The physical appearance and presentation of bodies has long been a focal point in society. With language being our primary way of communicating, there has always been discussion about the body. Though the understanding of “ideal” beauty cycles through preferences and trends (as does nearly everything) there have always been established beauty norms many people strive to attain. These vary depending on location as well, but whether it’s a specific hair color, eyebrow shape, body height, or size, there are usually intangible assets assigned to the idea of beauty that people spend their time pursuing.
Much of our discussion about beauty focuses on body weight and shape. Whether the popular body type is Marilyn Monroe or Audrey Hepburn, obtaining the beauty du jour is challenging if you don’t naturally have that body type, hair type, facial structure... and so on ad infinitum.
The last few years have brought with it a surge in body positivity and a rejection of many of the unhealthy ideals that have shaped the beauty industry for decades. As people have embraced this new direction in understanding ourselves, our bodies, and shifting attitudes around beauty in society, the language we use about bodies has evolved as well.
New words have cropped up in how we label and talk about bodies. Many stores have moved away from using “Plus Size” in their departments, reaching for words intended to celebrate bodies instead, like “Women’s.” Embracing new language like “curvy” instead of “heavy” or “fat” can be perceived as progress in moving toward body positivity and leaving the stigma of fat — or simply those bodies that fall outside of the current ‘ideal’ — behind.
Unfortunately, altering our language alone does not seem to change the perception of body size or remove society’s beauty expectations. Instead, it shifts the negative connotations to a new word. Instead of bringing a positive light to a body occupying space outside of the ideal beauty image, all of the negative implications attached to “heavy,” “fat,” or “obese” can become embodied in the word “curvy,” or even “woman.”
Connotative meanings can shift from word to word, they can even change the denotative meaning eventually, as is that case with ‘gay.’ Since language is a living, evolving thing, it is always being reshaped by social expectations, norms, and changes. Think of some words that used to be commonplace and widely acceptable, some have just fallen out of use and been replaced with more accurate or preferred terminology while other terms have become heavy with social meaning, influencing the word to the point that many will no longer use it at all.
This phenomenon is well-known and it hasn’t gone unnoticed that the change in terms when discussing the body isn’t bringing real change to the issues. In fact, some activists have pushed back against this change and are avoiding these new phrases to label themselves, preferring to use the term “fat” to describe their bodies instead. The argument is that doing so takes back the word in much the same way words have been reclaimed by other social groups. Using the word openly also helps whittle away the negativity attached to it. It works to remove the shame attached to the word and it does not leave behind the implication that the body is other than it should be (like the word ‘overweight’, which suggests the norm is to weigh less).
Still other activists have turned their back on words like fatphobia, insisting that the hatred of fat or fat people does not deserve to be linked with other true phobias, which are rooted in mental illness and related to fear. Generally, people are not actually afraid of heavy people, rather they feel another emotion altogether — from pity to revulsion. Instead, these activists argue, people who use the word fatphobia are actually just practicing discrimination. Adding the word phobia is just a way for them to use language to support their behaviors, feelings, or beliefs. Those who refrain from using fatphobia may choose to use a less flattering term to describe those who discriminate against others with larger bodies as “anti-fat.” Doing so removes the softening element that comes with couching the feeling and attitude in the word “phobia.” It also boils down the impulse to the clearest most concise form of where the discrimination stems from.
Certainly, the language we use every day to talk about bodies is important. Moving away from stigma and changing the way bodies are perceived and accepted should be a priority. However, achieving that social acceptance cannot begin and end with the way we use language alone. Rather, the shift in how we use language needs to extend beyond just our words to an actual reshaping of our understanding and assessment of bodies.