People First Language Is A Problem, Not A Solution, For Fat People

People first languageThe notion of “People First Language” as a good idea for describing fat people is going around again. Let’s talk about this.

First, a bit of background, People (or Person) First Language (PFL) started as a tool for the disability community – the idea being 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 and as a person who currently has able-bodied privilege, I am not intending to comment on the use within disability community at all.

This became pertinent to fat people because of organizations like the Obesity Action Coalition which have lifted the concept (with no critical analysis of the arguments against it from that community.)

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.”

You see, the organizations that fund the OAC need a fat body to be seen as a disease because it is the 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 People 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.  Body size is not a disease – though even if it was, adding healthism to fatphobia doesn’t make it better.  And language like this increases stigma because PFL is not being suggested for other adjectives that describe our bodies. Nobody is advocating that we say “The woman was affected by brunetteness” or “The man with shortness was on the bus.” Much like the suggestion that “we aren’t fat we have fat, like we aren’t fingernails, we have fingernails,” the use of PFL suggests that accurately describing a fat person’s body is so awful that we have to find a way to talk around it. This is not how we treat other descriptions of our bodies (tall, blonde, etc.) thus reinforcing stigma around being fat.

This also shifts the blame. When they say “the woman affected by [fatness]” – it suggests that the problem is the fat body, and not the weight-stigma and lack of accommodation that actually harm us.

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.

So what terms should we use? 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 have to go through all of 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 term that isn’t “fat,” I look for a 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, while those are fine for individuals to use, I think that using euphemisms for an entire population of people can often suggest discomfort with that population’s shared characteristic. It also can’t be a term that is used to tease or shame people. 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 because it is gendered and, in fashion, often gets controlled by those who aren’t remotely fat (or who are blatantly anti-fat.) If you have other examples I welcome you to include them in the comments.

This is all complicated by the fact that fat people aren’t a monolith, and so what some of us prefer to be called, others will loathe. 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.

Most importantly, the real solution here is to end weight stigma and fat-shaming and celebrate the full diversity of body sizes, however we describe them.

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19 thoughts on “People First Language Is A Problem, Not A Solution, For Fat People

  1. I firmly believe that if I weren’t fat, I’d profoundly be a different person. Not because of what I weigh, but because being fat has made it necessary to learn to navigate a world that hates me, to learn to live with a body I’d rather not had (but learned to live with, and learned to love after a struggle for over 30yrs) It IS part of my identity. So I feel I’ve earned the bloody right to call myself fat.

  2. Person-first language is a rationalization. Treating our bodies as if they’re some esoteric concept we can be “with” but aren’t actually *in* makes causing them ridicule, damage, and even death more palatable for those who want to exploit us while still thinking of themselves as “good.” “You aren’t your obesity! …so I can taunt, bruise, cut, and even kill your obesity, because I apparently think the real you is surfing the astral plane with Jimi Hendrix while I’m straddling your obesity and punching it in the face with a brick.”

    You can make up all this woo about how we aren’t obesity and obesity doesn’t have to be our identity and whatever other buzz-phrases are trending right now, but the cold hard fact is that you cannot bruise, cut, or *cough* “treat” “my obesity” without doing those things to me, and when your bruising, cutting, and *cough* “treatment” end in calamity, it’s me who’s going to suffer the consequences of your actions, not some abstraction of “obesity” that I was only “on the bus with” at the time… and, the unspoken accusation is, could have left on the bus if I really wanted to.

  3. I use fat. I’m okay with that. Partly because of my experience in the Deaf community, where visual descriptions of people don’t carry judgement. I agree that the euphemisms make it seem even more terrible to be the thing-you-cannot-say.

    1. How do they say, “He Who Will Not Be Named”? Do they just fingerspell “Voldemort”? Or does he have a name sign?

      I think it is awesome that visual descriptions of people don’t carry judgement. You simply need to know who to look for, right? Why be vague, and risk misunderstanding, when you can simply be precise while not being a bigot.

  4. I forgot Fat on the bus this morning. I have to check with lost and found at the bus plaza…? Oh that’s fun.

    Serious issues in community reevaluating language and spaces and opinions. Lady R has it, It doesn’t matter WHAT they call it if they are trying to find the nicest way possible to treat an entire group of people like shit. PEOPLE WITH, is a step, but not a stop. Someday we may get to the point where “othering” isn’t a thing and hair is just hair, and skin is just skin, and who you love is just who you love. We will get there, but pretending we are there, when white cis male WASP upper class is the baseline and every one else is the exception, is pointless.
    Labels are for jars? Labels are for a society that needs labels so it knows how to dish out goodies, blame, guilt, opportunities and societal value to individuals.

