Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Let's Talk: Co-Opting Words

The other day, when I was thinking about what I'd like to write about on le blog this week, I decided I wanted to discuss the word "fat." I've been doing a lot of body image talk in the past few months, and you guys have shown a lot of interest and support (and for that, I'm really grateful, just so you know). I've been trying-- dunno if anyone noticed-- to write something related to that topic every week. I don't want to sound like a broken record, though, and I've been hoping to think of different angles to tackle and all that.

That said, I'm an English major, which sort've implies I'm in an ongoing love affair with words. I love picking apart meanings and really thinking about the things we say, their implications, and their origins. I think language is endlessly fascinating and that, even if it's not your cup of tea, you can probably acknowledge it's pretty darn interesting.

"Fat" is the word I've been thinking about lately. After discovering the whole boundless world of plus-size lifestyle and fashion blogs, I began to use the word more freely-- even in context of myself. Though what everyone considers fat is very different, I see my body every day and feel it falls somewhere toward/on that end of the spectrum. Many larger bloggers out there today seem completely accepting of the word, even using it in blog titles (Young, Fat, & Fabulous, for example), without being judgey. In the plus-size blogging word, it seems that "fat" isn't as judgey as it can be out here in the "real" world. It's a word that can be used either with pride or as a simple acknowledgment of size, just as someone who call themselves "thin." Of course, the two words have two completely different connotations. Fat bad, thin good. You know the deal.

I was going to write about how I think the process of co-opting the word "fat" is incredibly positive... but then... well, I didn't know. Is it? Why not another, more P.C. word? And considering that I think co-opting hurtful racist or sexist language is usually incredibly harmful, what is it that makes this word so different?

So then I didn't know what I thought.

At my college, we have a lecture series called Difficult Dialogues, in which speakers come and discuss topics that people are often too uncomfortable to deal with. We've had speakers on Invisible Children, the conflict in the Middle East (Norman Finkelstein, after some scheduling issues, gave a lecture), and aspects of Black culture in American society, to name a few in very broad terms. I wanted to think of this post sort've like that, like a dialogue among me, you, and everyone else that reads and comments. I thought maybe we could exchange opinions, engage in-- respectful, please-- debate, and learn something from each other about a topic that's a bit controversial.

So shall we? Wanna? Let's go!

What do you think of co-opting words? Are there "negative" words that you use, positively, to refer to yourself? What do you think the boundaries are for co-opting? Are there any? I'd love to hear your thoughts!*

EDIT: Georgie brought up an interesting quote in the comments from Mean Girls: "You all have got to stop calling each other sluts and whores. It just makes it okay for guys to call you sluts and whores." This reminded me of an old news story that The Boondocks satirized (if you watch both clips, they basically copy it exactly) where a White teacher calls a Black student "nigga." While there's a lot that's WRONG about that (the teacher was obviously out of line), you can't ignore the logic he used: Black people who use the n-word tend to imply with an "-a" it's positive and with an "-er" it's bad... so why can't anyone say "nigga?" And if Black people don't like the word, why do they use it?

(Both clips NSFW due to language).

* As always, please be try to be respectful of one another. I'm all for differing opinions-- and I want to hear it all, don't be shy!-- but anything that seems to be blatantly hurtful will be deleted at my discretion.


Kelly said...

I'm not entirely sure how I feel about it. On one hand, if a group of people or a subculture embraces a word that other people use to try to insult them, it sort of takes some of that insulting power away from the word. It's hard(er) to make someone feel bad about themselves by calling them a name if that person already uses that label for themselves. But then again, if the word didn't have power over people, they wouldn't feel the *need* to embrace these words as their own. So the fact that people embrace these words at all is sort of an admission of defeat from the get-go. Someone wouldn't feel the need to identify herself as "Fat Sarah" (as opposed to just "Sarah") if she felt that other people could see past the "fat" to begin with.

And situations like that T-shirt picture really rub me the wrong way because 1) It assumes that I wouldn't want to hang out with the person wearing it until/unless they admitted to that personal "flaw." I know it's a joke, but still...
2) It makes the wearer a cartoon of himself. Now I'm no longer hanging out with Bob, I'm partying with a crazy jolly fat guy who also happens to be named Bob. Again, it's as if the wearer assumes I couldn't see past his fat on my own until he acknowledges it. And it's insulting to the person looking at the shirt as well as to the wearer.

I think it's sad that people even have to "own" their weight - because it assumes that unless you are fully conscious of your size at every moment, it will be used against you by other people. I'm not saying that's not true, because a lot of times it is, I just hate that it's even a situation people are in.

I'm not being clear today. I hope this comment isn't as incoherent as I think it probably is.

Sarah_J_Evans said...

I think if a word empowers a person and makes them feel strong to say it then it can be a good thing. Even if that word has negative connotations when used by someone else.

I think the only thing which can be an issue is if it becomes too much of how you are identified. Beyonce said that her bootilicious single was the feeling she had from a moment in time and that she is sometimes kinda embarassed by it now as it can be too much associated with her.



