Like a lot of people, I spend a lot of time on The Internetz™. And much of my time there is spent in online groups and communities for other fat people. There are a lot of them! And these groups cover a wide array of topics! There are groups for healthcare concerns, groups for hygiene, groups for people who like to swim, groups for fashion, groups for talking about sex. While the topics the groups are dedicated to vary wildly, there is one topic that always comes up, in every single one, and causes a great deal of fighting and distress.
And that’s “levels of fatness.” You know: straight-sized, plus-sized, “small fat,” “infinifat,” and so on. Fategories.
These conversations almost seem to follow a script: Someone posts a question about the different “categories” of fatness they see people using. They don’t like the categories. They don’t understand them. Where is the line? Who made the rules? Are they necessary? Are we really gatekeeping fatness in this manner?! These categories, they declare, are arbitrary and rigid. They wish we would stop using them, because we are all fat in this group, and we do not need to be divided. We are more powerful united and supporting one another than divided into categories and fighting!
The person who posts this question is, almost invariably, what is deemed a “smallfat.”
So, let’s dig into this.
The Fat Spectrum: A Glossary
Isn’t “fat” enough of a descriptor? Nope! Fatness, like many things, exists on a spectrum. Over time, as fat activism has become increasingly intersectional and as communities aim to center the most marginalized in their ranks, people have developed labels that describe where they fall on the fat spectrum. These labels or categories essentially attempt to create a shorthand that describes where a person is on the spectrum of fatness and their experiences living in the world in those fat bodies.
To help you out, here is a glossary of the most commonly used terms.
There are other charts and glossaries that exist as well. Most commonly these break down these categories based on clothing size, such as this graphic from The Fat Lip Podcast:
Clothing size works as an entrance into nuanced discussions of size oppression because, well, pretty much everyone wears clothing. (No shade if you don’t! Live your best life!) And if you’re fat and identify as a woman, as the vast majority of people in these communities do, you almost definitely shop at Torrid. You know what size you are there. So these are simple, easy-to-understand categories that act as a gateway into understanding how fat people might experience the world differently at different sizes (even though all identify as fat.) It’s true that these graphics are not as inclusive as they could be, particularly to men, trans and nonbinary folks. That’s why it’s important to use these graphics carefully, as introductions to a larger discussion of access and systemic oppression of fat people.
There’s also a practical application here; if I’m in a group where I may, for instance, be looking for advice about where to buy some shorts, quickly sharing my size based on these charts means that fewer people are going to suggest H&M to me as a superfat because they don’t carry my size and I can get recommendations from people who are around the same size as me.
Some fat people may not want to use these categories or label themselves, and that’s 100% valid. These categories are most helpful as shorthand in group settings to both practically crowdsource information (“Where can a superfat find some good compression socks?”) or introduce the concept of fat oppression as a systemic issue to those who may be new to fat activism/liberation and the ideas behind it.
Fat is Not a Feeling
Something else these categories do is remind us that fat is not a feeling. It is not low self-esteem, it is not poor body image, it is not feeling shitty about yourself. It is the amount of adipose tissue on your body and how you are treated because of it. It is an actual, quantifiable thing. The more of it you have on your body, the more barriers you face just trying to live your damn life. Fatphobia is a systemic issue, meaning it is not about how one feels or an internal experience but a system that is in place to grant some people privilege while oppressing others.
Sometimes these discussions can wade into things like people discussing being the fattest person in their family or friend group, having low self-esteem or poor body image after gaining weight, being called fat by a family member or abusive partner, grappling with food and health in eating disorder recovery… so these categories act as an important reminder that none of these things actually make someone fat. Being bummed because your mom made a rude comment about putting on a little weight at dinner or asked if you really needed dessert, is not comparable to moving through the world as someone who is very fat.
The Importance of Access
Now, where many of these graphics fall short is in the nuance of discussing how clothing access is just one of many issues of access that get harder as you get fatter. People who are small or mid-fat, for instance, probably don’t have to think too hard about it if a friend or coworker offers them a ride in their car. But for people who are higher on the spectrum, that ride become fraught: Will I fit in the seat? What if the seatbelt doesn’t click? Do I have a seatbelt extender on me I can use? If I use it, will the people I’m riding with me be weird about it? Will we all have to sit in the car listening to the “beep” because I can’t buckle my seatbelt? And that experience extends to a lot of things, from flying on a plane, to going to see a movie, to eating in a restaurant, and so on.
