When is ‘Fat’ a bad word?

A lot has changed in 25 years. That’s how long I’ve been involved (professionally) in health and fitness. Let’s take it back a little. In Secondary School (High School), I could name the two ‘fat’ kids. I mean, back then it was an acceptable slur. One of those guys was called ‘Chunk’. No joke. Looking back, that was pretty harsh. Yet, he seemed to not mind and he was never bullied. He was actually a very likeable guy. Mostly. How times change. These days, you’d not dare openly label someone by that nickname.

So, that raises the question: when did ‘Fat’ become a bad word? This is a philosophical question and it doesn’t have shiny wrapping to uncover the story within. It’s much more complex. It’s about societal fragmentation, consumerism, rampant capitalism, and a worryingly changing physiological demographic.

I want to step forth on my one good leg and be blunt. Being heavily overweight is not a good thing. Don’t fool yourself. Don’t be misled by hand-wringing apologists that it’s ‘okay’ to have a BMI of 40. Of note, I’m 1.8m tall. I’d need to weigh 132Kg, or 20 stone 10 lbs to have a BMI of 40. Clinical obesity (normally a consequence of a high calorie diet based on sugars and fat) is a killer. In the UK it’s become one of the leading co-morbidities in terms of lifestyle, overtaking smoking as a primary health concern. Dismissing obesity as a problem is akin to ignoring the terminal health issues of smoking. I could link articles but you can Google it yourself. Find your own truth.

It’s not a secret that obesity is a detrimental state. It has an impact on heart disease, cancer, blood pressure, diabetes, (recently Covid-19) and other issues such as mechanical damage to the body. A 25 stone man will incur far greater stresses on their joints (back, hips, knees and ankles) than a 12 stone man. The exact same is true for women. Females produce less testosterone than men and generally have a lower muscle mass therefore exaggerating the wear on those joints. Grim. But true.

But (a poor word to start a paragraph in any context except rambling blogs) this isn’t the point. It’s true, being obese is unhealthy. It’s a life-changing condition of being. Yet, you’ll possibly notice—I’ve not commented that it’s ‘fat’. There’s a simple truth for that explanation. Fat is a substance, not a state. To have an excess of fat is to be overweight; itself a term that requires context. Someone is not fat. They may be fatter than another. Or less fat (in which case we say ‘slimmer’). But to label an individual as fat is no more coherent than calling someone ‘bone’. You’ll already be thinking about calling someone ‘muscley’ to counter my point. Let me slap you. You call someone ‘fat’. You don’t call someone ‘muscle’. That’s just poor grammar. Nonsensical, even. So, the label already has connotations beyond the obvious physical state. When you call someone ‘fat’, what you really mean is they’re lazy. And that’s why ‘fat’ is a bad word.

If you’re asking, ‘why can’t I call someone ‘fatty?’’, it’s obvious you’re a dumbass. And that’s only fair. If you want to be a body fascist and decree that people need to meet your physiological expectations, well, it’s only right that I can call you names too. Being called ‘fat’ lies in the same ballpark as so many other slurs, many of which would get you a punch in the face. If you follow this blog, you’ll know I consider myself a cripple. Sorry mum, I am. My left leg has atrophied due to spinal nerve damage. I wear a leg brace, ergo, I’m a crip. I’m also very short-sighted (optically and in terms of life decisions). So, I wear glasses and could be called, ‘specky’. You call me that, I’ll knock you on your arse. Let’s face it, unless you’re more awesome than me, I’m definitely stronger. I’m also from Glasgow, so I’m more than likely way more aggressive. And I drink most days, so I’ve become a very typical, grumpy Scotsman. My temper is easily inflamed; a plastic pack of sliced ham that’s hard to open can unleash my fury. Even the unpredictable paper wrapping that entombs a tower of Weetabix makes me fume. Short fuse? I say, why bother with a fuse—just explode, apologise later. Anyway, I digress.

