Anyway, stay with me, and picture this… In the show, Perez (Surgical Resident, in a larger body) has examined a new patient, a female middle aged, middle school science teacher, also in a larger body, who has knee pain. Perez calls the Orthopaedic surgeon (athletic, toned, typical TV doctor) for a consult, as he thinks there is more going on that needs to be investigated beyond just giving a cortizone injection for the pain. The Orthopaedic Surgeon barely touches her knee before condescendingly suggesting that if she wanted a more permanent solution, she might try “losing a little weight’… explains how to take walks, and assumes that weight loss would be a) possible, and b) easy if the patient just tried harder.
“How am I supposed to talk long walks with friends when I get shooting pains from my knee when I walk” the patient counters. “So if I just figure out how not to be fat, all of my problems will magically go away.” and she gets up to walk out of the hospital. It’s at this moment that Ortho guy notices her actual symptoms, orders and MRI, it seems she has a spinal disc herniation, and the next time we see the patient, she’s on the table. Perez is acknowledged and validated, and Bailey goes on a huge rant about the ridiculousness of the BMI, and the financial discrimination of fat people in the US-medical system. It’s awesome, trust me.
(It’s Season 18, Episode 10 for those watching along at home!)
Thank you Shonda Rhimes!
Unfortunately, for many people in a larger body, this is not something that just happens on TV.
Assumptions can be made in medical and health settings, and although doctors and health professionals usually have the patient’s best interests at heart, there can be a lot of inadvertant shame. The huge focus on weight instead of health tends to lead 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.
Especially when you are going to the doctor, dentist, or health professional about an unrelated health issue (like a sore knee).
And especially when that
So how do we protect our kids- particularly those in larger bodies- from experiencing this?
- Learn more about weight bias and weight stigma in medical settings- There are some excellent fat activists and body liberation advocates that write about this, and provide information and stories from lived experience, alongside shared action and suggestions. Health at Every Size (HAES) Australia, and the Association for Size Diversity in Health [ASDAH] are organisations that provide resources and information in this space. You can also follow Chevese Turner on Linked In, and Hannah Fuhlendorf (@hannahtalksbodies) on Instagram. The more you learn, the more you can advocate for your child.
- Look for weight neutral, size inclusive medical providers – There are many Health at Every Size providers listed on the HAES Australia registry- most of them are psychologists or dietitian as opposed to GP’s but they may be able to direct you to medical professionals who take this approach
- Prepare your comebacks and supporting statements- If you’ve been in this situation before, prepare your defense for when you go to the doctor again. This can be as simple as clearly stating “I don’t want to be weighed, or talk about my weight right now. I am here about (reiterate your issue)”. When booking online, you can request that you aren’t weighed, and that doctors don’t speak to you about your weight. The US-based morelove.org used to have business-card sized “don’t weigh me” cards, though they do seem to have sold out of these, and now just have the “Please don’t weigh/talk about my child’s weight” cards for parents.
And what can you do if you or your child have already experienced this shame? First, you need to apply a liberal dose of Self Compassion – the universal antidote to shame.
This process involves:
- acknowledging the uncomfortable feelings brought up by the situation,
- recognising that you are not alone in this, and
- speaking to yourself with the same kindness that you would to a friend.
For example, this could look like: “Wow, I’m feeling really ashamed, sad, and angry right now. That dentist had no right to comment on my weight. But I know that this is not my fault, and unfortunately, I am not alone- many people experience this sort of discrimination. Although I am feeling this shame right now, I know that my weight is not who I am, and I am more than what I look like. I am an incredible human doing my best in this world, and achieving incredible things.” It’s important that you also do things that activate the soothing mechanisms in self compassion. Try putting your hand on your heart, massaging the back of your neck or stroking your arms. Going for a walk, meditating, or doing some other sorts of self care can also help you move through the feelings.
There is a huge amount of research supporting the benefits of self compassion, and some particular studies that have shown that self compassion is linked to improved body image, engagement in health behaviours, and helps to reverse some of the adverse outcomes of weight stigma.
Practicing self compassion yourself can help you to model this to your child. And the more you practice this framework and approach, the more that you turn down that inner critic and start listening to the compassionate voice the more you will start to automatically respond in this way- with kindness instead of criticism- and this is great for both your mental and physical health. One review found that people with higher self compassion got more sleep and had higher levels of immunity- not what you would expect from ‘treating yourself with kindness’.
We would love to see a world where people didn’t have to go to all of this extra effort in order to have access to non-stigmatising health care. And we are working towards creating this world. Until then, seek out these providers, prepare yourself, and know that you are not alone in experiencing this shame.