Newsflash! “Obese” Means “Fat”
Here are some words that mean “fat”:
Rotund. Corpulent. Fleshy. Pudgy. Chubby. Plump. Obese.
All of these words describe an abundance of adipose tissue.
All of these words describe me, and I’m not ashamed to use any of them.
Some people, fat activists in particular, have reclaimed the word “fat” and employ it in a liberal, relaxed fashion.
Still other people remain uncomfortable with the word “fat”. This sense of unease is the result of decades of negative connotations, fostered in ignorance. But in fact, “fat” is just another adjective like “blue” or “tall” or “cheerful”, and is only as loaded as you agree to make it.
That’s why so many fat people like me are breezy about using the word “fat” to describe themselves. We don’t see the state of fatness as being such a horrible thing, worthy of taboo. Fat people have reclaimed the word.
However, I didn’t realize until last night how uneven-handed some size acceptance advocates are about stripping fat vocabulary of its unflattering undertones.
Last night, I broadcast two posts through an e-mail service called Help A Reporter Out (“HARO”), seeking interview subjects for articles I’m writing related to fatness and fitness. In both posts, I used the word “obese”.
And I caught shit for it.
As a member of the Association for Size Diversity & Health (“ASDAH”), I receive daily e-mail updates about media items of interest to the community. Sometimes size diversity-related HARO posts are forwarded, as were mine.
One fellow ASDAH member, not realizing I was a subscriber to the e-mail updates, expressed enthusiasm for my article, but suggested that “Someone needs to tell this woman to switch to the word ‘fat’!”
Hi there. I’m “this woman”. Nice to make your acquaintance.
But, excuse me — “switch”? Switch to “fat”?
What is this, some kind of linguistic taste test? Suddenly I was back in the ’70s, trailing my mother in the supermarket with impatient lead feet, sporting my favorite butterfly t-shirt and being accosted by a lady in an apron to “Take the Pepsi Challenge!” Can you tell the difference between this word for abundant adipose tissue, and this one?
Hmmm. Tastes an awful lot like “obese”. I like it. It works for me.
OK, now try this one.
Mmmm. Hey! Now that’s a little different! They’re both tasty, but I can definitely see popping open a can of this adjective when I crave a little variety.
Well, let’s do the reveal. Ready?
Oh, wow! The second one is “fat”!
Sure is! So. Do you plan on making the switch?
You…you mean, permanently? Uh…well, no.
You see, it’s a beautiful language we have here, loaded with options, and I plan to make the most of them.
The woman’s comment read as though I was being encouraged to use the word “fat” exclusively, like some sort of preferred pet term of the size acceptance movement; like I should forego all use of available similes, especially “obese”.
Shortly thereafter, I got a direct e-mail from a woman in Portland, Oregon who wrote:
“I saw your note on HARO and have to ask how ‘size positive’ an article whose writer uses the word ‘obese’ is likely to be. It’s not exactly a size positive word. Do you anticipate using it in your article?”
I immediately wondered: how is “obese” a size negative word?
Just like “fat”, “obese” is only as loaded as you make it.
Bill Fabrey is the membership chair of ASDAH, founder of NAAFA (the National Association for the Advancement of Fat Acceptance) and co-founder of the Council on Size & Weight Discrimination. He shed some light on the issue for me when he wrote:
“…the use of the word ‘obese’ is one that many (but not all) in ASDAH find disconcerting, because its popularization was from the medical community, who almost always see it as pathological, and its use almost always seems to be derogatory.”
OK, but I still don’t get the reasoning behind this “selective” linguistic reclaiming.
All right, so “obesity” is used in a derogatory manner by some people, including those in the medical community.
Well, so is “fat”.
Does it really matter who turned it into a four-letter word, what meaning they assigned to it, and why?
“Obese”, like “fat”, is still a word describing a fullness or largeness of a body due to the amount and/or placement of that body’s fatty tissue.
And when anyone, including any so-called “size positive” person, attempts to discourage the use of the word “obese”, they are insulting fat people everywhere, just as if they tried to hush up use of the word “fat”. Either way, they are galvinizing the negative connotations layered upon these words, adding strength to the popular belief that there’s an inherent wrongness in being obese/fat/rotund/stocky/plump/chubby.
Choosing to reclaim “fat” but not “obese” makes about as much sense as Glenn Beck — with or without his meds.
And what I really don’t understand is the subtle vocabulary-bullying going on by certain size acceptance activists who really should know better.
I mean, size acceptance advocates are generally pretty emphatic about people of all sizes being treated with respect, and being given room to be themselves in our society without being chastened for it. At least, that’s the gist of their lip service.
That’s why it’s so ironic when these supposedly wide-open-minded people attempt to chastise me for: a) refusing to see my obesity as inherently evil, regardless of what any doctor managed to convince his or her self about its supposed “pathology”; b) choosing to strip all words equating to “fat”* of all shame and negative connotations placed upon them by less-than-enlightened people; and c) refusing to swallow an outdated, illogical code of size positive verbiage in favor of embracing my fat and owning every word* ever invented to describe it.
I can feel this way, you see, because I completely accept my fat. It is what it is. The reasons I am fat are what they are. They do not make me a bad person, and they don’t make me significantly weaker in character than anyone else who can lay claim to the human experience. So why should I feel so ashamed in claiming my fatness, whether I’m “fat” or “obese”?
* I do take exception to employing the word “overweight”, which is often used as a synonym for “fat”. “Overweight” clearly implies that there exists an ideal, correct or desirable weight for an individual, and that the individual being described is “over” such weight. Words like “fat” and “obese”, however, more generally describe the state of having an abundance of fatty tissue, without blatantly inserting a judgment about the appropriateness of such state. Likewise, I would never use terms like “overfat” or “overobese” which, by virtue of the inclusion of “over”, have a handy-dandy, built-in opinion about how much fat is OK.
The only opinions attached to “obese” or “fat” are those of the person employing the words; and since this is true across the board, it makes “obese” ripe for reclaiming — by a fat girl like me, or anyone else.