Say It: Obesity = Obese People

For a long time bloggers and commenters in the Fatosphere have observed that when most anti-obesity crusaders talk about ‘obesity,’ they’re really talking about ‘obese people.’ There is no such thing as obesity in a vacuum, there are just people who are obese being looked at on a population-wide scale. And the definition of obese changes far too much for it to be any kind of solid abstraction.

When you realize that obesity means obese people, suddenly the comments being made by anti-obesity crusaders become a lot more grim. For instance, the heart-warmingly positive phrase: “We will eliminate obesity in a decade!” becomes “We will eliminate obese people in a decade.” Yikes.

Obesity = obese people. Say it. Write it. Stop using the word ‘obesity.’ Really expose what this whole moral panic is about.

“We really have declared war on obese people,” said Dr. Kimberly Redding, director of the Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Program at the Georgia Department of Public Health. … “Targeting obese people is not going to be a quick fix,” Redding said. (bold substitutions, mine. original here)

Also, childhood obesity = obese children. Say it. Write it. Never use the term ‘childhood obesity’ again.

Making the substitution (also, ‘epidemic of childhood obesity’ = ‘obese children’):

Spearheaded by Michelle Obama, a new presidential initiative would reverse the epidemic of obese children.

The goal, as set out in a report from the White House Task Force on Obese Children, is to reduce obese children from 20% to 5% by 2030.

To accomplish this, the plan makes 70 recommendations for early childhood, for parents and caregivers, for school meals and nutrition education, for access to healthy food, and for increasing physical activity.

“For the first time, the nation will have goals, benchmarks, and measurable outcomes that will help us tackle obese children one child, one family, and one community at a time,” Obama says in a news release. (bold substitutions, mine. original)

Um, yeah. Shudder. Finally, some Jamie Oliver to whet your palate for a change in this disturbing discourse:

In 2010 Jamie was awarded the prestigious TED Prize to create a strong, sustainable movement to educate every child about food, inspire families to cook again and empower people everywhere to fight obese people.

Having proven himself as a campaigner in the UK, Jamie is fired up about leading the fight against obese people in the USA. The second season of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution on ABC is set to air in spring 2011 and will help to refocus the campaign to use cooking skills and fresh food to help end the crisis of obese people in America. (bold substitutions, mine. original)

I’m issuing a challenge to all my readers:  Stop using ‘obesity’ and ‘childhood obesity.’ Start saying and writing ‘obese people’ and ‘obese children’ instead. Stop playing the game on their turf, using their mealy-mouthed terms which pretend obesity is some kind of state of being that floats above the populace, or that childhood obesity is like a monster lurking in a child’s closet, rather than the child herself. Say it like it is.

You know the old adage about evil — if you are able to name its nature, then it loses its power.

Who’s with me?

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15 comments on “Say It: Obesity = Obese People

  1. Ashley says:

    Honestly I don’t think crusaders would mind using either term.

  2. vesta44 says:

    They don’t use “obese people” because it isn’t ‘othering’ enough, it doesn’t de-humanize fat people enough, nor does it marginalize us enough. By saying “obese people“, they would be admitting that we’re people just like they are, and Maude forbid that happen. Fat people aren’t people just like them, fat people are “other” and need to be eradicated from sight. If you admit that “the obese” are people, it’s much harder to justify wanting to eradicate them.

    • bigliberty says:

      Yes, precisely. Moral panics are about about creating a deviant class, and there’s no surer way to create a deviant class than to dehumanize them. Even surer bet to get the herd to turn is to suggest that the deviants are not only subhuman, but a *threat* to humanity. “Obesity” and “the obesity epidemic” encapsulate all those themes so neatly that it’s almost as if they were created to (they weren’t, of course, they’re just the end product of a predictable, patterned evolution).

  3. cjpause says:

    I love this piece and accept the challenge!

    • bigliberty says:

      Thank you so much! I really appreciate it. I was commenting on Jezebel the other day (which is no haven for fat-positivity), and decided that where I was going to write “obesity,” “obese people” was the meaning I was going for. Then I started thinking about their equivalence, and how the concept of “obesity” has been a too-well-oiled-tool for making hideous abstractions about obese people for far too long.

