What To Call Fat People – Person First Language and Fat People

What Will you DefendI posted a piece called Person First Language and Ableism on my Facebook page.  It started an interesting conversation about language, including as it relates to fat people since this has been coming up recently.

First, a bit of background, Person (or People)  First Language started as a tool in disability community and is based on the idea that putting the “person” before their “illness or disability” helps to decrease stigma.  For example “A person with a disability” rather than “A disabled person.” There is a lot of controversy within that community about the use of PFL.

This became pertinent to fat people because of organizations like the Obesity Action Coalition. If you’re not familiar, the OAC is a nightmare of an organization that pretends to advocate for fat people when what they really do is act as a lobbying arm for the weight loss companies that donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to be on their “Chairman’s Council.”

The organizations who fund the OAC need obesity to be seen as a disease  because it is a first step to convincing insurance companies to pay for their expensive and dangerous treatments. So, under the guise of “eliminating stigma,” they are trying to advocate for Person First Language.  Using their own example (from a website I will NEVER link to)

“The woman was affected by obesity.” instead of “The woman was obese.”

The man with obesity was on the bus. instead of The man on the bus was very obese.”

As you can see here, as we did above, we’re no longer labeling an individual with their disease.

This is bullshit as far as I’m concerned.  First of all, body size is not a diagnosis.  And, as Amy Sequienza pointed out in her article, language like this actually increases stigma because PFL is never used to indicate a characteristic that is positive or neutral.  Nobody says “The woman was affected by brunetteness” or “The woman with shortness was on the bus.” Much like the suggestion that “we aren’t fat we have fat, like we have fingernails, we aren’t fingernails,” the use of PFL suggests that accurately describing a fat person’s body is stigmatizing, in a way that other descriptions are not (tall, blonde, etc.) thus reinforcing stigma around being fat.

There is no way to say “don’t call people fat” without stigmatizing fat people since we are, in fact, fat whether we call ourselves that or not. But remember that’s not what’s actually important to groups like the OAC – what’s important to them is the profits of the companies and organizations that allow them to exist through massive amounts of funding.

That leads to a question I got from Shelley on Facebook about what to call fat people:

I’m not fat so I usually use “people who live in larger bodies” when talking to general public or other personal trainers about not being assholes, is this ok?

This is a really good question.  I use fat for a lot of reasons but it’s definitely not for everyone. (I’m also conscious of the fact that thin people don’t do this because, for the most part, they get to understand their body size as a good thing so they aren’t triggered by the words that describe them.) When I’m looking for a neutral and non-controversial term I look for few criteria. First, it can’t pathologize body size (which means that “obese” and “overweight” are out.) Second, I typically try to avoid euphemisms (curvy, fluffy, etc.) because I think that euphemism can often suggest discomfort. So “people who live in larger bodies” would work for me, as do “people of size” and “larger bodied,” in some contexts I’ll use Plus Size but it’s not my favorite. If you have other examples I welcome you to include them in the comments.

This is made more difficult because fat people aren’t a monolith and so what some of us prefer to be called, others will loathe, and each person gets to decide which word/s we prefer for ourselves which is why using neutral descriptors like “people of size” or “larger bodied people” can help.  It can also help to remember that, regardless of what we call fat people, the only thing that will permanently end the stigma against fat people is to end weight stigma and fat shaming, and celebrate the diversity of body sizes including fat bodies, whatever we call them.

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38 thoughts on “What To Call Fat People – Person First Language and Fat People

  1. OAC, in case you missed it the last seventybajillion times, when you separate fat people from our fat by saying we’re a “person afflicted with obesity,” you only make people *more* comfortable mistreating us. You further separate the fat person from our humanity, implying the “real” us is some imaginary thin person secreted away in an objectified prison of fat, safe and sound no matter what kind of damage is inflicted on that prison. Indeed, this is frequently taken to its logical conclusion the prison-body *must* be destroyed to liberate the inner thin person inside. The results are never pretty.

    No. I’m not “a woman afflicted with obesity,” OAC, I’m a fat woman. If you prick my fat, that’s the real me bleeding.

