Sunday, January 24, 2021

Revisiting Use of the Word “Obese”

December 3, 2009 by  
Filed under HAES, Obesity

A while ago, Kim wrote a post about using the word “obese.” The gist of it was that although the definition of the word as it is commonly used is based on shaky ground — the body mass index (BMI) — why can’t we reclaim the word and use it the way we want.  (Hope I stated that correctly — if not, I’m sure everyone will tell me!)    A lively conversation ensued, which I joined in, saying it seems wrong somehow to give people permission to own a word and use it for negative purposes.

In reviewing an article today, however, I read another reason why not to use the word.  The authors repeated some of the familiar arguments, but also said something I had never heard before:  the etymology of word “obese” implies a large appetite is the cause. Which is a mistaken notion.

I spent a little time checking out the etymology of the word (read: surfed the net), and it does seem to be about overeating.    So my question is  have you ever heard this?  If so, does it change your opinion about using the word? Check back on Kim’s post for a refresher on opinions already expressed on the subject.


15 Responses to “Revisiting Use of the Word “Obese””
  1. vitty10 says:

    Interesting. I didn’t know that was the origin of the word. I was never a big fan of “obese” and now I’m even less of a fan.

  2. mutlu says:

    I don’t think “obese” is any better or worse than “fat.” Is it our duty to research the etymology of every word in the English language now so that we know how it got its start several hundred years (or more) ago, so as not to offend anyone? If I heard someone describe Person A as “fat” and Person B as “obese,” I would have the same image in my head of what these two people looked like. And I don’t think your average person on the street would equate fat with good and obese with stuffing your face. The average person probably already equates the word “fat” with the stereotypical image of a couch potato. So I’m still not sure why the word “fat” should be reclaimed but “obese” is the ultimate insult.

    • Gina says:

      Is it our duty to research the etymology of every word in the English language now so that we know how it got its start several hundred years (or more) ago, so as not to offend anyone?

      ITA. Many words change their meaning over time, and this process is speeding up due to the increased use of the internet and other forms of instant communication.

      The point is – we all know what “obese” means today. Does it matter what the word meant 100 years ago?

      • Renee says:

        I beg to differ.

        Either words have power or they don’t (yes, I know that’s an either/or fallacy) and word carry with them the weight of connotations, denotations, and usage. Yes, of course, words change over time — that’s why language is so powerful and so flexible. If you want a fun etymology, look up the word “quaint.” I guarantee you, you will never use it in the same way.

        Ignorance of a word’s past, previous meanings and the “baggage” associated with that word does matter. Take any other inflammatory word (I’m thinking in particular of the “n” word and the “f” word — not the one for copulation) and use that same argument. It doesn’t fly.

        That being said, “obese” is an ugly-sounding word, and if it serves, even subliminally, to perpetuate the stereotypes that big people are greedy gluttons, then I’m all for that awareness and caution when using it.

  3. lissa10279 says:

    I never knew the origin, either … and also as someone not a fan of that word … like Vitty10, I’m also less of a fan now. We know that obesity isn’t always about having too big an appetite … it’s multi-faceted and while in some cases it IS about eating “too much” and moving “too little” (which are subjective), just as likely, it can be related to metabolism, heredity, etc.

  4. GeorgiaMist says:

    Seriously? Who cares HOW the word originated! It’s a WORD.
    Most people do become fat… obese… over-weight by eating too much and not moving enough.

    It’s a word. If you let it define you — then it’s YOU that has the problem.

    I’m 5′ 3″ and weigh 234 pounds. That’s obese. It’s fat. It’s over-weight. It’s pudgy, Rubenesque, fluffy… whatever.

    The FACT is that I’ve lost 64 pounds and am still losing because I’m changing the wway I think, eat, move, and live.

    Don’t define yourself by a simple word. Define yourself by simple action.

    • While I completely agree with you about not defining yourself with words, Georgia, I don’t think it’s so clear that most people do become fat or obese or overweight just by eating too much and not moving enough. It’s much more complicated than that, and thinking that sets many of us up for defeat when it comes to taking care of ourselves.

      Not to say that changing how we think, eat, move and live doesn’t help most of us but there are those who are perfectly healthy at larger sizes and their weight won’t budge by doing that because that’s how they’ve been living all along! Also, the quality of the food we eat is increasingly appearing to have an impact that goes beyond just calories, taking the issue beyond just the realm of calories in vs. calories out. One example is my post on my blog yesterday about this:

      All that said, hooray for you that you are changing the way you think, eat, move, live. It sounds like it’s a good move for you, not because it’s making you thinner but because it sounds like it’s moving your body to what may be a healthier place for it.

