Using inclusive language: A handy guide to discussing weight and body perceptions

January 10, 2023  //  FOUND IN: Updates & Resources,

Approximately a 5-minute read

Key takeaways:

  • It is essential to use inclusive language to create a welcome, equitable culture at Michigan Medicine.
  • The Department of Communication is creating a handy guide that will make it easier for you to use proper phrasing and language in both the written and verbal form.
  • With many new year’s resolutions related to weight and body perceptions, this month’s story revolves around these important topics. 

When using the written or spoken word, language is essential when it comes to creating a welcoming, inclusive and equitable environment — which aligns perfectly with U-M Health’s strategic priority of Belonging and inclusion.

As the priority states, promoting and advancing an inclusive culture “will improve health care equity and reduce health disparities.” It will also enhance engagement among faculty, staff and learners. 

To help you play your part and support a more engaging culture, the Department of Communication and its partners have created a handy guide to make sure your language does not intentionally or unintentionally create an unwelcoming atmosphere.

This time of year, some new year’s resolutions may be related to weight and body perceptions. With that in mind, this month’s topic revolves around this important topic.

Key terminology for this population 

The goal when discussing weight and body type is to utilize precise, clinical terminology. The term “obesity,” although it can be seen as a very charged word, has a formal definition based on body mass index (BMI) and is widely used in medicine. The same cannot be said for generic terms like “overweight” – there is no “universal” weight that fits all men and women.

It should be noted that other language (besides obesity-related terminology) plays a part in weight stigma/bias. Often, when discussing weight, the discussion tends to focus on obesity, but it’s important to note that those with a lower weight can also be stigmatized, for instance by being described as “anorexic” without any evidence to support the diagnosis.

In fact, terms such as “skinny,” “trim,” etc., may be just as harmful as saying “fat” or “overweight.” Avoid using these descriptions at all times.

Diagnosing the health of an individual requires an individualized approach. Weight alone does not provide a full picture of health. Clinical screening tools, such as Body Mass Index (BMI) calculators, are insufficient to diagnose health concerns, and should always be accompanied by additional testing. However, when screening tools are discussed, there is a tendency to equate measurements like BMI with health. An elevated BMI doesn’t not necessarily equate to being “unhealthy” – one can have a higher without signs of metabolic disease; they may be eating a diet rich in healthy foods and may be physically active. Each person’s unique circumstances matter.

Take 10: Tips to help you communicate more inclusively

  • Before writing about someone and their health situation, it is appropriate to ask them how they describe themselves.
  • As indicated by the World Obesity Federation, it is essential to utilize people-first language at all times. Here are a number of examples of phrases to avoid and phrases to use instead:

Terms used to describe people living with obesity:

Terms used when talking about obesity:

Terms used when talking about lower body weight or eating disorders:

  • When discussing weight, the American Diabetes Association noted that terms such as “ideal weight,” “goal weight,” etc., are judgmental and convey a false belief that there is a single, universal weight that prevents illness. It does not account for the individual’s personal or health goals.
  • Use precise numbers or information when conveying important details:
  • Changing behaviors is difficult and offering advice that does not acknowledge this can feel dismissive. Acknowledging individual differences and preferences is essential. Remember, weight is not a behavior.
  • Provide guidance on specific habits/behaviors and clinical markers rather than only focusing on weight. For example, exercise can improve health outcomes, mood and quality of life regardless of weight change:
  • Make it clear that there may be factors beyond an individual’s control that affect their weight and body type. It is vital to underscore factors beyond individual responsibility when discussing people living with obesity. For instance, not all audiences may be in a condition to follow advice due to financial or geographic constraints.
  • Is an individual’s weight relevant to the topic being discussed? If not, do not bring it up in written form or a conversation.
  • It is also recommended to avoid phrases such as “Did you lose weight?” or “You look like you lost weight,” etc., which may be intended as a compliment. The intended “compliment” might not seem like stigma, but the subtle message it conveys is that higher weights are bad and lower weights are good.
  • Relate lifestyle changes not to weight but to symptoms – these are the things we are working on through recommended changes. We are not looking to simply alter numbers on a scale. Highlight positive consequences of leading a healthier lifestyle: Ask “Is your pain better?” “Mood better?” Are you sleeping better?” “Do you have more energy?” Similarly, one should phrase (especially when working with adolescents) that the goal is not a number, but for the patient to have a “strong and healthy body.” The best way to do that is by improving the kinds of foods we eat and being more active.

Learn more about inclusive communication

Did this guide help? It’s part of a monthly Headlines series on inclusive communication! Previous stories have discussed disability and religion.

You can find the complete guide here – and be sure to bookmark that page as it will be updated each month.