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.

By By Karyn S., as told to Macaela Mackenzie
Updated: August 15, 2017
Photo: Shutterstock

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.


Comments (12)

August 16, 2018
I got called into a doctors office last year to be told I had thyroid cancer. My dr said don’t worry it won’t kill you, it’s more likely diabetes will. I don’t have diabetes.
August 10, 2018
Thanks for sharing your experience, I too was shamed by a NP I was seeing her because she was with worker comp group and I hurt my back while working. She told me that my large breast and butt were reason for my back pain, she then showed me inappropriate cartoon drawing on her phone to explain why me being fat causing my pain. Never once did she talked about exercising or diet or referring me to someone. Wrote me prescriptions and told me see her again in 4 weeks. I call worker's compensation nurse told cancel appointment and I never want her taking care of me.
April 20, 2018
What does weight have to do with a sinus infection? Anyone who is overweight knows it and doesn't need comments from anyone else, even a doctor. There is always one doctor at the top of the class, one at the bottom, and lots in the middle. Dr. before your name doesn't mean you have the right to shame anyone. We are all going to die sometime whether we are overweight, workout all the time, or fall somewhere in between.
March 7, 2018
She should have had a fasting and postprandial insulin and glucose test and an A1C test. These tests are critically important. The sad thing is that her tests probably weren't normal because normal results are based on people who eat a diet too high in carbs. She is 115 pounds overweight, morbidly obese. That's an extra 460 pounds of pressure in her knees alone, not to mention the risk of cancer, heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
January 10, 2018
Just disregard the advice of the doctor! After all, he's had about eight years of training, internship, and education, along with years of experience dealing with obesity. YOU, who eat like a hog not giving a damn about your health, obviously know better than that trained professional. Die young, Obamacare needs all the people like you they can get!
January 8, 2018
Holy crap, now a doctor is wrong for telling someone- hey dumbass you need to lose weight for your own health. The stupid is strong with this one.
September 9, 2017
science and evidence: Patient shows risk factors for diabetes/prediabetes (weight, age, symptoms) Best procedure is to test to determine/rule out for optimal treatment and cure of patients issues. this article: WAH MUH FEELINGS! science and evidence: being obese causes all kinds of health issues but risk factors for heart disease, several types of cancer, osteoporosis, joint problems, etc. increase with age and so it's more important to stay in shape as you get older vs when you are younger and your body can compensate for your poor lifestyle habits more easily. this article: BUT MUH FEELINGS!
August 21, 2017
Obesity is a MEDICAL condition. You went to a doctor of MEDICINE. Being fat could very well lead to diabetes. It can also contribute to difficulty breathing. I know this. I'm fat I found out I was pre-diabetic last year. Hello wake-up call! I was upset too, but at MYSELF for letting myself go so badly. Now I'm 55 pounds lighter, and still going. Pre-diabetes is gone. I have more energy, my mood is better, my skin, hair & nails are incredible. Guess what? It's not fat-shaming if it's the TRUTH.
August 16, 2017
obesity is a medical condition that adversely affects your health whether you are five or twenty pounds or one hundred pounds overweight. I find it concerning that a nurse would step in and question a test when she has no idea what went on in the office visit between you and your doctor to prompt that order, and I find it concerning that just because she told you what you want to hear you are listening to her over the doctor. I am obese. I know it. Yes it's a sensitive subject. I'm actively trying to get healthy. But a doctor is not wrong for recommendiweight loss.
August 15, 2017
You didn't get fat shamed. YOU ARE FAT. You are overweight. Period. end of story. If you don't want to hear about how you are clinically obese, then just don't go to the doctor anymore and die from your inevitable health problems. It's your choice.
August 15, 2017
How in the world is this "fat shaming", these are medical professionals who have spent years studying and treating people and their medical conditions!?! The author says she knows she's overweight, but still has not done anything permanent about it. If she's not going to listen to a trained, educated, medical professional, who is dispensing MEDICAL advice to lose weight and testing for diseases attributed to being overweight, then who is she going to listen to? For any of you reading this article and thinking this author (and by association Shape magazine) is somehow on the right track calling out a Dr. for "fat shaming" and saying she'll get her second options from friends who are nurses, please reconsider.
August 15, 2017
Thanks for sharing . This subject , Fat shaming by Doctors , seems to be widespread. I too hate going to my primary care doctor because of this . I am 20 pounds overweight ,and have been for awhile. My coworker just went to the same physician and he is maybe 5 lbs overweight and he got fat shamed too. I don't go to my doctor unless I absolutely have too.