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Excited to be out of our class that normally runs late on Wednesday night, my friends and I happily walked through Harvard Yard. We were completely engrossed in conversation as we moved along one of the zigzagging sidewalks. It was fairly dark, but I saw an older man coming through one of the gates, walking in our direction. Just as my friends and I passed the man, he slowed down to say to us “fat hobbit girls.” Completely shocked by what had happened, my friends and I continued walking, briefly maintaining small talk until we went our separate ways.
Even though we had separated and that strange moment had passed, that collection of words stuck in my head. Fat. Hobbit. Girls. As a girl who has been short and overweight her entire life, I have heard similar words, but never that bizarre and specific grouping. And yet, no matter the context, the word “fat” always has the power to completely shatter me.
But, why? Why should a stranger’s application of the word “fat” leave me feeling utterly broken? How and why can a single word have that much power?
In truth, I have always implicitly understood the power of the word “fat” and its many proxies. Whether a bully or a family member uttered the word, it symbolized the reality that I did not look how the world expected me to, that I did not reflect the ideal tall and slender feminine form. While looking different is not inherently bad, the meaning of “fat” assured me otherwise. The word was delivered as a punishment that ultimately intended to make me feel disgusting, ashamed, and guilty.
And it always worked, even if that punishment was carried out by a stranger in Harvard Yard, because most people, myself included, have internalized the idea that there are horrible implications of being fat. We are conditioned to believe that being fat means you are ugly, unproductive, lazy, unathletic, slobby, and clumsy, and we willingly buy into “fatphobia.”
Although people of all sizes are capable of exhibiting these characteristics, people perceived as fat must actively work to refute such accusations. Even at Harvard, I have subconsciously been affected by this. I never get an extra side of fries or a second dessert at the dining hall. I carefully navigate the rows of seats in lecture halls. I never shirk opportunities to help in a group project. I have always worried that if I did not do these things, it could simply confirm the assumptions people make about me based on my appearance.
For all of Harvard’s activism and wokeness, I was initially surprised that fatphobia rarely, if ever, comes up in conversation here, but the reality is that Harvard students are image-obsessed. Perhaps acknowledging fatphobia here chips away at the persona of perfection some students attempt to cultivate.
But fatphobia is a cause worth discussing. Besides the personal psychological effects I enumerated above, fatphobia has profound, wide-reaching ramifications. Overweight people, especially women, are paid less and have a harder time finding a job. People who are overweight often receive worse medical care because doctors are likely to attribute unrelated symptoms to obesity. Young adults who perceive themselves as overweight have an increased risk of suicidal ideation.
The power we give to the word “fat” creates these issues, and we turn a blind eye. We cannot ignore the damage we create. In order to dismantle fatphobia, we need to unlearn the assumptions we make about fat people. Rather than “fat” as a moral condemnation, it should simply be a visual descriptor.
This might sound idealistic and naive, but I firmly believe that we are all capable of this on an individual scale. Since that Wednesday night at Harvard Yard, I have vowed to never let “fat” control my life. I will look how I will look, and if others judge me for that, it is not my responsibility to prove them wrong. I will never assume a person’s character or work ethic based on their appearance. I implore you to do the same to begin to atone for the trauma and injustice we have inflicted.
Libby E. Tseng ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Pforzheimer House.
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