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The Language We Use: Putting People First


In the fight against obesity, advocates continue to push to have people—instead of labels—come first. One Leader advocates for doing the same in the language used to describe obesity.

In a July 24 article for Medscape, “Language and Obesity: Putting the Person Before the Disease,” Leader Rebecca Puhl, deputy director of Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, writes about the negative effects of weight bias in the healthcare environment and elsewhere. One way to counter this problem, she explains, is the use of people-first language — in which instead of being labeled with a medical condition (“the obese”), individuals are put before their disease (“persons with obesity”).

“When obesity is discussed with colleagues, students in training, or patients in the medical office, we need to practice these examples and promote a dialogue that addresses obesity separately from the person,” Puhl wrote in urging caregivers to adopt the people-first approach to discussing obesity.

This approach rests on the idea that “people are not defined by their diagnosis.” People-first language helps give those dealing with obesity the respect they deserve as they navigate societal and medical challenges.

The Rudd Center has promoted the people-first approach in a variety of its work, including an updated media guide to reporting on obesity that it released earlier this year.

Puhl’s analysis noted that a move toward people-first language has long been seen in approaches to discussing other medical conditions (“people with visual impairments” instead of “the blind”; “children with autism” instead of “autistic children”). But advocates are still working to promote the same dignity for people affected by obesity.

“Many healthcare providers have adopted people-first language with other types of illnesses and diseases, but the application of people-first language to obesity is quite new,” Puhl said in an interview with the Inside Track. Among the reasons for that, she said is that “perceptions of obesity continue to emphasize factors like personal responsibility, willpower, and laziness as causes of obesity.”

But the American Medical Association’s move to classify obesity as a disease may help change the culture, Puhl said. Organizations such as the Obesity Society and the Obesity Action Coalition are likewise promoting people-first language, she noted, and scholarly journals such as Obesity ask authors to use it in their publications.

“Classifying obesity as a disease encourages healthcare providers to address the disease separately from the person,” Puhl explained, “which is really the basic principle of people-first language — to put the person first, before his or her disease, and to describe what a person has rather than what a person is.” 

Donna Brutkoski authored this article.

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