Kandinsky and Erma Bossi at the Table in the Murnau House

AP Stylebook Embraces Respectful Language on Obesity

Big change sometimes happens very quietly. For example, on April 5, the AP Stylebook added a new entry on “obesity, obese, overweight.” It goes into a great deal of detail about language for writing about obesity. But here is the heart of the matter, in the words of the Associated Press stylebook editors:

“The phrasing people with obesity or a person with obesity is acceptable when a general term is needed and is relevant, unless a group or person prefers other terms. The term obesity is used most often in a health or medical context: Researchers hope the treatment helps people with obesity.

“Avoid the modifier obese when possible. Although obese is a variant of the term obesity, many medical professionals say the use as a modifier is more stigmatizing by putting a greater focus on the person rather than on the disease. That stigma can cause people not to seek treatment, they say.”

Listening to People

A decade has passed since Ted Kyle and Rebecca Puhl wrote in Obesity:

“Obese is an identity. Obesity is a disease. By addressing the disease separately from the person – and doing it consistently – we can pursue this disease while fully respecting the people affected.”

It seems that editors of the stylebook are listening. In fact, we know they did a lot of listening to come up with this guidance. They listened to Puhl, who is without question the world’s leading expert on weight bias and stigma. They also listened to dissenters from the fat acceptance community who embrace the identity of being “fat.”

Other dissenters, who might miss the good ol’ days of fat jokes and disparaging labels, did not hold much sway, though.

Good News Indeed

Puhl praised this new guidance, saying:

“Language can play a powerful role in perpetuating or reducing stigma. These new guidelines acknowledge the diverse preferences for terminology that people have for describing their body weight or body size. Encouraging the press to recognize this diversity and to use people’s preferred terms is an important step in respecting people of all body sizes and reducing societal weight stigma.”

OAC President and CEO Joe Nadglowski applauded this news, describing its importance:

“The adoption of people-first language for the disease of obesity by the AP is a tremendous step in the right direction. The AP Stylebook is utilized by thousands of media entities on a daily basis. The influence these entities have in crafting narratives on obesity is powerful.”

Words Matter

Now the AP Stylebook has thoughtful, concise, and complete guidance on respectful language for reporting to the public on obesity. The influence of the AP Stylebook is quite broad, starting with all forms of news and media. But it goes well beyond to shape the use of American English.

This is big. Though it will not, by itself, cure the problems of weight bias and stigma, language is indeed powerful. The language we use can be a signal of respect or disrespect. The words we use do not merely express our thoughts. They play a role in shaping our thoughts.

This is why these words matter.

Click here, here, and here for more on this good news.

Kandinsky and Erma Bossi at the Table in the Murnau House, painting by Gabriele Munter / WikiArt

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June 5, 2024

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