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An end to euphemisms

As much as I enjoy writing, I must admit the English language has many failings. For instance, why isn’t there a gender neutral pronoun besides “it”? Calling someone “it” is either derogatory or means he/she (see my problem here?) is an insane clown that lives in the sewers. You’ve got “he” and “she,” but no word to refer to someone when you don’t know his/her gender. Typically you end up pluralizing the entire sentence so you can use “they” which can be awkward and sometimes sounds stupid.

I also propose that we need a new word to describe someone who is not fat, but isn’t thin either. There are already words that have submitted their resumes for fulfilling this role in the English language, like “curvy” or “full-figured” or “healthy.” But they come off sounding like euphemisms for “fat” which in our culture is pretty much a euphemism for “ugly.” When I wrote about Tyra Banks a couple weeks ago I said she had “some meat on [her] bones” which sound like I’m comparing her to a slab of T-Bone steak at the butcher’s before deciding which one to take home for dinner. Hmmm, nicely sliced beef or supermodel tenderloin? Which will go better with a nice chardonnay?

I find myself grasping for these idioms all the time when I write about normal-sized or only slightly overweight women like Kelly Clarkson or America Ferrera or Kate Winslet, all members of the just-because-you-can’t-count-our-ribs-doesn’t-mean-we’re-fat brigade. Perhaps if we had a word for this state of being, we could all feel a little more uncomfortable about it. I had a friend who experienced pain and exhaustion for many years of her life until she was finally diagnosed with Fibromyalgia. She felt a great sense of relief when she finally had a name for what was happening to her. It was reassuring to know that it was real enough that someone had bothered assigning a name to it, even if there was no cure and doctors didn’t understand what caused it. Maybe if we had a word for not being thin, but not being fat either, we could all be a little less worried about being considered “fat.” It’d be like the neutral zone in Star Trek, not Federation territory but not Romulan territory either, just a nowhere type of purgatory between two states of being.

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28 Comments

Dolley • February 23, 2007 at 9:52 am

I’ve always favored “sturdy,” myself. There are a few different height/weight “averages” for American women, that tend to average (hee!) out to approximately 5’4″ and 145-147 pounds. So I suppose that for 5’8″ Kate Winslet, one could say, “Oh, she’s average in weight, but tall!” and for the others, who hover around that weight, one could describe them as … average in weight. “Average” is starting to seem at least like a useful departure point for a description.

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Mymsie • February 23, 2007 at 10:12 am

How about “average-sized?” I think that’s the term the sweet, endearing Roloff family uses to refer to people who are of an average height. Seems OK for weight too.

P.S. Did you see that Tyra recreated her Sports Illustrated cover from 10 years ago? LOVE LOVE LOVE that she did that!

P.P.S. Have you seen America Ferrera’s new spread in the March ’07 issue of Glamour (I think it’s Glamour anyway)? She looks absolutely fabulous and I think the message she’s sending is awesome!

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Nan • February 23, 2007 at 10:50 am

How about “normal”? Like “average,” it’s sorta vague, but everyone knows what they mean by “normal.”

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Debbie • February 23, 2007 at 10:55 am

For men, I’ve heard a lot of people use the term, “stocky.” For women, “curvaceous” sounds more sexy than fat, but still gets the idea across that they’re not skinny. I’m not sure what else you can use. You have a good point–most words just sound like a euphemism for fat.

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Olivia • February 23, 2007 at 11:24 am

I like the word zaftig. It means curvy or pleasantly plump. And I’m with you on the need for a neutral pronoun.

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dee • February 23, 2007 at 11:31 am

i have a few, how about: athletic build, strong, great body, well-proportioned, shapely, got it going on, ….

to me and only me, normal, average and sturdy sound negative (no offense, just my mind set- i am working on it as it is a work in progress) and blah – “she’s average weight” sounds so iccky compared to “she’s has an athletic build” or “she’s thin”

again, just my two cents!

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Karen • February 23, 2007 at 11:43 am

Solid..as in a nice solid build. Works for male or female.

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J • February 23, 2007 at 12:13 pm

Sturdy? Robust? That’s what I’m aiming for.

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mal • February 23, 2007 at 1:53 pm

Um, did you just use a Star Trek analogy in an entry that talked about weight, starlets, and the metaphysics of grammar? I TOTALLY LOVE YOU.

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Wendy • February 23, 2007 at 3:20 pm

I think there needs to be a word, too, and it should be as free as possble from other associations. Words like curvy and zaftig and solid and athletic convey not thin, yet good because sexy/strong/dependable/whatever. They come with their own conclusions about how attractive or healthy a certain body size is, and we’re too caught up with that stuff already. (Not that sexy and strong aren’t GOOD things, but can’t I be the size I’m at without them? Why should my word be trying to prove something?)

That said, the only term I can come up with is something like, uh, “midsize.” You know, like a sedan. Back to the drawing board…

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K • February 23, 2007 at 4:53 pm

I love you for the same sort of reasons as Mal does.

It is a difficult issue, this one. I particularly hate the word “plump”, but I could hardly tell you why I don’t without recounting My History as a Teenage Self-Disliker.

Not too keen on “curvy”, although it describes me quite well, because it’s either a euphemism for fat, or it’s overly sexual. And I don’t like “solid” because, again, it’s used to mean “fat” – usually of children, round here.

“Healthy” should be OK, but it’s all in the tone of voice. I don’t know if anyone here knows Strangers in Paradise? At one point, one of the characters, Francine, who is indeed about the size we’re talking about, has been tied up and is being threatened. Her (female) assailant says to her “You’re a healthy girl, aren’t you?” and it’s not neutral at all.

