April 2008 -- Whatever you do, don’t get caught uttering this word.
It is the latest addition to a growing list of taboo speech.
If you are heard using this adjective, you just might be accused of engaging in “hate speech.”
In certain places you may even face serious legal penalties.
The prohibited word?
Proponents of “size diversity” have joined the PC campaign to end “offensive language” in public discourse. The word obese, according to these activists, stigmatizes an entire segment of the population. It is a damaging label that has been used by public figures and health-care professionals to arouse prejudice and promote “size discrimination.”
In a recent call to action sponsored by the Weight Realities Division of the Society for Nutrition Education, the adjective was challenged. Leading the attack were two organizations (are you ready?): the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) and the Association for Size Diversity and Health. They asked the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture to reject the recommendation of the Expert Committee on the Assessment, Prevention, and Treatment of Child and Adolescent Overweight and Obesity to classify certain children and adolescents as obese.
“Labeling a person of any age as obese—especially a child or adolescent—is strongly pejorative and counterproductive,” wrote the protesters. “In light of documented pervasive bias and discrimination against larger individuals by people in all segments of society, including many in health care, the terms ‘obese’ and ‘obesity’ should be abandoned and more constructive and less value-laden descriptors developed and adopted.”
So, what is the definition of this villainous word?
According to Johns Hopkins’s online literature, “Obesity is conventionally defined as an excess of stored fat resulting in a body weight that is 20% or greater than what is accepted as ideal for a person’s height and body type. Obesity is formally defined by a Body Mass Index greater than 30; overweight is defined by a BMI between 25 and 30. The BMI is calculated by dividing your weight in pounds by your height in inches squared, and then multiplying by 705.”
Or, in layman’s terms, “Obesity is the excessive accumulation of fat that exceeds the body’s skeletal and physical standards.”
The term obese thus denotes a particular state of the body. It is a word that describes a condition. It does not suggest or imply any information about a person other than the presence of excess fat. Yet proponents of size diversity insist that the word is a stigmatizing label that does real harm. They claim that the term is “value-laden,” promoting an anti-fat agenda. They claim that the health and well-being of large people is presently threatened, not by any medical condition, but by use of the word obese.
Just what is going on here?
Call these folks the Fat Empowerment Chapter of the Multiculturalism Crusade.
You know the pattern: Some word becomes taboo—some word that offends the thin-skinned sensibilities of a self-identified “oppressed” or “marginalized” group. (Remember when “retarded” became the equivalent of a four-letter word?) Advocates for the “victim” group deny the existence of the condition or problem signified by the taboo word, insisting that use of the divisive label is the only real problem. The malady is simply intolerance and minority oppression; the antidote is increased acceptance and respect for “diversity.”
Government is then called upon to assist the oppressed group in its quest for cultural “inclusion”; that is, lobbyists push for coerced forms of acceptance: anti-discrimination laws, taxpayer-funded minority housing and employment options, mandatory diversity training in workplaces and schools. “Inclusive” language is adopted in public discourse and use of the taboo word is shunned—perhaps even banned or outlawed. A glossy PC veneer is smeared over discussion of the cultural/political issue, rendering it useless.
But all this is okay, you see, because the precarious self-esteem of the victimized and stigmatized minority-group members has been saved.
Or has it?
It’s kind of hard to achieve self-esteem when you’re dead. Or when your quality of life is so depleted because of chronic health concerns that you have little time to think of anything else. Consider the 900-pound Manhattan man who was rescued by firefighters after complaining of shortness of breath on a hot day in June 2004. He was lifted out of his bed via cargo netting, then eased out of his fifth-floor apartment and down the stairs in an effort that took more than two hours. This man was in dire need of real medical assistance. How would avoiding the word “obese” alter his morbidly obese condition? How does avoiding a word—any word—alter the reality to which that word refers?
