The 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 stigmatizing 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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