Sizeism in the medical community, which can lead doctors to fixate on a patient's weight, doesn't cause psychological trauma, but potentially misdiagnosis. Here, one woman shares her story of what it's like to feel bullied by your own doc.
Every time I go to the doctor, I talk about how I need to lose weight. (I'm 5'4" and 235 pounds.) One time, I went to see my primary care provider after the holidays and, like many people do at that time of year, I had gained a couple of pounds. I told my doctor that this time of the year is especially difficult for me because it's the anniversary of when I lost my husband. He told me, "Eating won't fill the hole and make you feel better."
I know that. I also know that I typically gain about 5 pounds in December and it's gone by March. I've been diagnosed with depression, though I've never gotten treatment, and this time of year is particularly hard. A good doctor should talk about ways to treat the depression I suffer from—not tell me I shouldn't eat my feelings or that I could be "so pretty" if I just lost weight.
The first time I was fat shamed by a doctor was when my primary care provider ordered a diabetes test. At first, I thought the four-hour test seemed reasonable. When I showed up, the nurse asked me why I was having the test done (my blood sugar numbers were in the normal range). I told her the doctor had said it was just because I was overweight. The nurse seemed skeptical. At that point, I started to worry that the test wasn't medically necessary. Would my insurance even cover it if that were the case? (In the end, they did.)
This was the first time that I felt like I was subjected to different treatment at a doctor's office due to my weight. (Read: The Science of Fat Shaming)
I've always been overweight, but it's only recently that I've felt this has blatantly affected my medical treatment. Before, doctors would mention upping my activity level, but now that I'm getting closer to 40, they're really getting pushy. When this first happened, I was annoyed. But the more I thought about it, the angrier I got. Yes, I weigh more than I should. But there are a lot of other factors that go into health.
A couple of weeks after the diabetes test, I had an even more appalling experience. After visiting my local urgent care for a bad sinus infection, the on-call doctor prescribed cough pills, an inhaler, and some antibiotics. Then he treated me to a 15-minute lecture on how I needed to lose some weight. Here I was sitting on the table coughing my lungs out while he told me that I needed to eat less and exercise more. He spent longer talking about my weight than he did about the asthma inhaler he gave me. I had never had one before and had no clue how to use it.
At the time, I gritted my teeth and just listened, hoping to get out of there quickly. Now, I wish I had spoken up, but it seemed that the easiest way out was just to keep my mouth shut. (Related: Could you be fat-shaming someone at the gym?)
Fat shaming by doctors is dangerous for a couple of reasons. First, if you're just focused on the weight, it's easy to ignore what's really going on (like my depression over the holidays) or health issues that are totally unrelated to weight (such as a sinus infection).
Second, if I know I'm going to get lectured when I go to the doctor, it makes me not want to go until I absolutely can't avoid it. That means problems might not be caught early and addressed properly. (Did you know that the shame associated with obesity makes the health risks worse? Yep!)
A lot of my friends have gone through similar things, though I never realized it until I started sharing my experiences on Facebook. Before, I kept my medical stuff to myself, but once I opened up, other people started chiming in with their stories. It made me realize that this is a big issue and that finding a doctor who doesn't fat shame can actually be pretty hard.
I'm on guard when I go see doctors now. The only doctor I have at the moment who doesn't fat shame me is my gynecologist. When I went in for my last appointment, he asked me how I was feeling and what I wanted out of the visit. He never once mentioned my weight. This is the kind of care I would hope to receive from all of my doctors.
The worst part is, I have no idea how to best handle the bullying. Up until now, I've just tolerated it. But moving forward, I've drawn a line in the sand. I'll always ask what tests the doctor wants to run and why they're necessary, and then ask for time to consider it. I'll get second opinions from friends who are nurses if necessary. I wish I could blindly trust my doctors or simply feel like they had my best interests (mentally and physically) in mind.
I don't feel great about putting my Dr. Google degree up against someone with decades of experience and actual training, but it's time that I become an advocate for myself—at any weight.