The Fat Empowerment movement, as a branch of the multicultural political agenda, rests on postmodern premises, namely, words have no referents in reality, and language is a completely arbitrary construct informed by subjective values. The ever-present struggle for power is played out with language. Language is a tool by which the powerful (i.e., rich white men) exert authority over minorities. Hence the term obese is a weapon that the medical/scientific establishment has created to instill a sense of inferiority in large people. The goal of weight loss, prescribed to “obese” people by leaders of the medical establishment, is just a code word for pharmaceutical profits, a corporate gimmick to get people to buy drugs.
This line of thinking is actually advanced by members of the academy who offer postmodern critiques of the health-care industry. In 2006, Smith College hosted a “Fat Studies” seminar, “Fat and the Academy.” Presentations included Stephanie Snider’s “Fat Girls and Size Queens: Visual Productions of the Fat and Queer Self in Contemporary American Culture” and Marilyn Wann’s “Fat Liberation 101—Life’s Too Short for Self-Hatred and Celery Sticks.”
Professor Margaret C. Duncan of the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee offers a course entitled “The Social Construction of Obesity” in which “the underlying assumption is that obesity, fat, and overweight are socially constructed, just as gender, race, ethnicity, ability/disability, sexuality, age, and other social factors are.” Topics for discussion include “Representations of obesity in the media,” “Commodification of obesity,” and “Commercialization of obesity.”
Translation: Capitalist profit-mongers fabricated the obesity epidemic to get people to buy stuff.
Of course, taking away a word does not take away the condition denoted by the word. Obesity is not a desirable state, for reasons related to objective facts. As 97 million Americans, more than one third of the U.S. population, are currently considered overweight or obese, attention to objective facts regarding weight is critical.
Just for the sake of argument, however, let’s grant the size-diversity claim. Let’s grant that the term obesity is stigmatizing and should be replaced with a less value-laden descriptor.
Suppose we call morbidly obese people “bountiful-bodied.” The new adjective does not alter the increased risk of Type 2 diabetes and sleep disorders associated with the condition. Suppose we create safe havens of acceptance (government-funded, of course) where “expansive” people may stretch and grow, literally and figuratively. Are these safe havens going to shield the “expansive” individuals from increased risk of asthma and other respiratory problems, stroke, coronary heart disease, and osteoarthritis associated with excess body fat? No. Suppose we send employers and employees through mandatory size-diversity training. Is that going to decrease the likelihood of liver disease, gallbladder disease, and certain forms of cancer (including breast and colon) that threaten the lives of “plentiful persons?”
No, it’s not.
Objective reality is operating on our bodies at all times. Euphemistic word games do not erase the fact that nature doesn’t care whether obesity is called “obesity” or “blimptosis.” Nature doesn’t care what word is chosen to refer to what condition: It is what it is. At all times, in all things, nature takes its course. The goal of medicine is to look at facts about the human body, discover correlations between bodily conditions and disease, and discourage those conditions that are shown to lead to disease.
In that sense, medicine is inherently discriminatory. Medicine necessarily “privileges” health over disease. Size-discrimination activists deserve a big round of “No kidding!” Of course health-care professionals “discriminate” against excess body fat; of course they operate under an “anti-fat bias.”
Cardiologists fight heart disease and stroke. As there is a correlation between heart disease and obesity, sound cardiology necessarily discriminates against—that is, discourages— the accumulation of excess fat. According to the American Heart Association, hypertension is about six times more prevalent in obese people than in lean men and women. A 40-year-old, non-smoking woman stands to lose 3.3 years of life expectancy for being overweight, and 7.1 years due to obesity. A nonsmoking man of the same age loses 3.1 years of life expectancy for being overweight and 5.8 for obesity. In the Framingham Heart Study, the annual sudden-cardiac mortality rate in obese men and women was estimated to be about 40 times higher than the rate of unexplained cardiac arrest in a matched non-obese population. And here’s the most frightening statistic of all: For adults with a BMI above 45, life expectancy decreases by up to 20 years.
Given this, an “anti-fat bias” certainly makes sense. It is a damning indictment of our intellectual culture that matter-of-fact medical advice is taken to be pejorative and counterproductive, rather than helpful and life-saving.
