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Helle Arensbak/ EPA

Lizzo proudly calls herself a ‘fat’ woman. Are we allowed to as well?

Lizzo has arrived in Australia for the world tour of her latest album, Special.

If you don’t know Lizzo yet, she shot to fame in 2019 with the release of her third studio album Cuz I Love You. The re-release of sleeper hit Truth Hurts launched Lizzo to number one on the charts and made her a household name. The catchy lyrics still have people around the world singing, “I just took a DNA test, turns out I’m 100% that bitch”.

Leveraging the popularity of TikTok dances in the wake of COVID-19 lockdowns, Lizzo’s social media accounts pushed heavy on choreography composed by TikToker @jaedengomezz to promote the newly released track About Damn Time.

About Damn Time ultimately topped the charts globally and won Lizzo the Grammy for Record of the Year.

The message of her music and the image she projects through social media promote self-love and self-empowerment, while explicitly celebrating her size.

Since her rise to stardom, Lizzo has faced constant negative criticism for representing her body in such a way. She has responded by saying, “I’m a body icon, and I’m embracing that more and more every day”.

In examining Lizzo’s career, we can identify a crucial recognfiguration of a “funny, fat friend” trope to the embodiment of a Black, fat superstar.

Thick and juicy

Those familiar with Lizzo may have heard her using the term “fat” to describe her body. She also uses descriptors such as big, thick and juicy. The word fat stands out among these descriptors since we typically employ it as a pejorative, a term intended to bring shame to the person on the other end of it.

So, why the term fat? And should you now be using it to describe bigger bodies like Lizzo’s?

Lizzo’s reclamation of the word is rooted in a queer-feminist led and disability-related activist movement: fat activism.

The fat activist movement emerged in the United States in the 1970s, and includes early figures such as Judy Freespirit and Aldebaran. It exposed the oppressive structures contributing to the marginalisation and stigmatisation of fat people. Fat studies has since emerged as an interdisciplinary field that documents and theorises the work of fat activists.

Fat activists seek to destabilise harmful assumptions of morality and willpower (or a lack thereof), as well as the punitive, shame-based “health” messages that exist around bigger bodies. They do so to push the conversation in new directions and to break down long-existing negative frameworks that inform our understanding of, and feelings towards, fatness.

The (re)positioning of the BMI scale as an antiquated and fraught system to determine “obesity” is one example. The rise of the Health at Every Size movement is another.

In adopting fat as a lead subject descriptor and as a term to self-identify, activists and scholars have argued it is a biological term and thus neutral – it’s stating a fact.

Read more: No justifications, excuses or box-ticking: the art of a successful celebrity apology

Lizzo has joined a procession of voices in calling out the cooption of fat-positive language by the body positivity movement. For years fat activists have been drawing attention to the assimilationist nature of body positivity and its toxic and exclusionary mechanisms. Critics demonstrate how body positivity centres white, “mid-size” women, who simply demand a seat at the table of acceptance, while amplifying a toxic positivity towards their bodies.

Such an approach has encouraged diet companies and major apparel brands to embrace size inclusive language, so that fat discrimination and oppression is, in turn, rendered invisible in surrounding discourse.

A recent turn towards body neutrality, which neither promotes a positive nor negative spin on body size, has grown in popularity.

Lizzo encourages it, saying, “I don’t need your positivity or your negativity. I don’t need your comments at all. How about that?”

Read more: Why the body positivity movement risks turning toxic

Fatness in society and culture

It should not, however, suggest all larger-sized people now prefer to be described as fat. There are many people who avoid the term given it’s continuing use in shaming others, including themselves.

We have the added complication that fatness, in many ways, is in the eye of the beholder: conceptions of fatness tend to be individually, socially and culturally shaped. It’s a sliding scale made even more complex by factors such as gender.

For instance, the language existing around fat men is typically less vitriolic than what fat women experience, for example, phrases like “big guy” or “big man”.

When discussing Lizzo, it is vital we acknowledge her identity as a Black, fat woman.

Sabrina Strings in her book Fearing the Black Body traces the racist legacies of fat-phobia and its emergence with the rise of global slave trades during the Enlightenment Era. Academics have also worked to situate Lizzo’s message of self-love and the consistent sexualising of her own body against a history in Western (white) society of treating Black, fat bodies as spectacle: paraded, made abject and shamed.

Lizzo’s embodiment as a self-loving and self-empowered Black, fat woman offers a radical response to such histories.

Her self-described “brand” is Black girl liberation. She places her Black identity before fatness. She says,

I am a Black woman, I am making music from my Black experience, for me to heal myself.

Lizzo arrives for the 65th annual Grammy Awards. Caroline Brehman/ EPA

So should we say ‘fat’?

If an individual like Lizzo self-identifies as fat, an invitation emerges for us to also pick up and use the term to describe her body.

Doing so, it feels like we, too, might participate in a process of fat liberation and size acceptance. But in celebrating Lizzo’s fatness, we must not ignore the racist systems that continue to shape our beliefs on fatness, determining what is and what is not an acceptable body size and shape.

The presence of Lizzo in our lives serves to remind us that while we grapple with politics of fatness – who is fat and who we can describe as fat – we cannot remove racism and anti-Blackness from the conversation.

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