Accessing compassionate, evidence-based healthcare becomes harder as you move up the spectrum, too. That doctor I wrote about recently? Who compared my stomach to a cancerous breast (YES REALLY!) and made me cry? They were recommended to me by someone in a fat community who said they had a great, weight-neutral experience with that doctor. They identified as midfat; I identify as superfat. At a smaller size, you may not have issues with blood pressure cuffs fitting, or worry about the weight limits on examination tables, or read that an ultrasound or scan was obscured by “patient body habitus” (meaning, your fat bod) in a report, or have a doctor give you a “come to Jesus” talk about your weight at every single appointment. Infinifats and deathfats may even encounter scales that can’t weigh them, medical equipment that does not fit them at all, and exam tables that cannot accommodate them. People over a certain size may not be able to find MRI machines that they fit into, may be denied treatment because of their weight, or may have treatments held hostage to bully them into having weight loss surgery they may not want (and did not really consent to, if they were bullied into it.)
So, when we break people into “categories of fatness,” it isn’t about clothing size. (Although access to clothes is important! Imagine trying to get ready for a job interview when you can find a single nice dress, blazer or pair of pants that aren’t leggings in your size. And wearing clothing that expressed our personal style is something that is fundamentally human, so when you can’t even find clothes that fit your body let alone make you feel confident and comfortable, imagine how that affects you.) It’s about access. It’s a way of trying to quantify the fact that people who have larger bodies face a greater degree of size oppression.
The Importance of Intersectionality
The other thing that’s important to note is that clothing size and access are not the only factors at play here.
Fat activism is intersectional. That is, it takes into account how different political and social identities overlap and interact with one another. For instance, someone who is midfat, but also trans and living with a visible disability that requires assistive devices has a very different experience than a cis, non-disabled person who is also midfat. A young fat person will not have the same experience navigating healthcare or workplace treatment/discrimination as someone who is 50+ and also fat. BIPOC (Black and Indigenous People/Persons of Color) who are fat live with racism as well as size oppression. So, these identities intersect with one another (see that?!) and it is only by considering the full picture of a person’s identity that we can understand their experience.
I’m a “superfat” (when do I get my cape?!) so I face quite a bit of difficulty obtaining healthcare, but I’m also a middle-class white, cis lady who can bring her white dude husband to appointments. Even though I face a good deal of size oppression, I am massively privileged in other ways.
So, none of the categories for fat people aim to give a full picture of what oppressions and privileges a given person lives with. What it’s aiming to do is add size oppression (and privilege) to the equation. People contain multitudes. These categories are not the end of a conversation, they are a beginning to a more nuanced discussion about access.
Why Categorizing Fatness is Even a Thing
Why These Categories Exist, The Short Answer
Because smaller fat people, and also non-fat people, entered our communities and asked questions like, “Am I fat? Who can call themselves fat? Is there, like, a minimum size I need to be to be considered fat? How fat am I? Can I claim a fat identity?”
These categories were created because thin people and people at the smaller end of the fat spectrum asked fatter people to create them.
Why These Categories Exist, The Long Answer
Remember body positivity? It was a whole movement created by fat activists. And it was pretty great! We had our own online communities and hashtags and everything. But then something started to happen… people started moving in on our communities. People using the #fatkini hashtag got thinner and thinner until people just started using it because it was trending to post their totally average and very thin bikini pics. You couldn’t swing a bingo wing without hitting a picture of a person in a bikini in a group for fat people that made you think, “Huh. Would we call that a fatkini or just a bikini?” And then people started using it to sell things to us. Slowly but surely, we got pushed out of our own movement.
I understand why: everyone has body image issues. Supermodels have body images issues. Everyone has hang-ups. That’s just what happens when we live in a world that is so focused on what we look like. And everyone wants to feel good about themselves and not stress about the extra fat roll they may have when they sit down, or that patch of cellulite on their butt, or their squishy tummy that only existed after having a baby. The dogma of self-love was irresistible.
But that wasn’t what it was about. For fat people, who face very real discrimination, loving ourselves was a radical, revolutionary act. Because the expectation was that we hate ourselves, and should hate ourselves. Fat people are often expected to be in a constant state of apology for our bodies. So, loving ourselves, expressing kindness and admiration for our bodies, upended expectations. Showing ourselves, in fat bodies, being happy and loved and joyful was a rebellious act. And then people who look like Jameela Jamil started hopping on our gravy train and it stopped being about rebellion. It became just a big love-fest for ourselves… and slowly but surely, our communities started looking a lot like the rest of the world, where certain kinds of bodies were at the forefront.
