say the same?

The anti-large bias for women conflates a bigger size — whether due to fat or muscle — with masculinity. Not only are large women deemed unattractive, but they’re also labeled as mannish. Recently, a man tried to body-shame tennis champion Serena Williams for her muscular physique, only to get shut down by author J.K. Rowling.

On the opposite end of the size politics spectrum are those who are thinner than society expects. Since we’ve already debunked the validity of the overweight tag, I think we can safely store away underweight as well. Like fat people, the thin are subject to concern-trolling over their appearances. Women’s fitness posts on Instagram are full of questions regarding the healthiness of the poster: “She obviously isn’t eating enough if she’s that thin and that active. I mean, look at her! Those are really heavy weights. She should have a bigger booty than that!”

While it’s possible that comments like these — including those geared toward fat people — come from a place of genuine caring, they’re part of a larger culture that polices size and appearance under the guise of health-consciousness. There’s also a trend toward food-shaming — and, by extension, body-shaming — in the name of realness, as found on social media accounts proclaiming “You Did Not Eat That.”

Because Western culture continues to encourage the idea of women as each other’s rivals, sentiments like “bones are for the dog, but meat is for the man” remain pervasive today. But by pitting larger women and smaller women against one another, we grow blind to the fact that both groups are under the same societal dictates calling for conformation to an unrealistic beauty standard. Both groups are caught in the same storm, but they’re too busy trying to sink each other’s boats instead of working together to make it out alive.

Size matters, but it doesn’t have to. The only way to combat the issues touched upon here is with body positivity: for ourselves and for others. When we talk about our fellow human beings, it shouldn’t be in terms of size. That includes policing behavior. Anyone should be able to go to McDonald’s without our comments debating whether or not they should, or did, actually eat a Big Mac. There won’t be a rash of obesity or eating disorders if we stop body-shaming.

Just an outbreak of solidarity and acceptance.

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