“Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will never harm me.” So goes the old adage, which we all know is a crock of shit. Juliette Burton explains why one particular word leaves her sore as hell.
My four nephews are forbidden from using the F word. I often wonder if it’s because of me.
Oh no, it’s not ‘fuck’. My nephews swear all the time. They live on a farm for fuck’s sake. The word that is banned in my sister’s household is the other F word, one I’m far more fucking terrified of: ‘fat’.
Words have weight. When I was little I was called clever, caring, funny. But the F-word was hurled with such force and such regularity that it battered me into thinking that was all that mattered. The worst thing I could be was fat because that one word was connected to everything bad I ever felt: being out of place, not belonging, being not good enough, disgusting, unlovable, unlikable, a failure.
Fat had the power to instantly shut me up. Fat robbed me of my voice.
There was a boy at school who first used the word at me. He used to corner me every day when we got off the bus. I’d always sit near the front, near the driver as my mum had told me to do to avoid the abuse from the backseats where he would sit. As we stepped off the bus, before my school day had even begun, he’d tell me in front of a crowd of kids how fat and ugly I was, how the bus driver was so fat he must be Juliette’s husband (not sure about the logic there, but fair enough).
Fat followed me into my teens and to other countries. When I was 14, just as my anorexia was taking hold, I was walking with my Spanish cousins in Jerez. I was on holiday with my sister, staying with my aunt, and feeling awkward and uncertain, as most teenagers do.
I was lagging behind my cousins and sister, all of whom had gorgeous, fully formed teenage bodies. I lagged behind in many ways, eyes downcast, a teenage mess of zits and self-hatred. A Spanish man sitting in a van called out to me in broken English, “You are a very fat English lady!”
There was that word again. It had haunted me my whole childhood, this awful, three-letter word. FAT. It hurt so badly. It seems to be that most men know that to call a female ‘fat’ is to stab her deeply.
“Every time my mind used that word against me it was like another brick in the wall, sealing me in a tomb. Fat. Another brick. Fat. Another. Fat. Until every sliver of sunlight was blocked from my view.”
I thought I’d do ANYTHING to not be called that again. And I did. I did anything.
Anorexia took hold, I spent the ages of 14 to 18 in and out of hospital, being sectioned at 17 again for anorexia. Aged 19, I lost myself to compulsive overeating and that word stung in my mind like a thousand bees had been trapped in my brain. Fat. Fat. FAT.
I’d identified myself as anorexic for years; not daughter, sister, friend, or student, but anorexic. Anything to be thin. Thinner. Thinner still. Anything to escape the possibility of being fat. And then I failed at the one thing I thought I’d mastered – I binged morning, noon and night. A failure. A fat failure.
Every time my mind used that word against me it was like another brick in the wall, sealing me in a tomb. Fat. Another brick. Fat. Another. Fat. Until every sliver of sunlight was blocked from my view. Every sliver of sanity and every possibility of breaking free.
Years later, my mind still screams that word to me over and over. Body Dysmorphic Disorder blurs my vision until I see myself as fatter than I am. And those words hidden behind those three letters tumble out around me, burying me beneath the abuse and self-loathing: out of place, not belonging, being not good enough, disgusting, unlovable, unlikable, a failure.
This is now a part of my illness. BDD hits me at the most unhelpful of times – usually before I go on stage to perform, the morning before a big show, a week when I need to have photoshoots done. This stress-related illness gets behind my eyes and dyes my perception a putrid shade until I want to wrench my skin and flesh from my bones.
FAT. It’s just a word. But it is used with such contempt, with such intent to harm, to bully and belittle, to rob the subject of any measure of self-worth they might have. I used to think I hate the word. But I hate the intention behind it far more.
“I see sensational, confident, strong and beautiful women who don’t hide away from taking up the space they so rightfully deserve, are healthy and happy and call themselves ‘fat’ without shame or apology or embarrassment.”
We all have our trigger words. I have a friend with disfigurement. They hate the word ‘ugly’. I have friends who have physical disabilities. One of those friends hates the word ‘disabled’. I have comedian friends who hate the phrase ‘female comedian’. I have feminist friends who hate the word ‘feminazi’. A lot of friends of mine aren’t massive fans of the word ‘moist’. But they are just words. Whatever they mean to us. It is the meaning we place upon them that fucks with our minds.
In the recent Twitterstorm that raged on about some yellow advert and whether we were all beach body ready, a lot of people were called fat – men and women – whether they were size six, 16 or 26.
A good friend of mine pointed out that ‘fat’ may just mean ‘woman with an opinion’.
So I wonder if that could catch on: ‘fat’ being used positively. A positive word to describe someone who will take up space – whether physically or intellectually – space that is rightfully theirs to take. Not imposing on anyone else, but simply existing in their own body-positive, mind-positive state, self-confident and sure of themselves.
I see other women already doing this, sensational, confident, strong and beautiful women who don’t hide away from taking up the space they so rightfully deserve, are healthy and happy and call themselves ‘fat’ without shame or apology or embarrassment. They don’t shy away from saying those three little letters that hold such an impact for some.
I admire those women and I want to be like them. I want to be that confident and sure of myself. But I’m not there yet. The pain I felt being bitten by that word still runs so deep that it merged with other pain that ran into a river to become a sea of mental illness. Me and the F word have a lot of beef between us and I may always feel like I’ve been shot in the gut when it’s fired at me.
But something has already changed for me. When I see that word being used now I know that the reasons people use it at can vary wildly and widely. I wonder more about the reasons for saying it, the intention behind it and the meaning the person using it assigns. Just like that word means so much more to me, what is that person really trying to say – abuse? Or statement? As with all words intention matters far more than semantics.
I hope one day the word ‘fat’ can be totally reclaimed. Even if it always holds venom for me, other little girls growing up might not be stung so hard that the poison can never be sucked out.
It’s still banned from my sister’s household. She doesn’t want her sons to teach little girls to hate themselves. I thank her for that.
Juliette is at the Gilded Balloon, Edinburgh, from 16 to 21 August. Click here for tickets.2899 Views
Juliette Burton is a docu-comedian, actor, writer, thinker, dreamer, doer and person. She has a history of mental health problems and loves The Muppets. These two things are in no way linked.