I frequently get asked something like “not everyone likes to be called fat, so when I’m talking to groups, or people whose preferences I don’t know, or if I’m writing about fat people, what terms should I use?”
It’s a good question, and there isn’t a single answer, but I’ll try to get the discussion started here:
When talking to someone one-on-one, you’ll want to use whatever they prefer – fat, curvy, plus-size, fluffy, whatever. Depending on your relationship, it may or may not be appropriate to talk about terms (ie: I’m happy to call you overweight if you prefer, I don’t personally use that term unless I’m specifically asked because it suggests that someone’s body is the wrong weight which I avoid since I personally practice body positivity…) You need to decide if it’s appropriate, and I would suggest (especially if you personally are not fat) that you err on the side of just using the term the person prefers unless you have a very close relationship with this person.
When it comes to groups or writing, there are words to avoid, and words that you can use. Let’s start with those to avoid:
Avoid words and phrases that pathologize body size either directly or by comparison, like:
The idea that our weight in pounds times 703 divided by our height in inches squared gives a health professional tons of information about our health and treatment options is pretty messed up, and that’s before you take into account the fact that the “obese” definition includes Dwayne Johnson (The Rock). In addition to being an annoyingly useless abuse of mathematics, it’s dangerous to those of us who fall under its numerical construct,, causing healthcare professionals to focus on height weight ratio instead of their actual patients, even making them believe that they can diagnose mental and physical health issues from a picture of someone they’ve never met.
To me this is offensive because it suggests that someone’s body is wrong. It’s body shaming. Over what weight? Saying that someone is “overweight” is saying that:
- There is a weight that they should be.
- They are more than that weight (with the connotation that this is a bad thing.)
- It’s somehow our job to decide how much other people should weigh.
And that’s crap. People are lots of different sizes for lots of different reasons and it’s not our job to tell them that who they are is somehow too much person. People come in different sizes and unless they ask us for an assessment of their body against some measure, then it’s not our place to say that they are “over [some arbitrary] weight.”
“Normal weight,” along with the two terms above, form the basic classes used in the (totally bullshit) Body Mass Index Chart. There is really no such thing as a “normal weight” this is just a term that was created as a base from which to pathologize other body sizes.
Again, not an actual thing. Remembering that health is not an obligation, barometer of worthiness, or entirely within our control, the truth is that people of all sizes have health issues, and there is no weight that you can reach that will make you immortal unless and until you get hit by a bus. The conflation of weight and health is at the root of so much fatphobia, including and especially fatphobia in healthcare.
What If I’m Talking or Writing About Studies That Use These Terms?
If you are discussing studies that use terms like “obese,” “overweight,” or “normal weight” then put them in quotation marks and include a content note like “These are terms used in this study, we do not agree with these terms as they pathologize body sizes and are inaccurate.”
So What’s The Deal With Using Fat?
Fat is used by many people (including me, for the reasons I outlined in detail here,) but may be triggering for others – especially in setting like eating disorder recovery. In other situations, it can be useful to use the word fat and explain that it is just an adjective like any other. The problem is that people have heaped negative connotations on it because of fatphobia, and the fact that we search for euphemisms and talk around the idea of being fat (ie people will say “You’re not fat, you have fat,” but they would never say “You’re not thin, you have thinness” or “You’re not brunette, you have brown hair,”) is indicative of the problem. So, learning to use fat as a neutral descriptor can be a part of dismantling size-based oppression. But it’s probably best if that work is led by fat people (as opposed to thin people telling fat people what to – and what not to – call ourselves.)
Using “fat” may not always be appropriate, so you can also use many other neutral terms that people, including fat activists and clinicians who work with fat folks, use. (Remember, no community is a monolith and so there will be fat people who like and dislike each of these terms.)
Person/People of size – For a person of size, it is more difficult to find clothing that fits their body and personal style. People of size are demanding better fashion choices.
Larger body – For those who live in larger bodies, weight-based oppression among doctors can compromise their healthcare.
Heavier body – Having a heavier body can mean being the victim of bullying.
Bigger Body – Living in a bigger body can mean being discriminated again on public transportation and commercial airlines.
Plus Size – Being a plus-size athlete may mean that you have to deal with stereotypes and fatphobia just to run the same 5k as everybody else.
So that should get you started. Are there other words that you use or avoid? Feel free to keep this discussion going in the comments!
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