Last week, Anderson Cooper, in a moment of warranted irritation with Donald Trump’s temper tantrum regarding the recent election, described the POTUS as “an obese turtle on his back flailing in the hot sun, realizing his time is over.”
Really?? Come on, Anderson. “Like a turtle on its back” is a common way to describe someone who is powerless and struggling. Why did you feel the need to throw the word “obese” in there?
I’ll venture a guess: Because, like millions of other people, words that mean fat run to the tip of your tongue when you want to hurt or malign someone, especially when your emotions are running high.
Fatphobia is just that ingrained in almost all of us.
It was totally fine for you to point out that Donald Trump is a petulant man-baby who always screams, “No fair!” when he doesn’t get his way. He’s the leader of an entire coutnry, and if he doesn’t want people to comment on his poor behavior, he should act better.
But it was not fine to default to insulting the size of his body when choosing your comments. That’s where this simile went sideways.
Donald Trump is not a thin man. By most standards, Donald Trump is fat. But he doesn’t suck because he’s fat. He sucks, and he is fat. Those are unconnected facts.
Now, I like Anderson Cooper. He comes across as a nice guy to me. His baby is cute. He is likable and smart, and I believe him when he says he regrets that particular choice of words. Nobody panic and cancel Anderson Cooper.
This isn’t really an Anderson Cooper problem.
He might be the most recent example, but this is actually a society problem.
Society does not like fatness or fat people. Fat jokes are everywhere. People are terrified of ever becoming fat. Our entire culture is obsessed with striving for thinness. The diet industry makes billions of dollars every year for a reason. Going from fat to thin is always considered a glow-up transformation, with no regard for how or why it happened. Fatphobia is literally everywhere.
I think the reason why we continue to see people use "obese" as an insult to Trump is that being fat is supposed to be politically disqualifying
Fat people are supposed to be systematically shut out of all forms of structural power
— Mean Fat Girl- 🏳️🌈💄 (@Artists_Ali) November 6, 2020
The word “obese” is especially problematic because it’s a medical term.
It has no place outside of a medical setting (and some would argue its place inside a medical setting is questionable, too). You would never throw out any other diagnosis in order to hurt someone. You’d respect a person’s medical history as private and largely out of their control. Obesity is one of the few situations wherein a person is given a diagnosis and then blamed almost entirely for it.
Furthermore, an obesity diagnosis often leads to medical neglect for fat people, and that sucks. We deserve adequate care. Every single thing that goes wrong in fat person’s body cannot and should not be dismissed as obesity-related. And yet, that is precisely what happens to many of us time and time again.
If fat people are sick of the word “obese,” it’s because it’s been used as a weapon to justify our mistreatment for entirely too long. The science of body size is complicated, and fatphobia shares roots with other kinds of oppression, including racism. Weight bias and fat stigma are often heaped onto already marginalized people as one more hurdle they have to overcome in order to be treated humanely. I’m fat, but my other forms of privilege often protect me from harm. Many fat people can’t say the same.
Stop using “obese” as an insult.
It’s not your own personal adjective to shoot like a poison arrow at anyone you don’t like. It’s an unfortunate and stigmatizing medical descriptor. Take the word obese out of your vocabulary unless you are referring to your own diagnosis (because, for better or for worse, I believe you should get to choose your own descriptors), or you are a medical professional. Even then, find a way to use it sparingly, without attaching shame and stigma to it, or find another word.
But just throwing out the word obese is not enough.
If you are seeking to describe someone in an unfavorable way, resist the urge to bring the size of their body into the conversation at all. It’s irrelevant and it makes you look unintelligent. Nobody ever gained respect by being a really stellar body-shamer.
You might think it’s no big deal. Maybe you’d never use body size to hurt a nice, kind, moral person, but you think it’s okay if the person is famous and won’t ever hear you, or if their behavior makes you feel like they really “deserve it.” You’re wrong.
When innocent fat people hear public figures and their friends and family describing other people as fat in order to insult or malign them, it hurts us, too. Nobody deserves to hear fat-related words used as insults because being fat is not inherently negative. The size of a person’s body has no bearing on whether they are kind, moral, respectable, or intelligent. There is literally never a reason to comment on it.
Sometimes, a fat person is going to do something that sucks.
It’s totally correct to call them out for it, especially if they are the leader of the free world. But stay on topic and resist the urge to bring their body size into the equation.
Body-shaming is never necessary or okay. Ever. Fat people are allowed to exist in the bodies that we have without accepting that most of the world just gets to talk about us like we are less human than everyone else. Find a way to be better. Fat people don’t deserve to hear a constant stream of disrespect, insults and shame just because you’re too lazy to confront your fatphobia and learn a thing or two.