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The word “obese” carries weight – both literally and metaphorically – in discussions surrounding body size and health. But what is the history of this term, and how has its meaning evolved over time?

From its ancient origins to modern perceptions, the journey of “obese” reflects broader societal attitudes towards weight and body image.

Origins and Etymology

The word “obese” finds its roots in Latin, deriving from the word “obesus,” which means “having eaten until fat” or “corpulent.”

In ancient Rome, obesity was often associated with wealth and prosperity, as it signified an individual’s ability to afford abundant food.

Throughout history, political, social, and legal events have influenced perceptions of obesity and shaped policies and attitudes towards body size:

An historic Timeline of Changing Perceptions and Definitions of the therm Obese

Political, Social and Legal Events Around The Word Obese

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Public Health Campaigns:

  • Governments and health organizations have launched public health crusades to raise awareness about obesity and promote weight loss.
  • These campaigns often overemphasize the importance of diet and exercise in maintaining a “healthy”weight and demonize being fat. They don’t usually promote a weight inclusive or HAES®.

Legislation and Regulation:

  • Some jurisdictions have implemented laws and regulations aimed at combating obesity, such as restrictions on the marketing of “unhealthy” foods to children or taxes on sugary beverages.
  • This doesn’t take into consideration food access, food deserts, or the policies and systemic racism that lead to these limited access, time poverty, and more.

Stigmatization and Discrimination:

  • Efforts to address obesity as a public health issue have not worked, and individuals living in larger bodies continue to face stigma and discrimination in various areas of life, including employment, healthcare, and social interactions.

It’s essential to recognize the impact of language on perceptions and attitudes

Critique of the Term “Obese”

While “obese” is commonly used in medical and scientific contexts to describe individuals with excess body fat, critics argue that the term pathologized fatness and reinforces negative stereotypes about weight and health.

The focus on obesity as a medical condition can overlook the complex factors that contribute to body size, including genetics, environment, and socioeconomic status.

It also places what one weighs in the ground of being moralized, aka, “fat is bad, thin is good”. 

Preferred Alternate Terms

In recent years, there has been a growing movement towards using more neutral and affirming language to describe body size.

Terms like “fat” or “larger-bodied” are preferred by some individuals and activists, as they aim to destigmatize fatness and promote body positivity and acceptance.

The term “fat” is increasingly reclaimed by fat-positive activists as a neutral descriptor, devoid of the negative connotations associated with terms like “obese” or “overweight.”

By embracing the term “fat,” individuals seek to challenge societal norms and promote acceptance of diverse body sizes.

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The history of the word “obese” reflects broader societal attitudes towards weight and body image, from ancient notions of wealth and abundance to modern medicalized perspectives.

As we continue to navigate discussions surrounding body size, it is essential to recognize the impact of language on perceptions and attitudes.

By embracing more neutral and affirming language and understanding the complexities of body size and health, we can work towards a more inclusive and compassionate society for people of all sizes.

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