Fatphobia In Medicine Is A Serious Issue — Here Are 22 Stories From Plus-Size People About How It Affected The Care They Received
"After a serious car accident, I was told that if I wasn’t overweight, I wouldn’t have had these injuries in the first place."
Unfortunately, it's not uncommon for plus-size people to be mistreated or misdiagnosed or to feel ignored by doctors and other medical personnel because of their weight. From mental health professionals to surgeons to everyday doctors, fatphobia is a serious issue in the medical field.
As someone who has experienced this and had my own symptoms written off, I think it's important we talk about the ways in which this affects treatment that people like me do — or, oftentimes, do not — receive. I asked the BuzzFeed Community to share their own experiences and received more than 100 painful and enlightening stories. Here are just 22 of them, starting with my own:
1. Growing up, I had really sporadic, infrequent periods. Sometimes I wouldn’t get them for months at a time, and when I did, they were heavy and painful. We brought this up to my pediatrician many times, but he always wrote it off as something that would go away as I got older and lost weight, without bothering to send me for any tests.
This went on until my senior year of high school, when I went in for what I thought would be a quick physical and a signature on an immunization sheet for a study abroad trip. My usual doctor was out of office, so I saw someone else. Within maybe five minutes of speaking to me and looking at my chart, he was able to give me an answer to the question I’d had for about five years. The issue with my periods, my weight and inability to lose it, my thin hair, and my body hair had all pointed to polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS — a syndrome I hadn’t even heard of before that day. It was only the beginning of lots of routine bloodwork and visits to an endocrinologist, but it’s wild to think that had my usual doctor not been away, I probably would’ve spent many more frustrated years trying to figure out what was wrong.
2. "I was in my mid-20s and going through a lot in terms of my mental health, so my family doctor referred me to a therapist. At the end of the first session, he told me that he wouldn’t be able to continue treating me until I lost weight because it would be a waste of his time."
"He said I would not make progress or have any chance of overcoming my problems until I was at a better weight. I was more than welcome to do their group therapy, but as an individual, it wasn’t possible. My self-esteem wasn’t high to begin with, but it hit rock bottom after that. I spent a long time feeling worthless — if the therapist said I was hopeless at my weight, then I must be. It took years for me to get on track and get help for the anxiety I now know I have."
3. "I had a UTI, and my regular doctor wasn’t available, so I saw a new one. She came in the room, took one look at me, and asked if I was sure I had a UTI. I told her it felt like it, and listed my symptoms. She did not look at my chart. She did not ask me any questions. She just said that the symptoms were likely due to my 'poor diet' and that I should eat less fast food."
"I have celiac disease and don’t eat most fast food because it will kill me. I tried to protest, but she put on her sympathetic face and said, 'It’s okay! It’s hard to lose weight after having a baby,” and suggested I join a new-moms workout group. I told her I’ve never been pregnant or had a baby. She ignored me and left me without any antibiotics or any kind of treatment for my UTI. I eventually saw a specialist and cleared up what turned into a very painful and ongoing infection that could easily have become even worse."
4. "I told my doctor that my depression was getting worse and — after having suffered from it for most of my life — I wanted to try antidepressants. The doctor referred me to a nutritionist."
5. "In college, I played a game of soccer on a super-muddy field and tripped over another girl. When I tried to get up, I got a super-intense spasm in my back and felt like it was going to give out. I went to our health services building and explained what happened, but I soon realized the doctor wasn't listening to me at all. As soon as I was done, he recommended that I try weight loss to relieve my back pain."
"At this time I was 275 pounds but was fairly active and had never had back pain before. So I tried explaining again that my back was hurting because of an injury, not because of my weight. Again he just ignored me...and also added that I should get a breast reduction. I left there crying from the pain and the humiliation. I had to go to urgent care just to get muscle relaxers."
6. "I was hospitalized with COVID in April 2020. My lungs never fully recovered, and I had to go to the ER this February. They told me that I have long-COVID inflammation and need to see a pulmonologist, which requires a referral from a PCP. She refused to refer me, ignored all of the abnormalities in my test results, and told me I’m just fat and out of shape, and my problems will go away if I go on a starvation diet and start exercising nine times a week."