      Here’s the comment:

      Yep. Most weight loss studies that claim success don’t run beyond 24 months. A year is nothing, just another crap study meant to sell a product that can be added to the rest of the crap studies of a similar nature, each of which have claimed to be *the* solution to obese people in our time.

      And that’s it. Most diets *are expressly* about eliminating fat people. The Before and After pic theme is just that: “Look at the fatty that is now ELIMINATED from Earth!”

  4. deeleigh says:

    EXTREMELY good point. In reporting on the media on Big Fat Blog, I’m sure I’ve used some of their terms myself, and in the future I’ll make an effort to do as you suggest.

  5. I just have to say “Volderfat!”, oh, and I love the way this blog makes me think.

  6. richie79 says:

    I too accept this challenge. Some of it comes down to using people-first language, to reinforce that the person comes before and takes precedence over whatever stigmatised aspect of their identity is being referred to. I.E. gay people, disabled people (or, and although it can sometimes read more clumsily, people who are gay, people with disabilities etc). ‘Obesity’ itself is a horrible word; ‘scare Latin’ which like ‘homosexual’ is used to medicalise and pathologise a natural human variation as something Other to be feared. Its etymology also reinforces the most pervading stereotype about fat, that it’s caused by overeating. It always, always gets scare quotes when i use it whether in FA spaces or the wider internet, not least because it means different things to different people (most ordinary folk associate it not with a barely plump someone with a BMI of 30, or increasingly even 25, which is how ‘experts’ and the media use it, but the 400lb+ subjects of fatphobic belly telly and stock ‘headless fatty’ illustrations). Like much of the ‘Sphere, I prefer fat. It does what it says on the tin: I am fat, I have fat cells, I am not thin, and neither am I ‘obese’. That’s their label, not ours, and I’m as free to reject it as they are to impose it.

    • bigliberty says:

      Richie, I completely agree. I use ‘fat’ and not the medicalized ‘obese’ when I’m writing about fat liberation and fat issues. The post was more about seeing the pervasive use of ‘obesity’ as a passive abstraction for the concrete ‘obese people.’ That is, to see articles and quotes about obesity with the obesity = obese people filter, and make sure that we’re not playing their game by using their passive abstractions when we rebut.

      I also completely agree that ‘obesity’ is poorly defined, and ambiguous in that scare articles tend to talk about the ‘obesity epidemic’ to be prevalence of obese and overweight — that is, all the way down to 25 BMI. Of course, the pictures used by these articles are nearly always of people over BMI = 40 which, as we know, aren’t nearly as pervasive (only 4.5% of the US population has a BMI over 40: http://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=bmi+%3D+40 )

      They’re looking to freak out as many people as possible. The median (and mean) of BMI in the USA is 26, firmly in the “overweight” category of BMI: http://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=people+usa+bmi

      Besides, changing BMI distributions in the population have more to do with an aging population than anything else: http://www.nature.com/oby/journal/v15/n11/fig_tab/oby2007339f4.html#figure-title

  7. Jackie Yoshi says:

    There’s a cartoon called Scaredy Squirrel on Cartoon Network. I commented on their Facebook, that they should have not let a cartoon that portrays size prejudices on the air. It wasn’t like they were even trying to handle it tactfully. The same old “Fat people all are fat because they overeat” nonsense.

    If you would like to post your views please visit https://www.facebook.com/#!/ScaredySquirrel, my comment is under the screename VioletYoshi. I think it’s horribly irresponsible for them to make a cartoon, that renforces age old fat stereotypes. I even was thinking half way through the show, “Why am I even watching this?”

    Oh well, I told them I’d tell my friends to boycott the show. Hopefully they’ll realize that type of message towards kids is counterproductive and not air the episode, or they will be fired by CN. I just can’t believe this BS is STILL going on. Perhaps they’d like to speak to the children who now will be called King Nut (the name of the candy bar in the cartoon), and bullied for being fat.

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