These words are so loaded. I’m not desperate to be called “thin” or “slim”, even if I ever achieve these states. They sound sort of feeble: a thin argument, a slim chance. I wouldn’t mind “wiry” or “athletic”.

For now, sturdy will do.

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bazu • February 23, 2007 at 6:22 pm

I wholeheartedly second “zaftig.” My German friend in college taught it to me, and it was right around this time that I was learning to love my not quite thin not quite fat body. Plus, like many German words, it feels good to say it!

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Chris H • February 23, 2007 at 6:29 pm

I like NORMAL… full stop, end of story.

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jen • February 23, 2007 at 7:06 pm

Count me in for normal or average — I don’t personally want to look like a Lollipop Girl with a huge head on a stick body.

I do love the Star Trek analogy and also, I agree that midsize isn’t going to work because it makes me think of my Honda Accord.

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ha • February 23, 2007 at 8:05 pm

“Calling someone “it” is either derogatory or means he/she (see my problem here?) is an insane clown that lives in the sewers.”

I lolled my face off – too funny!

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the veggie paparazzo • February 23, 2007 at 10:31 pm

Shapely. Or svelte?

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Haystacks • February 24, 2007 at 3:18 am

I rarely feel it is appropriate to blame something that is the responsability of everyone solely on hollywood. But this is the one case where I make an exception. I really feel that this additude that not thin=fat comes from there. I once read an interview with an actress that said the worst thing someone could call her was healthy. Because that meant she was fat. According to the dictionary healthy means: “having or indicating good health in body or mind; free from infirmity or disease””functioning well” “physically and mentally sound” or “exercising or showing good judgment”.

All Websters has to is add “fat and revolting” to reflect the changing additudes.

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Haystacks • February 24, 2007 at 3:20 am

I rarely feel it is appropriate to blame something that is the responsability of everyone solely on hollywood. But this is the one case where I make an exception. I really feel that this additude that not thin=fat comes from there. I once read an interview with an actress that said the worst thing someone could call her was healthy. Because that meant she was fat. According to the dictionary healthy means: “having or indicating good health in body or mind; free from infirmity or disease””functioning well” “physically and mentally sound” or “exercising or showing good judgment”.

All Websters has to is add “fat and revolting” to reflect the changing additudes.

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lucy • February 24, 2007 at 5:57 am

The real problem is that if ‘solid’ or ‘curvy’ are shorthand for fat, then the word fat it’s self has become so all encompassing in it’s negative connotations; standing in for lazy and un-sexual and all those million other thing I understand I have no need to list for you…

Maybe the problem is that people are no longer allowed to imagine themselves, or present themselves, as average. Though it is, of course, right that we are infinitely special to a small group of friends and family, it is statistically obvious that we are generally very average.

So maybe the answer to the question, what is the right way to describe the weight of an average, normal, healthy woman, is that maybe we shouldn’t try to describe it at all, because in it’s lack of description it becomes that which it so necessarily is… average.

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sorcha • February 24, 2007 at 9:32 am

How about “bodacious,” or “bootylicious,” or my personal favorite (which says it all as far as I’m concerned), “Womanly.”

BTW, I have been seeing that 5’4″ 144 lbs average woman statistic quoted for at LEAST 20 years. I think we can all agree, that if one sits on a bench at the mall for 20 minutes “people watching,” one will see that today’s female adult average is more lik: 5’6″ 215-225 lbs. We have *definitely* evolved into a larger species since the 1980s.

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Betsey • February 24, 2007 at 11:47 am

My mom would use “prosperous” as a gentle way to say someone had gained weight. She would say “Have you seen Mr. Smith lately? He’s looking very prosperous.”

Back in the olden days, if you were fat, you were usually rich!

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anji • February 24, 2007 at 12:51 pm

I wouldn’t call it “normal” cause that would mean those who are above or below, are somehow ‘abnormal’…

However, average would be alright… but – a new, “hip” word that would make it sound alright, would be nice too :)

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NotSoFat • February 26, 2007 at 10:27 am

Well my two votes for “anything but these” are for “husky” (nasty flashbacks from shopping for clothes as a kid) and “big-boned” (definitely always said sarcastically). Though I do believe there are different frame sizes, “big-boned” is a negative description. As others have said, I do like “athletic” or “has an athletic build.”

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Lisa • February 26, 2007 at 11:25 pm

How about “Just right”!? I have always personally liked that for someone who isn’t thin but isn’t fat.

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Jen • May 11, 2007 at 6:38 am

Lisa – you’re JUST RIGHT on the money gal!

Everyone’s Just Right! Love it! I’m going to start saying that from now on! :D

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becky • April 24, 2008 at 3:53 pm

I know this is kind of behind the times (both the comment and the word) but I’ve always liked the word voluptuous to describe myself. It has a sexy connotation to it, but then I’ve got T&A to spare so it works for me.

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Ruth • June 22, 2008 at 9:47 pm

Um, robust comes to mind???

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Dana • August 6, 2009 at 11:17 am

Wasn’t Haystack a nickname for the fat kid in It? God, I am such a Stephen King nerd. I just thought it was funny someone commented here with that username. :D

Actually, using “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun has precedent. It was grammatically correct in Shakespeare’s day and, really, I think it was up until sometime in the early 20th century. So I use it and I don’t care what anybody thinks. ;)

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Jennette Fulda tells stories to the Internet about her life as a smartass, writer, weight-loss inspiration, chronic headache sufferer, and overall nice person (who is silently judging you). She does this at JennetteFulda.com now, but you can still have fun perusing her past here.

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