Bec said...

I personally don't like it. In my opinion there is a big difference between identifying with a word that describes your cultural heritage and identifying with a word that insults you physically.

Using a word like 'nigger' or 'wog' amongst your friends to stop people using it as an insult against you is a way of saying 'yeah this is who I am, its not insulting to label me by my heritage'. Being labelled as fat on the other hand and accepting that as something that defines you has got to be heartbreaking, it's like being the girl with bad skin.

Anonymous said...

I think the only time it's come close to working is with "queer," and even then it still has a considerable negative connotation in many areas.

But I remember several of us blogging about "bitch" and how most of us HATE attempts at "reclaiming" the word. But "fat" is an adjective, and inherently a neutral one. It's okay to be fat. But it's not okay to be a bitch.

There wasn't too much of a point to that, but I just wanted to complain about people being proud of being bitches.

Vanessa said...

Kelly: I think it's great you brought up the photo I used, because I hadn't thought about it as sort've making a caricature of the person wearing it. I think that's true, in a sense. I wonder if you'd feel different, if say, the shirt said simply said "Fat" instead of implying you don't want to hang out with the wearer. I also think it's a great point that it's a shame people need to "own" things like weight, whereas it's not so important with other aspects of appearance (I've never heard of someone not wanting to hang out with the brunette girl, for example). I don't get why people can't just be, you know, people, regardless of how much physical space their bodies occupy.

Sarah: I think that's a good point in that people should be able to identify however they want if it makes them feel better, but I just tend to have doubts that it's ALWAYS positive, and I tend to wonder what the greater implications are in some cases. (I've been trying to think of a good response to this, but I'm still really grappling with what I want to SAY).

Bec: I'm really interested by where you draw your distinction-- the heritage words vs the personal description words-- because while I think both categories have gray areas, the racial ones are actually the ones that make me most uncomfortable. I actually find it saddening when Black people use the n-word to refer to themselves. Maybe it's because the violence associated with that word really isn't that far gone (or at all), or that now think about my biracial boyfriend and, if we stay together, the multiracial kids I'll have someday when I hear it. There's an interesting essay out there (pretty old by now, I'm sure) by Amy Tan that I think is called "Being a Chink" on this topic exactly.

Laura: I remember that post! I think "bitch" is one of those words that's a great example in this kind of debate, since a lot of pro-woman/feminist people have tried to make it something positive, almost meaning something like "strong" rather than insufferable or nasty. Remember that Alanis Morissette song, "I'm a Bitch?" Just saying, but anyway. I feel like a lot of times when women say "yeah, I'm a bitch, so what?" they're trying to get at a much deeper, empowering sentiment than is expressed by this word.

georgie said...

well, my close friends and i address each other as whore in a joking sense, and i'm not really sure why we do, i think it's because when you're close you joke around a lot in ways that would be seen as rude to people outside the circle, i mean you would never jokingly call someone you just met a whore would you? no, it would be pretty offensive.

but just because we do it doesn't make it right, and to shamelessly reference Mean Girls: "you all have got to stop calling each other sluts and whores. It just makes it ok for guys to call you sluts and whores."

Kelly said...

I actually think I would still find the shirt to be caricature-ish even if it just said "FAT." Really, if I just met that guy on the street the first thing that would strike me about him would not be his weight. I don't really think that he looks overweight - so first of all, if I wouldn't have considered him "fat" to begin with, now he's almost forcing me to think that of him because he's basically labeling himself as that. And how am I going to argue with him and say, "your shirt says you're fat, but you're not"? That would just be awkward. But then I'd feel like if I said nothing, I was agreeing with it...and either way, I'd be focusing on the shirt's word instead of the shirt's wearer.

And if he was much more overweight, to a point where I might describe him as "fat," that still wouldn't really be the first thing I would notice about him. And even if it was, it's definitely not a topic I would bring up in conversation. But nevertheless there would be that word "FAT" glaring back at my every time I looked at him. It's like the t-shirt introduces an elephant into the room where it might not be there otherwise - although I suspect that the point of it is quite the opposite, to acknowledge the "elephant" so people can get over it. But I don't think it works how it is intended.

Kelly said...

Basically, the shirt forces you to constantly associate the wearer with the word "FAT" even though a) you might have thought the person was fat to begin with and b) if you did think the person was fat, you wouldn't focus on it for more than a few seconds. But now you have to think about it every time you look at the person.

Vanessa said...

Georgie: I've never seen Mean Girls (I know, I know) but that reference is perfect for this conversation. This actually brings up a story that was on the news years ago that The Boondocks satirized (or basically re-enacted exactly, actually) in one of their episodes, in which a White teacher called a Black student "nigga" because he THOUGHT he understood the difference between that and the "-er" version. He also asked that if Black people didn't want to be called that, why do they use the word themselves? Though I think the teacher was out of line, the incident really made an interesting point about how co-opting words can blur the lines of what's appropriate.

