What’s in a Word?

Posted on 09/01/2014


How do you describe someone who doesn’t fit..?

Big? Large? Fat? Obese? Morbidly Obese? Bariatric? Gravitationally challenged?

The question of terminology is an interesting one and it’s something I get asked a lot. The answer though is, as ever, that it depends.

Large seems to me a bit woolly, because it could refer to someone tall rather than someone heavy. Obese seems rather an ugly word and Morbidly Obese is downright offensive. It might have a clinical definition when used in connection with a BMI chart but describing someone as ‘Dead Fat’ is hardly likely to endear you to them. Insulting people isn’t a proven clinical therapy so if you are trying to open up a respectful working dialogue between you and someone you are (presumably) trying to help then I strongly recommend you strike the phrase from your vocabulary.

Which brings us to Bariatric. It can be a useful term but it is a medical one, and I’m happiest seeing it restricted to clinical usage only. As an example, we don’t generally refer to ALL old people as Geriatric but it is sometimes helpful as a kind of shorthand in a clinical setting to explain some of the complexities and challenges associated with their care. I think that Bariatric is fine when used for people are in some way ill or needing care so describing something as a ‘Bariatric hospital bed’ is fine, but ‘Bariatric office chair’ would be inappropriate.

So what does that leave us with? Personally I don’t mind the word fat. It’s short, easy to spell and everyone will know exactly what you mean by it but sadly, lots of people find it offensive. I hope in the future we’ll be able to reclaim the word and remove the element of value judgement that inevitably seems to come along with it so it’s just another adjective but that might be a long battle.

My preference therefore is, Plus Sized. It’s inoffensive as it has a positive connotation, and it’s accurate too. Generally when dealing with bigger, larger, heavier people we are talking about those who in some way exceed the safe working load or comfort levels of our equipment or tools. It’s an inoffensive way of handling the topic without unintentionally offending or unnecessarily medicalising their needs.

The definitive answer however is an easy one. Ask your Client! We might all be heavy but we are still unique individuals, so find the word that makes your Client happiest and you’ll open up an honest and mutually beneficial dialogue.

Do please let me know your thoughts. What works for you, and for your Clients?