This excerpt of Jes Baker’s essay, "Elephant, Hippo, and Other Nicknames I Love" from The (Other) F Word: A Celebration of the Fat and Fierce, edited by Angie Manfredi (September 2019) appears with permission of the publisher, Amulet Books, an imprint of Abrams.
"Here comes Jes the Hippo!” someone sang loudly as I pulled open Mrs. Olsen’s classroom door and entered. This trilling announcement of my arrival was loud enough to cause my entire fifth-grade class to turn toward me as I slid into my wooden desk seat.
I looked around for the owner of the singsong voice; my eyes eventually landed on a small girl grinning victoriously in my direction. Her name was Danielle, and if my life were to be told in comic book form, she would undoubtedly make an appearance as my very first archnemesis.
I was a chubby, blond, prepubescent student; never part of the “cool crowd” thanks to (1) my uncontrollable desire to raise my hand and answer the question before anyone else in addition to (2) wearing the same orange socks purchased for me by my mom every week — I was completely unaware that, even for a youngster in the nineties, orange socks were apparently an unforgivable fashion choice. The semiaquatic mammalian nickname that stuck to me like glue for the rest of the year was simply the icing on my personal “Forever a Playground Loser” cake.
If I’m being completely honest, in the beginning I was fairly confident that this nickname was a compliment. While only having a short decade of life under my belt, I was nonetheless well aware that hippos — while seemingly whimsical — were not creatures to be messed with. I had watched enough National Geographic videos to know that hippos were capable of opening their jaws a full 150 degrees (Fun Fact: Their jaws can stretch to 4–5 feet wide) and could effortlessly crush a human skull.
Even other keystone predators that surrounded them — like the formidably ruthless lion (who, by comparison, is only able to stretch its jaws to a paltry 11 inches) — were afraid of them. As far as I was concerned, hippos were to be revered and respected . . . or at least that’s what I thought until I heard other students whispering about our classmate Helen “the Elephant” as well. The scathing tone used to describe her resemblance to this other (in my opinion) magnificent creature was my first red flag that being compared to an enormous mammal wasn’t something I was meant to feel flattered by.
It took me mere days to realize that Helen and I were not being compared to animals because of our impressive capacity for memory or monumental jaw strength. Quite the opposite. Neither Helen nor I had thin frames, and while this wasn’t a secret to anyone (including ourselves), our classmates quickly defaulted to addressing us as hippos and elephants as a way to reinforce the idea that we took up too much space. Our first names were publicly and permanently substituted with the names of voluminous creatures because of the size of our bodies — an intentionally cruel indication that we were nothing more than monstrous creatures. We were surreptitiously deemed grotesque miscreants by our classmates simply because of our weight.
The relationship I’ve had with my body over the years is complicated and full of nuanced details that would take hundreds of pages to thoroughly explain, but if I were to summarize the most prominent theme that has dictated how I feel about my physical self, it would be this: I hated my body since the moment I was capable of understanding what the word fat meant in our society. The realization that fat was one of the worst things that you could be happened long before I found myself with a designated nickname in fifth grade. Simply put: I have spent the vast majority of my life living in a mental state of extraordinary self-loathing, and it has impacted how I’ve participated in the world in almost every way.
It was also around middle school that I began my decade-long habit of chronic dieting, dedicating my entire life to shrinking my body— everything else that I did became secondary in importance. Every waking moment revolved around trying to lose weight, even before my body had a chance to fully develop. I tried it all, from starvation to SlimFast to dangerous phentermine pills that were eventually pulled from the market for causing heart valve damage. I would binge and then promptly throw it all up in the bathroom. I lived off rice cakes for weeks at a time and even tried a program that guaranteed weight loss through replacing your need for food with a love for Jesus. This dangerous and disordered eating continued well into my twenties, as I attempted one “surefire” diet after another. I physically and mentally harmed my body over and over, never trusting its need for nutrition or my brain’s need for balance and self-compassion.
And it was through all this that I harnessed the limitless power that can come by reclaiming the word fat.
Convinced that obsessive dieting wasn’t enough (in addition to the fact that dieting doesn’t and didn’t work), I tried to compensate for my perceived failure by being the best in every other area of my life. I did whatever it took to ensure I had the highest grades, tried to be the best at every sport my parents enrolled me in (there were dozens), and overextended myself in every area of life to the point of having nervous breakdowns . . . simply because I felt “just being myself” wasn’t good enough. I was certain that I was deeply flawed because my body never looked like the “ideal bodies” that I idolized in every magazine I read. I spent my life constantly feeling sorry for my close friends, often pitying them for being forced to endure the company of my body just so they could hang out with the rest of me. I internalized every lie that told me I was undeserving of happiness and dated people who reinforced my negative self-views, eventually finding a long-term partner who left me because I had gained weight over the years we had been together. It was only after this final, soul-crushing relationship that I found a way to halt my self-harm: I experienced the radical revelation that there might be another way to live.
This life-altering revelation came in the surprising form of a simple blog.
In my midtwenties I found The Nearsighted Owl, a lifestyle website written by Rachele, a woman who rocked fabulous cat-eye glasses. I instantly identified with her love of vintage thrifting, owls, delicious recipes, cats, and purple beehives — but there was one glaring difference between her and me. Rachele and I were both fat — that was something we did have in common. But unlike me, Rachele was fat, confident, and happy. This unequivocal distinction left me speechless.
