Tuesday 3 August 2010

Obesity, where is thy sting?

Much was written last week about Public Health Minister Anne Milton recommending doctors use the word 'fat' instead of 'obese'. Commentators like Richard Littlejohn and Harry Mount thought this was a splendid bit of straight-talking, whereas some doctors thought it could be offensive and insisted that society is to blame (ie. it isn't regulated enough).

Professor Lindsey Davies, president of the UK Faculty of Public Health, which represents public health professionals, warned against using 'fat' when dealing with patients.

"People don't want to be offensive. There is a lot of stigma to being a fat person."

She said health professionals started using the term obesity to encourage patients to think about the condition in a different way.

"Obesity is something that happens to people rather than something they are."

That last line hints at the gulf that exists between the government's focus on personal responsibility and the public health establishment's focus on changing the social environment, but that's an issue for another day.

What I don't buy is the idea that the word obese came into heavy use because it's a more sensitive term. I think I remember correctly when I say that until about five years ago, 'obesity' was not a widely used word in Britain. Like 'binge-drinking', it came into popular usage to make a problem sound worse.

When the diet wars began, being fat was not generally considered to be a terrible thing. Indeed, it had connotations of being jolly, robust and cuddly. By popularising the clinical term obesity—frequently using it to describe people who were merely overweight, and often with the prefix 'morbid'—the panic was ratcheted up. But like all over-used words, it has become familiar and lost its sting. And so we return to 'fat'.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Children's insults, I remember, were both funny and predictable. When will the first "oby" be recorded?