The weight of a word

By Millie Caffull

Words are powerful. Each simple string of letters has the potential for great force. One famous quote says “Handle them carefully, for words have more power than atom bombs”.

One that carries more force than many is the word ‘fat’. At one point, for me, being called fat was the worst thing that could ever happen. There wasn’t anything more fear-provoking or anxiety-inducing. Nothing could make me embarrassed and ashamed as easily, nothing could offend or upset me more.

Towards the end of my gap year, I spent six weeks in the beautiful country of Fiji, experiencing a very different way of life with some amazing people as we lived with host families, taught kids at the local school and built a new health centre in our village. Before my group arrived we were briefed on various cultural nuances, mostly to prevent us from offending any of the locals and preparing us for when our shoes were inevitably “borrowed” by the village kids. One thing we were told before arriving was “you might get called fat, but don’t worry, it’s a compliment”. In Fiji, being called fat means that you can afford to eat, you look healthy, you look well, you are beautiful.

Despite the warning we had been given (and it had to be a warning, because ‘fat’ is so commonly accepted as a harsh insult), when my friends and I were sat with our host mother one evening and she said “you are nice, you are fat”, it felt like a punch in the stomach. I knew she was trying to compliment me, but I could not see past my own definition of the word. My mind wouldn’t let me override this automatic response. Tears started to prick my eyes and that familiar lump started to emerge in my throat. I felt panicked. Those words, “you are fat” played over and over and over.

I had a nightmare that night that when I returned home to England, my sister told me that I’d gotten fat. That was the first of many food and weight-gain nightmares in Fiji. My mind became obsessed with what I looked like and whether I was gaining weight or not. It started affecting all my decisions and my mood. It was a constant worry for me and completely inhibited my experience.

Since recovering from my eating disorder, I’ve thought a lot about that trip and that moment I was called fat. It breaks my heart that I couldn’t celebrate it, say thank you and smile, be happy that I’d been complimented. Why couldn’t I accept that this word didn’t mean what I thought it meant, why did I let that word carry such weight? And why did I care so much about getting “fat” anyway – like it’s the worst thing a person could be?

We must remember that our words can hurt, and to be sensitive to each other’s feelings. But now that I am comfortable with my body, words no longer have such power over me. Now that I am confident in who I am as a person, I know that words don’t define me, and that there are more important things in life. It has taken time and patience, telling myself over and over again that I am beautiful, smart, loved, that I am enough, but I am so happy that I can finally say that I refuse to let the word “fat” hurt me like it used to. If this is fat, then fat feels fabulous.

The weight of a word. Blogger Millie reflects on how words can hold more power than they should.

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