This was the first time in my life that I had ever witnessed a woman who lived in a fat body and also lived a life chock-full of joy, love, and empowerment. It was her unapologetic writing and lifestyle that spurred the revolutionary thought that changed my life’s direction forever: Maybe I don’t have to hate myself for the rest of my life.
Maybe I don’t have to hate myself for the rest of my life! Maybe I can even sort of... like myself!?! Rachele was doing it, so perhaps I could, too.
Rachele was my introduction into the world of “Fat Acceptance,” a universe that had existed my entire life and was based around the concept that ALL bodies — no matter their shape, size, weight, age, ability, race, ethnicity, or health status — deserved rights, respect, and unadulterated freedom. Finding Rachele’s blog — finding fat acceptance — helped me see a better future. Maybe you’ve had that experience when looking at Snapchat or browsing Instagram: someone with a body like yours publicly and unabashedly living their best life. Just the simple act of witnessing their confidence has the potential to change everything. It certainly did for me.
Because of Rachele, I finally grasped a new, undeniable truth: Fat bodies were just as worthy as every other body. The truth was, I could have a life full of love and joy without needing to hate or shrink my body. The truth was, fat was neither a bad thing nor a bad word—and this truth was intoxicating.
I dove headfirst into this newfound reality, one that became even more compelling as I explored further. I followed radical Tumblr accounts, purposefully sought out photos of diverse bodies, and I read every fat acceptance book I could find. I researched the history of body image, studied the real facts around fat and health (spoiler: Everything the world thinks it knows about fatness and health is wrong), and joined a community of other people who were as invested in body acceptance as I was. I eventually started to notice something wonderful: the more I learned about body acceptance, the more my perception of the world shifted. I found myself becoming less judgmental, not just of others, but also of my own body. I was reformatting my reality. I was rewiring my belief in acceptability. I was finally teaching myself the truth.
And it was through all this that I harnessed the limitless power that can come by reclaiming the word fat.
This word, while something that I’m happy to use, still makes many others deeply uncomfortable. Their discomfort often causes them to jump to my “defense” by saying things like, “No way, Jes! You’re just chubby. Fluffy. Curvy. Plus-size. You’re insert every other socially preferred euphemism here.” To those friends I say: I know you think I’m insulting myself when I say that I’m fat, but here’s why I prefer to use the “f-word” more than any other descriptor: The word fat is not inherently bad. It’s a simple adjective. It’s a neutral descriptor of the size of my body. And while others may choose to use other words to describe their large bodies (and it is certainly their right to do so), the act of personally reclaiming fat resonated with me on a cellular level.
Yes, I am compassionate, tattooed, creative, loyal, determined, short, musical, strong, energetic, and a million other things. I’m also decidedly fat.
Saying “I’m fat” is (and should be) the same as saying the ocean is wet, my favorite dress is green, dirt is gritty, and Emma Watson’s hair is brown. It’s not a good thing, it’s not a bad thing, it simply is what it is.
Here is the simple reality that took me years to learn: The only negativity that the word fat carries is the negativity that we have created around it. Our disgust when it comes to fat bodies is 1,000% learned. This may sound surprising, but we don’t actually need to stop using the word fat because we think it’s a negative depiction. We need to stop the hatred that we connect with the word instead.
It’s the dots we connect between the word and someone’s worth that is harmful, and THAT is the part we must change.
I now use it often because I have decided that it’s officially MY word to wield, and the more I use it positively, the more fat stigma I smash. I’ve found that calling myself fat has become an empowering way to walk through this world. When someone tries to insult me by calling me fat, I just say, “I sure am! And?”
After my introduction to the body positivity and fat acceptance movements (there are multiple facets to the body image world, and these are two of the prominent ones), I started my own body image blog: The Militant Baker, where I chronicled my own journey and dedicated myself to always being authentic and sharing the vulnerable parts of life that we often feel scared to offer the world. The Militant Baker has since been described as “raw, honest, and attitude-filled.” I’m flattered by this in every way.
I’ve since launched two internationally attended body image conferences, given nearly one hundred lectures at universities and events across the world, written two books, held healing body image photo shoots for more than two hundred people, appeared in multiple documentaries and television shows, worked with dozens of plus-size clothing companies, have been covered by more than 300 national and international media outlets, written more than 500 body image and mental health related articles, and posted (approximately) 70 public pictures of me in my underwear as well as a few that showcase my fat body in the nude.
I am fully aware of how privileged I am to be able to participate in this kind of work; my success is in large part because I am a cisgender, white, able-bodied woman, and the world accepts most of me with a few scant exceptions. It’s this privilege that has allowed me to have a large platform with multiple outlets. And it’s that platform that affords me the opportunity to preach about the importance of body liberation, self-advocacy, mental health, and diversity and intersectionality, as well as other hard conversations, strong coffee, and even stronger language.
I’m lucky as hell, and I know it.
Jes Baker is a positive, progressive, and magnificently irreverent force to be reckoned with and is internationally known for preaching the importance of body liberation, self-love, mental health, strong coffee, and even stronger language as an author and blogger. When not writing, Jes spends her time speaking around the world, working as a body image and mental health coach, collaborating with plus-size clothing companies, organizing body liberation events, taking pictures in her underwear, and attempting to convince her cats that they like to wear bow ties. You can learn more about Jes through TheMilitantBaker.com and JesBaker.com.