    Also, from a purely practical angle, “the woman was affected by obesity” sounds awkward in a way “obese woman” doesn’t. If you dropped “the man afflicted with obesity was on the bus” in a real-world conversation with your buddy, they’d be so distracted by your semantics they wouldn’t be able to focus on the message were conveying. Then again, it’s a shitty message, so maybe that’s a feature and not a bug.

  2. I use the word ‘fat’ to describe myself, and – if I get shocked looks – explain that it is not a perjorative adjective, just an adjective.

  3. Honestly, I would argue that “people who live in larger bodies” is just another way of saying “you aren’t fat, you HAVE fat.” Calling me a “person who lives in a larger body” just makes it sound like I’m wearing a fat suit 24/7 that I could take off at any time but I don’t.

    If you’re going to throw around the word “large” anyway, why not just use the phrase “larger people”? Plus size people, heavier people. There’s any number of words you can use to describe fat people if you or they are uncomfortable with the word “fat” that doesn’t imply there’s a thinner person inside just waiting to get out.

    1. Exactly! I actually said “ouch” out loud when reading the “people who live in larger bodies” thing up above. I don’t live in my body, I live in my house. You wouldn’t say “people who live in smaller bodies,” so you might as well just use “large” to replace fat, which is way less awkward sounding.

      Also, “people who live in larger bodies” sounds like a small person killed a fat person and is wearing them as a skin suit.

    2. It does kind of bring up images of that statue with the thin person inside a fat “shell,” and chipping away at it, as if the fat doesn’t bleed. Gads, that statue was hideous.

  4. I didn’t object to Rubenesque (because we are ALL works of art) or “generous”.

    I also don’t hate “solid.”

    But I usually avoid those descriptors and just stick with hair color and style, glasses, tall….

  5. I like “person of size” because I feel it describes me as a person who is systematically discriminated against based on a physical characteristic I have no control over. My size does not cause me problems on its own; the size-related problems I face are due to “society” stigmatizing my size, designing public spaces for people who are considerably smaller than me, failing to provide equal access to quality fashionable clothing, etc. My mental and physical health have improved considerably since I began taking this perspective. Thank you Regan!

    1. I don’t like “fat” much, only because it was the term used to terrorize me since 1st grade. If I had to choose a term to use — meaning, being forced to choose — I think “person of size” is OK. I have actually heard an EMT friend use the term and I thought “how nice that he did not use a derogatory term” when telling his story. When I’m with my BF or friends and I am talking about girls like us in general, I will say “Fat chicks… ” but that is with people I am comfortable around so it is somehow different in my mind.

      I wish I was as strong and confident as Ragen… 🙂

  6. “A person with a disability” was a major improvement over “a cripple” or “a defective.” The idea of calling people people is a good one. Unfortunately too many people took one suggested construct and overapplied it… so instead of saying, “the boy has a disability” (pretty reasonable way to talk), it became always, “that boy is a person with a disability” (which is pretty ridiculous; of course he’s a person, as you just stated he’s a boy). Or even worse, PWD. Gah. The acronym is the worst. And I completely agree that the examples you’ve given are ridiculous. Thanks for the posts nudging everyone to consider what our language choices actually convey.

  7. I’ve started using fat to describe myself in addition to calling out friends who admonish me for doing so because (as they say it) “I’m so pretty/beautiful.” Fat and attractiveness are mutually exclusive (god I hope I’m using that right); you can be both.

    Also PFL where you “see the person not the disability” sounds an awful lot like claims of colorblindness when it comes to race. Not to derail the conversation at hand in any way; just pointing out a potential parallel.

        1. Yup. if things are “mutually exclusive”—a phrase I love—they can’t exist together. So you definitely want a “not” in there somewhere. . (Sorry, it’s an occupational hazard! :-))

          1. (“hazard”=my professional proofreader’s hat, which pops out at times like this, but got stripped from the comment—oops!)

