Is “confident” the new “pretty for a fat girl”?

I can gratefully say that I haven’t been told that I’m “pretty for a big girl” in a few years. Even though I like to hope that this means that the masses have acknowledged that this “compliment” is underhanded and offensive, I doubt it, because this “insight” has only been replaced with another one that makes me just as uncomfortable.

It is worth noting for the record that I’ve lived in a fat body for most of my life. The realities of fat phobia/fat discrimination in our culture are such that I’m hyper aware of the messages about fat bodies that include us being lazy, uncontrolled, and insecure. And to be honest, in the process of ingesting all these images and their various reiterations from people in family, friendship circles, and communities I’ve spent more than my fair share of time hating my body. Depression and anxiety have been contemptible companions at various points in my life, often a result of existing in a fat body. I am no stranger to strong feelings of dread when walking into a room full of new people, the avoidance of highly, social situations, or even the agony of airline travel. Most fat people experience these feelings at some point in their lives, some more than others.

But those experiences are not the summation of my existence, in the same way that fat is not the quantitative descriptor of who I am as a person. Even in the depths of my depression I’ve been able to build a life for myself that has been fun and relatively enjoyable. Anxiety hasn’t stopped me from creating an amazing community or falling in love. And in my early twenties, with a useful cocktail of self reflection, loving support, fat positive literature, meditation, and determination something changed. I accepted my humanity in a way that was surprisingly stabilizing. I still have really bad days (mainly when I go shopping or have to navigate overcrowded spaces) but I’m definitely ok.

But this neutral zone is not one that I’ve been allowed to occupy without some veiled and unsettling feedback.

I’ve noticed this because “pretty for a fat girl” seems to have been replaced with “you’re so confident!” People I don’t know very well (and some that do) give me this supposed compliment when I participate in conversations about sex and dating that don’t involve angst and desperate longing, give presentations or speaking publicly for school or work without a glitch, actively engage in group conversations–and then of course sometimes for no reason at all. I get called “confident” for doing the same things that small and average-size bodied people do without the commentary or “accolades.” Apparently, to be fat person and not in a constant state of discomfort and self loathing means that I’ve transcended the limits of normal self-valuation. Furthermore, many of the same people who ‘applaud’ me for my assumed confidence are equally vocal about their disdain for fat people more generally.

To be clear, calling a fat person “confident” isn’t necessarily an act of malice. I’m not offended that someone recognizes the work I’ve put in just to be comfortable in my own skin. But there are several reasons I remain suspicious when I’m lauded for my self-assurance. First, like many comments about women’s bodies, these comments are often uninvited. It’s bad enough that some people think that they’re entitled to police, critique, and comment on women’s bodies as they please. But as a fat person who is simultaneously hypervisible and invisible it can be even more invasive. Second, it can be a clever way to participate in fat shaming. When you laud fat women for being confident while you criticize yourself or others for gaining weight, or use fat as an insult it can be a petty way of saying, “I don’t like the way you look, but I think it’s cute that you do” or “you weren’t expected to exist in this space but it’s nice of you to crash.” You can keep it. I don’t find it noteworthy that I participate in daily public just like other people do.

The root of the issue is that it’s hard for some to accept that fat people, particularly fat women, can be normal. We don’t have to exist solely at the extreme ends of your imagined confidence scale. We can have self-doubts without being wholly insecure, and we can be comfortable and not confident. The best way to find out and actually support us as we navigate this terrain is to ask and listen to what we have to say about ourselves.


Feministing's resident "sexpert", Sesali is a published writer and professional shit talker. She is a queer Black girl, fat girl, and trainer. She was the former Training Director at the United States Student Association and later a member of the Youth Organizing team at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She received her bachelors in Women's and Gender Studies from Depaul University in 2012 and is currently pursuing a master's in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta. A self identified "trap" feminist, and trained with a reproductive justice background, her interests include the intersections of feminism and: pop culture, youth culture, social media, hip hop, girlhood, sexuality, race, gender, and Beyonce. Sesali joined the team in 2010 as one of the winners of our So You Think You Can Blog contest.

is Feministing's resident sexpert and cynic.

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