It's so common that you've definitely overheard or been a part of this verbal exchange at some point (or many points) of your lifetime. One person, feeling self-conscious about their body, will say out loud to no one in particular, "I feel fat." Another person, in attempt to inspire some confidence in the other, will reply, "that's silly, you do not look fat."
A version of that exchange happened to me in the comments section of my Instagram not long ago, and though it was subtle it rubbed me so wrong that it's been lingering enough on my mind to write this. Because I have a major problem with "you do not look fat" when it's used as a compliment. Why? Oh, there are so many reasons, and I'll use a popular Netflix film to show you just how harmful they can be.
When I came to the realization that the comment was supposed to be a well-intentioned compliment, I was flabbergasted.
I didn't realize we were still using the age-old "OMG, you are SO NOT fat" as an attempt at flattery, and it really pointed out just how lucky I am to be deeply ingrained in body-positive workplaces, friend groups, and spheres of the internet. When you have the luxury of being surrounded by people who don't just tolerate but accept and celebrate different bodies for what they are, it's far easier to do so internally.
My body confidence itself, I realized, is also a luxury — though it shouldn't have to be.
The primary issue I take with this type of comment is that it's very fatphobic at its core.
This might sound backwards, but if you're trying to soothe someone's discomfort or boost their confidence by telling them they aren't fat, you're still implying that being fat is a bad thing. The comment usually comes from a place of love, but it can feel very displacing depending on who the comment is coming from and who is receiving (or overhearing) it.
And it's especially damaging when it's said by a person who isn't or hasn't been plus-size or fat.
If you've ever heard these comments floating between two thin people, then you know just how much like a slap in the face they can feel. If they think so negatively of their own bodies, what must they think of yours?
A lot of the time, in my experience anyway, this comment is usually delivered by a slender person to a curvy person (also damaging). Let me use Netflix's hit movie Dumplin' as an example. Though the movie was revered for its fat positivity, one scene in particular made plus-size women across the internet cringe.
For example, in Dumplin', the protagonist Willowdean, a fat woman, has an almost friendship-ending argument with lifelong bestie Ellen, who is thin.
The pair argue because Ellen appeared to be getting too involved in the local beauty pageant, which both girls entered as a protest against its unrealistic beauty standards. Ellen ends the argument once for all with this: "For your information, Willowdean, I never thought of you as fat."
Willowdean is made visibly uncomfortable by the comment, though it isn't addressed at any point in the movie, and communities dedicated to body image across the internet instantly began discussing the negative mental effects this comment could have made on Willowdean.
Telling a fat person that they aren't fat can entirely invalidate their experiences of being fat.
That's why plus-size and fat viewers cringed really hard at Ellen's ending argument. Willowdean's body is, unfortunately, a significant part of her life, as it is for many women above a size 14.
She's constantly goaded by people in her small town and is even suspended for hitting a fellow high school student who bullies her for being fat. Her mother, she feels, has spent her lifetime avoiding her because she's a former beauty queen who can't accept fat bodies. She has a flirtation-turned-romance with coworker Bo but pushes him away because she thinks he should date women who are thin like he is.
When it's one society deems as undesirable, a person's outer image can affect just about every aspect of their life. Let's not forget it's still legal to fire an employee based on weight discrimination in 49 states. Those are not experiences you can forget or sweep under the rug.
For that reason, making that comment to a plus-size person, whether or not you mean well, can feel to them as if you're saying "the discrimination you've faced must be very minor and/or doesn't matter."
Truth of the matter is, some bodies are thin, some are fat, and some are in-between — no one body type is factually "better" than the others. Being big is not an inherently evil thing, but the meaning we've attached to the word "fat" makes it seem so.
In the final act of Dumplin', Willowdean finds love and acceptance in her own body by embracing her nickname, after which the movie is named. Having a positive view on one's own body can feel impossible at times for women of all body types, but comments that imply one body type is more acceptable than others only makes that mission harder for everyone.
"You do not look fat" is one of those comments. Do I harbor ill feelings toward the person who told me I don't look plus-size due to that? Not in the slightest — the individuals who say things like that are not the problem. The fatphobic societal systems that trick us into thinking fatness is something to be feared is.
Due to the extreme fatphobia our society enforces daily, the way our bodies look can heavily shape both our internal and external experiences, which can determine who we are as people.
In a perfect world we could all wear whatever clothes we want, participate in whatever activities we want, date and have sex with whoever we want — and do so without fearing the comments (well-intended or not) of other people.
But we don't, and that's why the body-positivity community can get so quickly wrapped up in the labels we use to describe our own bodies. Those labels — plus-size, curvy, chubby, fat, etc. — do matter in a lot of ways, and blissfully denying their existence can contribute to the problem.
I, for one, would not be nearly the same person as I am had I not been told over and over again that my body was too big, too masculine, too squishy to be attractive or powerful. To have my body's primary identifying factor dismissed by my Instagram commenter like that made me feel as though my experiences of body-shaming weren't all that significant.
The point I'm trying to make here is that we all need to think carefully about how we respond to internal fat-shaming and the way those around us label their own bodies.
The healthier and all-around better way to respond to that internal fat-shaming, regardless of that person's size, as opposed to "you do not look fat" is rather simple: "You look great."
The labels we use to identify our own bodies and other people's bodies are important, but the way we treat those labels is even more so. Skirting around the words "fat," "chubby," or "curvy" can tell a person who fits one of those labels just as much as a straight-up insult can.