“Obese”, “Fat”, and so forth

Red 3 has a great post on the euphemisms that are used to “walk around” the fat person in “the room” (specifically, he referenced some well-known dating sites).

“Big,” “Heavy,” “Thick” and others are trotted out to soften the “blow” of our bodies. Overweight or Obese are suggested as polite ways to refer to us. Simply calling us fat is entirely out of the question. Fat is a bad thing, you see, so it wouldn’t be nice to call us that. So they come up with other words to use to call us fat while emphasizing how awful our physical state is.

We also have, of course, today’s breaking news that Wired.com has “defined” the Fatosphere thusly:

Fatosphere n. A blogosphere of the obese, by the obese, for the obese. Often designated “no-diet zones,” fatosphere blogs seek to counter medical claims that obesity is a health epidemic.

Many others have gone over the obvious logical fallacies in this definition (incompleteness (“..blogs seek to counter…”) one, assumption (“…by the obese, for the…”) another, etc). But I’m going to talk more about words, here.

Words are powerful. Orwell has a great essay called “The Politics of the English Language” which expose various so-called “mental vices” engaged in by many writers and orators, especially during argument. Later on, Orwell goes to explore the dangers of political doublespeak (a descriptive term coined by him in his novel, 1984). We’re familiar with words that have changing implications, and even definitions, or words that have different outcomes than their implications. For instance, “fairness” at times leads to unfair outcomes, “justice” has been fashioned into a tool of punishment for unpopular voices, and so forth.

So what kind of implications are drawn forth from the words “obese” and “fat”?

Currently, though it has not been so forever, “obese” has come to mean a medical condition of the afflicted. One is afflicted by the syndrome of obesity, and the syndrome of obesity is an affliction to be rectified, or at least ‘managed.’

Wikipedia, the popular online encyclopedia, begins its definition of obesity in such a manner:

Obesity is a condition in which the natural energy reserve, stored in the fatty tissue of humans and other mammals, exceeds healthy limits. It is commonly defined as a body mass index (weight divided by height squared) of 30 kg/m2 or higher.

Although obesity is an individual clinical condition, some authorities view it as a serious and growing public health problem. Some studies show that excessive body weight has been shown to predispose to various diseases, particularly cardiovascular diseases, diabetes mellitus type 2, sleep apnea and osteoarthritis.

It follows with a bevy of unsupported claims and assertions, and cites from the three or four sources most cited in the War on Obese People (Nurse’s Study, CDC 2004 figures are two) — interestingly, the same sources that have come under the most fire for possibly (or definitely, in case of the CDC numbers) “cooking the books.”

“Fat,” however, is actually more precisely descriptive in a scientific manner. “Fat” people have a larger store of adipose tissue on their bodies compared to some baseline norm. No one can argue with that: I have more adipose tissue than my fiancee, he has more than his daughter, she has more than our cat, and so forth. “Fat people” mean people who have more fat on their bodies compared to some baseline norm, usually some idealized version of the body, defined by the culture, medical professionals, the government, or whomever is the current socially accepted authority.

And while I engage in calling myself a “fat person,” specifically because I’m defined as such by the government, with which comes the various prejudices of daily life at this point in human history, I think it’s important to realize that this term is comparative in nature, and is descriptive only when there is some baseline norm. When finally the conflict of interest so present in much modern-day obesity research becomes scientifically unacceptable or popularly proven wrong (since much of it is already proven wrong, it just isn’t yet popularly acknowledged), the idea of an “ideal” weight will become obsolete, and we’ll have nothing on which to base our comparisons.

Such as it should be: fat people are people with normal bodies, which can be sick, healthy, sedentary, active, attractive, unattractive, hygienic, unhygienic, taken care of, abused, ad infinitum.

Perhaps the “fat” as a group-term should also eventually go the way of “obese,” as another loaded word which is, ultimately, a false description. We should certainly not meet group-terminology with more group-terminology. And while we need to fight the good fight and give our fight a name (which necessitates grouping our voices), eventually we’ll need to shed the “fat” as well as the “obesity,” so to speak, should we ever be seen as equal members of the culture, just the same as everyone else.


One comment on ““Obese”, “Fat”, and so forth

  1. Bee says:

    Personally, I don’t see any reason for pigeonholing people according to their weight/size/appearance, and what individual people choose to describe themselves as, is a business of their own. On the other hand, all the twee euphemisms always make me feel slightly stabby…

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