We’ve all been there: You’re at the doctor’s office, and before you can even ask him why your earlobe has been tingling for the last two weeks, you have to step on the scale.
If that experience seems unduly stressful because you’re anticipating that the nurse or doctor will react negatively to the number that shows up, that’s entirely valid. Because fat shaming in the medical community is a very real, and risky, thing.
The topic was addressed recently at the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association in a symposium titled “Weapons of Mass Distraction: Confronting Sizeism.”
“Implicit attitudes might be experienced by patients as microaggressions—for example, a provider’s apparent reluctance to touch a fat patient, or a head shake, wince or ‘tsk’ while noting the patient’s weight in the chart,” said Joan Chrisler, a professor of psychology at Connecticut College who spoke on the panel. “Microaggressions are stressful over time and can contribute to the felt experience of stigmatization.”
The irony there is pretty thick: The way medical professionals react to a patient’s weight can and does discourage them from seeking out medical treatment.
In an abstract presented by the panelists titled “Sizeism is a Health Hazard,” the researchers note that “the assumption that weight is responsible for, or related to, almost any presenting complaint has resulted in misdiagnosis.
“Recommending different treatments for patients with the same condition based on their weight (e.g. weight loss for fat patients, and a CAT scan, blood work, or physical therapy for other patients) is unethical and a form of malpractice.”
There’s a certain comfort in associating Western medicine with pure objectivity—of attaching oneself to the idea that because it’s science, it’s infallible and thus immune to the biases of human beings. But this is only a story we tell ourselves in order to feel that our health is protected.
Medical professionals are not immune to the influence of culture, and in a field that was largely established by sizeist straight white men, lapses continue to make themselves apparent, as evidenced by these findings, as well as by the ongoing revelations of how female patients are taken less seriously when describing their symptoms.
The task at hand, then? The researchers recommend more training and awareness for medical professionals.
It’s clearly a symptom of a larger fat shaming problem in our culture, which means we’ve still got a lot of work to do. And in light of revelations like these, it’s more urgent than ever.