People-First Language

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I’m currently in the second week of an online course addressing Weight Bias and Stigma.  Weight bias is a topic that’s I’ve been passionate about since first hearing about the concept in a lecture a few years ago by Dr. Arya Sharma, University of Alberta professor and Director of the Canadian Obesity Network.  I’ve blogged about it previously here and here.

A topic that came up this week in the course was the idea of using “People-First Language” when discussing obesity.  Using people-first language has been an important part of reducing stigma for those with disabilities – in fact in some countries obesity is considered a disability.  According to the advocacy website Disability is Natural:

“Using People First Language—putting the person before the disability—and eliminating old, prejudicial, and hurtful descriptors, can move us in a new direction. People First Language is not political correctness; instead, it demonstrates good manners, respect, the Golden Rule, and more—it can change the way we see a person, and it can change the way a person sees herself!”

So what exactly does using people-first language when discussing obesity look like?

Instead of using terms like “the obese”, “obese person” or “obese Canadians”, use “people with obesity”, “person with obesity”, or “Canadians with obesity”.  These may seem like subtle distinctions, but doing so is incredibly important in helping to define obesity as a characteristic of a person, rather than who (or what) that person is, with all the negative connotations associated with it.  When people-first language is not used, it creates a situation where people can be devalued, marginalized and discriminated against.

There was a great quote said by my course instructor, Dr. Sara Kirk, in her most recent online presentation.  I’ll paraphrase it here.

“We all live in this environment that promotes obesity.  Some people succumb to it.  But just because you haven’t, doesn’t mean you’re healthy.  And just because you have, doesn’t mean you aren’t”.

I think by taking a more people-centric approach to discussing obesity it helps to acknowledge this fact.  Doing so can reduce the stigma, blame and shame felt by so many people dealing with obesity.  I suppose it boils down to being sensitive and having empathy for others.

The bottom line is that obesity is a complex disease.  The stereotype of the “fat, lazy coach potato eating too much fast food” is just that – a stereotype.  Using people-first language helps us to move past these biases and begin to address the root causes of obesity, which can only be a good thing.

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