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Recognizing diversity in gender and sexuality and body size

Use inclusive language to resist binary labels and avoid excluding people

by Sabrina J. Ashwell
October 30, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 36


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Credit: ACS

“Every scientist knows to keep their laboratory tidy.” That sentence uses the singular “they” for an unspecified person. People have used the singular “they” in this way for centuries, and major style guides accept its use. That seemingly small grammatical choice—to use the gender-neutral “they” instead of the gendered “he or she”—can have big consequences: it can make people of all genders feel recognized and accepted.

Choices in language, big and small, can affect how welcoming a message is, and that’s where the ACS Inclusivity Style Guide comes in. The guide, by the American Chemical Society, aims to help people make communication decisions that draw people in instead of pushing them away or making them feel invisible. Today we’re sharing some of the guide’s top tips on language around gender and sexuality and body size.

Language on gender and sexuality

The singular “they” rejects the gender binary—the idea that only two genders exist. For many, falling into binary thinking is easy; it’s simpler to fit people into one of only two categories than imagine the multitude of identities that people may hold. And the English language often encodes and reinforces binary thinking: “ladies and gentlemen,” “boys and girls,” “husbands and wives.” But that simplicity denies the complexity of people’s identities and excludes people.

Many groups—including Native American communities; Indigenous communities in Oaxaca, Mexico; the people of Samoa; and Hindu societies—have recognized this complexity for generations by naming more than two genders. The ACS Inclusivity Style Guide recommends encompassing all gender identities in language by using gender-neutral terms and avoiding the assumption that gender is binary. For example, we can say “everyone,” “children,” and “spouses” or “partners.” These choices will make your content more welcoming to a wider audience.

Language on body size

Another way that language can recognize the full complexity of people’s identities is by accepting body size as a dimension of human diversity. People are not in binaries of “good” or “bad” because they have a certain weight. So we should avoid wording that treats weight loss as a universal positive. For example, instead of complimenting someone on losing weight, we can focus on how nice it is to see them.

Similarly, categorizing people into the binaries “healthy weight” and “unhealthy weight” is unhelpful and inaccurate, as people can be “healthy”—an amorphous term—at many weights. And language should respect everyone, regardless of their health status. We can separate health from weight by using straightforward, neutral descriptions of size, like “lower weight,” “moderate weight,” and “higher weight.”

The top advice on language around gender and sexuality and body size is collected in two tip sheets reproduced here. This is the last set of tip sheets of a six-part series in C&EN. To see all the tip sheets and the full ACS Inclusivity Style Guide, visit Email any feedback about the guide or tip sheets to


Like what you’ve read? See the full guide and the most up-to-date tip sheets from the American Chemical Society at

Gender and sexuality

For more context, review the “Gender and sexuality” section of the Inclusivity Style Guide. Use this tip sheet in combination with the “General guidelines” tip sheet.

Use gender-neutral language

Opt for gender-neutral terms rather than gendered equivalents. Using words that refer to men as a default can reinforce the idea that men are or should be dominant.

✓ Use: humankind
⦻ Avoid: mankind

Gender is not binary

Not everyone has a gender identity that is completely female or completely male. Some people are a third gender, a mix of female and male, or no gender, for example.

✓ Use: Welcome, everyone.
⦻ Avoid: Welcome, ladies and gentlemen.

Use the singular “they”

Use the singular “they” for all people who use that pronoun and when referring to an unidentified person. It is a neutral pronoun that can replace gendered language.

✓ Use: their memory
⦻ Avoid: his or her memory

Know the language

LGBTQ+: Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, and additional marginalized gender or sexual identities
Nonbinary: An adjective to describe people whose gender identity is not completely male or completely female
Pronouns: The most common are “he/him,” “she/her,” and “they/them.” But many more exist. Ask “What pronouns do you use?” or “What are your pronouns?”
Transgender: Having a gender identity that does not perfectly match the sex assigned at birth. It is typically not a gender. Some consider being transgender as part of their identity, and some do not.

Key reminder: Use “is” instead of “identifies as” for gender and sexuality, and avoid “prefers” in reference to pronouns.

Body size

For more context, review the “Body size” section of the Inclusivity Style Guide. Use this tip sheet in combination with the “General guidelines” tip sheet.

Avoid stigmatizing terms

Use comparative terms such as “higher weight” rather than the medical terms “obese” and “overweight.”

✓ Use: larger-bodied people
⦻ Avoid: people with obesity

Provide context

When making statements about weight, ensure they are backed by strong science. Provide context about the limitations of studies, the harms of intentional weight loss, the myriad factors that contribute to links between weight and health outcomes, and researchers’ conflicts of interest.

✓ Use: Participants were drawn from [criteria for participating in the study]. [Number of participants] lost on average [overall number and percentage of starting weight] after [amount of time]. This change remained after controlling for [factors controlled for]. [Number of people] dropped out of the study because of [reasons].
⦻ Avoid: The drug successfully led to long-term weight loss in a large sample.

Don’t conflate weight and health, but also avoid healthism

Don’t assume that higher weight causes poor health. Also recognize that higher-weight people deserve equitable treatment regardless of what their health is.

Avoid problematic frames

Avoid framing higher-weight people as an epidemic, a source of blame, or a burden. Avoid describing weight loss, thinness, or dieting as universally good goals that are easy to attain.


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