You can run but you can’t hide: fat phobia in the dictionary

As an academic who works on public health ethics, body weight and image and health behaviors, I spend a lot of time thinking and reading and writing about fatness, fat phobia, body image and discrimination.  But sometimes, a girl’s gotta go teach logic.

I teach introduction to logic and critical thinking at my university, and have been doing so for a long long long long long time.  So, in order to try to keep things fresh and at least moderately interesting, I add new modules to my class.

There I was, working on a new module on types of definitions and terms.  There are a ton of them (if you’re interested, we meet Tues/Thurs at 12:30).  But one important contrast I teach the students is between lexical and persuasive definitions. Here’s an example:

  1. democracy: control of a group or organization by the majority of its members
  2. democracy: government by the weak and less-qualified parts of society

The first is a neutral definition (lexical), which I got from a dictionary.  The second is a persuasive definition, designed to make you disapprove of democracy.  It imparts an emotive message in the purported meaning; it’s designed to distort.

In the course of looking for interesting examples for my logic slides, I came across the term “overweight”.  Great, I thought– I can compare lexical and persuasive definitions!

graphic of the words "But Wait!"

Tried though I might to find a neutral, dictionary-type definition of overweight, I kept coming up short.  Here’s an online dictionary definition:

A shot of google's dictionary definition of "overweight" which says "above a weight considered normal or desirable".

A shot of google’s dictionary definition of “overweight” which says “above a weight considered normal or desirable”.

 

So “overweight” means “a weight that’s so high that it’s not normal, not desirable.”  It’s conveying the message that anyone who is overweight weighs too much to be considered normal, and that such a weight is not one that anyone would/should ever want.  Okay– that was conveyed efficiently.  Check.

Well, maybe google is a little fat phobic; I’ll try Wikipedia.  Here’s what I found:

The Wikipedia page for "overweight". It's chock-full of normative words which I discuss below.

The Wikipedia page for “overweight”. It’s chock-full of normative words which I discuss below.

 

Well, it is more thorough– in its fat-shaming through claims about health and body weight.  If you’re overweight, you’re not optimally healthy (sez Wikipedia).  And the healthy body, if it accumulates too much storage fat, becomes impaired with respect to movement and flexibility.  And– the appearance is altered.

I can see that the writer of this page tried a little harder to be neutral, but they failed.  Being overweight is sub-optimal for health, and impairs movement and flexibility.

Apparently this woman didn’t read the Wikipedia page about impaired flexibility.

Jessamyn Stanley, a large-sized brown-skinned yogi, in a triumphant split on a boardwalk.

Jessamyn Stanley, a large-sized brown-skinned yogi, in a triumphant split on a boardwalk.

 

I can’t keep myself from posting another photo of her.

Jessamyn Stanley in a modified triangle pose (maybe), legs apart and straight, torso bent overleft arm over head on calf, left arm holding other thigh.

Jessamyn Stanley in a modified triangle pose (maybe), legs apart and straight, torso bent overleft arm over head on calf, left arm holding other thigh.

 

Okay, I’m done now with the pictures.  But you can check out more Instagram images of her here.

I looked at a bunch of different dictionaries.  Here’s Merriam Webster– a standard one.

Merriam Webster's definition of "overweight"-- weight over and above what is required or allowed, and excessive or burdensome weight.

Merriam Webster’s definition of “overweight”– weight over and above what is required or allowed, and excessive or burdensome weight.

 

Wow- it just keeps getting worse.  Now I hear that I’m required not to have a weight above some standard, so I’m not even allowed to be overweight.  And furthermore this amount of weight that I have is burdensome.  Good lord.

Is it any wonder that fat phobia is so pervasive?  It’s even in all the dictionaries.

I do have a proposal for dealing with the term “overweight”, and it comes from my intro logic class.  There’s something called a “precising” definition, which is a definition you use when you need a very precise term for some context.  So for instance, to define “adult” for purposes of registering to vote, regions have specific guidelines and requirements for when the person has to be at least 18 years old.  We use precising definitions in law, medicine, and other fields where we need unambiguous terms.

So how about this?  “Overweight” means “has a score of 25 or greater on the BMI scale”.  We still need to futz with this to make it perfectly precise (there are different BMI scales for different demographic groups and age groups, etc.), but this is a neutral way to deal with it.

Please know– I’m not endorsing the BMI scale as meaning anything particular about us, our sizes, our health, our attractiveness or anything.  But it’s a way to bury the term “overweight” in a pile of technical medical terms, where it belongs (if it indeed belongs anywhere).

The cool thing about language is that it turns on a dime.  We can change it by changing our usage.  The dictionaries work for US– they pick up on that usage and change their entries accordingly.

So do you use the term “overweight”?  What does it mean for you?  What descriptive language do you use about bodies?  Or do you not tend to use it at all?  I’m interested in your usage and your thoughts.

 

 

 

 

About catherine w

I'm an analytic philosopher, retooled as a public health ethicist. I'm interested in heath behavior change, particularly around eating and activity, and how things other than knowledge affect our health decisions.I'm also a cyclist (road, off-road, commuter), squash player, x skier, occasional yoga-doer, hiker, swimmer and leisurely walker.

2 thoughts on “You can run but you can’t hide: fat phobia in the dictionary

  1. I’d rather use body fat percentage than BMI, though neither are easy to calculate accurately using broadly available tools.

    Like

  2. Sheryl says:

    Well, overweight also applies to trucks and airplanes.

    Like

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s