In her short segment on This American Life’s Tell Me I’m Fat episode, Roxane Gay explained that fatness has levels. In Gay’s mind, you’re either just-a-little fat, Lane Bryant fat, or super morbidly obese, and your placement on the fat spectrum probably says a lot about the way you experience both your fatness and the fat acceptance movement.
In the fat activism community, we also talk about levels of fatness. The terms we see most often are “smallfats,” “midfats,” and “superfats,” but the lines between these categories are pretty fuzzy. There are good reasons for this—it’s important that we all get to identify the way we choose, and it’s even more important that no one be excluded from a category that they feel they belong in.
There are some rough guidelines, but I am at the very high end of the fatness spectrum, so I’m going to leave the defining of the smallfat and midfat ranges to the people who occupy them. I do want to talk about “superfat” today, though, and how maybe it’s not the last category on the spectrum anymore.
The term “superfat” has somewhat unclear origins–Google doesn’t exactly have a tool for determining the genesis of subcultural milestones. My educated guess is that it came from “SSBBW,” a term that, like “BBW” has fallen out of favor because it is usually used by men to describe women to whom they are (or aren’t) attracted. So “SSBBW” came from the “supersize” addition to BBW’s “big beautiful women,” and eventually women who felt that they fit into this category began referring to themselves as “supersize.””Superfat” has become the accepted label more recently–more fat women have rejected the idea that we should be labeled based on men’s attraction to our bodies and have abandoned terms like “SSBBW” for their porn-y associations. But “supersize” lasted a long time, even though its definition wasn’t entirely clear.
Nine years ago I was already well into my fat acceptance life, and I was spending most of my free time on an online message board that was wholly dedicated to fatness. I met what would become my best friends and the most important people in my life on that board, and the conversations I had there were the earliest activism-y sparks of what is now The Fat Lip. The board also developed what was, as far as I can tell, the first agreed-upon-by-fat-women definition of “supersize.”
At that time, in late 2007, the moderators and posters of that forum had created a board specifically to discuss supersize issues. The idea was that supersize women should have a venue that was private to discuss sensitive size-related issues. This was before Facebook groups, and there were so many of us who wanted to talk about these things with women who could relate. This board was to be the place where we could do that. Early on, though, it became clear that we needed to come up with some kind of consensus as to who qualified as “supersize” and who should be given access to this board.
Even then we recognized that choosing an arbitrary weight guideline or clothing size as the only qualification for supersizedom was problematic—what about women who technically didn’t weigh enough to qualify but were short? Clothing sizes differ wildly from shop to shop anyway. What about women who didn’t weigh enough but whose body shapes caused limitations similar to what those that plagued their fatter peers? And what about privacy? Should women be forced to prove their weight or explain their struggles in order to participate in an internet message board?
There were no easy answers here, and, trust me, we did not come to our conclusions lightly.
That was a pun. I’m so sorry.
Ultimately, though, we decided that in order to protect the privacy of these women who were desperately seeking a safe space, we’d have to choose a weight threshold. After much debate, we placed that threshold at 350 pounds. Admission to the board was entirely based on an honor system, and those who said they met the weight criteria were automatically allowed in. Those who did not meet the weight threshold were asked to privately appeal to the moderators to explain how their experiences qualified them and how they could both add value to the discussion on this board and benefit from this discussion in their own lives.
And it really worked. We worked through some real supersize shit on that board, and it felt really good to have a place that was hidden from men who might sexualize our struggles and from smaller fats who might judge or pity us for them. Ultimately, that board and the clearly defined label of “supersize” allowed us to identify who among the fat women in our community shared our unique experiences of superfatness.
Today on the Fat Spectrum
I don’t think any of the women that were active on that board then could have predicted (or even dreamed) that not even ten years later conversations about fatness would be getting the mainstream traction that they are today. Back then the fat community was small and sheltered and hidden. Fats were wearing bikinis all over those boards and at social events for at least 20 years before the word “fatkini” ever existed, but everything was behind the protective wall that guarded our little subculture. Now, though, we’re seeing gleeful fat women in bikinis on Buzzfeed and the Cosmo website. Times have definitely changed.
But even though fat women are now basking in the sunlight, modeling for major publications, and making a career of fashion blogging, the spectrum of fatness is still as significant as ever. For one, as fat acceptance and activism has gained more traction, the definition of “fat” has gotten broader. More people of ever more varying sizes are finding a home in fat positive spaces and claiming the fat identity.
And, to be clear, there’s nothing at all wrong with smaller people now identifying as fat. We should all be free to empower ourselves and our bodies in whatever way we choose. If a size 12 wants to call herself fat, that is totally fine by me.
What this stretching of the fatness spectrum does mean, though, is that those of us on the fattest end are pushed further to the margins. If a size 12 (for example—again, not interested in defining a category I don’t occupy) is on the left side of the fat chart, I’m on the far, far right.
I’ve seen some chatter recently about superfats in fat positive conversations. Just this week I was reading a thread about defining levels of fatness in a Facebook group. In it I saw a user saying that superfat starts at 300 pounds or a size 26. And that’s fine! And it’s not entirely far from the parameter we set on that message board nearly ten years ago even. But it made me think about my current body and my current size.
Here’s the thing. If a size 12 is smallfat and a size 26 is superfat, I’m still on the far, far right. In fact, I have no idea what size I even am. At some point past a size 36 or 38, there just ceases to be any clothing. It is the Great Beyond of fashion. If you’re over a size 36, your fashion choices are knitwear and knitwear. Everything is labeled 6X and it either stretches enough to fit you or it doesn’t.
So if 12 is small fat, 20 is midfat, and 26 is superfat, what exactly does that make a size beyond-36? Because the reality is that my body is as similar to a size 26 as that 26’s is to a size 12—that is: not really similar at all. My experiences and struggles are completely different than a 300 pound person’s. I weigh an entire fat person more than that. How can we be in the same fat spectrum category?
Honestly, I don’t know if this is a question that ever gets asked because my feeling is that a lot of fats don’t even know that beyond-36s exist. But we do. And we need fat positivity too.
So here’s what I think: we need a new category. Because I can’t be outraged that a retailer’s offerings stop at a 26 when EVERY retailer COLLECTIVELY stops well before my size. Because I buy two plane tickets not because I’m hanging over the armrest a little but because I have an entire half of an ass cheek with no place to go. Because Torrid’s size 6 fits SOMETIMES but only when everyone else is complaining that the item is way too big to be labeled a 6.
But what should we fats on the very very very fat end of the fat spectrum be called? I humbly propose “infinifat.” Because what size am I? I really have no fucking idea. A size greater than any assignable size number. Infinity?
Look, this all may seem a little silly. I mean, what does it matter? Having a label isn’t going to change my experiences or the way people react to my body or the way clothing manufacturers think about plus sizes. What it does do, though, is create opportunities for the fattest among us to be represented. It acknowledges that you don’t cease to exist once you become too fat for commercially-available clothing. It proclaims to the rest of the fat community that we are here and we are huge and frankly we’d like to see you try to hide us.
So yeah. I’m going to start calling myself an infinifat. And if you’re in the ambiguous Beyond of plus sizing, you’re welcome to join me.