In this light, an important distinction needs to be made between properly using reasoned medical judgment and deliberately inflicting cruelty. It goes without saying that people possess worth and dignity independent of their size or any other physical factor. Basic rules of civility dictate treating people with courtesy and respect, within or without a medical setting. This includes rejecting stereotypes as pernicious and false.
However, promoting a culture of civility is not the goal of Fat Liberation.
In the official documents portion of NAAFA’s website, under the heading “Size-Related Legislation,” NAAFA “demands the inclusion of ‘height and weight’ as a protected category in existing civil rights statutes and the enactment of additional laws as necessary to ensure protection against size discrimination in employment, education, housing, and public accommodations.” It also resolves to “conduct and promote national and regional activism rallies to raise public awareness regarding fat people’s issues.”
A group that resolves to raise awareness of “fat people’s issues” by lobbying government for special privileges is not a group seeking to dissolve stereotypes; it is a group intending to promote stereotypes. The message here is not: Treat each person you encounter with dignity and respect. The message is: Size matters, and we’re going to use the government to force you to accept our fat! In fact, we’re going to stand outside of fitness centers with “discriminatory” hiring practices and gyrate our fat rolls in front of television cameras and photographers until you get the point. We are demonstrating Fat Pride!
It is indicative of the true motives of Fat Activists (their term) that they reject as false and arbitrary the word obese but wear the word fat like a medal of honor. This is because Fat Activism, as a grotesque manifestation of postmodernism, has one real goal: to divert attention from a real public-health issue and morph it into a tribal quest for political power. The word obesity is a medical/scientific term; it is precisely for this reason it has been rejected. The term fat has been adopted because it is decidedly nonscientific, nonmedical, nonmethodological. Fat Activism does not seek to eliminate irrational bigotry; it seeks to institutionalize an anti-scientific ideology. It accomplishes this by corrupting language and squashing the right to discriminate.
Yes, I said right to discriminate.
The real meaning of discrimination is use of judgment, not irrational prejudice. There are times when it is perfectly sound and just to discriminate, even against “persons of size.” No one would challenge the decision of a dentist to refuse employment to a hygienist with a mouthful of black and crooked teeth. No one would challenge the decision of a dermatologist to refuse employment to an acne-riddled receptionist. It would be correct and proper for the dentist to accept applicants with healthy, attractive teeth. Likewise, it would be proper for the dermatologist to seek employees with clear, healthy—preferably beautiful—skin.
Job qualifications are not at issue here. The issue is one of outward appearance and aesthetics. The point is, business owners have every right to discriminate against an applicant’s outward appearance. Whether the applicant can help his appearance, or whether an applicant’s appearance interferes with his ability to perform a job, is irrelevant.
The owner of a delicatessen would do well to hire a worker who is clean, neat, and practices good hygiene. The sloppy, unwashed youth with greasy hair, grimy fingernails, and infected body piercings would probably not make a good choice. Would anyone dare suggest that the deli owner refusing to hire the youth be slapped with a “body art-discrimination” lawsuit? (Well, not yet.)
The owner of a cosmetics business would do well to hire a beautiful, confident woman to work behind a sales counter. An ugly, bedraggled woman with poor posture would not be the proper choice. Do we need “anti-ugly discrimination legislation” to protect the interests of the ugly?
It makes sense that the owner of a fitness center would hire employees who are fit and lean. A five-hundred-pound, five-foot-tall man would probably not make the best fitness coach. Yet, as I write, size discrimination activists in Santa Cruz, California, and Washington, D.C., (cities currently prohibiting discrimination based on personal appearance) are running to that man’s aid.
The scenarios I’ve presented involve common-sense choices and are inherently value-laden. In a proper society, people would be free to seek values by using their independent judgment to the best of their ability, without being arrested by the “sizism” police.
In the Size Diversity movement, as in so many other artificial, postmodernist crusades, feelings are elevated above facts, Political Correctness is silencing meaningful discussion of important (in this case life-threatening) issues, and language is being hijacked for political ends.
Those sensitive souls who are offended by the word obesity ought to remember the lesson contained in a childhood chant: Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me. The condition of morbid obesity, on the other hand, certainly can.