Community origins of the term “Superfat”

On a vibrant background of energetic red and yellow starburst stripes, in a thick font, the title “Community Origins of the Term Superfat — A Brief History.” The words “superfat” are extra wide.

We want to share and preserve the powerful origin story of the term “superfat.” To our knowledge, the term was first popularized at NOLOSE during its regular, US-based, international gathering.

A rainbow-colored beach ball flies over a “Welcome to Fatlandia” banner. Several prior Nolose programs proclaim conference years 2000, 2001, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012 in this illustrated comic. Two fat people frolic in an outdoor pool under a blue sky at the top of the image. Under the banner, race- and gender- identity diverse fat conference attendees arrive with suitcases, greeting each other with hugs and reading the conference program. Signs direct “fat queers” while a person in a dapper hat using a wheelchair greets attendees at the registration desk.

NOLOSE is a vibrant community of fat queers and allies. NOLOSE historically put on a semi-annual, in-person fat conference in the US. But even there, as in many fat communities, the fattest people were on the outskirts.

A complex, hand drawn panel states, “Even at Nolose, the fattest people were often excluded.” At a table in a conference hall, three diverse superfat people express frustration. All around them, smaller fat people seem unaware of their privilege. Above a vendor table, a sign proclaims their shirts only go up to a 3X. A mid-size Keynote speaker admonishes the audience of fat people “you really should fly to other countries” seemingly unaware of the challenges superfat people have with air travel. In the background, smaller fats flirt with each other. The superfats are at their own table off to the side. Responding with frustration to the speaker they mutter “grrrr” and “as if.”

In 2006, there was a rash of weight loss surgeries (WLS) in the NOLOSE community that resulted in a lot of public support, “understanding,” and empathy for fat folks who were having surgery, and very little focus on centering the lives of the fattest folks who were not. There was also a lot of related ableism. Because of this, many of us who were beyond the traditional small/mid-size/large fat categories became alienated and were considering not returning to NOLOSE.

An illustration featuring fifteen fat people of different races, genders, ages, and abilities/disabilities. The attendees sit facing each other in a large circle. Three fat people hold hands and hug each other supportively while telling the group they will be getting weight loss surgery and asking for reassurance that they will still be welcome at Nolose. They share: “I’ve decided to get WLS.” “Me, too.” “Me, too. Will you all still love me if I have WLS?” The smaller fat people in the room respond enthusiastically with hearts and reassuring words: “Yes, you’ll always belong!” In stark contrast, one of the fattest people then asks: “But will there be a place here for me if I don’t?” — this question is met with silence and the image of a cricket in a speech bubble.

Each conference featured identity-based caucuses for minoritized groups, including a caucus exclusively for the fattest attendees, initially called the “supersize” caucus. Many caucus members were sized out of fat clothing stores and experienced multiple fat-related access barriers in everyday life. At the caucus in 2008 that immediately followed NOLOSE’s surge in empathy for people having WLS, the term “superfat” was coined, replacing the word “supersize.” Superfat was intentionally created and chosen, after extensive discussion, as a means of visibility, self-love, and empowerment; a way of naming ourselves and making our experience visible.

Six diverse superfat people talk under a “Supersize Caucus” sign. The superfat person whose question was met with silence before holds a cane and asks, “Is it time to move on?” A superfat person in a hoodie says, “No, but we need a new name.” A straight-haired superfattie chimes in: “We need to express our needs.” A superfat person in a motorized chair with their hair in locs adds, “We need to have each other’s backs.” A superfat in a striped shirt adds, “And save each other from superfat-phobia, like superheroes.” “We may need capes!” concludes a superfat femme in cat-eye glasses with curly pigtails.

Small fat, mid-size, and large fat were names without room for us. We chose “superfat” as a fourth category to represent and include the very fattest in our community. We specifically picked a name that had a superhero vibe because we were going to be our own superheroes. Some of us even made capes. We knew we had to be ready to defend each other and be prepared to swoop in as a group to address the disposability culture surrounding superfatties. We created a superfat call and response that could function like the “bat signal” if back-up was needed. If any superfat person felt alone or if sizeist stuff was happening, they could call out and all the superfatties within hearing distance would loudly respond from wherever we were. It was glorious to call out for support in a public space and hear superfats respond from all corners.

Superfats shared our experience of exclusion with the whole conference and demanded that superfatties be respected and honored, and the community response was fabulous and supportive. This intentional self-naming was extremely empowering and many people who were part of NOLOSE or queer fat community continue to identify with the term superfat. We were both part of that caucus and both still identify with that term to this day.

Six of the fattest community members crowd around a mic reading from a List of Demands. On a sign next to them, the new title “Superfat” is announced — the old term “Supersize” is crossed out. The diverse audience of smaller fats is enthusiastically supportive, calling out “We love you,” “Woot,” “Preach!” and “Yes!”
On green grass under a bright blue sky, a larger superfat femme in cat-eye glasses enjoying her mobility scooter visits with her smaller superfat friend who toys mischievously with a flower from the scooter basket. Above them, the words: “And that’s how Superfat became a term of power for the fattest of the fat.”

“Superfat” as originally conceived in the caucus had no upper size limit. It was intended to represent the fattest of us, those of us whose body size isn’t considered acceptable even by most other fat people. Superfat people regularly encounter physical and attitudinal barriers that small, mid, and large fats certainly may encounter on occasion, but not consistently. Examples include lack of access to seating, denial of healthcare, inability to get medical imaging, employment discrimination, lack of clothing that fits even in “fat stores,” and denial of insurance benefits.

Subsequently, around ten years after the superfat caucus named itself, an internet chart was created to help people understand what it termed “the fatness spectrum.” It uses clothing size as the prevailing, defining characteristic and differentiates people by size by using four total categories: “small fat,” “medium fat,” “superfat,” and “infinifat.” Like the group at NOLOSE, the author wanted to be sure the experiences of the largest fat people were recognized. She coined and identified with the term infinifat, offering it to fill a need, and with it much wonderful community developed. She never told people they had to use the term infinifat and there was no malice, however we wanted to respond with this history, because the chart differs from the original definition of “superfat” in that it (1) focuses the concept on a female-gendered clothing size range and (2) skews small and adds an upper size limit (defining superfat as between sizes 26–32), which creates confusion and strips superfat identity from the people who originated the term.

It’s easy for history to be lost, and our lives and experiences disappeared. We want people to understand that “superfat” was originally intended to reflect the experience of being the fattest of the fat, an experience of being denied access — to the world and to community — based on our size. Superfat is an identity created to claim the power and wisdom of our own fatter-than-fat bodies and our connections with each other. It’s much more than a clothing size, and it can’t be contained by one. We can be our own superfatty heroes if we want. And we can count on other superfats when we aren’t feeling heroic.

Note: Chart author Ash (of TheFatLip fame) is in the process of revising the chart, so stay tuned. We see infinifat as a wonderful, complementary identity option and believe the fattest of us could identify as either infinifat or superfat, both superfat and infinifat, or something entirely different.

Story preserved by Cherry Midnight and Max Airborne. Drawings by Max Airborne. Image descriptions by Cherry Midnight. Thanks for the stellar memory-keeping of Devra and Cholla. #KnowYourHistory

Fat activists in the San Francisco Bay area.