Words & Wall

Words with Weight to Test Emotions

Adiposity, chubbiness, corpulence, corpulency, embonpoint, fat, fatness, fattiness, fleshiness, grossness, plumpness, portliness, pudginess, pursiness, rotundity, weight. These are Merriam-Webster’s words for obesity. The words attached to weight evoke strong emotions. But they are mostly unpredictable. In fact, new research in Clinical Obesity tells us that people disagree widely in their feelings about weight-related words.

However, one thing is clear. The words health professionals attach to weight often evoke negative emotions. The dominant emotion is sadness for adults, anger when it’s about children.

Neutral Words Are Hard to Find

Adrian Brown and Stuart Flint surveyed 2,911 adults online – 1,693 living with overweight or obesity. They explored emotional responses to weight-related words. They probed about preferences. From parents, they asked for feelings and preferences about discussing their children’s weight.

Make no mistake. These words are polarizing. About the only word that people agree upon is obese. If you want to be sure to bring out negative emotions, start with the word obese and throw in an adverb. Extremely obese and super obese rose to the top of the list of most disliked words. Yet it’s far from rare that health professionals will use this terminology. It’s hard to justify this, because the objective language of class 3 obesity is simpler.

Of course, there are plenty of other words that are sure to offend.

The real challenge, though, is finding neutral words. For the most part, talking simply about weight comes the closest to being neutral. Even so, you can discover that weight talk can be very unwelcome. A small, but vocal group of people prefer the word fat. They are definitely in the minority.

Meeting People on Their Terms

Humility is the best tool for finding the right words for a conversation about weight. Brown and Flint say it succinctly:

“As a starting point, HCPs are advised to use weight neutral terms and ask people for their preferred weight-related terms as not all terms are uniformly accepted.”

Some people will want to talk about health first – not weight. Others want a respectful conversation about weight above all else. The words that a patient prefers should come first. The words a provider chooses can tell a lot about their own biases.

Words are a test for our feelings about weight and health.

Click here for the study by Brown and Flint. For further perspective on how we talk about obesity, click here.

Words & Wall, photograph © Jeanne Menjoulet / flickr

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June 13, 2021

2 Responses to “Words with Weight to Test Emotions”

  1. June 13, 2021 at 11:27 am, Angela Golden said:

    I always appreciate reading about the patient perception of language. But I always wonder – in the past did patients living with diabetes get asked all these questions? I so wish we could move past all this and just be able to get to the treatment and prevention of obesity and that people living with obesity would not have to feel like they have done something wrong.

    The words are important, I understand that, in order to set up the trusting relationship with the HCP, but I think once the relationship is set, and people living with obesity are receiving evidence based treatment, it would be interesting to know if there is a shift in “accepted” words.
    Respectfully, Angie Golden

  2. June 13, 2021 at 3:39 pm, Ted said:

    You’re right, Angie. People are looking for care and respect. The words can be telling, but incidental.