By Claire Mysko
I get what Jennifer Lawrence was going for when she told Barbara Walters “it should be illegal to call somebody fat on TV.” Media bodysnarking is a profitable blood sport, and Lawrence has become America’s body image heroine by refusing to play victim. She doesn’t diet. She dares to mention her passion for fried foods in red carpet interviews. She thinks about how her words and actions affect kids’ self-esteem. So it makes sense that she would voice her opposition to the most vicious insult Hollywood can serve.
When a thin-but-not-inviso-sized actor admits that she has been called the F-word and told to lose weight or risk losing work, we’ve got her back because MY GOD, what kind of crazy clown planet are we living on? She’s beautiful and talented and not even close to being fat! Hold on a sec, though. That reaction feels a lot like those “pep talks” that happen between not-really-fat girlfriends in fitting rooms or over salads with grilled chicken and the dressing on the side. Except JLaw isn’t interested in hearing about how she shouldn’t worry because your thighs are totally thicker than hers. She’s all, “I’m fine with myself. Pizza is good.” And that’s kind of awesome. It’s a message women have quite literally been starving for; hence the Lady Internet’s humble offering of a bajillion animated gifs celebrating her enlightened worldview.
As I said, I get it. I really do. I think Jennifer Lawrence is a good role model—I’ve personally heard from more than a few young women who have been inspired by her irreverence. However, the well-intentioned proposal that we arrest people who call other people fat presents a problem that extends beyond that whole constitutionality issue: it reinforces the idea that “fat” is the worst of the worst. Of course, that is the story our culture tells us over and over in a myriad of ways. The way I see it, a push for the word to be added to the hate speech lexicon is essentially an admission that we’ve bought that story hook, line and sinker.
Ugly, lazy, undisciplined, unlovable, worthless—the litany of nasty sentiments attached to three innocent letters does in fact constitute straight-up shit talk. And we all need to cut that out. Seriously. Like right now. Spewing that kind of vitriol at others or at ourselves is a recipe for misery and injustice. But a word that describes the physical reality of actual living, breathing, feeling people’s bodies doesn’t have to be infused with fear, scorn and derision. Sadly, it almost always is. Just ask anyone who happens to be fat. Go read Amanda Levitt’s account of the hate mail she receives on a regular basis for daring to suggest that as a fat person, she has a right to live a life free of discrimination and full of respect. Take a minute to think about the river of troll poison she has to try not to drown in because she does not feel the need justify her existence by jumping from diet to diet (which would likely contribute to ill-health and weight gain).
Fatness is equated simplistically, unscientifically, and sometimes outright cruelly with all kinds of terrible things. It is assumed that fat should always be done away with; it is incomprehensible that fat should ever be accepted. Special K’s “Fight Fat Talk” campaign is the perfect example of this logic. The brand has recruited Tyra Banks to encourage women to stop with the fat talk…so they can lose weight in 2014.
“As women strive to get back on track this New Year, Special K has partnered with world-renowned supermodel and actress Tyra Banks to help shift the weight management conversation to a more positive one,” reads the company’s press release. “Special K has shown that positivity is important to weight management success but, unfortunately, 93 percent of women Fat Talk. Fat Talk is contagious — and it’s weighing women down.” Let me summarize: fat talk makes us fat. And no one wants to be fat because that is very, very bad. Which is why fat talk is so hurtful and damaging. So you should really “manage” your weight to avoid that pain. Kellogg’s wants you to feel a little bit good about yourself, but not good enough to call bullshit on their diet plan. Don’t measure your self-worth by the number on the scale or the measuring tape (advertising concepts they lifted from none other than Amanda Levitt and other body acceptance/anti-diet activists), but think about our tagline, ladies: “what will you gain when you lose?” Loop de loop. My head. It is spinning.
Special K has one thing right: recent research shows that shame is not a motivator for healthy behavior; weight stigma leads to weight gain. So if you’re interested in improving your health, don’t beat yourself up over silly things like being able to “pinch more than inch” (Who came up with that one, anyway? Oh, yeah). It won’t work. You know what else probably won’t work? Replacing real meals with cereal, shakes and protein bars.
As Lindsey Averill writes in her Change.org petition to stop fat shaming, “Fat, like thin, short and tall, is just an adjective. It is a word that describes a body type and ‘fighting’ or ‘outlawing’ the use of the word fat inherently underscores that being fat is shameful and embarrassing.”
“Fat talk” hurts because we’ve absorbed the message that fat is to be hated. “Fat” is a jab because so many of us are complicit in allowing its existence to affect how we treat ourselves and our fellow humans. This year, let’s all make a resolution to not say shitty things about our bodies. Let’s quit thinking, saying, or typing shitty things about people’s bodies or staying silent when others say shitty things. Oh, while we’re at it, let’s acknowledge that the hatefulness of the term “fat” is proportionate to our fear of fat. And that fear makes things shitty for everyone but the execs who bank on it.
Claire Mysko is an award-winning author and an internationally recognized expert on body image, leadership, and media literacy. Her book for girls, You’re Amazing! A No-Pressure Guide to Being Your Best Self, was named to the Amelia Bloomer List, a project of the American Library Association that recognizes outstanding feminist books for young readers. She is also the co-author of Does This Pregnancy Make Me Look Fat? The Essential Guide to Loving Your Body Before and After Baby.