Today in dehumanizing fat people

Check out this glorious first sentence in an article about a health policy announcement:

The Government is preparing to make a major announcement in the fight against obesity, as it looks to reverse a trend of expanding waistlines and the burden of disease that goes with it.

Notice what’s missing?

People.

“Expanding waistlines!” it cries. “The burden of disease!” it shrieks. We’re “in a fight against obesity!” it declares. Fatness isn’t a simple physical descriptor in our society: it’s a monster, an autonomous phenomenon which will destroy us all as soon as it can get off the couch.

Whatever the Government’s announcement is, I’d like you to bear in mind a few simple facts:

  • Fat people are people
  • The fact some diseases are statistically linked to being fat does not mean that being fat causes disease
  • Being fat isn’t a disease either
  • Being thin isn’t proof of health
  • You can’t diagnose medical conditions just by looking at someone’s weight
  • There are plenty of diseases and conditions associated with height but no one declares a war on tallness
  • When you live in a society which treats your very bodily existence as proof of your immorality, stupidity and sickness, it’s not exactly a surprise you might get ill.

And if the Government’s announcement is any one of the usual grab-bag of food/exercise strategies:

  • Having access to a broad range of different foods, affordably and easily, is good no matter what your size is
  • Having opportunities to be physical active in a fun and non-coercive way is good no matter what your size is
  • People of any size may have nutritional needs or physical disabilities which you can’t see.

We’re a beautiful, incredibly diverse species, people. We don’t all fit into one box of dietary needs and physical capabilities.

If the Government is creating genuine opportunities for kids to eat a variety of foods – not a narrowly-defined “healthy diet” – or to get out and play – not conform to narrowly-defined notions of “fitness” – awesome.

If the Government is saying “wouldn’t it be nice if all the fat people went away” … not so much.

Improve your lexicon: -tard

I’m on a never-ending quest to improve my vocabulary – both by expanding it, and by getting rid of some of the more objectionable, oppressive language which we all use without thinking.

But change can be difficult. The best solution I’ve found is to brainstorm alternative words in advance and think good and hard about them. Hence, these weekly posts – as much a tool for me as for anyone else!

I’m not perfect. Sometimes we can easily see why one word is objectionable, but the alternatives which immediately spring to mind may also have bad connotations which we’re not aware of. I may screw up during this process, but I’ll do my best to fix it when I do. All any of us can do is keep trying and keep learning.

This is another one where I cede the floor to FWD/Forward, who looked specifically at the word “retarded” back in 2009:

This medical definition [of “mental retardation] is certainly not what’s intended in contemporary uses of the word. If I say “I saw Zombieland and it was totally retarded,” I am not saying that I think the movie had a low IQ and I observed significant limitations in adaptive functioning. (That doesn’t even make sense.) I am saying that I thought the movie was bad, uninteresting, boring, nonsensical, repetitive, and a waste of my time and money. But for me to mean any of those things by using the word “retarded,” I and the person to whom I’m speaking have to share the assumption that being retarded is bad and that people who have mental retardation are stupid, uninteresting, and a waste of my time.

Note: “mental retardation” was renamed “intellectual disability” in the DSM-5, updated 2013. But that just goes to show that the argument “oh, but words change over time so it doesn’t mean that any more” is often really inaccurate.

In the charming way NZ English has, -tard has become a suffix in its own right. It still means the same thing, and the whole point is to reference the word “retard”, so it’s part and parcel of the same problem. People with intellectual disabilities shouldn’t be used as shorthand for “bad”.

Alternatives to “retard”, “retarded” and all their variations:

adjective: archaic, pointless, awful, illogical

noun: prat, clown, fool, embarrassment

other: eyeroll, headdesk, no shit

Improve your lexicon: lame

I’m on a never-ending quest to improve my vocabulary – both by expanding it, and by getting rid of some of the more objectionable language which we all use without thinking, but which reflects some pretty terrible attitudes and contributes to stigmatizing groups of people who are already treated pretty badly.

And I’ve noticed a few friends recently turning to Twitter and other places to ask for suggestions to replace words they don’t want to use. Clearly it’s a need!

But change can be difficult – you get so used to using particular words that they pop up mid-sentence and you have less than a second to think of an okay synonym before you have to say it – or fumble your words and look silly. The best solution I’ve found is to brainstorm alternative words in advance and think good and hard about them. Hence, these weekly posts – as much a tool for me as for anyone else!

I’m not perfect. Sometimes we can easily see why one word is objectionable, but the alternatives which immediately spring to mind may also have bad connotations which we’re not aware of. I may screw up during this process, but I’ll do my best to fix it when I do. All any of us can do is keep trying and keep learning.

“Lame” is such a wonderful, catch-all word. It’s one of those “cool” words which people in their 30s and up use ironically in order to mimic the tweens and 20-somethings whose culture and memes dominate pop culture.

It’s also terribly ableist. I can’t put it any better than s.e. smith did waaaaaay back in 2009 on a fantastic blog called FWD/Forward (I’ll probably be linking to more of their word profile posts as this project goes on!)

“Lame” is an ableist word. It’s an ableist word because it assumes that having difficulty walking is objectively bad, and that therefore, a word which is used to describe difficulty walking can be safely used as a pejorative to mean “this is bad.” Using “lame” reinforces ableism in our culture by reminding people that disability is bad, and that it’s so bad that it can be used as a shorthand code to talk about bad things in general. Incidentally, the related “lame-brain”? Also ableist. Just so we’re all clear on that.

It may sound nit-picky to you – and we’ve all heard all the arguments about how ~language changes~ and you don’t need to tell someone with an Honours degree in medieval English about that, okay? – but the way we use words does affect other people. They have the potential to hurt other people. And it’s not a huge deal to me, for myself, to try to avoid that by putting in some effort to change my language.

So what are some alternatives to “lame”? s.e. smith mentions some in her article, but I would add:

pointless, trying too hard, overdone, overused, predictable,
stale, eye-roll-worthy, cringe-inducing, desperate, flimsy,
empty, inadequate, unconvincing, superficial, contemptible

If you’ve got any suggestions of words to cover, pop them in a comment or tweet me!