How to reclaim body-shaming labels, according to activists


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Photo: Becki Smith of Smith House Photo

Model Tess Holliday has been called “fat” her entire life.

At the Create & Cultivate conference in Los Angeles this past Saturday, she shared this intimate detail while sitting on a “Body Positive” panel with influencers Jessamyn Stanley, Ericka Hart, Mama Cāx, and Danika Brysha. She then admitted that she felt as though the label had “ruined her life,” until one day her perception shifted.

“I woke up and I was like ‘Holy sh*t, I’m fat,'” she explained. “[Then I thought], why am I trying to fight it? Why am I trying to make this a bad thing?” She decided to take back control of the word, adding it into the title of her book The Not So Subtle Art of Being A Fat Girl: Loving The Skin You’re In. 

“The word ‘fat’ is just an adjective that means large. It doesn’t mean ugly, or stupid, or lazy, or all these other words that people want to put with the definition.”—Jessamyn Stanley

This reclaiming is what’s known as the reappropriation of language. In less academic terms, it’s when a person or group revalues a negative label by applying it to themselves (e.g. “nasty woman”). Talk of it hit a nerve on the panel, and Stanley and Cāx also took turns sharing what it means to them and how or why they’ve reappropriated labels in their own lives.

Cāx, for example, told a deeply personal story about how in Haiti, where she’s from, the disabled are considered to be cursed. As a result, they’re largely avoided. “I remember as a kid, I locked eyes with this homeless woman who had a disability,” she said. “For two weeks I was terrified, like, ‘Oh my god, she’s probably a demon and she’s going to [jinx] me.'” When Cāx underwent a leg amputation a few years later, she initially rejected the label of “disabled person” because of this negative association; however, she eventually realized it’s now one of her main identities.

create and cultivate
Photo: Becki Smith of Smith House Photo

Within the disabled community, she said, she’s heard a lot of, “No, we’re not disabled people, we’re people with disabilities,” which she says is an idea she now rejects. “It’s so hard for people to wrap their head around the idea that someone with a disability is a person that they almost have to remind themselves, ‘Okay it’s a person who has a disability,'” she said. “I decided to change [the way I speak about my disability] because I don’t walk around saying ‘I’m a person with blackness,’ so why would it be otherwise for disability?”

Stanley, meanwhile, expressed her dismay at the idea that certain labels have negative connotations to begin with. “This is pointing to a much bigger thing in our society where anything that makes us different is bad,” she said. “[But], the things that differentiate us are what make us so amazing.” 

She then described how she’s managed to dismantle the same specific term with which Holliday had struggled. “The word ‘fat’ is just an adjective that means large; it doesn’t mean ugly, or stupid, or lazy, or all these other words that people want to put with the definition,” she said, before underlining a core belief that allows her to similarly disempower any label. “Understanding that who I am can’t be defined by other people helps to take the guns out of these words.” Metaphorical mic drop.

Ashely Graham would approve of this panel: Here’s why she thinks we need to keep talking about body positivity. Not quite there yet on your own journey to self-love? This surprising thing might help, and you can do it right now.

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