fat / plus-sizeLast updated
“Fat” and “plus-size” are terms often used to refer to people who live and occupy space in a larger body. “Plus size” is a term often used in the fashion industry, typically with clothing marketed primarily to women.
These are subjective and generally emotionally fraught terms, and following the person’s self-identifying term can simplify the decision whether to use them. People may self-identify with terms like “fat,” and “plus-size,” “thick,” “curvy,” “big,” in non-pejorative ways, and there have been movements to reclaim them.
“Plus-size” is more of a marketing term than a description of physical appearance, as it typically describes women who are larger than a size 12 in clothing (e.g., plus-size model), though a 2016 study found the average American woman wore a size 16-18. The term may also be applicable when relevant and necessary in the context of trans and nonbinary people. Being perceived as overweight has adverse consequences for economic equality, health care, media coverage, style offerings, job security, wellness, and the courtroom.
Terms like “overweight” and “underweight” are common in health and medicine. They have specific clinical meanings, and when experts describing them are usually using those, as opposed to conventional standards of attractiveness. Consider more descriptive context like describing the person’s blood pressure, for example.
Even when quoting experts, it’s helpful to note that medical communities have been found to have biases around fat bodies: Doctors have been shown to have shorter appointments with fat patients and show less emotional rapport in the minutes they do have. And because many doctors don’t see past the person’s body while providing a diagnosis, it may compound other health issues. Studies have also found patients are less likely to trust physicians perceived as overweight or obese.
If obesity or morbid obesity is mentioned, it’s helpful to include how it’s defined and the historical context and limitations and biases of the terms:
- Per the American Obesity Treatment Association, the expression “morbid obesity” was coined in 1963 “in order to persuade health insurance administrators that reimbursement for the cost of intestinal bypass surgery in grossly obese patients could be justified on health grounds.”
- The BMI was created in the 19th century during the era of social Darwinism by an academic who tried to determine the “ideal” height-weight ratio and who based all his measurements on white, European men. Because of this, the measure is increasingly being criticized as racist and sexist.
body positivity/body neutrality
Body positivity is a movement dedicated to empowering plus-size people and amplifying their experiences in a fatphobic society. Body neutrality is the idea that a person should focus on what their body can do rather than what it looks like.
- Fat Is Not a Bad Word (Teen Vogue)
- 15 plus-size people tell us how they really feel about the word ‘fat’ (CafeMom)
- Everything You Know About Obesity Is Wrong (HuffPost)
- We’re barely using the best tool we have to fight obesity (Vox)
- Hold the soda, hold the fat shaming (Harvard)
“Fat” and “plus-size” are terms often used to refer to people who live and occupy space in a larger body. “Plus size” is a term often used in the fashion industry, typically to refer to clothing marketed primarily to women. In general, body descriptors should only be included when necessary and relevant. Even in these cases, such descriptors are subjective and generally emotionally fraught terms, and following the person’s self-identifying term can simplify the decision whether to use them.