Written by Hannah Martin

Weight stigma refers to negative attitudes and behaviour made towards fat people. It can cause exclusion and marginalisation, and lead to inequities. So how, as health providers, can we begin to provide non-stigmatising care?

Unintentional or intentional, the words we use to talk about weight can be stigmatising. Because weight stigma poses a significant threat to psychological and physical health it’s imperative that we eliminate stigmatisation in our care. An important first step is choosing appropriate language.

So, what’s in a word.

The words ‘overweight’ and ‘obese’ imply that there is something wrong with the body. ‘Overweight’ suggests that there is a normal weight, something of which to be compared to. ‘Obese’, a medical term, suggests the body is diseased and consequently could never be considered ‘healthy’. Simply said, these terms pathologize weight and are harmful.

Some choose to use person-first language, such as ‘person with obesity’, which is intended to reduce stigma by putting a person first before their particular health issue or disability. However, this suggests that these people are burdened by their weight, and again could not be considered ‘healthy’ or ‘normal’ until this burden is removed.

‘Living in a larger body’ is another common phrase used to describe higher weight bodies. Yet to some, it can feel like the phrase is separating them from their body size: they are not ‘living’ inside a larger body, it is part of who they are. Variations in body size are normal! People always have and always will come in different sized bodies and we need to celebrate this diversity in size!

What about the word fat? For many, this word carries a lot of negative stereotypes, but the fat acceptance movement has reclaimed the word as a neutral descriptor of the body, much like being short or having brown eyes. For lots of people, however, the term is still experienced as an insult, so it should be used with caution especially by those who have thin-privilege.

The words we use matter a lot! Choosing appropriate language is an important step in eliminating stigmatisation in the care we provide. There is no simple answer, but when engaging in conversations about weight, it is important to first know your intentions in discussing weight, as in is it helpful or harmful? Neutral terms like ‘weight’ or ‘higher weight’ may likely be less stigmatising, depending on context. Finally, what is most important is that we respect and honour how each individual would like treated, by asking their own thoughts on using these terms. We, as health providers, can do this by asking the people with the lived experience how they want to be named.

Resources:

For health providers –

For fat people trying to navigate health care –

Hannah Martin is a recent Master of Dietetics graduate from the University of Otago, New Zealand. Since learning all things ‘intuitive eating’ while writing her thesis, she is on a mission to dismantle diet culture and spread the non-diet and Health at Every Sizeâ word.