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Boy, do words suck. We’re taught from an early age that hitting people is wrong, that no, we shouldn’t punch little Timmy in the face just because he lifted up our skirts. So we learn to assault people with words instead. Cutting remarks and insults like “doo-doo head” and “poopy-face.” The worst of the absolute worst. And as we grow older some of us revert back to hitting, but the majority of us stick to our words. I know I did, especially now that I’m a pacifist. They’re just words, right? What harm could words possibly do?

From xkcd.com.

Way, way wrong. Words can stay with us forever. We may forget the time Timmy and Billy teamed up to push us over in the sandbox, but them pouring sand over our head while saying our curly hair was dumb looking could give us a complex that involves decades of hair-straightening. Most of us have something someone said to us in the past, something that may haven’t meant a thing to the person who actually said it. Something that may not have even been accusatory, just a passing comment that completely destroyed our confidence and self-image. Words have this fantastic power to strip us down naked, with or without our consent, and sit with us forever slowly eroding our self confidence.

As grown-ups, we’re more careful with the words we use. We understand that they have the power to evoke painful memories, so generally we’re careful about which ones we use to describe people. Since I started this blog I’ve had a lot of people ask me about the word fat. How to use it, when to use it. Being a fat ally can be pretty tough, not just because it remains one of the only socially acceptable forms of bigotry but because it’s so hard to figure out how to even address people. People of size? Plus sized? BBW? Curvy? Husky? Fat. All of these words are words someone in the community will loathe with a burning passion. I personally hate the term BBW. I’ve come to see it associated more often than not with the objectification of fat bodies for pleasure — like people who browse through the fat activism tags on Tumblr to pull photos for their own personal spank banks. But a lot of people feel empowered by that term; for a rare moment they’ve stumbled into a culture that thinks their bodies are beautiful. And that’s completely okay. I don’t have to embrace the same descriptor that they have. Of all the words available, I actually prefer the word fat. And I’ll tell you why.

You can’t control what words other people use. As a fat person, I know people are going to call me fat. The media is going to call my body fat. Every time someone talks about counting calories they’re going to talk about making sure they don’t become fat. Fat is a word that will be in my face all day every day and it’s not going to be something I can avoid — so I’ve chosen to embrace it. Turn it into something empowering. Now when I hear someone refer to the word fat in the negative (“I am going to get so fat eating this!” “I look super fat right now” “Watch out or you’ll get fat!”) I get to step in and point out that not everyone thinks of the word as a bad thing. I get to point out that the word is actually just a descriptor, and historically it wasn’t even an insult.

It also gives me a measure of control over a word that tortured me forever. The dreaded F word, the thing you saw in your friends eyes as they cast you sympathetic glances when your high school required that you wear something sleeveless. By taking on the word I’ve removed it’s negative powers over me and turned them into something I’m proud to take ownership of.

Where you have to be careful though is in assuming that this is the case for everyone. I’ve had a couple of well-meaning fat ally friends chipperly refer to another woman they don’t know as fat, and it makes me wince a little. Especially if that friend isn’t fat themselves. For a lot of people, having a thin person call them fat can be understandably triggering. It’s important to remember that just because I — or any other fat person you might know — embrace the word, you shouldn’t go fllinging it around at people you don’t know. You might seriously wreck someone’s day, and no one wants that.

So what’s a kid to do? You want to be supporting, you want to be an ally, you want to join us in breaking the shackles of body policing bondage, but you have no idea how to tread these murky waters. Here are some quick tips:

  1. When in doubt, play it safe. Wait to see how this person refers to themselves before venturing any descriptors for yourself.
  2. Don’t help them with alternate words. Do NOT say anything along the lines of “Oh, you’re not fat, you’re just curvy!” because sentences like these assume that being fat is bad in the first place. Vilifying bodies is a big no-no.
  3. Analyze your own levels of internal body shaming. Before you talk to anyone else, make sure you know yourself. And man, almost every person on this planet has a degree of body-shaming mentality; it’s forced into us from the time we can walk. It’s just the way things are, which explains why you think that way — but it doesn’t excuse it. For example, if you walk up to a fat person and your first thought is “Oh Cheesus, I better think of a way to describe them that isn’t insulting,” you may be wrestling with a degree of inner fat judgment.
  4. Be excellent to each other. In general the thing about body positivity is the positivity part. Making someone feel crappy for what they eat and what they wear and how they do their hair is the opposite of all of that. Absolutely offer to help someone if they seem to be struggling with their self esteem, just don’t do it with plattitudes. If I have a friend who’s upset about the number of calories they’re eating because they think the’re a big fat hideous hose-beast, I first tell them that this is not in fact true, and beyond that I remind them that it’s their body. If they want to eat, eat! Food is not your enemy, and treating it as such is just asking for a bad time. That way lay dragons, and possibly future eating disorders.

What matters is making people happy and being happy, and a lot of people seem to think being thinner is the quick trip to instant happiness. Newsflash: if you hate your body now, even if you are able to shed off the pounds permanently odds are good you’re just going to find something else to hate. So love yourself, man. (Though it’s also cool if you don’t. Don’t hate yourself for not loving yourself either.) Because you’re pretty awesome.