That word: “FAT”

Fat-Kid-MemeShould we stop calling people ‘overweight’?

By Vanessa BarfordBBC News Magazine – 30 May 2012 –

An MPs’ report on body image has advocated the use of “weight-neutral language”. So should we stop calling people “overweight”?

There are many people who would agree that using the term “fat” to somebody’s face is neither helpful or pleasant.

But there’s a growing movement to get doctors and other public health professionals to stop using words such as “overweight” and “obese” as well.

MPs think the terms have a negative impact on body image and self-esteem, and want doctors to promote broader health and lifestyle messages instead.

The idea has been gaining momentum for a while. A study by the University of Pennsylvania in January found the word “obesity” offensive, while Liverpool City Council considered banning the word in its literature aimed at children in 2010.

And in March, draft guidance issued by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence said those who were obese should merely be encouraged to get down to a ” healthier weight “.

But not everyone agrees. In 2010, the Public Health Minister for England, Anne Milton, said GPs should tell people they were fat rather than obese as it was more likely to motivate them into losing weight.

Somebody with a BMI of 30 or more is classed as obese

So does weight terminology need a rethink?

Dr Sarah Jarvis, a presenter on the BBC’s One Show, says when it comes to a medical context, the words “overweight” and “obese” are necessary, largely because they are the framework for the body mass index (BMI).

“I don’t want to make people feel bad, and appreciate some people may have problems with self-esteem, but when it comes to it, as a doctor, if you are too careful, you run the risk of people not understanding the health implications.

“The fact is BMI is the best indicator of likelihood of surviving to a later date – and if you get into the obese range, the chances are you are going to die from a condition related to obesity like heart disease. If you are overweight rather than obese, you are more likely to die early and have medical conditions,” she says.

Jarvis says there are occasions when she chooses her language carefully, for example by never encouraging people to go on a diet – “as 90% of people that lose weight on a diet will put it, and more, back on within a year” – but to adopt a lifestyle instead.

But she says although she would never use the word fat in her surgery, as it has “childhood playground associations”, she thinks talk of banning overweight is “political correctness gone mad”.

“I do see how it is a delicate balancing act – on the one hand I don’t want to be pejorative, or be mean, but at the same time the pendulum must not swing too far the other way.

“The facts are when I started training in 1993, 10% of the UK was obese and now 25% are. We are absolutely not moving the goalposts – we are getting fatter,” she says.

Nigel Mercer, the president of the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, agrees that when it comes to someone who is seriously overweight, and it is a medical issue, “there is no pussyfooting around the issue”.

But he says the key is “appropriate use of terminology for appropriate use”.

“It depends on who comments are being levelled at – to a class of children, where there will be a distribution of body sizes, it is important to know being overweight can lead to diabetes, but it is more of a psychological issue than a health issue – and children can be extremely cruel,” he says.

Mercer says for adults, part of the problem is people no longer filter what they say, and society should really keep more of its opinions to itself.

“I am a big bloke, and I would have no problem if a professional told me I was obese, but it would be entirely different if someone told me that in the street,” he says.

Use of obesity-related language

Ian Brookes, consultant editor at Collins English Dictionary

“Statistically, there are no signs people are using words like fat, obese and overweight less frequently. There is a relative increase in their use, but that could be because there is a more general awareness of obesity and the dangers of it.

“There is no evidence of any change in the use of offensive synonyms like chubby, lardy and podgy.

“There is an increase in vocabulary relating to the whole commercial and medical side of obesity, with new words such as bariatric, gastric band and stomach stapling.

“But a number of facetious terms have also come up more. We’ve recently added the phrase generation XL – which leads on from generation X.

“There is not much evidence weight-neutral terms are being used, but then it is relatively new. Fattist first comes up in 1974, peaks around 1992 and then goes into decline.”

What is obesity?

The BBC News Magazine previously explored size-based discrimination , hearing from 22 stone (139kg) businesswoman Marsha Coupe, who believed “fattism” fuelled an attack on her.

In the article, Susie Orbach, psychologist and author of Fat is a Feminist Issue, maintains that this kind of prejudice stems from the idea that overweight people have lost their self-control – which frightens society because there is so much emphasis on being slim.

Orbach has also written on the subject of “fattism” more recently for the Guardian, pointing towards a new study highlighting levels of discrimination towards fat people at work , and the trend for ” fat shaming “.

An article in Psychologies magazine asks whether an increasingly homogenised ideal of beauty and the “female power to transform” are damaging people’s relationships with their true selves.

But Tara Parker-Pope, in a blog for the New York Times, nods to research that suggests people aren’t always so alert to their body size, entering into a collective state of “fat denial” , often underestimating their size.