    1. “I forgot Fat on the bus this morning. I have to check with lost and found at the bus plaza…? Oh that’s fun.”

      LOL! Well, people are always saying they’d forget their asses if they weren’t attached. Good thing mine is.

  5. “Person with fat.”
    Is that like “bear with honey” instead of honey bear for those honey dispensers that look like bears?
    I’m kind of wanting to throw a lot of people in front of buses today. Dealing with fatphobic phucquery does that to me.

    1. Bear with honey only lasts till you try microwaving to un-sugar it, then it becomes wrapped bear, then gargoyle, then globular art piece, if you don’t stop there it becomes plastic with honey blob slightly smoking, then puddle of burning honey and plastics sending out smell that will take weeks to get out of kitchen curtains…

      I have only ever gotten to art piece, I am guessing the rest.

  6. Unlearning PFL was one of the most important things I did after college since in psych they encouraged it at the time (circa 2000 so like twenty fucking years ago). It amazes me that people will still argue about this when the communities affected by it specifically say “Don’t use PFL.” One of my friends works with disabled people and she told me they’re STILL forced to use PFL at their job.

    1. So, another case of an outsider, looking in at an oppressed group, and deciding FOR THEM how they should want to be addressed, despite the fact that the oppressed group has already decided the exact opposite, but, like, “What do they know? They’re oppressed for a reason, right?”

      Like Autism Speaks refusing to have an autistic person on its board of directors or as a spokesperson, or basically in any speaking role, for over a decade.


      1. You’d think the concept of “address people how they’re asking to be addressed” would be easy, but it’s amazing how often it’s not. My trans friends deal with this ALL the time, as well. People who aren’t part of the group want to constantly argue for why they can’t call a group what they (the group) want to be called as if they (the outsider) somehow know better. It frustrates me so much because if you did the same to them, they’d be outraged, but they see these marginalized folks as infantile and not knowing what they really want/need and OF COURSE they know better *rolls eyes* I hate it, and it seems to be the basis for so much bigotry and microaggressions.

        1. The whole idea of “I’m gonna call you what I want to call you!” is code for control, and I’m not comfortable with you being “not me”.
          Race has always been a big one, any degree of “other culture” and “someone else’s religion”, always a good one for squeamish dissent, but I have noticed people go positively spare over the “gender norms” issues!
          I think most white men over the age of thirty are incredibly invested in being just that, and see the rest of us as ‘variations on a theme of male whiteness’. Seriously. Whole tracts of movies have been made over the issue of a white man discovering what he thought was another white man, wasn’t.
          People see a baby, if the skin tone doesn’t elicit the “What are you?” race query, the first question is apt to be: “Is it a boy or Girl?” From then on out the blob ‘o new humanity will be treated accordingly.
          The explosion of “Gender Reveals” as significant life moments is telling.
          It seems that at the same time grown humans are finding new ways to think of gender, sex and sexuality, people have doubled and tripled down on: “THIS IS A MALE and THIS IS A FEMALE!” (In that order.), for humans not even out of the womb.
          If there is anything that freaks a techy white man out, it is fluid gender issues. He may know nothing else for certain, but HE is a MAN! (See the bumper stickers). No wonder they dream of/in 1950’s sitcoms. It sounds like a uncomfortable way to live. To be “so sure” of things you are constantly having questioned and thrown up in your face by people who should know better. Just like it says in the bible…No wonder they are mad crazy and armed. Shot a bunch of people. That’ll learn em.

          1. “The whole idea of “I’m gonna call you what I want to call you!” is code for control,”

            It really is. They’re pulling rank, reminding you that they’ve got the privilege to make important decisions for you without your input or approval.

    1. “Ask how they prefer to be addressed? What rubbish! Next you’ll be telling me that people can choose their pronouns for themselves.”

  7. I typically use fat when I’m describing myself. If I’m afraid it might be triggering for someone, I usually say heavy. I feel like heavy gets to the point of description without euphemism, but also have been used as a school yard taunt.

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