Many words referring to being overweight have positive lexical connotations in Russian. Before the revolution, only the well-to-do could afford enough food to grow plump, and thus it was a sign of success. Throughout Soviet times, the ideal woman was usually presented as a stout working woman. To this day, being heavy remains much less stigmatized in Russian culture than in Western culture. That said, this, like all culturally-sensitive topics, is not one to discuss in reference to someone within earshot unless you know the person very well and are confident you will not offend them with any words you choose.
The word “полнеть” is roughly equivalent of “to fill out” in English, but can be used in Russian to describe even someone who is becoming overweight. The verb’s adjective form: полный is usually defined as “containing in itself as much as it can or should hold”. and is often used to politely describe “full-bodied” people or those с избыточным весом.
The verb “поправиться” also has distinctively positive connotations. In addition to meaning “to gain weight”, it also means “to be cured”, “to have improved health”. Interestingly, it is also not uncommonly used to mean “to take the hair of the dog,” meaning to cure the hangover by taking another drink.
Even the adjective жирный, which is rude to use when referring to people, can carry positive connotations. Ushakov’s Explanatory Dictionary defines it as “saturated with useful substances, juicy,” and gives the example “жирная земля”.
Frequently, gaining weight or even being overweight is associated in Russian literature as a sign of being successful and living “the good life.” For example, Ivan Goncharov writes in his An Ordinary Story of Aleksandr, a young man who is living life to the fullest, “Она не могла нарадоваться, глядя, как Александр полнел”.
Even in harsher instances, the references are often forgiving. For example, in Fathers and Sons, Turgenev writes: “Управляющий вдруг обленился и даже начал толстеть, как толстеет всякий русский человек, попавший на ‘вольные хлеба”.
The noun “толстяк” is generally rude, but innocuous enough that there is a chain of “plus-sized” clothing stores in Russia called “Три Толстяка” (which is also a reference to a well-known tale in Russian). One would not expect such a store to do as much business if its name were derived from the even ruder жиртрест or жирняк.
It is also interesting to note that a respected Russian last name, one associated with nobility and great authors is “Толстой”, derived from the word “толстый” meaning “fat/overweight”. There is even the last name “Жириновский”, which one of Russia’s best-known politicians, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, adopted for himself, replacing his original, Jewish last name of Эйдельштейн with something more ethnically Russian. Even his supporters sometimes refer to him with the nickname “Жирик” – a diminutive that would also mean “fatty.” It’s even the title of his Russian Wikipedia entry.
In contrast, the last name “Худых”, derived from the word “худой” is very rare. Худяков is more common, and is associated with some famous figures (including at least one famous artist and a modern director of music videos), yet undoubtedly pales in fame if compared with Толстой.
The words related to недостаточный вес are more frequently given negative connotation.
In literature, “худоба” is often associated with “нездоровье”. In Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy writes: “как ни страшен был брат Николай своей худобой и болезненностью прежде, теперь он еще похудел, еще изнемог”.
“Tощий” is word that means “thin” but also “empty.” To illustrate uses of its verb form, Dal’s Explanatory Dictionary gives as its first two graphic examples: “Не болезнь истощила его, а кровопускания” and “он истощил труды и состояние безуспешно”.
Another related verb is “тошнить” which means “to purge” or “to vomit” – the result of which, of course, is being “тощий”.
The word “худой” can also mean “bad” or “cheap.” For example, the saying “худой товар с рук долой”, means roughly “cheap goods should be dropped immediately” (i.e. not purchased). Another (better known) example is “лучше худой мир чем добрая война”.
“Polite” names to refer someone who is thin are also more uncommon in Russian if compared with polite names for someone who is heavy. One example is the relatively innocuous “худенький” which would refer to someone not unappealingly thin. There is also the adjective “стройный” which would refer to someone with a thin, yet still athletic build and is associated with the secondary definitions of “well composed” and “harmonious.”
A ruder version would be to call the person a “скелет”.
Attitudes toward weight are changing in Russia, with more and more people going to fitness centers on a regular basis, and following the latest diet fads. Today many young girls would like their boyfriend to be накачанный and хорошо сложенный, and guys prefer to have a стройная девушка. Meanwhile, a large percentage of Russians have a positive attitude towards moderate amounts of excess weight in themselves or other people. As they say, “хороших людей должно быть много” – which is play on words in Russian and roughly means “You can never have too many good people” and “you can never have enough of a good person.”