This is also happening with Health at Every Size (HAES.) HAES was explicitly created by fat activists. The trademark for HAES is held by the Association for Size Diversity and Health. It is a movement that was created to advocate for fat people and address the discrimination they experience because of their weight. However, what happened with body positivity is now in the process of happening with HAES. It’s going mainstream, and thin people are claiming it. Thin HAES providers are regurgitating the ideas and sentiments fat activists have been repeating for decades and getting book deals, hundreds of thousands of followers and Instagram, and building careers and brands based on this “anti-diet” philosophy… while writing fat people out of the HAES movement. It’s not “fat positive,” it’s “anti-diet.” It’s not “it’s okay to be fat,” it’s “all bodies are good bodies (but some bodies are more good than others).” And fat people are understandably wary of this, because our spaces have been colonized by thin people before. We’ve watched the social justice roots of those movement get torn out and replaced with the dogma of self-love and empowering the privileged.
These “fategories” were created as shorthand to get back to talking about access issues, discrimination, and what fat people experience. People in these communities got tired of explaining the nuanced issues related to fat discrimination and access, so we developed shorthand and graphics that could be downloaded and reposted when these conversations came up. Again, not everyone likes or ascribes to these labels, but many people find them useful in a group setting for this reason.
Something that commonly comes up in these types of conversations where the fatness spectrum is discussed is a question about division. “Don’t these categories just cause division and in-fighting and bad feelings? Why do we need to label ourselves and sort ourselves into groups? Aren’t we all here to support each other?”
There is a lot of in-fighting and division around this issue, but the categories themselves are not the cause. The cause is something called “smallfat fragility.”
This is a reference to a concept called “white fragility,” which was coined by academic and author Robin DiAngelo in 2011, and she wrote a book called “What Fragility: Why It’s So Hard to Talk to White People About Racism.” (And if you are white, please read this book!)
“White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.”
While it can be extremely problematic to use one form of social inequality and injustice to explain another, particularly if the person making that comparison does not belong to that marginalized group, this framework can be applied to many situations in which people who hold privilege are asked to confront that privilege. White privilege, for instance, is “informal racism” — it is not codified, like Jim Crow laws were, but that racist systems and a history of violent colonization and subjugation of BIPOC have benefitted white people for pretty much as long as white people have existed. And many people (like myself) who have benefitted from that informal racism, this legacy of white supremacy, can feel an intractable discomfort when the privilege we hold is acknowledged. Most of us can’t feel our privilege in the same way we can’t feel our tongues in our mouths. It’s only when we are asked to think about it that it becomes intensely uncomfortable.
The cognitive process of White Fragility — arguing, dismissal, defensiveness, denial, leaning into a merit-based system, are things that many privileged groups do when asked to confront systemic oppression from which they have personally benefitted. And in discussions about size privilege, that unbearable discomfort manifests itself in a number of ways you’ll also see in discussions about race (and it’s worth repeating again and again that many of these concepts were identified and named by Black women to describe White Fragility):
- Denial. Thin and smaller fat people outright deny holding privilege because of their size. This may be demonstrated by outlining the ways in which they feel they are oppressed (even though these things also apply to people who hold less privilege than them).
- Spiritual bypassing. These are calls for everyone to just get along — reminders that “we are all fighting the same fight,” calls for peace and unity and love and light. These are not genuine, but a desperate attempt to stop a situation that is uncomfortable for them and return to a place where they did not feel the discomfort they are feeling. You may even see a literal “namaste” thrown in.
- Tone policing. This is where people deflect by asking that marginalized people just not be so mean or angry or accusative in conversations about their own marginalization.
- Centering. This is essentially taking the conversation and turning into how you feel. For instance, white women often do this on issues of race — derailing a conversation that was about the feelings of marginalized people into being about the feelings of yourself, or others who hold privilege. My god, won’t someone think of the thins! This can also be done when thin or thinner people remind others of the work they have done “for them” — meaning, “I wrote this book to help you (and build my brand that I make a living from) and what I do is to advocate for people like you,” centering the conversation on their own accomplishments and work to deflect from the work that still needs to be done.
- Asking for/demanding emotional and intellectual labor. This often looks like “getting it” or trying to learn, but involves lots of “explain it to me” and asking people to spend time convincing people who hold privilege over them that what they experience is real and valid.
