Obese. Fat. Overweight. Higher weight.
Big boned. Large-sized. Carrying excess fat. Unhealthy weight. These
are just some of an endless list of words used to describe people's
Are these words stigmatising?
Do they make you feel worthless?
Do they anger you?
Does it matter what context these word are used in?
What should we call it? It is surprising how much focus we put on
answering this question when talking about obesity. Some people prefer
"fat" because they think it is a factual description. Others
are offended by "fat" and prefer "obese" because
it is an objective, clinical term.
Attending a recent UK conference on obesity and weight management, I heard a speaker refer to people of "higher weight". This drew a very negative response among certain sections of the audience, who clearly felt this was both stigmatising and offensive.
“It's the context that makes the word damaging. Being called "fat" by a passing stranger can leave you feeling upset, angry and even worthless. But what about when a doctor says he is concerned that your body is holding too much fat? “
I actively participate in organisations that support people living
with obesity. I feel stigma is a very important aspect of the
challenge and, of course, this is where definitions - and
disagreements about definitions - arise. As we are all individuals, it
is difficult to please everyone. What one person might find offensive,
For me, it's the context that makes a word damaging. Being called "fat" by a passing stranger can leave you feeling upset, angry and even worthless. But what about when a doctor says to you: "I'm concerned that your body is holding to much fat, and that this could cause future health issues." Does that leave you with the same feelings?
Obesity may be documented as a disease in the UK, but it isn't openly recognised as one. It is usually seen as self-inflicted, and this opens up people to ridicule, discrimination and bullying. So, on leaving the conference, I was concerned that so much focus had been placed on "what do we call it?" Isn't the "eat less, move more" stigma much more concerning that what the disease itself is called?
What people don't realise is that I am active. I've had a full-time physical job since leaving school. I've also had a personal trainer and attend a gym and daily swimming sessions. So go ahead and call me fat, overweight, higher weight, big-boned, or whatever you want. But if you feel the need to judge me, do it based on your own observations, not on what you are told by the media, or by professionals with no experience or understanding of what living with obesity is actually like.
“I've had a full-time physical job since leaving school. I've also had a personal trainer and attend a gym and daily swimming sessions”
In my opinion, conferences and other forums where obesity is discussed would benefit from better communication between academics and patients. Such dialogue would contribute to a better understanding of the challenges faced by people with obesity, and inform a better strategy to move forward with one voice. And not with just one limited, stigmatising word.
Angela Chesworth is a member of Novo Nordisk’s Disease Experience Expert Panel (DEEP)– patients or relatives living with a chronic disease.
Novo Nordisk's Disease Experience Expert Panel (DEEP) brings together individuals living with serious chronic diseases, including obesity, to provide insights and advice based on their experiences.