Now, more than any other time I can recall (and I go back a while) the words we use need to be chosen sensitively.
We show how we think by the language we use, and the way we think is in turn influenced by what we hear and read…
The Big ‘O’s – Obese. Obesity.
Two words in everyday use which come loaded with stigma, rightly so, for many.
For some, it is a plain descriptor they read every day. For those working in health and research the word obesity tends to be used as it is a recognisable, acknowledged medical term.
There is, as you can well imagine, a lack of consensus over using another word. A word, perhaps, such as fat? Some now prefer to use the word fat, as a descriptor, not as the term of abuse it has become. Taking back this word, they argue, helps to de-stigmatise it.
Now, the very last thing I would ever do is upset or hurt anyone. Not when I started the Weight Debate to promote understanding, improve body acceptance and fight weight stigma!
Luckily for me, there is another way to use the ‘O‘ words sensitively and respectfully.
And, until such time as we can agree another word or term for obese or obesity you will find me using ‘People-First Language’ (PFL).
What is People First Language?
PFL is used when describing a person with a disease.
It is simple – you put the person before the disease. It is what a person ‘has’, not what a person ‘is’.
For example, you do not say ’someone is cancer’, do you? But we do say, hear and read – ‘someone is obese’.
With PFL we describe a person ‘with obesity’ or as ‘affected by obesity’.
Although not new until recently it has not been used to describe people with obesity. Why now?
Language is a powerful tool
Because PFL encourages respect. And with a word which can so upset, this is essential to help reduce weight stigma.
A person is not their disease. They are not a condition, nor should they be defined by it or stigmatised for having it.
Studies show us that people affected by obesity find those using PFL to show less bias:
“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.”
Of course, not everyone agrees (surprise, surprise).
With obesity classified as a disease in the USA and other countries it becomes even more essential that we ‘watch our language’.
In her 2016 post “What To Call Fat People – Person First Language and Fat People” fat activist and blogger Ragen Chasteins argues against using PFL.
She points out that PFL ‘treats fat bodies as diseased‘– which she believes is not only inaccurate but increases weight stigma.
However, no one can argue we have a duty to both ‘watch our language’ and to call out others when the words obesity or obese are used to stigmatise.
People are not diseases
Why? Because there is the potential to increase stigma here even when not intended.
Because the word ‘epidemic‘ describes the’ increase and spread of an infectious disease‘. People are not diseases.
Finally, I may disagree with Chastein regarding PFL, but I do agree with her when she so eloquently writes: –
“…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.”Regan Chastein, “Dances with Fat”
Which is why, in the absence of an agreed descriptor I will use people-first language. Because we are people first, not diseases. Never.