Should you call people fat?

British health minister Anne Milton caused a stir in the worldwide press saying obese people should be called “fat” by doctors to encourage “personal responsibility”. Good idea, or not? We asked two experts to debate.

For: WH fitness expert, Michelle Bridges

“Obesity is only just starting to take its toll on our country. It’s the lifestyle disease that has replaced smoking as our number-one health issue, but unlike smoking there are three times more people affected, with more than 60 per cent of Australians overweight. The dismal facts are common knowledge.

If you are obese you can look forward to diabetes, hypertension, atherosclerosis, stroke, cancer or even death. More than this, though, is the emotional damage, the unhappiness, the depression and poor self-esteem that comes with carrying too much weight. Are we really supporting obese individuals by tip-toeing around them with sugar-coated semantics? And who can tell them the facts in plain language if their doctor can’t, because at the end of the day, it’s a medical issue.

Would you not rather be told the truth, as hard as it may be to hear, BEFORE you get to that point? To have the choice to do something BEFORE your choice is removed from you? My experience tells me that a straight conversation is often what’s needed in order to get attention.

I believe it’s a duty of care for a doctor to give the facts, hard-hitting ones if they must, as we can no longer shy away from what is killing more and more Australians every day. It’s time to jettison political correctness when it comes to our next national life-shortening epidemic – being fat.”

Against: Associate Professor John Dixon, Centre for Obesity Research and Education at Monash University, Victoria

“There is nothing more obvious to a fat person than their fatness. They get the message loud and clear with stigmatisation and discrimination systemic throughout society. Even very young children describe obese children as “dirty”, “lazy” and “stupid”. The inference is that if you call an obese person “obese” they will not understand they’re fat. They are not less intelligent than a normal weight person.

Being fat is not simply a lifestyle choice. We are learning that the determinants of someone developing obesity start very early. It’s in the genes – but it’s also in key gene-environment interactions, like nourishment in the womb, early childhood feeding, the pattern of activity and nutrition at school. The more the researchers look, the more it becomes clear that charging the individual with sole responsibility to shape up is unfair. It’s a critical societal issue that needs to be tackled at many levels from top government policy down.

Yes, assistance is needed to help those battling a weight problem to make healthy choices but to encourage professionals or others to provocatively use the term “fat” just encourages further prejudice and is, quite frankly, unhelpful. Tough love? Not from my experience – it’s just another manifestation of bias against a marginalised group in society, even if it is well meaning.”

Have your say? Will calling obese people ‘fat’ help them lose weight?