      • greenbunny78 says:

        I guess I don’t understand how it is more complicated than input not equaling output. While I am sure many people may have several reasons why they don’t move enough, or eat too much, or both- when broken down, generally that is what it is. We live in a society with an abundance of food and a ton of things to make life “easier”. I live in a country where the most common mode of transportation used to be the bicycle. Its slowing giving way to mopeds and cars. But its pretty rare to see someone on a bike that is really fat (obese, whatever word people are wanting me to use here). Which says to me our lack of movement, our circling the parking lot several times to get that parking spot next to the door, plays a decent roll in our expanding waistlines. It doesn’t seem like all that big of a mystery to me.

        • Meems says:

          It sounds to me like you’re conflating a lot of different things here. Besides fewer people using bicycles as their primary modes of transportation, what else has changed over the last 100 (or so) years? Have people started eating more processed foods? It’s likely that eating processed/chemical laden foods disrupts our bodies’ natural metabolisms. Was there a depression/famine during that time period? Evidence also suggests that the children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren of people who survived times in which food was scarce are more likely to be fat.

          The input/output model of weight and weight loss is also far less simple than most of us think. Human metabolism is not static, so what works for one person may be too much or too little food for another. Linda Bacon talks a lot about this in “Health at Every Size,” but when we weight cycle, we also disturb our metabolism’s natural functioning.

          Basically, there are environmental, genetic, and individual factors that affect weight, and one single trend can’t account for everything.

          • greenbunny78 says:

            no, I agree that there is no one factor for every person. And also, I know that once your body has made fat cells, they don’t go away- so your body has a memory of the extra storage that it remembers, and makes it easier to re-gain weight lost- or harder to loose.

            You make an interesting argument about children, grandchildren and so of people who went through famine- but I am not so sure I really see that at play here (I am in the Netherlands). There is a lot of talk about the famine at the end of WWII and how people had to eat tulip bulbs- but obesity is only recently really become a big (pardon the untintention pun) issue here in more recent years. I do think all the chemical crap we eat plays a role- but I think its not so much that the chemicals themselves make us gain weight- I think its that we are not satisfied by what we eat and we eat MORE- which still comes down to the food in not equalling food out. My point is that it actually really IS that simple- even if the reasons that cause it are not. Also, I do know its not necessarily the case for everyone (say, someone with a metabolic disorder). But I feel like people trying to make it more complicated seems more like an excuse not to change, rather than a true, legitemate reason not to be healthy (not not to loose weight- but to be healthy- and I DO believe that you don’t have to conform to the BMI charts to be a healthy person)

    • Meems says:

      For God’s sake, STOP assuming that your experience is true for everyone else. I don’t know you, so I don’t know that eating too much for your body and not moving enough made you fat, but if that’s your experience, then so be it. Eating well and leading an active life (to the best of an individual’s ability) are great things to do for health, and certainly commendable, but you do seem to be defining yourself by something very related to being fat – your ability to lose weight and maybe stop being fat.

  5. wriggles says:

    Every definition has a purpose, it is the purpose of obese that is offensive, not the word itself.

    Whether people get fat or thin by eating more than is deemed acceptable, is neither here nor there because hunger and appetite are functions of metabolism. Not measures of character, morality or personality.

  6. GeorgiaMist says:

    What I object to is the vilification of this word, obese, and it’s usage by others. It amounts to censorship. It’s political correctness run amok — and political correctness is neither political nor correct.

  7. Deeleigh says:

    “Obese” is a medical term with a clinically defined meaning. We can’t change it to mean what we want it to. If I wear a size 12 and my BMI is 30, then I’m obese. If I’m a body builder and my BMI is 30, then I’m obese. Period. I’m not a fan of that word, but it belongs to the medical community, and it’s defined by BMI.

  8. Linda says:

    I don’t like the word “obese” simply because it’s a word coined by the medical establishment to denote a *disorder*, something bad. “Fat” on the other hand is essentially a good thing — it is necessary for human life, in the same way that muscle is. You can be more or less muscular and still be within the normal spectrum, and more or less fat and still in the normal spectrum. So, I’m “more fat”, or in popular parlance, simply “fat”.

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