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Throughout my teenage years, I read in multiple online articles and posts that “fat” is the absolute worst thing you can call a girl. It’s complete taboo, whether you’re joking or not, and is considered an insult of colossal proportions. I certainly took it as such.

As a sensitive person by nature, my preteen years were not fun. I was called “fat” more times than I could count and the result was that that one word cost me my health unnecessarily for years. It cost me a job when I fainted at work. I no longer have the liberty to meet a friend for breakfast without fearing that I’ll pass out on the way there. Even worse is that I was not really fat in the first place, but we’ll leave unrealistic beauty standards for another day.

Eating disorders affect millions of people and have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. How could this one word have had such a disastrous effect on so many? I had been called “stupid as a dog” in grade 3 (I remember thinking at the time, “dogs are actually quite intelligent…”), but that never hurt me like “fat” did. I’d been called “selfish,” “heartless,” “dumb,” and many other words that, when you think about it, are far, far worse traits than “fat.” Perhaps I was not as affected because knew that I wasn’t entirely any of those things, but I was not really fat either. For some reason, it stood out above all others as my one great flaw. It was the only trait that seemed to matter.

That, I think, is the root of the problem. I placed that one word describing someone’s opinion of my body above all my other faults and qualities, because that’s what I’ve been conditioned to think is most important. “Fat” is not even a word with the intention to insult, the way “airhead” is. It was not designed to hurt, merely to describe. It is this description that society had deemed worthy of insult. Yes, some people are fat. But no, that shouldn’t be a bad thing.

Not everyone is physically beautiful. Some people are fat, and others not. Our society has decided to make those traits more important than anything else. More important than intelligence, than confidence, than compassion. Numerous studies have shown that stereotypically beautiful people get lot more advantages in life, including ease in finding a job, getting promoted, and much more.

When I see people that I haven’t seen in years, the first (and often only) compliment or comment they tell me is, “you’re so pretty!”. Not that I don’t appreciate that, of course, but my physical appearance has defined my identity and my worth all my life, more than anything else. I’m willing to bet that millions have felt the same. How twisted is that?

It wouldn’t be a problem if we placed the same value on physical appearance as we do on more meaningful and personal qualities as well. But often, people stop at “pretty” or “fat.” I rarely hear “she’s very driven” or “he’s so optimistic.” As an average person commenting lightly, that may not matter, but as a boss making a choice of who to hire, it does. This is an issue that surpasses self-esteem and confidence; the way we judge and define people has enormous consequences for career, relationships, and almost every part of our daily lives. We need to sort out our priorities.