Obesity and Language, Part 3

We’ve been looking at a 2015 paper that explored the pros and cons of policing the language around obesity, and speculated on how better methods might be implemented. The authors recognized that some people with obesity (and in the fat acceptance movement) still prefer to be designated “fat,” and explained the psychology behind the choice.

They compared this to similar efforts by human rights activists to reclaim and own certain other items of terminology, and restore them to public acceptance:

[R]eclamation of the word as a neutral descriptor aims to counter the negative stereotypes that have become associated with it, and normalize the existence of fat bodies. Thus, identifying as “fat” becomes an act of empowerment and a marker of self-respect and unity.

Despite caring very much about creating positive change, the authors were also cautiously ambivalent, asking the editors of professional journals not to be hardcore adamant about using person-first terminology in every instance, because it “precludes more nuanced consideration of the implications of language use.”

We are currently at a moment in history where this fight has only just begun, and we are bound to witness considerable changes in the way we think about bodies, and acceptable terms for those bodies, in the years to come.

So here we are, almost a decade later, still engaged in debates and disagreements over person-centered language, or PCL. For ConscienHealth.org, Fatima Cody Stanford and Ted Kyle point out that an important starting point is language that meets the standard of being respectful, at the very minimum.

Without a modicum of reasonableness, there might not even be any kind of a start at all, because:

Language can set the tone for productive dialogue with youths and parents or it can prevent dialogue from ever happening. Research suggests that a physician labeling a child with stigmatizing language can lead to parents seeking a different physician or avoiding medical appointments for their children altogether.

“You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.” Since ancient times, this has been universally true of humans. For any health professional or therapist, there can be no helping if the prospective patient or client is turned off within the first few minutes of the initial meeting. And one causal factor of immediate rejection is careless talk. This article says,

Using people-first language means that the patient comes first and obesity surfaces as only a medical condition. Physicians should take cues from patients and parents about acceptable terminology. Motivational interviewing skills can help in finding constructive language… But in no case does labeling a patient as an obese child enhance a child’s self-concept.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “What’s in a Word? On Weight Stigma and Terminology,” NIH.gov, 10/05/15
Source: “Why Is Respectful Care for Childhood Obesity Remarkable?,” ConscienHealth.org, undated

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

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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