Thursday, February 25, 2021

Newsflash! “Obese” Means “Fat”

October 30, 2009 by  
Filed under Fat Acceptance

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.

Kim Brittingam


35 Responses to “Newsflash! “Obese” Means “Fat””
  1. ronisweigh says:

    Great post!

    LOVE IT! I’m SO.DAMN.TIRED of playing a semantics game and people telling me what I can or cannot say. Or someone (on this blog especially) taking one word and making it a focus while ignoring the ideas or opinions expressed in a post.

    It’s nit picky and ridiculous.

    and thanks for the lesson on “overweight”
    I’m going to remove that word from my vocabulary. I use it way to much as a replacement for the word fat.

    • meerkat says:

      What, so not using “overweight” is okay, but if people tell you not to use “obese” it’s suddenly “HOW DARE an oppressed group tell me what terms they prefer to be described with”?

      • Tempe Wick says:

        Ronisweigh said exactly what I’ve been trying to avoid saying. No one has a right to dictate what words others use. I am becoming very, very tired of this nonsense. You dislike the word “obese” ? Tough titty. It isn’t a racial/ethnic slur, a curse, or a deliberate insult.

        And as for “an oppressed group” dictating what terms they prefer to be described by….who made you spokewoman? I happen to be “obese” myself (according to the BMI) and I don’t recall saying I
        had a problem with the word obese.

        There are certain words which, in polite society we generally agree are offensive and rude and we don’t use. I don’t think I need to list those, but obese is not one of them.

  2. missyrayn says:

    AMEN! I don’t like them all really because I’m put in that category still even though I have a normal waist size and have lost over 100 pounds. But at least I don’t like the ALL and not picking and choosing.

  3. GeorgiaMist says:

    Good grief. Obese is fat is overweight is chubby is rotund is Rubenesque is fluffy is chunky is… etc, etc., etc., ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

    The “fat acceptance” folks really out to delve into reality from time to time. Who knows what they might find there.

  4. NewMe says:

    Very interesting. Here’s my two cents’ worth:

    From a purely linguistic point of view, there is a difference between fat and obese. “Fat” (according to my Oxford Canadian Dictionary) means “the excessive presence of fat in a person or animal; corpulence”. I suppose this definition implies the same thing as “overweight”–that there’s too much fat as compared to…whatever you see as “too much”. The same dictionary defines “obese” as “very fat, corpulent”. I would agree with this definition, though once again, one woman’s “very fat” is another woman’s “just right”.

    Personally, I feel fine with “overweight”. For a variety of reasons–some admittedly imposed by society, others that have to do with my own personal health issues–I consider myself overweight. I am simply “over” the weight I think it is best for me to be, taking into account my health problems. If my excess adipose tissue were simply a question of esthetics, then I would be well within my rights to say f-you to the world and continue living my life as is. Sadly, that is not the case for me and this excess weight does not contribute to my well-being.

    I also self-identify as “somewhat handicapped”. If you met me on the street, you would not see my orthopedic disability, but I do have one and it affects my life. I know that a lot of people spit venom when they are referred to as “handicapped”. They see themselves as “persons with disabilities”.

    All this linguistic nit-picking drives me nuts, though I do have to admit that there are certain words that I find incredibly insulting (certain words that refer to my ethnic group, for example) and intolerable.

    Complicated, eh?

    • kimbritt says:

      NewMe, you do make one very good point that I clearly neglected.

      When one uses the word “overweight” in SELF-description, no one should have anything to say about it.

      For example, like you, I have determined that I am currently “over” the weight at which I feel best. But I don’t feel comfortable using “overweight” to refer to anyone else, because really, who am I to make the determination that they’re “over”weight? I don’t know what it feels like to be in their body, I don’t know how they WANT to feel in their body, I don’t know how their body weight is affecting their wellbeing.

      Thanks for bringing this up.

      As for all the semantic nit-picking, it can get to me too. Like when the Portland chick decided to insinuate herself into my life, opinion completely uninvited, and obnoxiously suggested I might not be capable of writing a size-positive article simply because I employed the word “obese”, I admittedly thought, “Oh please, lady, get a hobby already.”

      But at the same time, words ARE important. For example, one thing I hear all the time that drives me nuts: “I’m a size ___.” No one “is” their size. You might WEAR a size ___, but it’s not who you ARE. It seems like a small thing but this kind of language does have a way of worming into our collective subconscious. Can mere words change the world, change the way we think, feel, behave? Sure. Just ask anybody who engages in highly strategic, even so-called “hypnotic” copywriting. Powerful stuff.

      • Somebody's Mother says:

        Kimbritt, thanks for making a light bulb go on in my head!

