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How Words Like 'Flattering' Contribute to Size Stigma

Changing the way we talk about weight is key to ending fatphobia.

by Miranda Martin
December 18, 2019 | Living

Even with body positivity gaining traction, we live in a society that stigmatizes larger bodies. And the language we use contributes to that stigma, said Dena Huisman, associate professor of communication studies at University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

When we say an item of clothing is “flattering,” we usually mean it's slimming. Words and phrases like that help sustain a culture that assumes thin is better, and affords more respect to people who are thinner.

“We all know the codes. We all know what someone means when they use words like 'slimming' or 'flattering,'" Huisman said.

“We create our reality through the words that we use in everyday contexts. ... When someone says, 'Oh my God, I feel so fat,' what they are saying is they look bad... This casual expression reinforces that being fat is a terrible thing."

Little comments like that might seem like nothing in the moment, but being mindful of the way you talk about size is a small change that can help destigmatize larger bodies.

"It is important to know that there is no single figure or weight that truly represents health and that we can change negative stereotypes to create a broader 'picture of health' as a society that does not solely focus on body weight,” registered dietician nutritionist Allie Fons said.

Fatphobia, even in progressive media

But it's hard to change habits around how we talk about size, because fatphobic language is everywhere, normalized by the media we consume.

That's the case even on "Queer Eye," a show that is supposed to represent all things positive, accepting, inclusive and diverse.

It's highlighted most when Tan France does his wardrobe makeovers. When he dresses plus-sized folks, talk quickly turns to how "flattering" the clothing is. Rather than focus on what the star of the episode wants to wear, he seems to reinforce the importance of clothing being "slimming."

In season 4, episode 4, “How Wanda Got Her Groove Back,” Tan comments on Wanda's size, even as Wanda tries to turn the conversation to how the clothes themselves look.

When Wanda tries on a shirt and says she loves the ruffles on it, he says, “This was the area you were the most self-conscious about, I can’t see any of that right now, because this is so distracting,” referring to the ruffles.

He also asks her if she ever wears shapewear. When she says no, he continues, “I want to make sure I’m doing you every favor I can, which means shapewear, so you feel smoothed out.”

This unintentionally sends the message that plus-size people can't look good in clothes without the help of constricting shapewear. More broadly, the conversation suggests that Wanda's body is something to hide or fix, and it puts the focus on her weight, rather than the clothes themselves. It says plus-size people should only wear certain "flattering" things, not the things they want to wear.

In real life, this has consequences. And these messages in popular media don't help.

“Putting so much emphasis on weight can prompt unhealthy eating and exercise habits, such as eating extremely small amounts and exercising extremely large amounts, which can cause injury and other health complications,” Fons said.

"It is necessary to let go of the thought that weight is the same thing as health if we want to truly create healthful habits in our lives and help others to do the same.”

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What you can do

We can't all be members of the Fab Five. But even without a huge platform we can help counteract the effects of fatphobia in the media and in the world at large.

“If a person watches fat-shaming content but they are surrounded by people who are fat-positive and body accepting, the media content will probably have less impact than the person who watches and is also surrounded by fat-shaming friends and family," Huisman said.

She believes "everyday communication in relationships" is the most powerful force for having a positive relationship with yourself, no matter your size. That means adopting and espousing a body-positive outlook can help the people around you. Body positivity creates more body positivity.

If we want to change stereotypes, we need to change the way we speak to ourselves and others. Here's Huisman's advice for counteracting fatphobia with language:

1. “If a fat person says they are fat, don’t feel embarrassed or try to tell them they aren’t. ... Don’t allow yourself to see that as a dirty or offensive word."

2. "When you hear those fat jokes or fat-shaming statements, try to call it out."

3. "Don’t allow yourself to link the word 'lazy' with 'fat.' Don’t let yourself link the word 'beautiful' with 'thin.'"

Miranda Martin
Miranda Martin has written for FloSports, Ms. Magazine and more. You can contact her at [email protected] or visit her website to see more of her writing.
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