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"Can I say fat?" A discussion on respectful ways to describe body size.

Updated: Oct 30, 2020

plus size, larger bodies, intuitive eating, body positive, body neutral, body image, intuitive eating coach, body image coach, fat activist, fat positive, mental health, health and wellness

There are a number of different phrases or words we can use to talk about people in larger bodies and some are a lot more respectful than others.

I'm writing this as a person with white and thin privilege. I'm sharing information with you that I've learned from working at multiple eating disorder therapy centers, from working with clients in a variety of body types, and from listening to and learning from fat activists. I am speaking on behalf of what I've learned from others and not from lived experience.

👉I highly encourage you to listen to people who have the lived experience of living in a larger body and honor their opinions and requests above what I share below.


Want to feel more confident in responding to people when they comment on your body or food?

Download this guide full of scripts and examples so you never wonder what to say again!


Why do I even need to talk about someone's size?

You might not need to. Chances are you can live a large percentage of your life without needing to name or draw attention to someone's size or weight.

But sometimes it is necessary to differentiate between people living in smaller bodies and people living in larger bodies. Especially in the field that I'm in when working to help people heal their relationships with food.

Many of my clients will come to me with thoughts, fears, and biases about certain body types and we need to be able to name them as such. In these instances, it's important that we're talking about people respectfully and not using harmful terminology.

Outside of counseling or therapy, there might be times in which you're wanting to advocate for size inclusivity or you have a conversation with your partner about size discrimination or a debate with your healthcare provider about weight bias. These are instances in which it will be necessary to differentiate between a person in a smaller body or a person in a larger or plus-sized body.

These are just a few examples of times you may need to discuss body size.

I'm not advocating for you to go around using "larger-bodied" as a primary description to describe your friend and I'm not encouraging you to place unnecessary attention on a person's appearance.

>>If you want to read about when it's appropriate (or not) to comment on a person's weight or food choices, read this post.<<

That being said, let's dive into respectful ways we can discuss body size and what words need to be eliminated from your vocabulary.

“People in larger bodies.”

This is the wording I have been taught to use from day one. In my work with people with eating disorders and working with people in a variety of body sizes, I have always used the phrase "people in larger bodies."

As far as I know, this is a respectful and well-received phrase to differentiate between someone living in a smaller body versus someone living in a larger body.

Because we live in a fat phobic society that is loaded with weight stigma, even this phrase may still hold negative connotations. But "larger body" is as neutral a description as we can get. This phrase doesn't have any inherent value or meaning attached to it.

If you want to be more mindful of your words and use more neutral descriptors to describe appearance, saying "people in larger bodies" is a great place to start.


Using fat as an insult or a derogatory phrase is unacceptable. I'll elaborate on that in a minute. But what about using "fat" in a neutral or positive way?

Previously, what I've known and heard is that the only people who should be using the word "fat" are people who self-identify as fat.

Once someone calls themselves fat and self identifies with that phrase and that term, then we, the general public, and people with thin privilege can then also describe them as fat.

Many people who identify as fat are reclaiming that word. It's part of the fat acceptance movement.

Recently, I've heard some fat activists, people who are living in larger bodies, say that they wish people in smaller bodies were also using the word "fat."

These activists have shared that they want people in smaller bodies to start using the word fat as an example of how "fat" isn't a bad thing. How it's just an adjective like any other.

Currently, “fat” has so much stigma and pain associated with it. There's a lot of undoing and un-learning that needs to be done with this word; there are a lot of biases that we attach to the word “fat.’

So...should a smaller person or someone with thin privilege describe someone as fat?

👉As far as I know, this is still up for discussion.

I recently used "fat" in an Instagram post. It was the first time I tried it out because I was hearing from fat activists that they wanted people of all sizes to reclaim this word.

But someone sent me a message in response to my post saying that I shouldn't be saying "fat" and that it was triggering for her. This person said that people in smaller bodies need to be saying “people in larger bodies” and that only people who self-identify as fat should be using that term.

👉My invitation to you: If you are in a larger body and you would like to contribute to this conversation about whether a person with thin privilege can use the word fat, please send me an email!

If you are not in a larger body, I would love if you can direct me to a blog post of someone who's in a larger body sharing their preferences and their thoughts on the matter. Send me all the resources!!

To recap:

When someone self-identifies as fat from a place of empowerment, as far as I know, that is a green light for you to also describe them as fat.

I've also heard fat activists saying they want people with thin privilege reclaiming the word fat and showing the world that fat isn't bad.


Okay, now lets talk about using "fat" in a negative way:

❌❌DON’T DO IT.❌❌

We must stop perpetuating the negative stereotypes associated with "fat."

👉Do not use the word fat in any sort of a degrading belittling, or negative way. This is something that all of us can be more mindful of.

We live in a society that talks about fat as if it’s bad, undesirable, gross, and treats a "fat person" as if they are not worthy of the same treatment as people in smaller bodies.

THIS MUST STOP. Although biases and weight stigma run deep, one of the biggest shifts you can make today is to stop talking about "fat people" while simultaneously making a negative face, insinuating they aren't healthy, or attaching any sort of negative connotation to the word.


Want to feel more confident in responding to people when they comment on your body or food?

Download this guide full of scripts and examples so you never wonder what to say again!


"Overweight or obese."

I saved the most important for last.

"Overweight" and "obese" are two words that you SHOULD NOT be using to describe people in larger bodies.

👉Listen. The only reason the words "overweight" and "obese" exist are because of the BMI.

Unfamiliar with the BMI? The BMI uses the ratio of your height and your weight to put you in a "health" category. It's a graph that determines whether you're "underweight, normal weight, overweight, or obese."

>>If you want to learn more of my opinion on using BMI as a health tool and why it's outdated and inaccurate, read this post.<<

The categories "overweight and obese" were developed solely to pathologize a person's weight.

By definition, "overweight and obese" make someone's weight (and health) a problem.

They aren't descriptions of size like "larger body" or "fat." "Overweight" and "obese" are words with moral value and health implications. These words say that someone's health (which in our society also means their worth and value) is bad, wrong, or broken.

I asked a client once how she knew her dad was "overweight" (her words). She said, "because the doctor said so." Yupp. Exactly. That's how it goes.

The doctor looks at the BMI, receives info from a chart that a person of this height and weight is "over" some created standard (a standard not grounded in health science), and then they are pathologized and labeled for the rest of time until they figure out a way to get their body into a different category.

We have to look at the root of these words. "Overweight" and "obese" are directly connected to the BMI. They are directly connected to labeling someone's weight as a problem, which then translates into a number of actually harmful results (like inadequate healthcare, the stress of weight stigma, a predisposition to disordered eating, and much more).

When using these words, you are labeling some people as having a "health problem" who have no health problems.

People can be in a larger body AND be in good health.

But by definition, when saying someone is "overweight" or "obese," you're implying that the person is less healthy than someone in the "normal weight" category.

Which is often inaccurate and most certainly perpetuates weight bias.

To sum it up:

👉Start using the phrase, "people in larger bodies."

👉Steer far away from "overweight and obese."

👉Keep your eyes and ears open for people teaching us how to properly use the word "fat." I am learning about this right alongside you.


Want to feel more confident in responding to people when they comment on your body or food?

Download this guide full of scripts and examples so you never wonder what to say again!

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