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Fat Shaming: Can a doctor tell a patient she’s obese?

(photo courtesy of CC: Tobyotter)

For many overweight or obese people, going to the doctor is not a pleasant experience. Because whether they’re there for an ear infection or a sprained ankle, the doctor first and foremost wants to address their weight. A lot of bloggers, who tell their stories online, call it ‘fat shaming.’

“There has been a lot of bias against overweight and obesity, within the medical community and in the general population, for a longtime. It’s really only pretty recently that it’s been termed ‘fat shaming.'” says Dr Rick Lindquist, an obesity medicine physician at Swedish. But we’ll come back to him in a little bit.

First I want you to meet Seattle’s Kim Selling.

“I like to be as candid and literal and honest as I can all the time. So for me, I’m like, whatever, I’m a fat person, I have a fat body.”

Kim was raised by two doctors, so she was surprised about how her weight was addressed by physicians outside of her family.

“I grew up playing a ton of sports, grew up in a super active family and I just happened to be the one fat kid in the family. I would be at a tennis tournament and I would turned my ankle and I would go into the doctor and be like, ‘I messed up my ankle.’ And they would be like, ‘You should probably lose a little weight.’ And I’m like, you’re probably right, I guess, but also I tripped while running! This isn’t a ‘you’re fat’ thing. This is an actual sports injury. So those kinds of suggestions, I’m just used to.”

In college, it got worse when Kim went to a gynecologist for her yearly exam.

“He didn’t believe that I was sexually active. It was absurd to him that someone who looked like me would be sexually active. He basically said that. He was like, ‘I don’t think you’re being truthful about your current experiences. I don’t think you’ve done these things that you’re telling me right now.’ It was some hotshot doctor, went to Johns Hopkins, should have been a great physician. He was not only sexually shaming me but also body shaming me.”

Dr Lindquist isn’t necessarily surprised to hear stories like this.

“There was a study that came out about a year ago that looked at the attitudes of health care providers and physicians specifically towards overweight and obese patients. What they found was in about two-thirds of practitioners there was an unconscious, or even conscious, bias against taking care of obese patients.”

But if a doctor can’t bring up a patient’s weight, who can? Dr Lindquist actually educates physicians around the country on how to respectfully address obesity with a patient.

“I think there’s a certain amount of awkwardness in learning how to have this conversation, both on the part of the health care provider and on the part of patients. Patients can become really sensitized because they’ve only been told that they have a problem and that there’s something wrong with them. They don’t really necessarily always want to hear advice from a health care provider. Health care providers also haven’t been particularly good at framing that conversation to patients and addressing it in a non-judgmental, helpful, therapeutic sort of way.”

Then there’s the idea of being fit and fat. Kim thinks it’s possible.

“Health is different for everyone. You can be fat and be running three miles a day and you’re still fat and that is just how your body is. A lot of people think they can look at you and immediately know your entire medical history, which isn’t true. When you look at someone, the only thing you can know are your own visual prejudices about that person. So when it comes to your doctor telling you what you should and shouldn’t do, yeah, a lot of the times your doctor is probably going to know what’s best for you. But there are so many doctors who have their own biases already and they take that into work with them. It’s not actually a medical opinion. It’s just their own personal opinion.”

Dr Lindquist says there are flaws with the fit and fat idea.

“About 20% of the population that’s obese, they don’t have any medical problems. You say, well, what’s the issue? The problem is that overtime, the fit-fat individual gets older and that excess weight creates medical problems.”

Here’s what Kim would like from the medical community, as a whole.

“I would like doctors to realize that you’re still dealing with a person, you’re not just dealing with a body. I know that it can be an automatic thing for anyone in the medical field to just be like, whelp, gotta treat the problem. But when you’re looking at a person and all you’re seeing is their body as a problem; that’s a huge, massive, multi-layered issue. So what I would love is for people to stop looking at fat people and seeing them as a fat problem.”

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