I 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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