Fat or obese? While the latter is viewed as more politically correct, an Australian study has confirmed the former is the “lesser of two evils”.

A University of NSW study which looked at public perceptions surrounding these words has found that, while neither would flatter a person, obese was viewed more negatively.

“I wouldn’t say that there was any acceptance of `fat’, but that `obesity’ was seen as less favourable and more disgusting,” said the study’s author, Lenny Vartanian, a lecturer at UNSW’s School of Psychology.

“People saw themselves as being more like a fat person than an obese person, there was more a sense of familiarity with fat people than obese people.”

Vartanian’s study took in the views of almost 430 undergraduate students, of a variety of body sizes, at the university.

He said the results echoed earlier studies conducted specifically among overweight people, and which asked for their views on the use of the words “fat” versus “obese”.

“They don’t like being called fat, but it does seem to be the lesser of two evils,” Dr Vartanian said.

“They would prefer to be called fat than to be called obese.

“(So) the term `fat’ in these studies does seem to be less problematic than the term `obese’.”

Vartanian said these findings challenged the wisdom of recent calls, from some quarters, to adopt a “tough love” approach to the problem of Western society’s expanding waistline.

In July, both the UK health minister and the Victorian president of the Australian Medical Association said calling some obese people fat might be the nudge they needed to start losing weight.

Vartanian said this was flawed on two levels, as not only was “shaming” known to not motivate people to make positive changes to their lifestyle, calling overweight people fat would make many feel “less bad about themselves”.

He said he supported the status quo – that “obese” should continue to be used to refer to those who meet its technical definition of having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 and above.

“If you have a BMI over a certain point then you are categorised as obese from a medical perspective, because you are at increased risk of type two diabetes and heart disease,” Vartanian said.

“Calling someone a fat person is like calling somebody crazy – it just doesn’t have an official definition that is useful.

“It doesn’t have a place in (public health) forums, and while obese might be seen more negatively and as less desirable to obese individuals themselves, at least it has an official definition.”

Vartanian’s study also points to another troubling aspect of the community’s growing rate, and so normalisation, of obesity.

“As the population gets heavier it would certainly skew people’s perceptions,” he said.

“There are many people who we see walking down the street with a BMI over 30 and we might not necessarily recognise them as obese.”

The research is published in the Italian-based journal Eating and Weight Disorder.

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