There is no end to the vocabulary we’ve devised to slap people with the fat label—obese, overweight, portly, soft, plump, chubby, tubby, etc. But are all these words created equal? As it turns out, no. Mark Morton reports in Gastronomica’s summer issue (subscription required) that the language we use to describe fat people smacks of race, class, and gender stereotypes.
More euphemistic words for fat are used to describe those in higher-paying professions. For example, Morton found that a Google search for “portly” resulted in descriptions of doctors, lawyers, and professors, but rarely for janitors and plumbers. And “fat teacher” turned up 10,600 hits, while a search for “fat professor” turned up only 1,190. Race was another factor influencing word-choice. Although “white man,” “white woman,” “black man,” and “black woman” all got around the same number of hits when the phrases stood alone, adding “fat” skewed the results. The phrase “fat black woman” got eight times as many hits as “fat white woman,” while “fat white man” got 12 times as many hits as “fat black man.” And black women were dubbed fat, obese, and overweight at far higher rates than the others.
Now that’s all interesting, but what does it mean? Morton concludes that our propensity for denoting black women’s weight more frequently than others' reflects not the reality of waistlines, but the reality of disenfranchisement: “It’s analogous to what happens in the schoolyard: the outsiders are the ones who get called the names, not those at the center of the clique.”
(For more from Gastronomica’s summer issue, read "The Food Police," reprinted in Utne Reader’s Jan.-Feb. package on our obsession with obesity.)