Today’s post comes from Amanda Raffoul. Amanda is a PhD Student in the School of Public Health and Health Systems, University of Waterloo and the Chapter Representative for the CON SNP Executive. You can find out more about her here.
Our words and their meanings matter – although most of us recognize “bad words” in the English language (I’ll give you a hint, many of them are four-letters long), we’re not always so great at knowing when our language is stigmatizing or mis-labeling a group of people. Usually we don’t mean to be hurtful, it’s just sometimes the language has become so common that we’ve never stopped to think what it actually means.
In recent years, CON has advocated for the use of people-first language. People-first language is not a new concept, and is not unique to the area of obesity-related work. It has been used in research and practice when describing individuals with autism, diabetes, and schizophrenia, and has strong roots in disability studies.
People-first language involves putting the person before the condition. The Obesity Action Coalition provides a couple of examples:
“The woman was affected by obesity.” instead of “The woman was obese.”
“The man with obesity was on the bus.” instead of “The man on the bus was very obese.”
By re-framing how we describe people with obesity, we are not labelling individuals by their condition. Obesity is surely a component of an individual’s life, but not the only part of their identity. This is important in our current weight-centric culture, where individuals with obesity face bias and discrimination because of their weight. Language is a powerful tool when we are writing papers or conversing in clinical practice. Instead of adding to weight-based bias and discrimination, we can use our words to change attitudes about obesity.
People-first language in the area of obesity is fairly recent, but now encouraged by several organizations (including CON!). Here are some tips on how to use people-first language:
- Incorporate it into your writing. The first few times you type out, or say the phrase “people with obesity” instead of “obese people”, you might feel a bit strange. We have been taught to refer to obesity as a descriptor, rather than a condition, but be sure to consider the impact of your words.
- Supplement your words with non-stigmatizing images and messaging. Be consistent! When writing about obesity, use images that are non-stigmatizing and consistent with your topic and language (like those in the CON Image Bank… hint hint).
- When you are unsure, just ask. Different people have different views on the use of people-first language – and that’s okay. When having direct conversations with individuals, use language that they identify with and give you permission to use.
Kyle TK, Puhl RM. Putting people first in obesity. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2014; 22(5).
Obesity Action Coalition. “People-First Language for Obesity“.