        For example, one thing I hear all the time that drives me nuts: “I’m a size ___.” No one “is” their size. You might WEAR a size ___, but it’s not who you ARE. It seems like a small thing but this kind of language does have a way of worming into our collective subconscious.

        Hearing this made me realize that there are days when I AM my size. It dictates how I feel about myself, how I see myself, and my self worth. An occasional mental check to see if I am wearing a size or if it is wearing me could be a helpful tool in my body image battle. I must remember women’s clothing sizes are just a rough estimate of where to start when shopping. And nothing more.

      • Julie says:

        Oh I love that! I must remember to never say “I am a size….” ever again only that I wear that size. Brilliant.

    • ronisweigh says:

      Also a great point.

      Darn you people.. always making me think!!

  5. Marsha says:

    I agree, Kim. Seems to me the best way to shape the popular meaning of a word is to use it in the sense we want it to be used. Just like as you say fat activists are doing with the word fat.

    Plus, there’s something that happens that I can’t quite describe that happens when we shy away from using words that others have twisted the meaning of. It’s sort of like we give them permission to own the word and use it for their own negative purposes. Or maybe that we in a sense buy into the meaning they give it, and thereby reinforce the meaning.

    Whatever it is, I’m happy to reclaim the word obese. Thanks for a great post!

  6. wriggles says:

    There are so many reasons why obesity has become bad news, I could write a book on it. As you said, it’s nothing to do with what it refers to or even the sound of it.

    It’s the ideologies underpinning it. There are so many I don’t wish to bore, things like, the way it represents the tedious trend to turn every human trait into a disease/condition. We cannot feel extreme sadness because something bad happened, we are ‘clinically depressed’ we are not shy, we are social phobics etc ,etc.

    By the way, fat has many positive connotations, richness, abundance, fertility (yes, that too) et al.

    If you wish to reclaim it, that’s up to you, but it really belongs to the professionals .
    This proposal was voted down, but I think they will be more of this, but don’t take my word for it, check it out for yourself.

    • NewMe says:

      Ah, the professionals. Well, since I am short (should I say petite?), the difference between a “normal” weight and obesity, according to the BMI is a whopping 25 pounds!! Doesn’t give me much leeway, does it? I hate the BMI and the “professionals” who tout it!

  7. Bill Fabrey says:

    Some good linguistic points here, in your essay, and in some of the responses.

    As for myself, I don’t personally care what you call the state of being fatter than average. I only object to it when words are used to oppress people, or stereotype them, or deny them jobs or healthcare, clothes, or love and respect.

    When I choose words to use in writing, I usually take into account my target audience. Some groups go ballistic when you use the word “fat” to make your points, so painful a word it is to them, so whatever argument you are making gets drowned out. Other groups may hate “obese” or hate “fat” or “obese” but love “curvy” or “plus-sized” or even, more regrettably to me, “overweight.” Or they will say someone is of “normal” weight. Ouch!

    The bottom line is that in any society, or association, where there are a diversity of opinions about various topics, there are going to be some conflicts about terminology. I do hope that we can all cut each other some slack, and get on with the business at hand: size discrimination in its many forms.

    Bill Fabrey
    Woodstock, NY

  8. Meems says:

    The thing for me about “fat” and “obese” is that obese is a medical definition. Based on height and weight, I come out at the very low end of obese. I do not, however, identify as fat. Why? Well…because I’m not. I don’t look in the mirror and see someone who is fat. I don’t get harassed for being fat. I don’t even wear plus sizes. By our social constructs, I’m not fat, despite being medically obese. In my mind, the two words do actually have different implications.

    And while I agree that people have every right to choose how to describe their own bodies, I dislike the word “overweight” as an euphemism for fat since not all fat people are overweight for their bodies.

    Ultimately it’s a personal choice, but I think it’s worth acknowledging how your target audience might read into your word choice, as Bill says above.

  9. megan says:

    De-lurking to say excellent post!! Who is anyone to tell you what words you are and aren’t allowed to use? Definitely nit-picky.

  10. Bek says:

    Hey Kim,

    I support the sentiment of not getting weighed down in semantics and appreciating ideas and concepts without worrying too much about style or details… energy is much better expended on other things, but I have a pretty strong opinion about the descriptor “obese”

    Obese is based on BMI, which is a flawed measurement scale. Many personal trainers and athletes are considered obese due to their increased lean body mass and are not fat.

    At the moment I am fat, I am also obese, but even when I get to a point of not really being fat anymore I am still considered obese.

    Hospitals are starting to make policies based on peoples BMI with the assumption that obese=fat… But it is not always the case. So I do have a bugbear with BMI and obesity and hope we do away with BMI as a measure of health and fitness very soon.