          2. I always trip up on that phrase and I’m a writer! But I think we all have a few. I always have to verify deductive vs inductive reasoning, and for the love of god please don’t ask me to differentiate between “lay” and “lie” on the spot. I usually will google these guys, but I was in a rush when I made the initial comment and wanted to get my point across. I figured I’d throw in the disclaimer for at least some insurance 😊

    1. Yep. I used to think colorblindness was a good thing, when it came to race, until a black person pointed out how VERY important her race was to her identity. She felt that by ignoring her race, I was ignoring a huge part of her character, and what made her the way she was.

      Much better to acknowledge the differences, and rejoice in them. Yaaay, variety! Quilts wouldn’t be nearly as awesome if they were just many pieces of the same cloth, sewn together. It’s the differences, put together into an harmonious whole that makes it wonderful. And that is how our relationships with other people should be.

      Some people would say that fat and attractive are mutually exclusive, but they also believe that there is only one universal standard of beauty. Meanwhile, there are some other people saying the very same thing about thin, because they don’t like it. The truth is, attractiveness is completely subjective, both in terms of physical characteristics and in terms of personality and habits. What’s lovely to one person is ugly to another, and vice versa.

      The most important thing is to be attractive specifically to the person or people you actually want to attract. The second most important thing is to teach ourselves and our children NOT to discriminate against people we deem to be unattractive, for whatever reason, but to treat everyone with civility and courtesy, and be as fair as we can be. Once those two things are done, privilege will be an issue no more.

        1. No kidding. I know some really wonderful people who are not conventionally attractive. But get to know them, and they become unconventionally attractive, because they are wonderful people! And that’s way more important.

          After all, it’s not like we’re going around having sex with everyone. Physical attraction really only matters in terms of sexual relationships. For friendship, or even business, it doesn’t matter!

          Or at least, it shouldn’t.

      1. This right here. I think what trips people up is they think you’re forcing them to be attracted to particular types. No. You can like whatever you like, but you need to treat people with respect. Also, your preference didn’t come out of a vacuum. You’re still entitled to it, but you’re not entitled to treat people like crap because they don’t fit your beauty standard.

  8. I identify as fat regularly and I’m on board with trying to decouple the f-word from stigma and stereotype, but I really like the term “larger-bodied” in the context of personal training and fitness. Not every fat person likes the word, (my mother, who is almost the same size I am, for example, cringes every time I use it) and it’s accurate, relevant to creating modifications for exercising fatties, and neutral. It also takes into account that most personal trainers and fitness professionals are taught within a paradigm that usually considers fit fatties outliers and “normal-weight” people or “straight-sized” people as the only clients they’re likely to see. So a fat person who wanted to use their services would probably be larger-bodied than the people they’ve been trained to work with.

    “Person of size” is rather impersonal (funnily enough) and implies a monolithic group that the person so-named is a part of. Which is just as weird as using the term, “person of color”. Every person is a person of some size. So that’s what I would say to the personal trainer who left that comment.

    1. Just like the “plus sizes” in clothes, right? I thought that, as well.

      The thing is, having an accurate descriptor IS necessary. When you’re trying to describe someone’s physical characteristics, so that they can be spotted in a crowd, quickly (such as describing someone for the police or if someone is meeting them to give them a ride, or something), you need a descriptor that is both highly visible, and unable to be misunderstood.

      The problem isn’t in pointing out the size. The problem is in making the size, itself, a bad thing.

      1. I was thinking along those same lines, but I would feel uncomfortable assigning labels to someone I didn’t know well. I would prefer to repeat how someone described themselves rather than assuming, including their gender, size, and color.

          1. yes, of course. I suppose “shockingly awesome person with the red hat” isn’t always going to work. I hope we can reclaim words that ought to be neutral, but as a not-fat person I don’t want to use words that may have been used as weapons in the past for someone I don’t know.

  9. I prefer “fat” or “large.”

    Basically, it’s not the words, so much, as the attitude behind them, that makes or breaks the label. But when too many people have a bad attitude about the word “fat,” then the word, itself, becomes a problem, and by golly, I want to reclaim it! Fat is a descriptor, NOT a pejorative.

  10. This is something that recently came up in my fifth grade classroom. The conclusion I finally came to with my students was, “if your friend doesn’t like being called fat, don’t call them fat,” but I wasn’t prepared. Next time, what might be better?