I'll add it as an edit to the original post.

Vanessa said...

Kelly: I think that third comment really gets at the heart of why that shirt is pretty problematic when you say that maybe you never even THOUGHT of that person in that way in the first place. There's a difference between someone saying "hey, you're fat" and you accepting it ("yeah, I am, so what?") and labeling yourself as fat (or any other word, I guess) right away, before people have even had a chance to assess who you are.

I mean, look at it this way: if a girl I felt was thin wore that shirt, I'd probably think to myself, "ugh, she is SO not fat!" and pass a judgment on her that way, just to be honest. So obviously if someone who actually DOES seem fat wears it, that'll get some kind of judgment passed as well-- and maybe one that wouldn't have been otherwise.

Kelly said...

whoops I made at typo in my last comment, I meant:

a) you might NOT have thought the person was fat to begin with

Amanda said...

I think it can be valuable, because at its most basic, "fat" is just a descriptive word. It only has negative connotations because we assign them. I am fat. It's not an insult, it's not heartbreaking, and it's not admitting a flaw. It's just a fact. I have a larger percentage of fat on my body than a thin person. And that's ok! I know that it's been very helpful for me to start viewing the word that way. Sure, in a perfect world, people wouldn't have to reclaim offensive words because they wouldn't have to worry about them being used in the first place. And then we'll all ride our unicorns to the magical meadow and eat cake and sing together. Until then, we do what we have to to feel good about ourselves in the face of a society that clearly thinks we shouldn't have that privilege.

Jacklyn said...

I actually hate, hate, HATE the n-word, so much that I can never watch The Boondocks because they throw it around so much. I don't think anyone should say any kind of variation of the word - whether they are black or white.

The new 'trend', it seems, is for a lot of white kids I know to use the word now, in many different variations. It's really annoying, and it's not just because their white. I think anyone that uses the word is just ignorant to what that word means. By continuing to use these derogatory terms, we are just showing other people how dumb we are, not how 'smart' or 'cool' we are.

It's like the other day, when a guy from my church called someone else a 'fag'. I called him out for it, and his defense was to ask me if I 'like those gay people'. It made me angry - even more angry when I heard my own youth pastor repeat it the other day! It's horrible how some people can be. It's really sad.

Sorry for the rant. Haha.

Laells said...

You pose an excellent question. I'm not too entirely sure where I stand with it either.

I generally just refer to myself as plus sized. I just figure it saves me the time of having to stop my friends from admonishing me for even thinking to call myself 'fat'.

For instance, they're have been numerous times when I've been shopping with friends and after getting dragged from one clubwear store to the next clubwear store where everything is a size 0, I've finally said, "Okay guys. I'm sick of holding your shit while you're in the dressing room. I want to go to a fat people friendly store."

Then someone will hit me in the shoulder and go, "Julie! Don't say that. You aren't fat!"

I'm the kind of person that will stand in the elevator and face everyone instead looking at the door like I'm "supposed" too.

Like I said though, I just got sick of being whapped for saying stuff like that so I just refer to myself as 'plus-sized'. None of my friends hit me in the shoulder and go, "Julie! You aren't plus sized!"

I also got sick of explaining to everyone basically what Amanda said earlier. I'm fat. I'm not insulting myself; I'm stating the fact that I am larger than you. And I want to go to a store that has things that will fit me because I'm getting effin' bored watching you guys shop.

I guess my opinion is that it's all effin' stupid. It reminds me all of my big 'cursing rebuttal' I had planned out for when my mom would gripe at me about swearing (I kind of have the mouth of a sailor). I would always ask her what she was going to do when someone decided lunchbox was the equivalent of saying 'fuck'. I can't remember what her answers ever were but I always ended it with telling her it was just an effin' word. Did I mention I was a snotty teenager too sometimes? Thankfully I realized that being mouthy wouldn't get me anywhere and I grew myself some respect for others. lol I now realize there is a time and place for swearing.

It's all just words until some idiot goes and decides to grace a word with a negative connotation and direct it at someone. That's where I get kind of pissed because it's like, well crap. Now you're just ruining it for the rest of us.

Not like I want to run around all day just uttering a stream of ever offensive word I can think of, but I would like the freedom to say the word (if I need to for some reason) without having to explain that it's okay, I know I'm a fat person. Or whatever word you want to stick in there really (whore, slut, bitch, nigger and so forth).

Can that be my point of view? It's all effin' stupid? lol

Laells said...

P.S. You should do more debate posts. I love debates so much.

Maverick Malone said...

This is really interesting. Honestly, not sure how I feel about it. I think with words it's a lot of the time not so much of what you say but how you say it. Often when I refer to people as being fat, I never mean it in a mean way. I sometimes almost don't understand why someone would even take offense. If they are fat, then they are, right? There's nothing wrong with it, it's just a descriptive word. I understand how it can be used in a nasty way, though. . . But so can anything else. It just depends how you say it.


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