Calling someone ‘fat’ is an insult. It always was. In my profession, we say ‘overweight’. Or, incredible to consider—we don’t judge that way. In the gym, talking to colleagues, we might use terms such as the ‘larger lady’. Or the ‘big guy’. We describe a physical attribute based on size, not composition. Now, don’t get me wrong. I know if someone is obese. And in discussion with my colleagues, we’ll acknowledge that. But here’s the kicker; we’re discussing overweight people who have come to the gym. That should be a light-bulb moment. If it’s not, I’ll let you find the switch and pop on that eco-friendly LED. Yes. You understand. In my context, in the gym, you can never assign the ‘fat’ tag to someone who has made the effort to try and get fitter. Huge philosophical moment coming up: there are no ‘fat’ people in gyms, there are only people trying to better themselves. And posers. They’re the real muppets.

So, when is ‘fat’ a bad word? A simple answer. It’s when you use it to describe an individual. To say they are fat is to infer a state of apathy. To imply their choices made them that way. Wait, you say. Aren’t fat people fat because they eat too much? Well, yes. Of course. Technically that is very true. A calorie surplus will lead to weight gain. Though, I ask you to consider the current state of the world. I ask you to look around, go for a drive. How many unnecessary fast-food outlets are there within five miles of you? How may drive-thru coffee shops? For the record, if you’re in the Netherlands, I do mean coffee, the drink. And on that point; a drive thru coffee shop? Seriously, when did that become a thing? I could rant and rave but what’s the point? The fact is, rampant, indulgent consumerism is a global, multi-billion-dollar market. By the end of this decade, it may be worth one-trillion dollars. Holy cheesecake, Batman! Corporations do everything to make you consume. Look at the evidence: a McDonald’s will appear in an old bulldozed lot, then, in a year or so, a KFC will appear. Give it another year and a third fast food outlet or coffee shop will appear. All in the same one-hundred metre radius. It’s nuts. People will drive one mile in their SUV to get a not-so-quick brew. Some sugar-laden monstrosity that pushes the definition of ‘a cup of coffee’. Yeah, I’ll have a super caramel latte with cream, chocolate, and sprinkles—hold the caffeine. What the actual f…

There are many reasons why someone puts on weight. A lack of understanding of calories is often the key. But that lack of understanding is a by-product of an industry that revels in your lack of comprehension. The salt, sugar, and fat content of fast food is well-known but to the masses it gets hidden under slick marketing and PR. And yes, it is often quite delicious. But so is a tub of condensed milk but hey, I know how bad that stuff is. You know it too but the powers-that-be will sell it to you anyway. It’s all about advertising the end-product and obscuring the truth of how it gets into that box/packet, or plasti-cardboard cup.

There are also a multitude of medical, situational and psychological reasons why people gain weight. It’s far too easy to judge, far too convenient to blame. It’s important to accept that people aren’t fat. People are susceptible to their environment, their upbringing, their culture. So don’t blame, don’t stereotype. See people as people. Judge what you know, not what you presuppose.

Is fat ever bad? Hell, yes. As a bodily component it is a fuel. An essential transport system for vitamins A, D, E, and K. You need a minimal level of fat, females more so than men. But too much of it is a health hazard. In that respect, it’s important to understand the conflict; we mustn’t judge but we mustn’t accept obesity as normal. Obesity is a health risk. It is a consequence of lifestyle, culture, psychology, and nationality. The burden on health systems is severe. In the UK, obesity related issues cost the NHS over £5 billion annually. To me, that’s an unacceptable thing. But regardless, to be fat in the Western world, is to be subject to a relentless campaign of targeted advertising and low-cost snacks. It’s not so difficult to see the problem. It’s being metaphorically rammed down your throat.

Fat. Slim. Skinny. Tubby. Buff. All words. No meaning. Just lazy descriptors that bulldoze over a person’s true worth. Next time you see a ‘fat’ person munching down on a burger, stop and pause and consider; don’t you eat burgers too? Or pizza, or the odd takeaway. Of course you do, because you’re human just the same as them. And if you honestly don’t eat those things, well, you’re definitely missing out. Weirdo. 

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