"That was in March 2021, a full year after I initially got sick. I haven’t gone back to a doctor since."
7. "After a serious car accident, I was told that if I wasn’t overweight, I wouldn’t be suffering from the injuries or have had them in the first place."
8. "I’m 10 to 15 pounds overweight, thanks to pandemic stress eating. A couple of months ago, I got into a bad bike accident and went to my doctor for pain in my side. I was worried my rib was broken, but he told me I had 'too much padding' for that type of injury."
"He also told me my weight gain would have 'negative social consequences' for me. I’m a 27-year-old woman. He is a man in his late 60s. I went to get a second opinion, and guess what? I had a fractured rib."
9. "I am believed to have endometriosis, because during my period, I bleed from my belly button. A doctor once told me I was too fat to know how to wash properly, and that had caused an infection."
"When I tried to explain that it only happened during the days on my period and that my hygiene habits were fine, she told me not to do her job for her. It's disgusting the way we can be treated."
10. "I used to weigh 270 pounds and started losing weight. I also started feeling very nauseated and tired. They wrote it off as my depression and anxiety. Then I started having this intense, sharp pain under my right boob for 30 minutes at a time. I eventually ended up losing over 100 pounds, and my doctors told me 'good job' for losing weight. I once lost 12 pounds over seven days. Turns out I had numerous gallstones stuck in my gallbladder and had to have emergency surgery."
11. "I was taking antidepressants and birth control and noticed a sharp decline in libido. Switching antidepressants didn't help, so I brought it up to my gyno and asked if I could try a birth control with fewer sexual side effects. She instead commented that I had gained a lot of weight and my issue was probably a matter of 'self-confidence.' Her suggestion was that I join a gym and lose some weight."
"Uhhh, no, honey, you should hear the way my husband talks about my fat body. I feel confident as fuck. She just assumed that because I was fat, I had a poor body image. In doing so, she showed me what she truly thinks about fatness and fat people. I dropped that doctor immediately."
12. "I have PCOS. A few years ago, I went to my gyno to talk about sharp pains I was having in my ovaries. Unfortunately, my usual gyno was unavailable, so I saw someone else. I explained what was going on, and my pain was completely dismissed as gas because of my diet and weight."
"I'd never said anything about my diet, but she just went on for 10 minutes about what I should eat and how I should lose weight. I was so shocked and shamed that I didn't speak up for myself. I just left and never went back. It took years for me to schedule another appointment (in a different city because I moved), and even now, I'm reluctant to go back for any appointments for anything because I'm scared I'm going to be ignored and belittled again."
13. "A few years ago, I was going back and forth to my doctor's office with excruciating abdominal pain and daily vomiting. I had been given antibiotics by a previous doctor and was told to come back in if they had no effect. I didn’t get the same doctor when I went back, and after I explained the symptoms and that I wasn’t able to eat, the doctor said, 'Well, you need to lose weight anyway.'"
"She did not offer up any further treatment or referral to a specialist. I left the practice crying, and my mother took me back in to complain and get a second opinion. The second doctor, thankfully, took me seriously, and it turns out I had gallstones. I’ve found there have been similar issues with the treatment of my PCOS, which actually causes weight gain, despite me complaining about other symptoms that are bothering me. I’m regularly told to lose weight but given no help to do so, and my other issues are ignored."
14. "I was accidentally poisoned and had extreme nausea and vomiting, dangerously high blood pressure, and severe pain as a result. The doctor in the ER told me she wouldn’t give me anything for the nausea because medication has to be taken in moderation, which I didn’t show in other areas of my life."
"She also said it would be good for me not to be able to eat for a while and suggested I suck on ice chips. I requested a copy of my notes after the fact, and she had documented that my symptoms were completely resolved upon discharge. I went to my family doctor the next day and found out my liver was injured due to being poisoned, which was causing all of my symptoms. I had to be closely monitored for a long time afterward."
15. "My wrist was in excruciating pain. It was noticeably swollen and it hurt to move it. My ortho sent me for an MRI and told me there was nothing wrong. He said that there was a cyst but it was normal, and asked if I was being treated for my depression. I then asked why my wrist was so swollen, and he said it was just fat."