- I know you are but what am I. This defense tactic entails attempting convince people claiming oppression that they are, in fact, the oppressors. In discussions of race, this is usually seen in cries of “reverse racism.” In discussions about weight stigma, this often manifests as people who are thin or on the smaller end of the fat spectrum acting as though there is a Council of Fat Overlords acting as gatekeepers of fatness who are the real people who hold privilege and policing the rights and voices of those who are smaller than them. (As a member of the Council, I must insist that all inquiries be directed to our Press Lord, by writing your message on the top of a pizza box and sending it via raven. With a hot pizza inside. Thanks.)
- Defecting/leaving. This is really common in groups I’m in. When this conversation gets to be too much for the smaller people in the group, they leave… and often form their own group for themselves without realizing how delightful the irony is when they have been complaining about there being too much division in the group based on size and privilege.
So, while all of these things can and do happen in relation to systemic oppressions like fat stigma, a fun layer is that we also see White Fragility happen within these conversations.
Ultimately, what this does to the people who are marginalized is exhaust them. It pushes them out, because they run around in circles trying to penetrate an impenetrable wall of denial. And that is how we get pushed out of our own communities — we get tired of having the same argument over and over again, feel physical pain anytime someone asks “hey, so I am new but what does ‘smallfat’ mean and how do I know if I am one?” and we just stay silent until we can take it no longer and then we leave. There, you can have body positivity. We no longer want it. Congratulations, the clubhouse is yours.
What to Do About It
I understand why this happens: fat people have created some beautiful, progressive, supportive groups. And lots of people want access to that kind of space. I get it! But it’s also a real problem in these spaces and ultimately when the balance tips and a space starts to become more comfortable for those who hold privilege than those who don’t have it, it does real harm. It wrests control of the space, the movement, away from the people it was intended to center and help.
So, ultimately, this is a question of how to be a good ally. And that’s a whole other 3,000 word blog, but here’s a thin outline of how to do it:
- See that list above? Stop doing those things. This is pretty simple! Stop and think, “Am I engaging in spiritual bypassing? Am I centering this conversation on myself?” Anyone can do this and it will make you a better ally.
- Do your homework. Need some more information about fat liberation, fat activism, and its history? Do a Google search. Read some books. Take the initiative to educate yourself before you jump into a conversation, or ask others educate you. The information is out there! Please find it. And before you barge in with a question (“What is a ‘smallfat’ and how do I know if I am one?”), listen to others, learn from what they say, and if possible, scan the group your in for past discussions you can learn from.
- Sit with and interrogate your own discomfort. You are allowed to have feelings and reactions! That’s part of being human. But before you rush to anger, before you pound out a comment about the oppressiveness of the term “smallfat,” before you share your feelings, sit with it for a minute. Are you uncomfortable? What is it that you’re feeling? Why do you feel that way? Are you threatened? What is at the heart of this feeling? Are you having a gut reaction to being asked to confront your own privilege?
- Learn to be uncomfortable. It’s the only way you can grow and stop allowing these violent reactions to take hold. It’s okay to be uncomfortable, it’s okay to be challenged, and it’s normal to feel a reaction when something fundamental about you is challenged in some way. It’s a matter of how you respond to that feeling. Do you indulge it? Or do you grow from it?
- De-center yourself. Remind yourself that when you hold privilege, your feelings and experiences should not be the center of attention, and that marginalized people have no obligation to comfort you, coddle you, educate you, or perform emotional labor for your benefit.
- When you feel you have the hang of it, have our backs. Call in your fellow thin or smallfat people when you see them engaging in the same old bullshit. That doesn’t mean you need to speak for anyone — but stick up for the most marginalized in your ranks, get into the weeds with other people who hold privilege, and have those uncomfortable conversations that exhaust and alienate people whose oppression is being discussed. This can be sharing links, recommending books, linking them to this blog (hi!), or just breaking things down so that the people who are most marginalized are not stuck doing that labor. For instance, because I’m a superfat, I try to jump into conversations where I see things going south for people who are “infinifat” or simply subject to a larger degree of size discrimination than myself.
Ultimately, I wrote this post because I want it to be a resource for people having these discussions. I want fat people to be able to share it so that they do not have to independently break down these concepts time and time again. I know there is some discord related to the categories, especially their dependence on clothing sizes, so I aimed to make a graphic that was more inclusive of access issues (which was hard because I’m not a graphic designer and there are so many words so I hope I stumbled onto something marginally helpful!).
And I wrote this post to be educational — if you hold privilege, how are you behaving in ways that are causing harm? Are you engaging in “smallfat fragility” or “thin fragility”? (Also, white people, are you engaging in White Fragility?!) Use this post of nearly 4,000 words to check yourself, and pull it out whenever you need it.