Body Talk: Words matter, stop saying “overweight”

Throughout my long and fruitful life, I have heard, read and participated in many discussions involving body size. Some people have the worst intentions and may be broken beyond repair—like the person who told me, scathingly, that I look like the lovechild of Jerry Seinfeld and the Pillsbury Doughboy. This article is not meant for them, as I imagine it would be difficult to read in the total darkness of their Troll Cave. Yet, others have all the good intentions in the world and still manage to churn out horrifically offensive and dehumanizing remarks regarding body size. 

I’ve always had a bone to pick with “normal.” There is no “normal” when it comes to body size; one look at the infinite diversity of human bodies will tell you as much. If you have a body, it is normal sized. “Normal” simply refers to a distribution, with your body falling somewhere along a curve. It also implies the presence of an “abnormal,” which can be used to pathologize body size, grouping us into “diseased” and “non-diseased” based on nothing but a number. If what you mean to say is “healthy,” then that term can encompass a vast array of body sizes, not just the ones you find aesthetically appealing. If you mean “average,” well, I’ve got some news for you: the average is closer to a size 16 than a six. Let’s leave the statistics out of our discussion of bodies.

Worse yet are the dreaded O-words. Talk about pathologizing body size! Over what weight, exactly? The O-words may have had their place in the dusty scientific texts of the past, but nowadays, they are used to further weight stigma and contribute to the marginalization of larger people in our society. The Body Mass Index (BMI) is history and so are these outdated terms for our bodies. These need to be phased out of our lexicon ASAP. 

People sometimes use words like “overweight” out of ignorance, but also to send a message: “You are different and it makes me uncomfortable.” They think that by pointing out someone’s body size, they might incite them to change their ways and become less uncomfortable to behold. Well, I have some news for you, buddy: we know. We know what our bodies look like. And we do not need your assessment of it, ever, for any reason. Instead of pointing out those differences, sit with your discomfort until you realize that it reflects more on you and your biases than anyone else. 

Part of my work in dismantling internalized fatphobia has been to stop relying on comfortable terms when what I mean to say is uncomfortable for some people. For example, I exchange “chubby,” an infantilizing word I associate with puppies and toddlers, for “fat” or “larger-bodied.” I refer to smaller people as “straight-sized,” which implies clothing sizes smaller than XL, or “thin spectrum,” which acknowledges that the definition of thin involves a range of bodies. Many people reap the benefits of thin privilege, even when they are not considered thin by everyone they encounter. 

These terms do not attempt to disguise the readily apparent fact that bodies come in different sizes. We should be able to name those differences without tiptoeing around discomfort and sugar-coating our terminology. Changing the way we talk about bodies is not about being politically correct or some notion of unnecessary politeness; rather, it is about recognizing that some things we do hurt people, even if we don’t perceive them as hurtful ourselves. 

Much like gender pronouns, it is up to the individual to decide the terms with which they are comfortable. Some people prefer to describe their bodies as “chubby” and loathe the word “fat.” For some, certain words can trigger memories of trauma. Therefore, it is best to ask whether people are okay with a certain term before using it. I believe in reclaiming the words that have been used to hurt us, thus making it more difficult to be hurt by them in the future. They comment, “You’re fat!” We respond, “Tell me something I don’t know!”

In a perfect world, we could describe our bodies with all the neutrality of our shoe size or glasses prescription. By taking steps toward that goal, we may one day rid ourselves of the power these small words hold over us.