Peeve Time: “The Obese” as Walking Dead

headlines: war against the obese, flabulances for the obese, children join the ranks of the obese

[cross-posted at Shapely Prose.]

People with disabilities have for quite a while been promoting “people-first” language to reinforce the simple, yet radical, notion that people with disabilities are people first, PWD second. “Diabetics” are people with diabetes; “disabled people” are people with disabilities; “wheelchair bound people” are people who use a wheelchair.

But before activists and advocates could move from this adjective-“people” format to “People with such-and-such-an-attribute”, there was an earlier step. Getting rid of the monolithic mass noun. People with disabilities were typically labelled as a homogenised, Othered mass:

“The Blind”, “The Retarded”, “The Crippled”, “The Wheelchair-Bound”, “The Autistic”, “The Handicapped”.

Please don’t get me wrong, here – even this basic linguistic change is nowhere near ubiquitous. Mass-noun terms for “The Disabled” continue their powerful hold over both everyday speech and formal labelling. And this is not the Oppression Olympics – I’m not comparatively evaluating the oppressions of PWD and fat people. (Coming from the intersection of both, I hope I have a touch of extra cred when I say this.)

But it’s this deliberate language change process that springs to mind, for me, every time I see or hear The Obese.

childrenofthecarbsThere’s a resonance, here – and it’s with horror-movie terminology. When I read “The Obese”, I think “The Slitheen”. The image of the Absorbaloff forces its way into my mind (why, Rusty, why?!). The Blob. Children of the Carbs. The Doughnutyville Horror, perhaps.

The Obese are constructed as a big ol’ shuffling mob of zombies, out to accelerate global warming and eat babies and spread contagious fat to poor innocent citizens.

“Zombies”, you say. “Isn’t that just a little – hyperbolic, Lauredhel, hon?”

No. The actual term “walking dead” abounds for people of a certain size.

In the book Obesity, By Alexander G. Schauss, Schauss quotes a clinic director evaluating NFL players:

“The players who are at greatest risk for heart disease, diabetes, and stroke are the offensive and defensive linemen – they are the walking dead; they just don’t know it.”

Susan Powter’s “The Politics of Stupid: The Cure for Obesity“, pushing her diet-that-is-not-a-diet cure, talks about

“resurrection from the walking dead millions are “waking up” in daily”.

People advocate calling fat children “the walking dead” to scare them into dieting.

The zombification and dehumanisation is internalised, too; repeated social messages are powerful things. A diet blog is dubbed “Dead Man Walking“. A commenter on fat fu even called hirself “walking dead morbidly obese” – while mentioning that sie has been that way for thirty years.

And there’s this, and this, and this.

The usage and context of the term “The Obese” bring home to us the fact that society thinks of fat people as a mob. A sinister, homogenised, shuffling, soulless mob. People who are fat are Othered, defined as something apart from normal. Our fatness is considered our key and defining characteristic; something that sets us apart from “regular people”. Our bodies are foreign, and undesirable, and frightening. This attitude is dehumanising, deindividuating, and what’s more, it gets on my wick.

I hope we as a people can start to take a leaf out of the book of the Texas Council for Developmental Disabilities, when they say:

What Do You Call People with Disabilities? [or fat people, or any other “kind” of people ~Lauredhel]

Men, women, boys, girls, students, mom, Sue’s brother, Mr. Smith, Rosita, a neighbor, employer, coworker, customer, chef, teacher, scientist, athlete, adults, children tourists, retirees, actors, comedians, musicians, blondes, brunettes, SCUBA divers, computer operators, individuals, members, leaders, people, voters, Texans, friends or any other word you would use for a person.

Categories: culture wars, ethics & philosophy, gender & feminism, language, social justice

Tags: , , , , , , ,

7 replies

  1. Aren’t we all the walking dead? It’s life, no one gets out alive.

  2. Dawn French told a lovely anecdote on Dentonabout the unconditional reinforcement of her worth she received from her father. I guess such loving validation would be considered to be a form of parental neglect now that there is an official policy of fat shaming. I fully expect total morbidity to go up due to an epidemic of major depression, social phobias, body dysmorphic disorders, eating disorders and a myriad of other problems associated with society’s relentless obsession with appearance as the ultimate measure of worth.

  3. And I like that in all the hatred of The Fat and valorisation of the diet, no acknowledgement that anorexia has the highest morbidity rate of any mental illness. Never mind this dieting culture is promoting eating disorders. Apparently the thinner you are, the healthier you are.

  4. Nice post! I never thought about the placement of the word people when describing PWD or in this case, people who are fat, in this way. It makes a huge difference. Funny how wordage that normally slips under my radar suddenly pops out at me as having a huge impact. Thanks for pointing it out.

  5. Too bad I’m not afraid of death! The fat-shaming can’t scare me!
    Seriously. “Walking dead?” I’m very ho-hum about it.
    (Okay, full disclosure, I am nowhere near “obese,” but if you look at what happens to people in my family after they hit 25 (even those that have regular exercise habits), well, let’s just say I’d better start psychologically preparing myself now for whatever shaming I’m going to face. Heck, the crap I’m getting from family members from *gasp* gaining a whopping 5 pounds after I got a 9-to-5 job and could afford to eat filling meals indicates that I’m doomed.)

  6. Hmm, that should be ‘the waddling dead’ surely?


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