    1. Perhaps bring it up, yourself, before it becomes an issue, and lead with “some people don’t mind being called ‘fat,’ because it really is just a descriptor, and not a pejorative,” (teach the difference in those words, first), and then move on to, “but some people have made it such an insult that a lot of people, no matter their current size, are hurt by the word. So, please don’t use it to describe someone unless you know that they, personally, are OK with it. ASK THEM what they like and what they don’t like, and do your best to remember. And if you forget, and hurt them accidentally, apologize and try to do better going forward.”

      You could also incorporate a discussion of race, gender (a discussion of people’s preferred pronouns, for example), and other such things because identity is an inter-sectional mash-up of oppression and baggage. And fifth-grade is an excellent time to learn about empathy, respect and good manners.

  11. Some people find fat attractive.This fact gets overwhelmed by the negative attitudes projected by much of the mass media. This still does not alter this truth.

    1. Absolutely! And not always in the form of a “fetish,” but just a thing that turns a head, like hair color, broad shoulders, muscly arms, or any other of the billon things people find especially attractive.

      I would, though, really like to decouple “attractive” from “worthy,” which is a bigger problem for women but a problem for men as well.

      1. Hear! Hear!

        I would also like to see “attractive” more connected with behavior and character than physical features. And also have “to me” appended to all mentions of the word “attractive,” because it is entirely subjective and individual, anyway.

        1. Ughh, I couldn’t agree more. I hear “sexy” and “hot” used to describe only certain types of women (especially) as if these are universal labels, and not everybody prefers the same type!!!

  12. Great post. Of course being fat isn’t a bloody disability!

    From my viewpoint as a disabled person, whether you put the disability or the person first in your language depends on the disability in question, and sometimes the context of the sentence too. There’s no one rule that works for everything. Some disabilities have adjectives, so you can say “blind person”, but many don’t, so you either have to say “person with ME” or “ME sufferer”, and the latter is problematic. I’d suggest checking what the people in that community (note: the people with the disabilities, not their parents, who tend to dominate the discourse in some communities) prefer to call themselves (there may not be a consensus, though), and if you can’t do that, going for whatever sounds the most neutral and least clunky. “Wheelchair user” is generally considered to be the best term, as opposed to various awful alternatives such as “wheelchair bound”, “confined to a wheelchair”, “in a wheelchair”. I think sometimes people forget that the politics that apply to their particular disability don’t necessarily apply to others. I see this a lot with the social model of disability, for instance, which is useful in some ways but heavily problematic in others.

  13. I would always answer; I am not affected by obesity, I don’t feel affected, just as I am not affected by my fingernails. I am just fat. And I am not affected by it, because that sounds like a diganosis. And I don’t think I am to be diagnosed with my fatness.

  14. I think I get it, but it keeps falling out of my brain. It is an important issue. When others get to choose the language for the discussion, chances are, they are going to “win” the argument. Words matter. I call myself fat and it doesn’t feel particularly hurtful. Just a fact. I am fat, I have a fat body, no big deal. Now, some jerk yelling “Hey Fatty Fat Fat!” out of a passing car feels really unpleasant. Still fat, but now it is a loaded insult.
    It sounds like the “Obesity Revengers” are trying to kill us in a nice way. ie “These people NEED our help. THEY are wrong, their bodies are wrong, broken, dis-abled, attacking them, trapping them. WE will fix them whether they like it or not!”
    “Afflicted by Obesity.” Yep, that’s the starter. Afflicted by Dis-ease as diseased-race… Humanity has a “Jewish Problem.” “These Black People are dangerous.” “Uppity Women are dangerous.” “These people-those people need US to Fix them. WE will fix them…be rid of them… We have decided which life is the valuable life.”
    And it is ALL for our own good!
    That is a really scary side of humanity. The righteousness of elimination. Who needs to be on the ‘Kill List’ to make them feel life is worth living. Very important. The words we use.
    Labels stick and have a nasty way of abbreviating things that shouldn’t be drawn down to the lowest common denominator. The easiest way to say something, the most concise description, the most expedient way to deal with others…

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