    BUT I also think that the way people describe their thoughts and opinions is not as important as their actual thoughts and opinions….so its important to not let bugbears and word games detract.

  11. ozzy says:

    Late to the convo, but I LOVE me some semantics!!

    If you look at the way people use language to define, include, and understand themselves and each other, it’s never easy. Most people in their 60s or above would call someone “Jewish”, whereas I would call them “a Jew” (oooh, harsh). What about the politics of “African-American” versus “black”? No one talks about reclaiming a term like “Oriental”. Why are we reclaiming “fat” and not “obese”? Language is very touchy subject. I’d never encountered the term “obese” before encountering BMI, so I’ve kind of seen it as a word used to define a medical category, not as a conversational word. But why couldn’t it be? (Note: I’m not trying to compare racism with sizism.)

    My personal take has been that we’re not going to reach a point of unified language because of how vague the whole thing is. The point at which one person defines fat is not the same as another person — the whole thing is so vague. There are so many different attitudes among ourselves about our defining characteristic — in this case, fat — that we’re stuck with these different attitudes using different semantics. In my experience, size acceptance advocates tend to use “fat”; people approaching fat from a medical perspective, due to their own health problems or others’ tend to use “overweight” or “obese”; people who are engaged in unhealthy weight loss tend to use “obese” or “overweight”, with a side of any number of synonyms for fat with negative connotations.

    I know the nitpicking can be irritating, but words are powerful, and different people empower or disempower themselves in using words — sometimes the same words! Just like the clothes we wear, it’s amazing how we linguistically self-identify. It’s also amazing how hard it is to get over our semantic identities. I’m very used to calling myself fat, but I’ve never really self-identified as obese.

    Say it loud, I’m obese and proud…

    • Meems says:

      Most people in their 60s or above would call someone “Jewish”, whereas I would call them “a Jew” (oooh, harsh).

      Erm, huh? I don’t know where you live, but I’m in my 20s and use the term “Jewish” far more than “a Jew” to describe someone who belongs to the Jewish faith (myself included). And neither word/phrase has much of a connotation (negative or positive) in my experience.

      You admit that “obese” is a word used to describe a medical classification; “fat” is not. It’s a subjective judgment on physical appearance. The word “obese” represents how (normal) variation in human bodies has been pathologized so that it can be treated as a disease.

  12. tom brokaw says:

    Are you looking for internal consistency in fat acceptance? good luck

  13. Geosomin says:

    Nice post.
    I agree…obese is a word. A descriptive word, and if you use it properly, go right on doing it!
    My Dad was an english teacher and he would always tell us to find the right nd proper word and then use it. Political correctness is getting out of hand, and being replaced by “ooh I don’t like the sound of that”. It’s just a word. I think people need to be a little more thick skinned and remove baggage and emotional attachments to certain words.
    It is what it is.
    Good for you 🙂

    • Cait says:

      My Dad was an english teacher and he would always tell us to find the right nd proper word and then use it. Political correctness is getting out of hand, and being replaced by “ooh I don’t like the sound of that”.

      When people defend their word choice by saying “you’re too PC”, I often find myself significantly questioning whether they’ve actually gone and looked for the “right and proper word” or if they’re just choosing to be defensive rather than apologizing for having accidentally offended someone.

      I say this because it is my experience that usually when people do have a reason why one word is the “right and proper word” even though it offends, they will usually explain their reasoning when asked. People who don’t explain and just go “get over your baggage” instead, make me feel like not only were they not thinking about the word before they used it, but that they don’t care about the feelings of the people they offend.

  14. Lampdevil says:

    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.

    Aha! You’ve hit on something! No matter what word we choose to use to refer to our ‘abundant amounts of adipose tissue’ (…or whatever…) it’s still going to MEAN the same thing. And that same thing is still something that has negative connotations. We’ve got a lot of reclaming to do. Luckily, I’m wearing my Reclaiming Pants today. And I look great in ’em. 😉

    I can see WHY there would be such kerfuffling over the various words, however. On a personal basis, one word may seem ‘safer’ to a person than the other. More sanitized, less associated with their own size-related issues, easier to roll off the tongue as a result. If “fat” is what you were taunted with in grade school, that might make it the Big No-No Word. If your family always gave you trouble for being “chubby”, then there’s the word you want to toss out. Words Mean Things (as some smart person somewhere once said), but words also mean different things to different people. We face the challenge of communicating using words that do not offend, and of engaging with people reasonably when a word does rub the wrong way.

