Language and Obesity: Putting the Person Before the Disease

Rebecca M. Puhl, PhD


July 24, 2014

Weight Bias in Healthcare

Obesity remains a pressing health issue and a frequent topic of national discourse in the news media; government public health initiatives; and, of course, the medical field. In addition to the many health-related issues that frequently dominate discussions about obesity, there are also considerable social consequences associated with obesity, fueled by widespread negative stereotypes and biases toward individuals with obesity. This bias, known as "weight bias," creates negative health outcomes and inequalities for both children and adults, and reduces their quality of life in multiple domains of living. Of the many settings in which weight bias occurs, consistent evidence has demonstrated the healthcare environment to be a setting where weight bias is frequently expressed by healthcare providers.[1,2]

The language that is used to discuss obesity can either promote or reduce weight bias and stigmatization. Well-meaning healthcare providers can unintentionally stigmatize their patients with the language that they use to talk about obesity and to patients with this disease. Thus, as health professionals, we can (and should) take measures to avoid language that contributes to the already well-established weight bias in healthcare settings.

One tangible strategy is to use people-first language in the context of obesity. People-first language is the philosophy of putting individuals before their disability or disease, and describing what a person has rather than what a person is. The guiding principle is that people are not defined by their diagnosis, and using people-first language offers individuals more dignity and respect as they face both societal and medical challenges related to their health.


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