So, by now most of you have seen the picture of the fat woman with a large piece of wood sticking through her body saying she’s been impaled and the doctor saying she’d feel better if she lost weight, without even looking up from his clipboard. The situation is, of course, absurd, as I don’t know any doctor who would ignore something that obvious and blame it on a person’s weight, but it does draw attention to the fact that a large number of doctors seem to ignore a fat person’s complaints and blame whatever ails them on the fact that they are fat. It’s not just “minor” problems like colds or simple back aches, but it is also more serious health problems, like broken bones, rheumatoid arthritis, and cancer. Fat people can and do die from these mistakes, but there doesn’t seem to be any standardized way of tracking this. Such failure to diagnose constitutes medical malpractice.
Why do people continue to allow this to happen? Part of it is due to the continued belief that “the doctor knows best,” and that people have been raised to not question their doctors recommendations or judgment. Society as a whole has been conditioned to believe that fat is bad and so the idea that a medical condition is due to being fat is entirely believable. Many doctors even believe that they are helping a patient by telling them these things. This is not to say that weight can never be the cause or a contributing factor in a person’s problems. indeed, there are times when a person’s weight has turned out to be the problem even when I have been absolutely certain it was not. But just because something could turn out to be weight-related doesn’t mean that one can ignore all other possibilities.
Perhaps your doctor doesn’t dismiss complaints based on your weight. Perhaps they consider all the factors including a person’s weight and arrive at a correct diagnosis, but they continue to bring up weight in an inappropriate manner. Like when you come in for a cold or influenza. They diagnose you and give you antibiotics and cough medicine, but then they say, “I see your weight is up 5 pounds since your last visit,” or they make jokes about “you’ve been eating everything in sight again, haven’t you?” I can understand commenting on a person’s weight to some extent, since doctors are supposed to practice “preventive medicine,” and the only time they have to see some patients is when they are ill, but there is a proper way to address a person’s dietary/nutritional habits and then there is the “lazy” way, which is to assume they are horrible (and that therefore is why they are fat) and then lecture the patient.
Such behavior only serves to alienate fat patients. In the case of misdiagnosing, it leads to patients not seeking help sooner because they are conditioned to believe that their doctor will just tell them they are fat. Why go to the doctor only to be told what they already know? In the case of comments being made despite proper diagnosis, it causes the patient to feel ashamed and then they avoid going to the doctor in order to avoid the experience of being made to feel ashamed.
So why aren’t more fat people calling their doctors out on this unacceptable behavior? Partly because they are afraid of what their doctors will do or say. Again, this stems from the tendency to assume that all doctors are infallible and “know what’s best.” Or else they are afraid of being labeled a “difficult patient.” In my experience, most of my “difficult patients” are motivated by wanting to get medical care that is in their best interest and have had many experiences where they have been made to feel that their complaints are being ignored. Another reason that fat people don’t call out their doctors is because they’ve been conditioned to believe that their bodies are a burden on others and that they therefore do not have any right to defend them. You do have the right to defend your body, *especially* when its well-being is threatened by an incorrect or missed diagnosis.
It’s time to start calling your doctors out on their fat-shaming and fat-phobic behaviors. When your doctor dismisses a complaint entirely on the basis of your weight, ask them, “what would you do if I wasn’t fat? How would you approach this?” Acknowledge that you realize that your weight *might* be a factor, but that you don’t want to overlook anything else. Give your doctor the chance to do the right thing for you. If your doctor continues to dismiss your complaints then go to another doctor. (I realize that not everyone has that luxury, but if your doctor repeatedly ignores your problems then going to another one might be in your best interest). If you do go to another doctor, *tell your old doctor why you are leaving them.*
If your doctor makes assumptions or makes you feel ashamed or uncomfortable for being fat, or tries to make jokes about your weight, *tell them to stop.* You may need to state why you want them to stop. Explain that you are not doing it to ignore your health but that what they are doing makes you feel uncomfortable and less likely to visit the doctor in the first place. Again, if they continue to do it, then find another doctor.
If more fat people called their doctors out on these shameful practices, then perhaps less doctors would do these things in the first place, and we’ll have less stories about fat people being misdiagnosed to hear about.
Start calling your doctors out on these practices. If your doctor *truly* cares about your health they will listen.
Mod note: Also, so that you don’t feel so alone if something bad does happen, feel free to submit your experience here. There’s a huge community here that can empathize with what you’re going through. -ATL