    • Cait says:

      Just reread this comment today, and I think I must have missed the bit about the reclaiming pants the first time, as on second read through, I must admit, you do look TOTALLY FAB in them. 😉

      Excellent comment all around. I ditto everything you say, except for my reclaiming outfit has a skirt. With big pockets. And a straw sunhat. Because I burn mighty easily when I’m out working all day.

  15. Whisper says:

    Hmm, “obese” is a different BMI category than “overweight,” so I can understand people taking offense if they don’t fall within that range. As to synonyms automatically meaning the same thing, words have connotation as well as denotation. If you call someone the “N” word, they’re going to feel quite differently than if you use “Black” or “African American.” There’s also an “in group” vibe going on – one Black person calling another the “N” word in a playful tone, or using it in a rap song isn’t nearly as likely to be considered offensive as if a white person does so. “Fat Activists” or “fat” being used in other relatively positive situations is going to feel different to most people than when it is used as an insult – context matters a lot.

    Geosomin, why do you feel people need to be more thick-skinned? If it hurts when someone calls you a particular name or insult or word, unless they’re a really mean uncaring person, they should be willing to use a synonym that is less emotionally loaded, or avoid the subject. I can’t really see any justification for deliberately hurting people, when you know you are doing so, unless you absolutely despise them.

  16. Natalie says:

    While I see where you are coming from with the arguement about selective reclaiming of words, I can’t agree. I do think that ‘fat’ and ‘obese’ are very different semantically.

    You don’t use ‘overweight’ for the reasons you note. Like ‘overweight’, ‘obese’ is similarly problematic. Both are categories on the infamous BMI chart, used to pathologise fat people (and as a stick to beat us with). I am fat, but I am NOT a medical condition. I reject the judgement about my health that the label of ‘obese’ implies. I reject being labelled as a diseased person simply because of my weight or size.

    Fat has been a term of contempt, but obese is a term designed to de-humanise us.

  17. Mcfly says:

    “Geosomin, why do you feel people need to be more thick-skinned? If it hurts when someone calls you a particular name or insult or word, unless they’re a really mean uncaring person, they should be willing to use a synonym that is less emotionally loaded, or avoid the subject. I can’t really see any justification for deliberately hurting people, when you know you are doing so, unless you absolutely despise them.”

    EXACTLY! That’s just it. If you (general you) want to talk to me, you need to be aware that my right to not be insulted isn’t trumped by your right to not bother thinking of a better word.

  18. Tempe Wick says:


    Am I the only one who doesn’t think these words are all synonyms?

    It’s probably just the English major in me, but each of those terms describes something different for me. In my thinking, those words aren’t interchangeable.

    I’m picturing something very different when I use the word “obese” than when I use “plump.” I think that is where some of the misunderstanding has come from. I assumed that most people had the same perspective, which I shouldn’t have done.

    • Cait says:

      I agree with you 100% that these words aren’t all synonyms (or… rather… they’re synonyms, in that they’re similar in meaning… but they’re not inherently interchangeable in meaning, which was I think was what you were getting at).

      The problem is actually the perception of their similarity, namely that there is something “inherently wrong” about being any of them. No, obese doesn’t mean plump. But the two of them are closer in meaning to each other than either one is a synonym for, say “ugly”. To say that one of them is reclaimable and the other isn’t is what seems wrong to people, I think.

    • Meems says:

      I totally agree.

  19. Linda says:

    For me, there is a huge difference between “obese” and “fat”. “Obese” is a specifically medical designation created to denote a disorder. It doesn’t just mean “especially fat”, it means “dangerously fat”. Unless I mean to imply that my state of fatness is bad, then, I see no point to using the word, or claiming it for good (it can’t be *re*claimed because it never was meant to be used positively.)

    “Fat” has been traditionally used in a derogatory way, yes, but it is essentially a good thing (it is necessary for life) and so makes more sense to use if I’m looking for a positive term, than “obese” does.

    • living400lbs says:

      If “Obese” only mean “very very fat” then the medical definition of “obese” would restrict to people who are very large (my BMI is 60).

      Both the CDC and the WHO define “obese” as having a BMI of 30 or above. No exception for athletes or others who carry more muscle then “normal”. The BMI Project has examples of what women who have a BMI of 30 look like, but generally speaking, most women with a BMI of 30 are probably told can shop in department stores, not special plus-size shops. Note also that weight fits a bell curve; most obese women are in the lower end, aka, with BMIs between 30 and 35.

      Basically? I use the term “obese” to mean “BMI of 30 or above”, which is the official meaning of the term.

      • living400lbs says:

        most women with a BMI of 30 are probably told can shop in department stores, not special plus-size shops.

        Eep. I had “are probably told “they’re not fat” and can shop” but went to pull it out. And didn’t pull it all out. Argh. Time for bed.


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