Many Fat Jokes Are Harmful. This One Was Not.
The best laugh I’ve had in months was at a coffee drive-through—and it was prompted by an unintentional fat joke.
My barista was flustered. Their espresso machine had malfunctioned, and they’d had to make my order twice already—once because the machine faltered, and the second time they dropped the coffee. The barista asked for my order again. Grande blonde roast flat white. They tried a third time and finally succeeded.
When my drink was ready, the frazzled worker at the window handed it to me and, exhausted, said, “Here’s your grande blonde fat white.”
They looked up at me, seemingly horrified, as they realized they were handing this coffee to a tall, fat, blonde white woman—in other words, a grande blonde fat white. Their face drained of color, apparently mortified at their misstep. Tension and despair hung in the air.
That’s when I started to laugh. And I couldn’t stop.
Before leaving, I spoke to the barista, assuring them that I wasn’t offended or hurt, nor was I making fun of them. To the contrary, I was delighted. Their face softened, shoulders loosened. We smiled and joked briefly until their tension eased, and until they believed that I really was just fine. I thanked them, tipped them handsomely for such a lengthy job, and drove on. For the rest of that day, I felt lighter than I had in months.
Many fat jokes can be incredibly hurtful. They often make fat people the butt of the joke, focusing on what we’re often told are objectively revolting or comedic bodies. Many are made intentionally, often by thin people, and nearly always at the expense of fat people. What’s challenging isn’t the joke itself, but the ideas that the joke relies on and reifies: You’re disgusting, and we all know it.
A rare few fat jokes instead ridicule anti-fat bias, making clear and then playing on the bizarre and unkind assumptions thin people often make about fat people (and which fat people often internalize). The jokes that take aim at our nonsensical marginalization are both precious and refreshing to me: They name fatness not as a failing, but as a laughably bizarre target for the kind of bullying and exclusion that shapes so many fat people’s experiences. Comedian Nicole Byer, for example, frequently plays with others’ faulty assumptions about how she relates to her own fat body. In a 2017 interview with Steve Harvey, she told the host, “I’ve been mistaken for pregnant before, and I was like, ‘What a compliment, you assumed I was f*cking!’” With a single quip, she pushed back against the idea that she must be devastated to be mistaken for a pregnant person, to have others acknowledge her size—and noted that it would be a treat for people to assume she was having sex. (See: the pervasive cultural notion that fat people are inherently undesirable.)
In both cases—jokes about fat people and jokes about anti-fat bias—fatness is often explicitly named and addressed. But often, in the company of well-intended people who are terrified of bodies like mine, that dynamic shifts. Rather than gleefully pointing out the size of my body, its shapes and rolls, many studiously avoid any mention of it at all. Should I dare to name my own fat body, thinner people will often protest, “You’re not fat, you’re beautiful!” (As if the two were opposites, polarities that couldn’t coexist in the same person.) Too often, my body is treated as an open secret, an implicit understanding that can never be made explicit. My body is she who cannot be named.
People often avoid naming my body not because I have asked them to, nor because it is an inherently bad body, but because of their own assumptions about what it means to be fat. To them, being fat means being ugly, rejected, unloved, and unlovable. To them, acknowledging my size means trapping my body in amber, forever freezing me as an eternal black-and-white “before” picture, doomed never to experience the technicolor life of an “after.” They are trying to spare my feelings from the judgments they’ve already made about bodies like mine. But acknowledging those judgments, even to themselves, would be rude. So instead, they object, leaving me to hold their cumbersome judgments alone. Normally, when thin people bring up my size, they project a series of toxic assumptions onto me and my body, leaving me to hold the heavy discomfort of their bias.
This brings me back to my encounter with the barista. Its magic didn’t lie in the simple fact that this barista accidentally called me fat, nor did it hinge on their embarrassment. What made this moment so refreshing was that, by accidentally describing my body and then having such a self-conscious reaction, a thin person had to hold the discomfort of their own bias, bearing the burden so many often shift onto me. The barista had said the quiet part loud. And with that, I didn’t have to hold the tension and awkwardness of a thin person’s judgments of me, and their consequent assumptions about how I view my own body. They did.
I spent the rest of the day feeling free and quietly invincible. This unintentional fat joke had lifted the burden of so many thin people’s untrue and deeply unkind beliefs about my body, and their frequent refusal to let me name that body without interruption. This stranger had done me a kindness, even unintentionally, by holding the burden of their own assumptions, at least for a brief moment in time.
- I’m Done Trying to Be a ‘Perfect’ Fat Person
- After Years of Writing Anonymously About Fatness, I’m Telling the World Who I Am
- We Have to Stop Thinking of Being ‘Healthy’ as Being Morally Better