As a general rule, phrases that offend groups of people are off limits in any respectful and caring group of people. Words that bring down folks in certain demographics have evolved into things that are just not OK to say, even as a joke.
But that doesn’t seem to apply as much to fat-shaming. Many people still use phrases without realizing (or, worse, without caring) that they’re offensive.
According to Tigress Osborn, the board chair of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, our associations with eating and body types can be traced back to historical ideas about racism and white purity.
“In an American sense especially, white Christian purity and what it means to be a ‘good woman’ has to do with controlling yourself, controlling your appetites, controlling your body,” Osborn said.
And self-control was a way to differentiate oneself from others, particularly Black and indigenous people.
“We don’t think often enough about how much all of our ideas about why fat is so bad and so gross are related to these really racist and eugenicist ideas about what bodies should be and what behavior about food should be like,” she said.
In addition to this history, these offensive phrases are deeply rooted in a pervasive diet culture that has plagued society for decades. The idea that thin is ideal ― and healthy ― is everywhere, from the TV we view to the social media posts we see.
Below, experts share what these common anti-fat phrases are and how you can be a little more mindful of your language:
‘You’ve lost weight! You look great.’
“‘You lost weight, you look great’ is an automatic response that a lot of us give, but it also implies the person didn’t look great before,” said Christine Byrne, an eating disorder dietitian and the owner of Ruby Oak Nutrition in Raleigh, North Carolina. “And that they look better just because they’re smaller, so that’s problematic.”
Byrne added that first, you shouldn’t comment on someone’s body size; second, it’s just inappropriate to say to someone without any context.
“There are all kinds of reasons people lose weight, and a lot of them are bad,” she said. The person could have an acute illness, could have an eating disorder, could be battling a serious illness that is causing weight loss or could be suffering from extreme anxiety that impacts their eating habits, Byrne added.
Beyond this, many people who do lose weight eventually gain it back. “You’re just kind of setting someone up to feel bad when that happens, which is likely,” she said.
‘You’re not fat, you’re beautiful.’
According to Ivy Felicia, a body image expert, certified wellness coach and founder of Fat Women of Color in Washington, D.C., an all-time popular phrase is telling someone they’re beautiful to console them if they say they’re fat. But it ends up being a backhanded compliment, even when it’s not meant that way.
“It’s basically separating fat from value,” Felicia said. Fat and beautiful “can co-exist at the same time in the same body in the same being,” but this reaction implies that isn’t possible.
Another version of this is when a fat person refers to themselves as fat, and the response from a friend is, “oh, you’re not fat,” Osborn said.
“Well, I’m clearly fat, so what you are telling me is ‘don’t say that horrible thing about yourself,’ and what I’m telling you is ’it’s not a horrible thing about myself, it’s just one of the many things that I am,’” Osborn added.
This is a way that “people nice their way into an unintended insult,” Osborn said.
‘I’m having a cheat day.’
Diet culture is everywhere. It’s hard to go on social media and not find an influencer touting a new green juice or diet pill, and it’s hard to go to the grocery store without being bombarded by “healthier” low-calorie, low-carb food options.
One term that comes straight from diet culture is “cheat day,” according to Osborn. A cheat day is “the idea that there’s a universally right way to eat and you can have a special day to be ‘bad,’” Osborn said. “It’s applying moralistic language to eating.”
Moreover, “cheat day” implies you can only have one day like this. Otherwise, you’ll get fat, Osborn added. “It’s a really troubling phrase,” she said.
‘I’m going to be bad and have this cookie.’
“In our modern world, we’re not thinking about how all of the ways that we think about [food and weight] comes from this really gross history of intentionally trying to position one community against another,” Osborn said.
Going back to the racist idealogy behind anti-fat attitudes, Osbon said this phrase means “I’m not going to be like ‘those people’” by eating a cookie, slice of pizza, cupcake or whatever the “unhealthy” food item is.
It’s not “bad” to consume what you want, and you should stop yourself from thinking that way. Food doesn’t have a moral value.
‘At least you’ll be skinny after being sick.’
Have you ever had a stomach bug or another illness and heard someone say, “at least you’ll feel skinny tomorrow?” You probably have. Or you may even think this to yourself when battling the flu or a cold.
Tegan Lecheler, a member-at-large with the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, said this phrase she’s heard after someone has the flu or even COVID. It’s a problematic phrase for a multitude of reasons, Lecheler noted, but “ultimately, those are illnesses that can have really severe effects on your well-being long-term.”
This is a thought pattern engrained in our culture, and “feeling skinny” after a mild sickness is almost considered the upside of getting sick, which is hugely problematic. No one should have to suffer in any capacity to achieve a made-up societal standard of beauty.
‘I feel fat.’
How often have you heard someone say they “feel fat”? Probably pretty frequently, and this is not OK.
“Body size is not a feeling, it is a physicality,” Osborn said. So, when you say you “feel fat” (which is an all-too-common phrase), she added that you’re actually using fat as a synonym for a negative feeling you’re having.
Oppositely, Osborn explained that when you say you “feel thin,” you’re using thin to say that you’re feeling good or better than other people.
What should you do if you hear someone say something fat-shaming?
These phrases are pervasive in our culture, so it’s reasonable to think you will hear someone utter one soon. “It is important to recognize that not everyone feels safe pushing back against this stuff, there is such a stigma against fatness in our culture,” Byrne said.
Additionally, it’s not safe for everyone to push back, and she added that it’s important to protect yourself mentally and physically in these situations. “You are under no obligation to say anything if a fat-shaming [comment] has been directed at you and you don’t feel safe in the situation,” Byrne explained. “I think if you’re a thin person listening to a comment that is fat-shaming, you are probably in a more safe position to say something about it.”
Byrne suggested the following comments and noted that “I feel” or “I don’t” comments can be a more comfortable approach:
- “Hey, that’s an anti-fat comment, that’s not cool.”
- “I just don’t like to talk negatively about my body or other people’s bodies.”
- “I noticed that I feel a lot better when I don’t criticize my body or other people’s bodies.”
- “I’ve noticed that I feel a lot better when I don’t worry about what I eat so much.”
- “I don’t talk about bodies that way.”
You can also choose just to leave the conversation or change the subject, no matter how abrupt the subject change is, Byrne said.
Lecheler added that it’s OK to revisit fat-shaming comments after the fact if you don’t know what to say at the moment, too.
Additionally, Lecheler said if you are going into a situation where someone may be weight-shamed (like at holiday dinners), you can talk to your friend or family member ahead of time and ask them what they’d like you to do if the situation arises.
Finally, if you think or say these things to yourself, try to stop.
These phrases are harmful yet embedded in our culture — some are even mistaken for polite responses. All of this makes it hard to remove these words from your vocabulary and your way of thinking, but it’s important to try and do so.
“The central question is when people are using these phrases that are really body-shaming or food-shaming, what do you really mean?” Osborn said. “You don’t really mean that, or if you do, maybe you want to examine that means in how you relate to other humans in your community.”