Obesity and Language, Part 1

At a certain point, people inside and outside of the medical profession became aware of the concept that language can be “othering.” Words can become labels, and labels have a tendency to become stigmatizing. Labeling creates an “us versus them” distinction; implies that the others are not normal; and especially, it raises very divisive differences of opinion about who is entitled to decree what labels will be used.

Here is the troubling paradox, as expressed in a paper titled “What’s in a Word? On Weight Stigma and Terminology“:

[I]t is undoubtedly useful to define a group for research purposes, for example, so that the barriers and discrimination they face can be quantified and addressed. However, within the medical setting, the main reason to create a separate category for larger bodies is because they are to be treated differently than slimmer patients.

The third Annual International Weight Stigma Conference in 2015 included a roundtable discussion on terminology that tried to make some headway toward defining best practices. The trick would be to “engage in the conversation without being part of the problem.” (Or more realistically, without continuing to be part of the problem.)

The contributors to the discussion included “weight stigma researchers from health and social sciences, a bioethicist, a journal editor, a representative of an obesity organization, and a size-acceptance activist.” What was the consensus? That there is no simple answer. Many attendees felt a sense of futility at the thought of ever solving this to the satisfaction of everyone, or even of a majority. There was a general sense, however, that it would be a good idea to respect the wishes of the obese patients to and about whom professionals speak.

A bump in the road

But what if the persons with obesity do not agree about their preference? The same article made some points about the distinction between benign and toxic labeling. And there are subtleties and nuances. Even if only in informal conversation, it is likely that at least a few of the conference participants brought up the fact that although the most neutral terminology in the world may be used, tone can still ruin it. It is possible to use “person with obesity” or any other politically correct or woke vocabulary sarcastically, in a manner that implies contempt.

Also, while the phrase is “superficially benevolent,” the term is not universally applauded,” particularly among the target population.” And that expression is certainly far from benevolent! A target is something at which one aims a weapon, with the intention to harm it either symbolically (at the shooting range) or actually (on the battlefield.) See how difficult this subject can be?

(To be continued…)

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “What’s in a Word? On Weight Stigma and Terminology,” NIH.gov, 10/05/15
Image by Dennis Jarvis/CC BY-SA 2.0

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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