An Open Letter to Professionals

Published July 16, 2010 by Fat Heffalump

Dear journalists and other media agents, medical and health professionals, government organisations, researchers, academics and other relevant professionals,

I am writing to you to request politely but firmly, for the last time, for you to cease referring to fat people as “the obese”.

“The obese” that you refer to are not alien beings sent down from the planet Lardo.  They are not animals that have tried to assimilate with humanity.  They are not creatures from the black lagoon, nor are they any other kind of hideous monster you can dream up.  They are also not in any way less, sub, below, beneath or beyond yourself or any other human being.

“The obese” that you refer to, are people.  They are human beings who simply have more fat on their bodies than other human beings.

They are people with lives, families, jobs, responsibilities, intellect, humour, worries, friends, problems and feelings just like any other people.

When you refer to them, no us, as “the obese”, you dehumanise us.  You reduce us to some kind of “other” that isn’t of equal value to the rest of humanity.  You reduce us to a thing, rather than a person.

You don’t refer to thin people as “the thin”.  You don’t refer to tall people as “the tall”.  It is only those you wish to look down upon that are reduced to a “the”.  You know you’re not allowed to do it to people of colour any more, or people with disabilities, or people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.  You all pretty much stopped doing that in your newspaper articles and medical papers and such some time ago.  At least publicly anyway, because you know there will be trouble if you do.

Now I know you need to have some kind of official term to use in your work.  The word obese is problematic, but if you really must use it, then how about referring to us as “obese people” or if you want to see obesity as a health condition, you could even use “people who suffer obesity”.  Neither of which really sit well with me personally, but at least those terms don’t dehumanise us.

However, you may call us fat people.  Because, well, that’s what we are.  We are people who are fat.  Like referring to young people or tall people or Australian people – fat people is just a factually descriptive term.

But hear me now.  You must stop referring to us as “the obese”.  Stop reducing us to our body type, and start remembering that we do have power and influence.  We have money to spend, votes to cast, voices to speak, brains to think and plenty of friends and family influence.

You could have access to all of this if you only remembered that we do have it.  Some of your colleagues are, and they’re already reaping the rewards.

Yours sincerely

A fat person.

33 comments on “An Open Letter to Professionals

  • Once again you make a clear statement about what is required, I can only dream of making myself so easily understood

  • Right on! I cosign this letter!
    (Unfortunately ‘the disabled’ is still used by some journalists though – it’s terrible and also needs to stop.)

    • My coworkers (all research psychologists and in general wonderful people who are mostly quite sensitive to the needs of people around them and who therefore SHOULD know better) also use “the depressed” quite often… That is especially ironic since there is psychological research which shows that people perceive a person differently depending on if you use a noun or an adjective label to describe them.

  • As a person whose first language isn’t English, I find this topic a little confusing. It appears to make perfect sense if you put it this way, but then I don’t see how it is any different than “tips for the inexperienced” or “help for the broken-hearted” and things like that. Which, uh … I am 99% sure people actually say – I hope I’m not making it up. That’s why I always forget about “the disabled” being a bad choice of words as well unless it’s been recently pointed out to me again. I just always got the impression that it was a fancy way of shortening sentences, using an adjective as a noun like that.

    Now, the word “obese” in itself is a different matter … I wish they’d stop using that altogether. Especially since what people imagine when they hear it is often quite far removed from reality.

    • It’s a sense of “othering” Tatjana. It’s making a clear distinction that those you are talking about are “other” than yourself.

      I don’t like the term obese either, but if they MUST use it, I feel they need to at least connect it to humankind – ie “obese people” or “people who suffer obesity”. At least then it’s not dehumanising us.

    • I think part of the difference is that “the inexperienced” and “the broken-hearted” don’t refer to groups that are usually stigmatized, or treated as less than human, whereas fat people (and people with disabilities, and Black people) are.

  • A-freakin-men!

    The other thing too, is that when these stupid articles class people as “overweight” and “obese” they are using BMI measures.

    Which I don’t even have to reiterate how inaccurate and flawed that stupid system is.

  • I love this.

    Though, like Rachel indicates, there are problems with simply the terms “obese” and “fat.” Someone may be obese based on BMI but not look fat; others might have a “normal” BMI, but look bigger because of build. It seems like when journalists refer to “The Obese,” they’re usually referring to the people who might also be targeted as “headless fatties” in any article about weight and health.

  • This has always irked me. They always talk about us, but not to us. Have they forgotten we read too?

  • This is awesome, and brilliant, and wonderful. The bit about how fat people “are not aliens sent down from the planet Lardo” made me laugh.

  • Kind of a tangent but can we also talk about this kind of thing? Co-opting the “lose weight fatties” language and applying it to everything in the damn universe?

    Seriously people, a star cannot be obese, does not need to ‘slim down’, and has never been on ‘an intense weight loss program’.

    For goodness sakes!

  • Excellent post, and this way of talking reminded me of something:

    “The African is a complete savage and is quite incapable of developing the country himself.” – Bernard Law Montgomery, the famous British general.

    “The African is incapable of self-care and sinks into lunacy under the burden of freedom. It is a mercy to give him the guardianship and protection from mental death” – John C. Calhoun, US vice president (1844 to 1845)

    I have seen other examples too, from Victorians, and it seems to me a particularly Victorian way of talking about those deemed to be inferior.

    • Good examples of “othering” there eelt. Of course, those examples come from the 1800’s… you’d think we’d moved on from there wouldn’t you? Sadly no!

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