The awesome Lauredhel of Hoyden about Town wrote to us the other day and asked if we’d take on one of her pet peeves: using the phrase “the obese” to describe the entirety of fatkind. We explained that we are A) huge fans of hers, and B) a bunch of slackass losers, so if she wanted to see this topic on Shapely Prose, she’d just have to guest post. Fortunately for all of us, she obliged — and made some hilarious graphics, to boot. Thanks, Lauredhel! — Kate
People with disabilities have for quite a while been promoting “people-first” language to reinforce the simple, yet radical, notion that people with disabilities are people first, PWD second. “Diabetics” are people with diabetes; “disabled people” are people with disabilities; “wheelchair bound people” are people who use a wheelchair.
But before activists and advocates could move from this adjective-“people” format to “People with such-and-such-an-attribute”, there was an earlier step. Getting rid of the monolithic mass noun. People with disabilities were typically labelled as a homogenised, Othered mass:
“The Blind”, “The Retarded”, “The Crippled”, “The Wheelchair-Bound”, “The Autistic”, “The Handicapped”.
Please don’t get me wrong, here – even this basic linguistic change is nowhere near ubiquitous. Mass-noun terms for “The Disabled” continue their powerful hold over both everyday speech and formal labelling. And this is not the Oppression Olympics – I’m not comparatively evaluating the oppressions of PWD and fat people. (Coming from the intersection of both, I hope I have a touch of extra cred when I say this.)
But it’s this deliberate language change process that springs to mind, for me, every time I see or hear “The Obese“.
There’s a resonance, here – and it’s with horror-movie terminology. When I read “The Obese”, I think “The Slitheen”. The image of the Absorbaloff forces its way into my mind (why, Rusty, why?!). The Blob. Children of the Carbs. The Doughnutyville Horror, perhaps.
The Obese are constructed as a big ol’ shuffling mob of zombies, out to accelerate global warming and eat babies and spread contagious fat to poor innocent citizens.
“Zombies”, you say. “Isn’t that just a little – hyperbolic, Lauredhel, hon?”
No. The actual term “walking dead” abounds for people of a certain size.
In the book Obesity, By Alexander G. Schauss, Schauss quotes a clinic director evaluating NFL players:
“The players who are at greatest risk for heart disease, diabetes, and stroke are the offensive and defensive linemen – they are the walking dead; they just don’t know it.”
Susan Powter’s “The Politics of Stupid: The Cure for Obesity“, pushing her diet-that-is-not-a-diet cure, talks about
“resurrection from the walking dead millions are “waking up” in daily”.
People advocate calling fat children “the walking dead” to scare them into dieting.
The zombification and dehumanisation is internalised, too; repeated social messages are powerful things. A diet blog is dubbed “Dead Man Walking“. A commenter on fat fu even called hirself “walking dead morbidly obese” – while mentioning that sie has been that way for thirty years.
The usage and context of the term “The Obese” bring home to us the fact that society thinks of fat people as a mob. A sinister, homogenised, shuffling, soulless mob. People who are fat are Othered, defined as something apart from normal. Our fatness is considered our key and defining characteristic; something that sets us apart from “regular people”. Our bodies are foreign, and undesirable, and frightening. This attitude is dehumanising, deindividuating, and what’s more, it gets on my wick.
I hope we as a people can start to take a leaf out of the book of the Texas Council for Developmental Disabilities, when they say:
What Do You Call People with Disabilities? [or fat people, or any other “kind” of people ~Lauredhel]
Men, women, boys, girls, students, mom, Sue’s brother, Mr. Smith, Rosita, a neighbor, employer, coworker, customer, chef, teacher, scientist, athlete, adults, children tourists, retirees, actors, comedians, musicians, blondes, brunettes, SCUBA divers, computer operators, individuals, members, leaders, people, voters, Texans, friends or any other word you would use for a person.
(Cross-posted at Hoyden About Town.)