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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6 thoughts on “Is It Ok To Call Fat People Fat?”
I often describe my myself as fat, or generously proportioned, and I am fine with that. If someone says to me that I am overweight, obese, etc, I will usually say that I give great hugs, and may well hug them. I know that I give great hugs, people tell me that – I have a social circle who hug a lot. Whether or not I hug someone who make unkind remark about my size depends who they are. I wouldn’t hug a doctor treating me, or any other medical staff for instance. Although my oncologist is very concerned that I don’t lose weight.
I personally use the word fat. I appreciate Southwest Airlines will give you an extra seat if you’re fat but their “passengers of size” euphemism cracks me up. ALL passengers have a size, after all. 🙂
I’m good with fat, heavy, stocky, large, big, hefty, thick, portly. Or, you know, you could just call me Cie.
I’m not sure why it’s so hard for people to understand that “obese” is not a more polite way to say “fat.” Just say fat without attaching any stigma to it. Obese implies pathology. There may be pathological reasons (endocrine issues) which cause my body to be the size it is, but I am done thinking of my body as “wrong.”
As for “overweight,” fuck that shit. Over what weight? The BMI is bullshit. It was never meant to be used as a measure of health. It was co-opted and used that way, much to the detriment of the health of people of all sizes.
“Normal” weight also implies that there is something abnormal about people on the smaller or larger ends of the spectrum. Average weight or median weight are less loaded terms.
“Healthy” weight is an erroneous term. There are healthy and unhealthy people of all sizes. Also, we should stop seeing ill health as a reason to be hateful towards people. This attitude causes people who are disabled to be forced to live in poverty. It causes people with health conditions that are out of their control to be seen as weak and lesser. It causes people to look down on vulnerable individuals such as those living in poverty who do not have access to readily available, nutritious foods or proper health care.
Definitely good suggestions for what to use when you are writing about the topic. Thanks for writing this!
I really do enjoy this post. I was never really sure how to go about this situation. My mother always used fat, but I wondered when people got offended by it. I agree about your comment that there are healthy people and unhealthy people of all sizes. I have an English teacher who is on the hefty side, but incredibly healthy. Her cholesterol levels and blood pressure is normal. I also know a young woman who is very petite and 5’2″ who struggles with high blood pressure and cholesterol.
I call myself fat because I want to help remove the stigma from that word, especially since it was so often paired with “ugly” in my younger days. I also heard, “No, you’re not fat, you’re beautiful” or “You’re not THAT fat,” and I just really want it to be known that you can be both fat and attractive. I also put this into my writing, because having it in media is going to make it more widespread. Healthy people 100% exist at all sizes, and we don’t owe anyone health nor can all of us be healthy.
For other people I don’t identify them as fat unless they do so first, because people are allowed to identify however they want, and the term “fat” might be triggering for them. I know I feel a twinge when I hear it used in a derogatory way, which is another reason I’m adamant about using it as a neutral descriptor for myself. I was fat when I was working out regularly (less so, but whatever, bodies change and I wasn’t being as mentally nice to myself then) and I’m fat now. The goals I want for my body have more to do with what I want it to accomplish, not with how I want it to look, though since I have a history of ED and body image issues, it’s something I have to keep in mind.