In an interview that made me want to be her best friend, actress and writer Nia Vardalos recently told US Weekly (as a response to being called "overweight"), "Hey, just say fat. I love the word fat....It's actually not a naughty word. We give it a power it actually doesn't have." Hear, hear! On my blog, in an essay I contributed to a recent anthology, and in the introduction to the new book I co-authored, I've explained in detail why I agree wholeheartedly with Vardalos. The short version is, "fat" is actually a pretty simple and straightforward way to describe folks with more adipose tissue than average; it's only loaded down with a bazillion insulting connotations — lazy, stupid, sloppy, undisciplined, etc. — because of cultural attitudes toward fat people, not because of the fat itself. Just as Vardalos said, we give it a power it actually doesn't have.
But man oh man, do we ever give it that power. Because the F-word can be such a bombshell, I've had to develop a stock stranger-friendly answer to questions about the book or the blog: "I write about body image and self-acceptance." Everyone loves that line. Having a positive body image is so important for young girls! Self-acceptance is so important for all of us! It is a great thing you do, Ms. Harding! Just as they're about to nominate me for a humanitarian award (or, you know, at least walk away with a decent impression), they ask what the title of the book is. And then I have to say it: Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere: Quit Dieting and Declare a Truce with Your Body.
Wait, the What-O-Sphere?
The very first working title of the book, of which I'm still inordinately fond, was Results Not Typical. But I say "inordinately" because pretty much no one else liked it, and our agent made us think of a new one before she'd send the proposal out. Title number two — which remains on the Australian edition — was Screw Inner Beauty. The idea there is that fat women, on the rare occasions when we're told not to hate ourselves, are inevitably encouraged to focus on our "inner beauty" — the logical corollary being that outer beauty is a lost cause, what with the revolting fat and all. Marianne and I aren't interested in helping women like themselves despite whatever fat they may be carrying; we're interested in helping women like their bodies at any size. But that, admittedly, is a little high-concept — "Screw Inner Beauty" sounds more like a book of fashion and make-up tips, right? So along comes another request to think up a new title. And after a bit more brainstorming, we heard that the publisher was superkeen on the word "fatosphere" (fun fact: it only got the hyphens to make the original cover design more readable), which we and our fellow body acceptance bloggers were using to describe our little corner of the internet. How did we feel about Notes/Dispatches/Lessons from the Fatosphere?
"We can't use the word 'fat,'" I said. "The women who need this book most would be mortified to buy a book with the word 'fat' in the title. And certainly, nobody's going to buy it as a gift — 'Hey, I got you this because you're fat!'" Not so long ago, even I hesitated to take a copy of Wendy Shanker's The Fat Girl's Guide to Life up to the counter at a bookstore. The last thing on earth the average fat woman wants to do is draw attention to the size of her body, even from a random cashier and only for the length of a quick transaction. I had a strong gut feeling that that title would threaten sales, for the very reasons why we needed to write the book in the first place. But I got outvoted and, in the interest of not being a pain in everyone else's butt, shut up about it.
Was it the right call not to fight harder for a non-fat title? I'm still not sure, honestly. I mean, not being a pain in everyone else's butt is, generally speaking, a wise career move. I used to work in publishing and made a vow to myself 10 years ago that, if I ever made it to the other side, I would not be that whiny, clueless author who throws a tantrum over a title change or the cover art or the editing of my oh-so-precious words; I would trust the experienced professionals to do right by my book, recognizing that they'd worked just as hard as I had and wanted it to sell just as badly. And speaking of those professionals, it was pointed out to me that our fellow Penguin Group author Jen Lancaster has sure done all right for herself with titles that include the words "fat" and "big ass." (Of course, there is the whole "she's Jen Effin' Lancaster" factor working in her favor.) But I still can't help thinking of all the women who feel like I did just a few years ago, who might pick up a copy of the book in a store and take a surreptitious glance at the back cover copy or table of contents, then put it right back, too embarrassed by the thought of paying for a book with the word "fat" on the cover. Thinking about those women breaks my heart — not just because I want their money, but because I want them not to be so ashamed of that stupid little word, so controlled by it. We give it a power it actually doesn't have. Which is exactly why Marianne and I wrote the book.
Also, I do want their money. There's that. Yippee for online booksellers!
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Kate Harding founded Kate Harding's Shapely Prose, a blog about body acceptance and the treatment of fat people in the media.
Marianne Kirby is dedicated to body politics and fat acceptance. She is co-moderator of the Livejournal community Fatshionista, which has more than 2,500 members.
Books mentioned in this post
Kate Harding and Marianne Kirby is the author of Lessons from the Fat-O-Sphere: Quit Dieting and Declare a Truce with Your Body