30 July 2010

Anti-obesity campaigns: language and shaming

This news story made me cackle because it's an amazing looking glass inversion of debates about language that continue in fat activism.

Say fat not obese, says minister

(Short note: I'm not into policing language and I think it would be a dull, reductive and Orwellian world if we all used the same words all the time. My feeling is that people should use the language to describe themselves with which they feel most comfortable. The rest of us should try and treat those labels respectfully.)

I had to do a double-take when I first read this article. My initial reaction to a quick skim of the headline was: "Yeah! Call me fat! That's exactly what I want, skip this obese nonsense." I reject obese because I don't want to be defined as a victim of a terrible disease, as someone who need curing, as a tragic figure for pity and paternalistic intervention. But the definition of fat being mooted in this article is as something appalling and dreadful, a shaming weapon. These guys really think that fat is an insult, they don't get it as a marker of one's identity and experience, or a way of describing communities, or its politicised nature. What a shame the BBC did not have the breadth of vision to get quotes from people who might have an alternative viewpoint.

Depending on your perspective, 'obese' is either kindly or oppressive and 'fat' is shameful or liberating. Look, I drew a table to illustrate how the kinds of words each likes to use is a polar opposite of the other.

Aside from my cackling, this story is also a depressing example of how alienated each of these two groups are from each other, a situation which is not helped by the the mainstream media. We literally don't speak the same language. It makes me despair that some kind of common, respectful understanding of fat could ever be developed between these two groups of people. It seems like another example of how the inflammatory rhetoric surrounding the Global Obesity EpidemicTM (initiated by weight loss industry stooges) has sabotaged people's access to non-shaming, appropriate healthcare.


buffpuff said...

LOL. And snap!


Poor sods just don't have a clue, do they?

Charlotte Cooper said...


Sharon said...

Must be silly season. The words gone mad.

Charlotte Cooper said...

I think you are right.

Miriam Heddy said...

I read that and was initially baffled by it and wondered if it were a cultural difference. Then I realized that, for many, "obese" is just another pet euphemism, hardly different from "plus sized" really, except that doctors use it.

And for those people, "obese" is no more associated with disease than is "plus sized," as they've entirely bought the idea that fat is always already diseased no matter what you call it.

It's just that to use the word "fat" you're also insulting someone.

In some ways, I'd argue that that means there are two necessary shifts that have to happen.

Embracing "fat" as a something other than an insult is one of them. The other is rejecting the medical establishment's blanket judgment of all fat people as diseased.

lilacsigil said...

*takes a step to the left* I'm fat!

*and a jump to the right* I'm obese!

If it's headed with "let's shame people by calling them X", I think I'll just have to opt out entirely.

Ally said...

Hi Charlotte! Excellent post. I was writing up a ranty bloggy blog rant on the same subject when I found yours. You were so articulate that I quoted you a little bit!


Charlotte Cooper said...

Woah! Go for it.

AngryFatWoman said...

GREAT post! And great chart! You've nailed the problem, exactly: when "fat" is used in that context it's used with intent to hurt, it's used as a weapon. That's no good.

Zilla said...

This reminds me of a conversation I had a couple of years ago, when an online friend was passing through London and I invited her to come stay at my flat for a couple of days. We arranged to meet at the nearest Underground station, and we talked on the phone right before she left to get on the Tube.

We hadn't exchanged pictures, so we briefly described ourselves. I said, "I'm medium height, red hair, fat, and wearing a green shirt [or whatever it was]." She started laughing in such a joyful way that I asked her what was up, and she said that she loved that I had described myself as fat, "because," she said, "it's so obvious from the way you say it that you're okay with that."

"Ah," I said. "Yeah...yeah, as a matter of fact I am."

We got on wonderfully.