Editor’s note: Design Editor Jayden Dukes shares her experiences with weight discrimination.
Looks can be deceiving. They can also lead to damaging discrimination and stigmatization, especially for healthy women and men considered obese by outdated CDC weight standards.
According to a study by Rebecca M. Puhl and Chelsea A. Heuer published in the American Journal of Public Health, “Stigmatization of obese individuals poses serious risks to their psychological and physical health, generates health disparities, and interferes with implementation of effective obesity prevention efforts.”
The authors go on to warn that current views related to obesity need to be updated: “Although these assumptions about obesity and weight stigma are prevalent in our national mindset, considerable scientific evidence has emerged to challenge them,” Puhl and Heuer write.
This discrimination is something that has plagued me my whole life. It’s also dangerous. I have serious difficulties getting accurate or effective medical treatment. For example, my sister’s medical treatment is always far superior because when she goes in to the doctor, her symptoms and the situation are seriously considered. Whenever I go in for any medical problem, the medical personnel see my body and automatically assume that my weight is the cause of whatever is going on. I feel like I have always had to prove to physicians that I’m healthy to justify my weight.
Puhl and Heuer say, “It is also important to note increasing research documenting a considerable percentage of overweight and obese persons who are metabolically healthy and non-overweight individuals who exhibit metabolic and cardiovascular risk factors.”
Many in the science community and many physicians have not updated treatment methods for people previously considered obese by the Centers for Disease Control. This has resulted in discrimination and poor treatment with patients being told their problem is simply being overweight without adequate analysis that patients may have other problems to treat than the weight itself.
The article “Everything You Know About Obesity is Wrong” written by Michael Hobbes for The Huffington Post says, “The medical establishment has learned and rejected over and over again that weight and health are not perfect synonyms.”
Eric Oliver, a political scientist at the University of Chicago and the author of “Fat Politics: The Real Story behind America’s Obesity Epidemic,” states, “A relatively small group of scientists and doctors, many directly funded by the weight-loss industry, have created an arbitrary and unscientific definition of overweight and obesity. They have inflated claims and distorted statistics on the consequences of our growing weights, and they have largely ignored the complicated health realities associated with being fat.”
Amy Winter summarizes the “current state of medical knowledge about fat” in “The Problem of Obesity is Exaggerated.” She writes, “There’s no evidence that fat people are unhealthy. There are no diseases that only fat people get, and there are many diseases that fat people get at lower rates than thin people.” Better blood sugar and pressure readings have been found with those who have diabetes or hypertension with lifestyle changes that did not necessarily mean weight loss. In other words, healthier living does not always mean skinny.
According to National Eating Disorders, 40 to 60% of girls start to worry about their weight or becoming fat by the age of six. Of those young girls who may be overweight, up to 40% are bullied for their weight by peers and family.
I had chronic migraines from the age of 6, but I wasn’t referred to a neurologist until I was 17 because my doctors continually focused on my weight and wouldn’t treat me until I could prove that I was eating healthy and exercising. I did eat healthy, and I did exercise; I kept food diaries, and at one point I was even told to see a psychiatrist. None of the physician’s advice helped either my migraines or my weight. Once I finally was referred to the neurologist at age 17, I began testing out a concoction of pills prescribed by the doctor. However, the first ones that the doctor decided on were medications that would result in weight loss in order to “treat both problems in one.”
My childhood had passed by the time I got a specialist’s help, and yet I still face problems with my weight even as an adult. Every January my family and I meet in Springfield at Rodeo Steakhouse and Grill to celebrate the birthdays of those in my family who were born during that month. I was particularly dreading 2019 because two of the women in my family had recently started diets.
Upon arrival, I moved myself to the corner of the table as an afterthought before the rest of my family showed up. I smooshed myself against the wall sitting at an angle to try and force myself to take up as little space as possible. I wanted to look small when the two dieters made their appearance.
However, the only thing that I had accomplished was cutting myself off from conversation and a good time. I ate a small chunk of salmon, a pile of steamed broccoli, and a salad without cheese while the rest of my family indulged themselves in red meat and carbs. I felt silly. All the work I had made towards accepting myself and my body completely dissolved upon the possibility of my family, particularly the dieters, watching me live and eat while being unapologetically “fat.”
Amy Winter summarizes the current state of medical knowledge about fat: “The few studies that follow dieters long-term demonstrates failure rates between 85% and 95% for all diets studied,” Winter added 95% of dieters will regain their weight from one to five years. Over 12% of girls in high school fasted, took laxatives, or ingested diet pills without a doctor’s advice and dieting does not work.
This is not just about food. I tiptoe around classrooms where tables can wiggle upon my approach. I memorize where there are creaks in the floor so that I can walk around them; I always sit against a window or wall in the back of the classroom. I avoid situations where someone will have to struggle to get by or look past me. I wear black and avoid colors that will make me stick out more.
The hardest part of it all is that this is not entirely my story. This is not unique or rare. Small and difficult situations daily affect the quality of life for all of us who are considered overweight, and the discrimination in healthcare for those whose bodies carry more weight is also putting a lot of money into dieting and weight-loss corporations.
Americans receive the media message that overweight means bad, unhealthy and gross. Overweight representation also portrays the funny, fat friend in that romantic comedy you watched last week. It is the evil, ugly villain in your childhood movies. It is the paid actress who is unhappy with her body in order to sell the newest workout equipment or that new diet pill that will work this time, they “promise.”
This portrayal of what being “fat” means has corrupted the way that plus size individuals are treated when it comes to everything from doctor visits to self-esteem. However, it does not have to be this way.
I started by deciding that I would no longer diet. I began reading about other experiences from authors like Roxane Gay and Virgie Tovar. I started listening to The Fat Girls Club podcast where I can hear more about significant cultural moves that are being made by people with a body as big or bigger than mine. I spend more time naked. I cherish that my body can have an impact on my environment. I went to the coast and moved logs and caused rocks to shift. This is the body that carries me. I am my body, and I am so much more.