Jay Talking

Who are you calling fat?

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

I can call myself a "pink fat lady" but you may not. Just shut up and hand over the pizza

Fat: It's a simple word, short, used by the insulting person and the super desperate Scrabble player alike, yet so stuffed with meaning and innuendo.

And all too often these days, we toss the word about with reckless abandon, rarely pausing to consider the damage our weighty words have caused nor to appreciate the little complexities of the chunky term. Well, that ends today.

Dipping into my long experience and wealth of expertise in being a fat person, I will try and raise awareness of nuances involved in the sincere hope that we, together as a nation, will try not to eat so much pizza.

I'm sure you all realise by now what has triggered my sudden interest in "fat". For those who haven't been keeping up, Pizza Hut recently got into trouble in Singapore because some staff member described a customer as "pink fat lady" on a receipt. He or she then decided - for reasons that are still unclear - to hand this receipt to the lady.

Just like that, Singapore, which generally doesn't feature prominently in global news outlets unless it bans something or canes someone, went viral.

Why was there so much interest in this incident?

Well, maybe because it is funny and sad and infuriating all at the same time. Or maybe because it is simply a reflection of the world's very real subconscious obsession with the word.

Pizza Hut could have substituted a whole bunch of words instead of fat - short, tall, big, small, Chinese, fair, dark - and chances are, we would probably not have ever heard about it. So what is it about the word "fat" that really hits a nerve?

For the purpose of today's discussion, I will generally be ignoring the use of the term "fat" as a common noun describing the three main groups of macronutrients. In that context, the word is sort of boring. There's not a whole lot of value judgment and people generally don't get very passionate when they talk about macronutrients.

I will also be generally disregarding the positive uses of the word "fat" as an adjective. Someone getting a "fat pay check" or a "fat contract" doesn't make for an interesting discussion topic. I will instead focus on "fat" in the way it was used by Pizza Hut and I will do so in a question and answer format.

Q: Isn't the word fat just another descriptive word, like thin? Why would anyone get upset?

A: Blame the children. It's all their fault. There was a far more innocent time, not that long ago, when nobody used to get offended by the word "fat". In fact, a whole bunch of people thought it would be a perfectly good idea to append the word "Fat" to their names.

In those days, it was not considered rude to call someone Fat Tony or Fats Domino or Fatboy Slim to their faces.

Then at some point, kids in school decided that being overweight was a trait worthy of abuse. And because they did not know other terms for it like "full-figured" or "big boned" or "heroically proportioned", they settled for the word "fat".

Soon, there were all sorts of derivatives - fatty, fatso, fatty bom bom, Trim and Fit club (arguably not the children's fault) - so much so that by the time someone reaches adulthood, the term had become a source of deep emotional pain.

And the last thing you need is to be confronted with the pain while at a fast-food restaurant.

Q: But aren't adults equally to blame? Didn't society suddenly shift to idolise the skinny and fashion magazines evolve to diminish everyone's sense of self? I mean, it has become acceptable in Singapore today to greet someone by noting a change in body mass. When did it become acceptable for someone to say: "Wah, long time no see. I see you've put on some weight."

I wanted to reply: "How are you? I noticed your face has gotten quite a bit uglier."

A: Maybe we should move on. I think we might have hit on a raw nerve.

Q: OK, do you have any examples that demonstrate the real power of the word "fat"?

A: Sure. The next time your wife or girlfriend asks you, "Does this make me look fat?", see what happens if you give an honest answer. In fact, you can even try giving a dishonest answer after a slight pause.

Q: Good point. Now can you think of any occasion when it might be non-offensive to call someone fat?

A: The one occasion that comes to mind is when you are giving a description of a suspect to the police. I think you may be forgiven in that instance for not going with a more polite term.

Q: I noticed you readily described yourself as fat. How come you can use the word?

A: I guess this is the part that may be hardest for the thin to understand. Fat people know they are fat. And they are willing to admit to their own fatness and are also aware of the associated health problems.

But it's one of those unwritten rules of being fat. The outsider is not allowed to do it. Someone may call themselves fat right in front of you but you are not allowed to agree.

You should just shut up and hand over the pizza.

jeremyau@sph.com.sg