Creating a common vocabulary around body image

It’s really important that everyone in this space understands the lens that I take on body positivity and fatness, as everything else that I write will be based in this framework. Some of these definitions are from other sources (cited) but most are my own interpretation of these terms based on my time learning about this topic. 

Fat

A morally neutral word that describes a person with more body fat than typically portrayed in the media. I want to make this unequivocally clear that fatness does not have any other negative meaning inherently. Society has just ascribed negative traits to fatness. In the same way that “thin” is used to plainly describe a body type, “fat” is a neutral descriptor of a body type.

Note: just because someone is fat does not mean they are necessarily comfortable with the word “fat” being used to describe them. Many of us still struggle with internalized fatphobia, so make sure to respect the label that a person prefers to be referred to by (i.e. curvy, plus-size, bigger body, etc.). I am personally comfortable with any of these labels (though I will usually refer to myself as mid-size instead of plus-size since that is where my clothing size range falls but I am perfectly happy with any label surrounding fatness).

Fatphobia

At its extreme, a “pathological fear of fatness.” In a more general sense, the systemic and widespread oppression of fat bodies through physical and emotional violence, medical discrimination, media representation (or lack thereof), diet culture, job discrimination, microaggressions, and more. 

Internalized fatphobia refers to the feelings of low self-esteem or even self-loathing that many fat people experience because of the fatphobia that society perpetuates and ingrains in our mental image of ourselves. 

Body dysmorphia

A mental health issue where you perceive flaws about your appearance in an amplified way compared to what others will perceive about you. Body dysmorphia comes from feelings of inadequacy about one’s body, which are usually driven by media, unhealthy social norms, misogyny, and diet culture. 

Disordered eating

A general phrase that describes a person’s troubled relationship with food and their own body image. Sometimes, this manifests as an eating disorder. 

The reasons why people develop disordered relationships with food vary (familial pressures, social pressures, misogyny, etc.), but tend to stem from fatphobia for most people. However, there are other potential causes for disordered eating, including trauma, parental or domestic abuse, food insecurity, etc.

Diet culture

The practice of profiting off of people’s insecurities by using fatness as a way to scare people into buying “health”-related products. This includes gym memberships, diets, cleanses, nutritional supplements, and more. Diet culture relies on the maintenance of one unrealistic body type as the beauty standard in order to market that whatever BS product or service they’re selling can help you feel beautiful by looking that way. 

Body positivity

A movement started by fat activists and Black women + femmes to promote fat acceptance/liberation. Its purpose was to dismantle obstructions to rights for fat people and deconstruct industries (i.e. diet culture) that profit off of the stigmatization of fat bodies. 

What body positivity is NOT: a movement to promote loving every part of your body at all times. Also not: a movement for thin people to co-opt and rebrand into an oppressive message of “health” and mental wellness. 

Mid-size

fatlip
credit: @fatlip.ash

A clothing size range that falls between “straight sizing” (S-XL or 0-14) and “plus sizing” (0X up or 16 up). People who fit in the midsize clothing range likely shop in both size ranges (between sizes 10-18). While this seems like a neutral descriptor, many people who use the term “mid-size” to describe themselves do so to distance themselves from identifying as fat, a result of internalized fatphobia.

Instead, people in this size range can use the term “small fat” to identify the ways in which our experiences differ from thin people while also recognizing the privileges we have compared to larger fat people.

Body neutrality

A movement to remind us that our bodies hold no inherent moral value and we should cater to what our body needs instead of relying on our appearance to fuel our self-worth. This idea emerged in response to the co-opted Body Positive message to “always love your body” because it is not realistic to always feel positive about our bodies. We should not shame ourselves into loving every part of our bodies all the time. Instead, we should acknowledge how we feel in our bodies in the moment and give our bodies what we need in the moment. 

Medical discrimination

The systematic mistreatment of fat patients by the medical community. Most medical training does not include fat-positive training and actively teaches fatphobia to medical professionals, which has life-threatening consequences for fat people. This can manifest in a refusal of care, misdiagnoses, doctors ignoring a fat patient’s concerns about their health by blaming it on their weight, improperly sized medical equipment, and an overreliance on the BMI scale (which is racist and not based in medical science), among others. 

Many fat people (myself included) have had doctors tell us to lose weight without explaining any health concerns that they have about our specific bodies that are tied to our weight. Many of us (myself included) have also had doctors praise us for any weight loss, without asking whether or not it was achieved in a healthy way. Medical professionals (especially in America) are trained not to provide adequate care to fat patients, which also gives credence to diet culture. 

Confident

Many fat folks (myself included) feel off-put when someone praises us for our “confidence” on social media when we do something as mundane as posting a picture/video of ourselves existing. This feels like a backhanded compliment, as we’re being praised for being so confident when we’re just happy in our bodies and showing off ourselves in the same way any thin person would. It implies that we shouldn’t feel beautiful so we must just have an inordinate amount of confidence to post something so ~boldly.~ 

Some alternative adjectives: beautiful, stunning, gorgeous, glowing, phenomenal, or literally any other actual compliment that you’d probably give a thin person. 

All bodies are beautiful.” and/or “Body Positivity is for everyone.”

This phrase is seemingly innocuous. But when it comes from someone in a privileged body type (thin, able-bodied), this term rings the same way as “All Lives Matter.” It also dilutes the importance of body positivity in bringing about systemic change and demanding respect for marginalized bodies. Body positivity is not (just) about beauty standards: it’s about dismantling the structures of oppression that marginalized bodies experience. While the message of liberation benefits all body types, Body Positivity was made by and for fat and marginalized people.

If there are terms surrounding body positivity that you would like me to additionally clarify, please send me a note through the contact form!

Published by looks.by.ren

fat positive, ethical south asian fashion model & blogger

2 thoughts on “Creating a common vocabulary around body image

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