health

"Going to the doctors sucks". Why fatphobia in medicine needs to stop.

For most of us, going to the doctor is a nerve-wracking experience. It can make you feel really vulnerable. 

But when you are plus size, it's compounded by the fear that you will be dismissed, humiliated, and misdiagnosed. It's something I am constantly trying to navigate as a plus-size woman. 

What is appropriate health advice? And what is unhelpful fatphobic advice? 

Watch: Taryn Brumfitt - I Am. Post continues below.


Video via Mamamia

The short answer is, I don't know. After all, I'm not actually a doctor, and that's what makes it all so complicated. 

I want to blindly trust health advice, but I understand the world we live in has skewed people's views and can influence how a doctor treats you. 

Sure, you might have a medical degree, but that doesn't mean you are immune to buying into diet culture or fatphobia and sometimes advice isn't always just based on facts but rather laced with judgement. 

As a plus-size person, my health is often questioned without any medical evidence to prove I'm unhealthy.

I've had perfect blood results and still been told my health is suffering because of my weight, but how? Where is the evidence?

I've sat in doctors' offices and been told there was no point going on any contraception until I got my weight under control. 

How are the two related? Surely denying a plus-size woman contraception isn't helpful? 

I've also been to the doctors for issues such as chronic UTIs and anxiety, and have been told if I lost weight, they'd evaporate, or the symptoms would dissipate. 

Spoiler, I've lost weight, and this hasn't happened. 

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In one case, I lost weight, and the symptoms got worse. 

This kind of purely weight-based advice causes me to distrust doctors.

I'm constantly worried they'll focus solely on my weight and fail to look at my health beyond how many kilos I weigh. 

I'm scared they'll dismiss or judge me, or I'll leave feeling terrible about myself, and that will result in my mental health taking a dive. 

If I'm honest, because of these experiences, I've become more reluctant to go to the doctors as I don't want to face judgement, and I'm less likely to follow their advice because I'm worried it's being skewed by their own fatphobic bias.

Depressingly, I'm not alone in this. When I did a call-out on my Instagram and asked if other women had similar experiences, my inbox overflowed with messages. It was both eye-opening and horrifying. 

Clearly, our medical system in Australia is failing plus-size women. 

Caitlin, 31, explained that she went to the doctor because of unexpected weight gain and fatigue. However, her concerns were ignored, "She called me lazy and said if I want to lose the weight, I should take meal replacement shakes. I got a second opinion, saw a specialist, and it turned out I had severe untreated Hashimoto's disease and that my thyroid was in the process of slowly being attacked by my immune system.” 

Similarly, Amber, 41 went to the doctors with debilitating lower back pain and, after sharing her history of a fibromyalgia diagnosis, was denied an examination. 

"They said, 'You need to lose weight. I'm not even going to look at your back'," Amber explained. 

Kate, 24, shared with me her heart-wrenching experience. Kate is currently going through fertility treatment and facing fatphobia. 

"I had to get on the scales, and of course had the conversation that I have with every doctor about how losing even a little weight would be better for my overall health. I started diet shakes because I was scared that she would stop 'helping.'" 

Shannon, 29, told me a story similar to my own. 

"I was told I shouldn't go on the pill because I was more likely to have a stroke!" 

Of course, this issue goes much further than just the women in my direct messages. 

Dr Zali Yager, executive director of the Body Confidence Collective, said: "Medical professionals focus a lot on weight instead of health behaviours, and while they may mean well, having a huge focus on weight tends to [lead to] people feeling shame about their bodies, which does nothing to motivate them to change their health behaviour - in fact, it has quite the opposite effect." 

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And how does this impact the women seeking medical help? According to Dr Yager, it isn't motivating or productive. 

"Body shame and weight stigma has been found to lead directly and indirectly to poor health outcomes. The experience of weight stigma leads people in larger bodies to have increased cortisol levels, which sets off a whole chain of negative health implications. After experiencing this stress, people often also engage in a range of compensatory behaviours, including binge eating, to try to overcome these feelings." 

Of course, I'm aware that weight can sometimes impact your health, and it's worth considering or discussing for some health issues, but health comes in all shapes and sizes and our medical system needs to start realising this! 

I don't believe weight is ever the only factor in determining your overall health. 

Smoking, drinking, soft drink consumption, stress, mental health issues and genetics are also risk factors that can contribute to poor health. 

But, they are invisible unless disclosed by the patient.

If you are plus-size, doctors can see you and rarely want to look beyond the obvious. I just don't think what you weigh should ever stop doctors from investigating your symptoms - and in my experience often weight has nothing to do with it.

If you feel unwell, spot a lump or a bump, or just know your body is not working as well as it should, it's often scary. 

We go to the doctors to seek help and reassurance. 

You need your health professional to not only look at you but also to listen. 

A positive initial visit can lead to a conversation regarding all aspects of your health. 

But to be dismissed as 'fat' and therefore not worthy of a thoughtful, intelligent diagnosis is demoralising and counterintuitive. 

Like everyone else, plus-size women should feel cared for and safe when they see their doctor, not afraid and judged.  

Feature Image: Supplied.