Kudos to French designer Jean-Paul Gaultier for casting 51-year-old former French supermodel Inès de la Fressange at this week’s Paris couture shows. Gaultier, it seems, regularly likes to step outside rigidly-drawn fashion lines — he caused a storm two years ago by sending plus-size New York model Velvet down the runway in a revealing black corset.
There was some talk then if Gaultier’s choice of Velvet was more satirical than an altruistic attempt to show the diversity of beauty, but I think his choice of Fressange reaffirms his stated desire to “show that beauty can be universal.” My only sticking point is in the media coverage of Fressange. Read the description below of Fressange on the runway and then look at a shot of her taken during the show. Do the descriptions of her (emphasized by me) match the reality shown?
As the voluptuous 51-year-old strutted down the runway, the crowd cheered this one-time French queen of the catwalk.
Fashion models “are not just 14-year-olds,” Mr. Gaultier said later. “There are no [age] barriers to beauty.” The French designer explained that the curvy Ms. de la Fressange embodied the sexuality demanded his raunchy Spanish themed show, which also featured high-waisted pinstripe pants for women, suspenders and elbow-length gloves.
“Voluptuous” and “curvy” are subjective descriptors, sure, and by neutral definition, they indicate a full and well-proportioned figure — not a fat figure, mind you, but a proportioned one. But in the mainstream media and especially the insane alternate reality known as fashion, such terms are usually used as euphemisms for the dreaded F-word… FAT. Case in point: The same media outlets that ran the story on the “curvy” Fressange above are the same venues abuzz with talk of a “curvy” Jessica Simpson.
The inanity of the media and the skewering of our perceptions on reality aside… I’d like to talk about fat euphemisms in general. Camryn Manheim culled a list of fat euphemisms described of her in reviews in her memoir, “Wake Up, I’m Fat!“:
To this, I’d add other popular terms: fluffy, plush, plus-sized, juicy, chubby, big-boned, queen-sized, as well as the aforementioned curvy and voluptuous (Feel free to add any terms I’ve missed to this list).
Fat euphemisms really dig at the heart of the overall theme here — the demonization of fat is, in fact, the primary reason why I titled the site as such. Food and feminism, also dreaded F-words for many, just conveniently happened to also begin with “F” — alas, the-F-Word was born. Fat euphemisms do not exist because fat people do not know they’re fat and are thus deluded into using cutesy terms to describe themselves. Fat euphemisms exist because people do not want to label themselves (or others) as “fat” — and ergo, all the negative implications associated with the three-letter adjective. Even some self-described fat admirers admit to struggling with using the term fat.
Dictionary definitions for fat as a physical attribute include “plump; having too much flabby tissue; plentiful; abundant” etc… However in common usage, the word fat has been bastardized to also mean, to name just a few, “sloth; greed; laziness; character flaw; shortcoming; dirty; unattractive; embarrassing; lack of willpower, control; unhealthy.” For many people, especially those outside the size acceptance community, fat is a derisive, mocking term usually wielded as a verbal weapon of inner mass destruction — fat-ass, fat whale, fat bitch, fatty — so the natural inclination is to shy away from it much as anyone would any other horrible expletive. The media uses fat euphemisms to avoid coming off as attacking or insulting while still yet conveying its message that OMG, CELEBRITY X HAS GAINED WEIGHT! to image-obsessed readers. Kate Harding has written an excellent article summing up these points — read her story, originally published in Harriet Brown’s new anthology “Feed Me!” here on Salon.com.
I’m fat. Two short words, and yet it’s taken me nearly a lifetime to be able to utter them. I’m not big-boned, I’m not zaftig, and I’m certainly not fluffy. I’m fat. I also wear glasses, sport short hair I pay good money to have colored red, am short, have brown eyes and tend to dress like the before footage of guests on “What Not to Wear.” I’m fat. So what?
I prefer the term “fat” to describe myself in lieu of what I think to be silly fat euphemisms and synonyms, but I recognize that not everyone is so thick-skinned (no pun intended). I now use the word regularly even in conversations with others, but even I have to admit, hearing “You’ve got beautiful curves” still sounds much nicer than “You’re so fat.” In my academic research, there’s no getting around the use of clinical terms like “overweight” and “obese,” although I inwardly cringe each time I type them out (overweight? over whose weight?). In my personal parlance, I also like the word fat because fat is an equalizer, lumping all of us who are not of weights socially deemed to be “normal” into one big fat group of cultural deviants. It removes the barriers we construct between ourselves and forces us into the realization of just how narrow(ing) social constructions of weight and beauty harm us all, fat and thin.
For me, each time I use the word fat neutrally or better yet, positively, it chips away at the ugliness that has come to be associated with the word. How about you? Have you reclaimed the word “fat”? If so, how? And if not, what are some of the reasons why?