What Can Happen When We Use the Word ‘Fat’?

Posted: 06/25/2012 –

This past weekend, I had the great pleasure of sitting on a panel about body image, specifically about how women see themselves and how men and women contribute to our toxic beauty culture.

On the panel, I addressed an issue that has always bothered me: the way we say or use the word “fat” around others.

As a society, the word “fat” is one of the last few acceptable slurs we can use in public. Rarely do we flinch or say anything when we hear somebody comment, with intentional negativity, on another person as “fat.” And we don’t think twice about making a comment about our own bodies in front of others. I often hear people making statements with an angry inflection like, “My ass is fat,” or “I feel fat.”

My friend Lisa (all names and identifying details have been changed) is the mother of two teenage daughters, both of whom have been grappling with body image issues for some time. She has been an incredibly supportive mother, doing her best to love her children and to help them see their bodies in a healthier way. But the other day, as she was making dinner in the kitchen, she told me — in front of her kids — how her “ass is fat” and how she can no longer fit into her jeans.

Later on, I asked her why she would speak negatively about herself in front of anyone, especially her kids, who she knows are grappling with major body image issues and as a result, have developed unhealthy and extreme eating and exercise habits. She looked at my confused face and said “I wasn’t saying their asses are fat, I was saying my ass is fat.”

Lisa didn’t notice how making comments about her own body in front of daughters who are currently dealing with body image issues could exacerbate their struggle.

But our tendency to throw the word “fat” around is not just about the potential of affecting people we know who have been dealing with a body image issue. As I pointed out in my post last week, “Think Twice Before Praising Someone For Losing Weight,” we will never (and I mean never) truly know how someone is dealing with body image on a mental and emotional level. It doesn’t matter if someone has the “perfect” body or whether they’re skinny or plus-sized; most of the authentic feelings we have about our bodies are trapped inside our head and not shared with others.

So even if we are talking about someone being “fat” in front of someone who has a “perfect” body, we won’t fully understand how our “fat” comments can secretly impact their body image. When someone who is plus-sized hears you say the word “fat,” what else are they expected to think except that you are including them in the insult? When it comes to someone who is not plus-sized but grappling with poor body image or an eating disorder, when you, someone this person probably respects and trust, hurls the word “fat” in front of them — this move could very well make them feel terrible about themselves… even if it’s not about or directed at them.

When I asked my friend Melanie about this issue related to the word “fat,” she brought up something I have repeatedly heard: people who are skinny or “fit” using the “fat” word as a slur in front of friends, family members and colleagues who are not as skinny or “fit.” Melanie, who is plus-sized, deals with this scenario all the time.

One of her girlfriends will often use the word as an insult weapon against men and women: “He’s so fat, gross,” or “Wow, did you see how fat she’s getting,” or “Ugh, I didn’t work out this week, I feel fat.”

Melanie wondered, “Does she not see that I’m sitting there? That I am clearly a plus-sized woman, usually bigger than the people she’s talking about. Doesn’t she think it hurts my feelings? How could I not think that she feels the same way about me? Hello?!”

When Melanie confronted this friend about her tendency to use “fat” as an insult, her friend responded, “Oh I don’t think of you that way, you know I love you.”

Yeah, but that doesn’t make things better… not at all.

These issues over the word “fat” that both Melanie and Lisa deal with come down to one dysfunctional perception: When we use this word with a negative connotation, we think it’s compartmentalized, that the negativity only applies to the person we are insulting, rather than the person we are making the comment in front of — that Melanie won’t be affected when her friend is insulting another “fat” person. That’s foolish.

I am going to be extremely careful in how I make this point because I don’t want to compare body to race. However, would most of us never even think to comment about our skin tone or the skin tone of someone else in a negative way.

Imagine saying to someone else (specifically a person of color), “He’s so black, gross,” or “I got too tan this weekend at the beach, my skin is too dark… nasty.”

Again, I want to avoid the direct comparison between body and race, but I think that is an interesting comparison to think about and consider.

This isn’t just about the use of the word fat, but it’s also about our tone when we do use it. As a society, when we say the word “fat,” we tend to say it with a forceful, angry inflection — whether we’re saying it about ourselves or someone else.

I am not suggesting that we should avoid talking about how we feel about our bodies with our loved ones — not at all. In fact, we should always encourage thoughtful conversation about body image as well as physical and mental health.

This exploration into the word “fat” is not just about being thoughtful and considerate in terms of how others may take our use of the word, but it’s also about thinking carefully about how the word “fat” is wrapped up in all these problematic and negative connotations and who ultimately gets affected when we use it as an insult or even as a descriptor.

Because the word “fat” doesn’t just impact the person we are trying insult or the person standing within earshot, the word “fat” also affects the person saying it.

