There is so much coded language around this obesity question, around having fat, around what it is to walk about in this life with extra weight on your bones. We are either overly gingerly about the words and expressions we use, or we’re mind-bogglingly insensitive. Because I trade in words, it’s fair to assume I’m a little sensitive myself. But I can’t help noticing things, now can I?
For instance, I’d like to get through a day without reading some fresh-from-J-school writer insert his distinctive voice and personality in the form of fat-quips, fat puns, fat innuendoes laced throughout any article, no matter how serious the topic, that touches on or skirts about the causes, cures, or experience of obesity, dieting, or weight loss. The fat jokes do not inform. They do not help engage audiences. They do little more than crank off the majority of readers.
Before you accuse me of losing my sense of humor along with my weight, keep in mind I used a lot of those fat jokes myself and used them in my defense when I was heavy. I used them every time I had to eat with strangers, every time I took up more than my share of a back seat, every time I overlapped a seatmate on a plane trip. It’s a favorite technique among fat folks and kids to diffuse the potential for criticism or comment by getting to the punchline first. That’s how fat people become so darned funny. Timing. It’s a sad sort of defense mechanism, but it’s so common that trust, us, we’ve all heard all of the jokes. Many, many times.
And that’s just it. These jokes are used up, tired, dull, stupid. And only the laziest writer will still use them. Only the most inexperienced writer will still find them fresh. Editors who let them pass have no excuses left.
Let me suggest that overweight people be called “overweight” people. We’re not “hefty,” “plump” or “portly.” You can talk about our “avoirdupois,” but no one but your French speaking readership will know what you mean. Try for accuracy, and your meaning will be conveyed. “Heavy” isn’t bad. But body builders are heavy. Is that really what you mean? It is never necessary to succumb to “chubby,” “flabby,” “super-sized,” “double-wide,” or “gargantuan” to describe either us or the epidemic.
People with a BMI higher than 30 are clinically “obese.” It is not an ugly word, but an accurate one. Or it should be that. If we use it with dignity, it could be that. People under that number are overweight. The overweight and obese together make up 60 percent of your readership. Why alienate them?
Just be accurate folks. That’s all I’m asking. Get under the coded jargon and let actual meaning guide you. And be sure the phrases you use are meaningful. Take, for instance, that now-old-horse of a term, “personal responsibility.” It means different things in different contexts.
When a politician talks of “personal responsibility” within the context of the obesity debate, or any other debate, she’s calling for citizens to dig in and solve the problems themselves. She’s saying her hands are tied by subsidies and lobbyists and trade agreements and economies and special interest groups, and if anything’s going to happen, it will have to be invented and driven and paid for by individuals who are suffering, and people and groups who care enough to care for them.
When a skinny person talks about “personal responsibility,” she’s generally saying she doesn’t’ want to pay the healthcare costs of the person who is overweight. She’s mad because she thinks overweight is likely the result of some a personal failure or choice.
When a food manufacturer talks about “personal responsibility,” she’s saying she’s going to go where the market goes, and if people are going to buy their low-nutrition, inexpensive snacks, then she’s going to keep making them. She’s in the business to make money.
When a public health nutritionist talks about “personal responsibility,” she’s saying people need to get a great deal of education about foods so they are armed to make good choices. And she has no idea how that’s going to happen consistently and clearly for every man, woman, and child.
When our journalist tosses the expression around, he’s not being careful enough. He needs to decode it so that readers can really understand and make sense of the message. I recommend that when journalists hear a source use the term, they immediately ask for clarification and examples of what the source means, exactly. That’s always an interesting line of questioning. It always gets to the real story. And isn’t that the job, after all?