Donald Trump has a long history of disparaging women, but his recent comments on how Alicia Machado “gained a massive amount of weight” have sparked a national conversation on fat-shaming. Research, not to mention the lived experience of so many individuals, documents the serious damage weight-based abuse and prejudice can wreak, from clinical depression to employment discrimination. Our increased awareness of, and, if current discourse is any measure, cultural sensitivity to the effects of fat-shaming thus raises the linguistic question: Is fat becoming a swear word?
Opinions vary on whether slurs, such as fat, behave in the same ways swear words like fuck or shit do. But in his new book What the F, professor Benjamin Bergen views profanity more broadly as the taboo vocabulary a culture deems offensive. He organizes this vocabulary according to a useful heuristic: the “Holy Fucking Shit Nigger Principle.” Holy comprises swears that concern the sacred, fucking the sexual, shit the bodily, and nigger, the derogation of social groups. Different cultures find these different categories more or less taboo: Some of the strongest swears in Quebecois, as linguist John McWhorter observed in an interview with Bergen, favor the holy vein; in Taiwanese, it’s fucking.
Attitudes about the offensiveness of swears also change over time. Sacred-based swears, such as a taken-in-vain Jesus Christ, are vastly milder to most English speakers today than they were centuries back, while group-based slurs, like fag, say, now often cause the greatest injury. As timely evidence of this trend, take the discovery of Twitter hate speech that codes slurs (e.g., skype = Jew) so their users can avoid account suspension—not over a fuck, Jesus, or dick, but over racial epithets. While no cocksucker or Kike, the word fat, in its power to denigrate a group of people, appears to be headed in this direction.
Consider just two of the weight-based insults Donald Trump has heaped on Rosie O’Donnell in their long-running feud: “a big, fat pig” and “my nice little fat Rosie.” On the surface, Trump’s use of fat sounds like schoolyard name-calling (a childishness he may actually hide behind in self-defense). But, under the skin, these fats reek with a patronizing and dehumanizing sexism, smelling all the more rotten when we consider them alongside other Trumpian descriptions of O’Donnell as a “loser” who is “out of control” and “deserves” the abuse. Fat on its own might sound just cruel or callow, but in Trump’s mouth, the word signals a deeper failure—of self, gender, morality, even humanity, all in one short syllable.
We don’t just pair fat with animals like pig, cow, or whale. We frequently use the word to intensify other swears: fat ass, fat fucker, and fat bitch are common examples. Try substituting more neutral terms for fat like overweight or obese: overweight bitch or obese fucker. Certainly people have uttered these alternatives, but they don’t seethe with the same level of contempt that fat does.
Swear words have layers of euphemistic counterparts: shit has the baby-talking poop or the scientific feces; fuck, to have sex or bone; god has gosh or, reaching back into history, minced oaths like ‘Swounds. Fat displays a similar behavior: It has the more colloquial chubby, the retail plus-size or curvy, and the medical overweight and obese. Many of these euphemisms, in spite of their best intentions, don’t escape the original negativity of fat, which only underscores how hard it is for us to talk about weight as a culture.
Fat is situated in a sweary lexical space, but is it actually offensive enough to be taboo? Words evolve: Until recently, gay and retard were widely and casually synonymous with “stupid” or “worthless.” Social progress with respect to the transgender community has squarely moved tranny into the “unacceptable” column, as has the growing inclusion of persons with disabilities in the case of crippled or mental. And similar shifts are afoot for terms like illegals. Societally, we are recognizing, or at least seeking to recognize, a greater range of identities and experiences than just race, sex, and creed, and this includes ability, age, mental health, immigration status, and, yes, body. As our attitudes towards such groups shift, so does the language we use to talk about them. Fat fits this trend.
As does the inevitable backlash against language policing. One tweeter reacted to Trump’s fat-shaming of Alicia Machado: “The whole issue of political correctness is an excuse to censor speech. Fat is Fat. Skinny is Skinny. #AliciaMachado #TrumpTrain.” If we can’t call someone fat, what’s next? Are we not allowed to talk about fat-cat politicians or low-fat diets? Are we going to force New Belgium Brewing to change the name of its Fat Tire Amber Ale?
Such protestations overlook a few important facts. First, censorship and taboos are not the same thing. Censorship is a decision made by a person, group, or institution to suppress content deemed objectionable, such as slurs and swears, but the N-word remains taboo whether it’s censored, say, in this article or not. Second, words accommodate multiple meanings that vary across context. We can handle just fine the eschatological Hell alongside the interjectional Hell yes! We can easily distinguish between the sense and intention of calling a paycheck fat and calling a person fat.
But most important, words vary across speakers, too. In a counter-backlash, many people are reclaiming the word fat, following in the self-empowering, anti-hegemonic tradition of women who are taking back bitch or gay people fag. (Currently, the reclamation of fat prevails among women, which should remind us that fat is also a sexist construct.) As blogger Jes Baker explains, “We don’t need to stop using the word ‘fat,’ we need to stop the hatred that our world connects with the word ‘fat.’” If the word fat becomes taboo, then we’ve only acknowledged the unacceptability of insulting people on the basis of weight. This doesn’t mean we’ve dismantled the notion that being overweight, a physical condition, is inherently and objectively wrong or evil, a social construction. In fact, tabooing fat may even serve to normalize the stigma the word represents, and our euphemistic replacements, be it curvy, overweight, or some other term yet conjured up, will take on all the negativity, all the inferiority, all the insidious and toxic shame we pile on the idea being overweight.
The real question, then, is not whether the word fat can become or is becoming a swear word. It’s whether it should be. As Robert Lane Greene recently observed in the Economist, “Taboo words, ultimately, are those that people treat as taboo, the treatment itself giving them their force.” In our shaming of the word fat, we must seriously consider what—and whom—it is we are shaming.