And that doesn’t feel so good… does it?

Is it OK to call someone fat?

Writing about Gabourey Sidibe – and a reader’s comment – made me examine how we use the “f” word


Can I call you fat? I mean, if we measured your BMI and you clocked in at obese, or let’s say morbidly obese just to give plenty of room for the term, would it be acceptable for me to write a story in which I described you as fat? Or to point you out across the room at a party as “the fat one in the white shirt”? What about if you call yourself fat — am I allowed to? Would be I accurate, or just a jerk?

I’m asking because I don’t know anymore. I thought I did. I write regularly about body image and fat-shaming, but conspicuously avoid directly referring to individuals as fat. Last week, for instance, I wrote a story about Gabourey Sidibe, and her amazing response to the Twitter trolls who snarked on her Golden Globes look. In it I called her “overweight” and “not thin.” But while I made the general observation that Sidibe’s success is “infuriating for those who believe fat equals misery,” I didn’t come out and call Sidibe herself fat.

Soon after, I heard from a self-described “fat woman.” In her email she said, “You’re writing about how awful body snarking is, but is being so fat so awful and so terrible that the label can’t be used with the same neutrality as the word ‘thin’?… It’s hard when as a society we’re hammered with programming to fear and hate fat, to get them to even recognize simple fatphobia. But I hope pointing out the lack of what should be a simple descriptor because it’s so fully villainized by our society might be something easier to get… If you think fat shaming is wrong, perhaps you could start by making the word fat less shameful… I don’t think we can end fat bashing if we can’t even say fat. Until fat is reclaimed as a neutral descriptor, the assumption built into our language is that fat is bad/gross and fat people are ugly/lazy/unhealthy.”

It was an eye-opening perspective. I understood where she was coming from – we’ve created so much stigma around the word, maybe tiptoeing around it isn’t helping. But I’ve long believed that as an average-sized person living on a planet in which the word “fat” is often hurled so meanly, I need to be careful — and sensitive — in how I talk about other people. I hadn’t avoided using the word “fat” in connection with Gabourey Sidibe to make the word “fat” shameful, but perhaps I’d been part of a problem anyway.

So I asked around – and I didn’t get anything close to consensus. When I inquired about the word on Twitter, I got a gamut of responses. “The term is unambiguously pejorative, even if accurate,” replied one person. “I prefer any one of the various synonyms in the Queen’s English.” Another said, “I call myself fat bc I don’t think it’s an insult, but I’m hesitant to call others fat bc others take it as insult.” “Older sister is/was obese,” wrote one woman. “Kids & adults alike called her ‘fat’ in derogatory way.” “If it’s a descriptor they’ve used about themselves then I’m more likely to use it but still unlikely,” said writer Isaac Butler. Another person said, “In my mind it is an insult, rather like using words such as ‘retarded’ or ‘cripple’ to describe a disabled person, like myself.” And a woman whose tweets regularly entertain and enlighten me added, “The word doesn’t bother me; the way that it marks someone as lazy, bad, sloppy, lesser does. Like you cannot be fat & fully human. Nobody’s ever had to call me fat to make it clear that my body is not acceptably attractive in the eyes of our culture.”

Among my friends, there was a similar variety of reactions. Journalist Celeste Headlee said, “I don’t use it. I don’t think we can deny that the term has been used to insult and degrade for so often and so long that it’s nearly impossible to use it without negative overtones. Some people are obese and, strictly speaking, fat. I will use the first term and not the latter.” An opera singer pal said, “‘Fat’ by itself just seems like lazy English to me.” My writer friend Amy Keyishian admitted, “I don’t use this word. I’m totally triggered by it because of my upbringing.” And journalist and author Steve Silberman observed, “I’m fat. Very. I know I’m fat. I’d have to be in the worst denial ever not to know. But it’s all about the spin on the word. As a statement of fact, it’s factual. If it comes along with an automatic assumption of bumbling, hedonistic, bullying, dumb etc. it’s not good, because skinny people are all of those things too. It’s about the ‘loading’ of the word.”

One of the many problems with the word “fat” is that there’s no standard definition. “Fat” is applied both to the seriously obese and female celebrities who’ve gone up a dress size. Depending on who’s talking and the body image of said speaker, “fat” may refer to a person of furniture-breaking dimensions, or a size 8 ballerina. “I’m fat” can be an honest declaration of size or a manipulative, Regina George-like dare for you to contradict the person. As my friend Scott says, “I’m sure we’ve all heard the ‘Oh,you’re not fat, he’s fat’ thing before. As if there was a point at which one had clearly earned the distinction.”

