On Using 'You're Fat' as an Insult

Can we stop doing this now?
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Tyler McCall
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Can we stop doing this now?
Actress Allison Tolman, who recently sparked a debate about "fat" as an insult. Photo: Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images

Actress Allison Tolman, who recently sparked a debate about "fat" as an insult. Photo: Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images

Last Saturday night -- early Sunday morning, truthfully -- my roommate and I were heading home after an evening out with friends. We'd decided to split a cab home rather than wait for the train, and it was an hour where cabs were becoming hard to come by, so when I saw one approaching our corner, I started running to wave it down. 

A disembodied, high-pitched screech came from the other corner, blocked from my vision by construction barricades. "I hailed it first!!! I hailed that cab first!" My roommate and I stopped, a bit stunned, as a young woman dashed across the street and yanked at the handle of the cab door. The woman and my roommate engaged in some seriously top-level passive aggressive discourse -- lots of "By all means, take the cab!" "Have a nice night!" "Oh I will!" -- before the girl got halfway in the cab and realized all her friends were still standing on the other corner, completely ignorant of the cab situation.

She ceded the cab to us (not without plenty more passive aggressive commentary) and hoping to clear some of the tension, I genuinely thanked her and told her to have a nice night. My roommate hopped in, I followed her, and as I was closing the cab door, the girl decided to get in the last word as she walked back towards her friends.

"You're fat!" she spitefully yelled at me.

We got about a block before either of us really registered what had happened. My roommate became infuriated, unable to understand why this woman had been so "cruel" over a taxi she'd given to us. I was more amused that she had chosen to insult me, the person trying to be nice and not the one with whom she'd had a passive-aggressive showdown -- clearly, she lacked the guts to confront my roommate. She'd also sounded like a 5-year-old having a tantrum when she'd said it. Yes, I was a little irritated, and it stung for a moment, but I got over it pretty quickly. 

Mostly, though, I wasn't bothered because I knew it wasn't personal. That may sound like a weird thing to say, because calling someone fat can definitely feel deeply personal. But I've reached an age where I know the difference between personal commentary and a childish attempt to make me feel like I'm somehow lesser than. When this woman called me fat, she was simply (and drunkenly) thinking of the meanest thing she could say to me in that moment.

The fact of the matter is, lobbing a "You're fat!" at a woman, whether she's a size 6 or a size 26, is an almost guaranteed home run if you're looking to make someone feel shitty -- and that's because, as women, we're taught that the worst thing you can be is fat. It's why plus size models like Robyn Lawley shy away from using that term (preferring "average") and why many brands don't make clothing beyond a 12. Being a fat woman is to fail on every single level in the eyes of society; it's a moral shortcoming just as much as it is a physical one.

Which is why I don't blame actress Allison Tolman, from FX's 'Fargo,' for distancing herself from the word when people took to Twitter to tell her how fat she had become. She came under fire from Cosmo's Anna Breslaw, who posits that by denying that she's fat, Tolman contributes to the problem by insinuating there's something wrong with being a certain size. But why do we even need to talk about her weight at all?

The last time I remember someone insulting me by calling me fat, I was 20 and an older woman on the sidewalk chastised me for eating on the street (and thus blocking her way) because I was "fat enough as it is." I was so devastated I went into the bathroom at school and cried. Now, thankfully, I have a stronger sense of self (and fewer fucks to give about the opinions of complete strangers, honestly), so I was able to (mostly) brush off what this girl had said to me.

But that's not the case for everyone, and in fact, it's not always even the case for me -- which is why this has to stop. Not to be overdramatic, but it's such awful girl-on-girl crime. Why are we so insistent on being party to this terrible line of thinking that destroys our self esteem? It made me feel more sorry for the girl who said it than it did anything else, because she's so clearly bought into this system of finding self-worth in physical appearance and thinness.

Remember that Mean Girls quote, "You all have got to stop calling each other sluts and whores. It just makes it okay for guys to call you sluts and whores"? It's like that -- we've got to stop calling each other fat, or cows, or whatever choice word you're using, because it just makes it okay for guys to call us fat in an insulting way. 

It's not okay, regardless of the source, because there are worse things to be than fat -- like ignorant and mean. And until we stop using fat as an insult, women will continue to distance themselves from the term, no matter how many efforts we make to "reclaim" it as a simple definition of size. Context is everything -- and, at least for now, the context for "fat" is insulting and shameful.

Photo on homepage: Lennart Preiss/Getty Images