"I was shocked. I left the room and never went back. I took those same MRIs to my old ortho, who said I had a ganglion cyst attached to a bone spur. It was treated with a cortisone shot, and it's never been better."
16. "My shoulder used to dislocate all the time. The first surgeon I saw berated me and told me if I wasn’t so fat, I wouldn’t have this problem. They looked at my file and said, 'Furthermore, you would probably stop having miscarriages if you weren’t so fat.'"
"Totally out of his scope of practice. The second surgeon I saw said my shoulder was one of the worst he’s ever seen, and I had extensive surgery to fix it. He reported the first surgeon to the medical board and assured me this issue had nothing to do with my size. I also later learned that my recurrent miscarriages were from an STD from my cheating husband, so the first jerk was wrong on both accounts."
17. "When I was in elementary school, I started having heart palpitations and fainting spells out of seemingly nowhere. Every time my mom took me to the doctor, he said it was because of my weight. He recommended a diet (for a 10-year-old!) and more exercise than I was already doing (I played three sports)."
"The fainting spells and racing heart rates continued, and the doctor continued to blame my weight. Two years later, I had a particularly bad attack that lasted much longer than the others. My mom rushed me to the ER, and I was diagnosed with a heart defect called WPW, which is an extra electrical pathway in your heart that causes arrhythmia. Worse, it is known to kill athletes when their heart rates are accelerated because it triggers an attack. I had surgery and was fine after, but my doctor put me in direct danger of dying from overexertion because he was fixated on my weight."
18. "My tonsils have been insanely huge my whole life, which makes it extremely hard to breathe. When I was 15, I went to a specialist to see if I could get them removed. Long story short, he took one look at me and said, 'Your tonsils are large because you are clearly obese. If you lose weight, they will get smaller.'"
"I left the room crying. I went to another specialist, and he wanted to remove them as soon as possible because they were seriously affecting my ability to breathe."
19. "When I was 22, I hurt my knee while getting off a boat. I went to my doctor, who then sent me to a specialist. The specialist put me on diet pills, because OF COURSE the sole problem was my weight. I lost weight and it didn’t help at all."
"The specialist then did artificial cartilage injections because he assumed my weight had worn away the cartilage. The injections were so painful that I fainted every time I got them, and they didn’t even help. Finally, the doctor said he would surgically correct the cartilage issue. What did they find? A patellar tendon tear — my knee was barely holding itself together. Oh, and a cyst the size of my thumb. They had to implant a mesh to hold my tendon to the knee, and I had to have rehabilitation for months. Zero knee problems since then."
20. "I had a torn labrum in my hip after a fall. When I was finally able to see a surgeon about getting it fixed, his immediate response was that my pain was due to my weight — even though the pain hadn't gotten unbearable until after I lost 75 pounds. Then he said he didn't know if he could even repair the tear because he wasn't sure his tools would reach the hip joint."
"When he finally did the surgery, the first thing he said when I woke up wasn't 'How are you feeling?' or "Everything went well." It was 'Okay, now you gotta get that weight off.' I felt so humiliated and thrown aside."
21. "I've been struggling with hypothyroidism for years, and just when I think it is under control, it flares up. I went to a GI doctor to get help with severe stomach issues that were making it impossible to eat, like, at all. I was told if I wasn't eating, I should be thinner than I was. They dismissed it as IBS, and on my paperwork it literally said, 'You need to lose weight. Try Weight Watchers.'"
22. "I made an appointment with a surgeon for shoulder surgery to repair a rotator cuff that was injured in a fall. I called back a week later to follow up, and his (mortified) secretary told me that based solely on my BMI, he wouldn’t meet or speak with me until I lost over 100 pounds, and was referring me to a surgeon for gastric bypass."
"I got another referral to a surgeon at the same hospital who saw me and did the surgery with no difficulty or concerns. One of the nurses told me the first guy cherry-picked his cases and didn’t like to treat fat patients. He just assumed being overweight would have an impact on my shoulder repair without meeting me to discuss my fitness level, goals, or actual health."
Have you ever had an experience like this, where you felt ignored or mistreated by a doctor because of their fatphobia? If so, please tell us about your experience in the comments below.
Note: Some responses have been edited for length and/or clarity.