And the word is so deeply tied up with so many other negative stereotypes, it’s hard to airlift it out and let it stand alone. Think how often “fat” gets tossed into a litany of a person’s real or imagined flaws. Think how Chris Christie’s weight is so often deployed as one of his failings. Think how often Internet trolls are described as fat losers. When Al Franken declared “Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot,” the word “fat” seemed to apply more to his idiocy than his size, but his size was surely depicted as related to his idiocy.

After culling numerous responses on the subject, I still felt unclear about the correct protocol. So I turned to my friend Kate Harding. Harding literally wrote the book on these things, as a regular reporter on body image and the author of “Lessons From the Fatosphere: Quit Dieting and Declare a Truce With Your Body.” She told me, “‘Fat’ is the preferred term among activists, but it’s still pejorative for like 99% of the population, so if you don’t explain the whole reclamation thing, you sound like a dick. That said, I favor straightforward words like ‘heavy’ and ‘large/larger’ over ‘overweight’ (what weight?) and ‘obese’ (too medical) when discussing other people’s bodies…. From a journalistic perspective, you have no business calling anyone ‘fat,’ basically. (Neither do I, except in the context of work on fat acceptance.) It’s a tough line to walk.”

In the movie “Pitch Perfect,” Rebel Wilson’s character calls herself Fat Amy “so twig bitches like you don’t do it behind my back.” Her implication is clear – she’s a woman taking ownership of the word so it can’t be used to hurt her. So if you want me to call you Fat Amy, I will — even if the phrase still sticks a bit in my throat. Like the reader who wrote to me, I want the word the word to be less shameful too. But whether you’re Gabourey Sidibe or Lena Dunham, your fatness or lack thereof isn’t for me to determine. If I’m talking about somebody else’s body, I’m going to try, even if I go about it imperfectly, to do it with as much kindness and respect as I can. And unless you tell me to, I’m not going to call you fat.

Why Use the Word Fat

November 13, 2011 –

As I start to write about fat acceptance, one big question some people might have is, “Why use the word fat?” Shouldn’t it be called size acceptance or body acceptanceor something like that? And instead of calling people fat, shouldn’t we say plus-sized, curvy, big-boned, heavy, or something like that?

First, some people do use other terms for their activism. “Size acceptance” is common. I prefer to stick with fat acceptance, so that my meaning is clear. Size acceptance could refer to accepting the sizes of all people. While many fat acceptance activists are very committed to addressing judgments of thin bodies, too, I like to keep the spotlight on fat people. “Body acceptance” could be about accepting all kinds of bodies, like disabled bodies, the bodies of elderly people, or any number of other ways to value the different bodies people come in. But again, if the main topic is specifically the bodies of fat people, I like to keep that focus at the forefront.

Now how about calling people fat? There are all kinds of other words that people like to use instead of fat: plus-sized, curvy, stout, heavy, shapely, big-boned, etc. These are mostly euphemisms, some of which are not even true for many fat people. Not all fat people are big-boned. If you’re short and fat, you might not even be that heavy. George Carlin said it pretty well:

I use the word “fat.” I use that word because that’s what people are: they’re fat. They’re not bulky; they’re not large, chunky, hefty or plump. And they’re not big-boned. Dinosaurs were big-boned. These people are not overweight: this term somehow implies there is some correct weight… There is no correct weight. Heavy is also a misleading term. An aircraft carrier is heavy; it’s not fat. Only people are fat, and that’s what fat people are! They’re fat!

Plus-sized is a retail term, which is enough reason for me to want to shy away from it! And some of the other euphemisms are down-right weird. I frequent an online forum where it’s popular to call yourself “fluffy”. Um, no.

We’re talking about people who have more fat tissue than other people, which involves a norm that can be different from place to place and time to time. We’re talking about fat. That’s just the right word, and there’s no need to shy away from it.

So what about words like overweight or obese? Those are specific words, but they are medically defined and not always the same as the visual judgments we make or the cultural categories that we push people into. When I post about the medical literature, I’ll use the words underweight, normal weight, overweight and obese a lot, since that’s the defined terms they use.

But as I go forward with posting on this topic, I’m also just going to say fat a lot. Fat acceptance starts with saying, “Yes, I’m fat.” I have brown hair, green eyes, a mole on my right cheek, and I’m fat. It’s just a word, and we all know what it physically indicates.

Well, we mostly know what it indicates. There are actually a lot more people in the fat club than realize it. Do this: take your weight in pounds, multiply that by 703, then divide by your height in inches squared (or just use an online BMI calculator). If the resulting number is 25 or greater, when you hear the words “obesity epidemic” they’re talking about you.

Think about the word fat. Roll it around in your mind, try it on for size, get used to it, and don’t be afraid to say fat, to be fat, if that’s what you are.


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