Dr. Pattie Thomas wrote a book called Taking Up Space: How Eating Well and Exercising Regularly Changed My Life that is just really awesome. If you haven’t read it, it’s well worth investing in.
The first chapter of the book has 10 fat myths. As I read them, I had so many ideas and thoughts and things I wanted to say about each one. I contacted Dr. Thomas and she said that it would be okay for me to use her list to talk about each of the myths here. So–welcome to a 10-week series.
Myth number eight on Dr. Thomas’ list: Fat is bitchy.
Some women take the word bitch and make it a term of power. I’ve never been able to do that. The word ‘bitch’ sets my teeth on edge. I go to a lot of effort in my personal life to be opinionated and empowered, but not bitchy. I’d rather be called a cunt or a whore or just about anything other than bitch. [Blog note: check out our summer issue for more discussion on the word “bitch”!]
I’ve never spent much time thinking about why I have such a strong negative reaction to the word bitch. It’s just how I am. I don’t use the word. I object when it’s used in my presence referring to me or anyone else.
A bitch, in Western society, is a woman who expresses her anger in an outward, verbal or physical way. A bitch gets in your face when you’re wrong. She doesn’t back down when she’s confronted. A woman who expresses herself assertively is considered a bitch. Women in positions of power are sometimes called bitch, usually in an effort to knock her down. Assertive, empowered women of any size in our culture are not always as valued as their male counterparts.
If a woman complains, especially about a man, she is bitching.
If a man is considered bitchy, it’s a little different. Because on top of being considered a whiner and a trouble maker—he’s also being called a distinctly derogatory female term. “Stop being such a bitch,” lobbed at a man can mean, “stop acting like a girl.” The term isn’t usually applied to strong-willed, assertive men who behave like women in power. It’s almost exclusively reserved for men who are expressing any emotion but anger.
Maybe I am so sensitive to the word ‘bitch’ because I already feel like I take up too much space. Like many fat people, I’ve spent my life trying to take up less. In most pictures of me, my shoulders are hunched in or I’m turned to the side or I’m hiding in the back. The taking up of space is a big deal to fat people. Dr. Thomas titled her book after the idea.
A bitch is a big space taker. Bitches demand to be heard. They don’t blend in so that they are less obtrusive. They want to be obtrusive. They want the attention. Fat people are supposed to accept their station at the bottom of the humanity ladder. When they demand to be heard instead it’s uncomfortable for some people. It challenges the theory that slender people are morally superior or less lazy and gluttonous than fat people. And sometimes the reaction to that discomfort is to try to right things by putting the person who has upset them down.
A bitch is a complainer. She bitches and moans, or won’t stop bitching about something. A bitch is the squeaky wheel that insists on being heard and dealt with. A bitch puts people out, refuses to let them rest on their assumptions. A bitch makes things difficult.
A bitch is visible. A person whose body refuses to conform to society’s beauty myth is supposed to stay hidden as much as possible. That’s why most clothes designed for them are tenty and billowy. That’s how we get those Wal-Mart pictures that make fun of someone who dares to go out in public with rolls of back fat showing. The picture poster may not say, “look at this bitch,” but the effect is the same. These public displays and the laughter and cruelness that accompany them are meant to warn the rest of us to stay in our place—properly covered and out of sight as much as possible.
And, maybe most significantly, a bitch is someone no one wants to be. Sure there are some who have taken the word back and owned it. But I would bet that at least some of them would prefer to just be taken at face value, listened to with respect and given equal treatment. I bet many of them own the word, but would rather they didn’t have to if they were totally honest with themselves.
Is it a myth that fat people are all bitchy? Well, yeah. Fat people are all anything is a myth. That’s the thing about myths. But it isn’t a myth that fat people are sometimes considered bitchy if they aren’t humble enough in their attempt not to take up too much space. And it’s not a myth that a fat person yarping “I am here!” is sometimes construed as bitchy. It’s not a myth that men who don’t meet the male beauty myth of slender and muscular are sometimes seen as bitches, not for their actions, but for their lack of perceived manliness.
I still don’t like the word bitch. I will probably always bristle when I hear it. But, maybe just understanding the reasons why it’s a difficult word for me will help me stop bending over so far backwards to be less visible, less of a complainer, less of a space taker. And maybe internalizing that lesson will help me be happy being me, and stop caring whether anyone else wants to be.