This crucial moment in the early days of the fat acceptance movement often garners scant mention in the historical record.
By Dana Sturtevant, MS, RD
Most people recoil when they first hear us use the term “fat” when we give a talk. And then we explain that part of the work in the body positive movement is reclaiming the word fat, to strip it of its negative or pejorative connotation. We use the term as a neutral descriptor, just like you’d say the words short or tall. Our focus is on respecting body diversity and encouraging the idea that worthiness comes in ALL shapes, sizes, ages, colors, gender identities, and abilities.
Because of this, we find it useful in trainings and workshops to talk about terminology. You won’t hear us use the terms “overweight” and “obese” and if/when people in our groups use these terms, we ask them to follow it up with “as defined by BMI”.
You see, these words pathologize certain bodies.
And BMI was never intended to be used to evaluate a person’s health or value – it was created by a Belgian statistician in the 19th century who was trying to assess the collective weight of a population. (Read more here.)
When we hear the term “overweight”, we think “over what weight?”, because there is no weight over which you are definitely unhealthy.
As for the word “obese”, its Latin roots mean “to eat away” or “to eat all over”. Using it implies that a fat person has a certain caloric intake, or simply eats more, which is not supported by science (Roehling et al, 2008).
Some other neutral phrases we use are “people who live in larger bodies”, “larger bodied individuals”, or “people at the higher end of the weight spectrum.
Some universities dedicate a week in October to “End Fat Talk”, and while the intention behind the campaign is a positive one, there could be a more inclusive title that focuses on ending body shame instead of subtly (or not so subtly, depending on who you ask) contributing to the stigmatization of fat bodies.
So often when a child says “I’m fat”, an adult will say, “You’re not fat, you’re beautiful” which only contributes to the belief that being fat is bad.
We’ll never forget when Sandy Friedman, therapist and author of “When Girls Feel Fat”, spoke at a CREDN conference and told the story about a little girl who came to her for counseling. When asked why she was there, the girl replied, “Because I’m fat and kids at school are teasing me”, to which Sandy said, “Well you are fat, and what we need to do is make you a fat goddess.” The audience of 80 eating disorder treatment professionals gasped, because th is was not the response most would have had. And then just a moment or two later, people were smiling and nodding because they got it. They recognized the radical act of inclusion and kindness in Sandy’s response to this young girl. The world would be a different place for all of us if more people embraced size diversity.
We can do a lot to make the world a safer place for all bodies, free of shame and stigma. Our language is one place to start, because the words we choose are powerful.