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Using People-first Language to Avoid Obesity Stigma

We’ve long known that the language used to describe people can strongly impact how they’re viewed and how they view themselves. In social work school, I was taught to describe clients as people “with” or who “have” a condition—people with addictions rather than addicts or people with schizophrenia rather than schizophrenics. This is called people-first language.

The editors of the journal Obesity recently developed a statement about the language to use in describing people who have high weights. Here are some excepts from it: “Describing individuals as obese as opposed to having obesity could have a negative impact on how people view them. People-first language has been widely adopted for most chronic diseases and disabilities, but not obesity.” For example, persons with diabetes, rather than diabetics or persons with disabilities, rather than the disabled.

“Labeling individuals as obese creates negative feelings toward individuals with obesity, perpetuates weight bias, and must be avoided. Health care providers who use respectful communication with their patients, such as people-first language, create positive, productive discussions about weight and health.”

The point is to put the person first and the adjective describing the person second, reinforcing the individual, not his or her condition. When we say that an individual “has” a condition, it implies two things. First, that a person could also not have it; it could come and it could go. And, second, that the condition is not an identity, who the individual is or the entirety of him or her; it is one part, among many, that a person has.

You may be thinking, what’s the big deal. The big deal is that, according to research, we may not realize the effect of how we’re described or describe other people. Negative connotations often sneak in under the radar, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have an impact. Using people-first language takes effort. Whenever possible, I try to state (or restate) a description because it isn’t people-first. I do it because I believe it’s the right thing to do. But, I confess, it’s cumbersome and I don’t always make the effort in writing or in speaking.

For more information, see: Iverson C, Christiansen S, Flanagin A, et al. AMA Manual of Style. 10th ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2007:416‐417 and Feldman D, Gordon PA, and Weber C. “The Effects of People‐First Language and Demographic Variables on Beliefs, Attitudes, and Behavioral Intentions Toward People with Disabilities.” J Appl Rehab Counsel. 2002;33(3):18‐49.