About a month ago, I hyperextended my right knee while lying in bed. As a result of this (and a history of knee problems that I’ve had for the past decade or so), I had a very bad flare-up of osteoarthritis. I wish that I could say that I had injured myself doing something much more fun or exciting, but I guess when you are in your 40s, this stuff starts happening to you. Interestingly, aside from the initial sharp pain and chronic aching that ensued for several weeks, I noticed that I had some other feelings as well. The usual feelings of sadness and frustration were present of course, but there was something else too: panic.
When I tried to think about why I might be feeling panic in this situation, I had to wade through a lot of things: history, past trauma, hurt, and fear. Since I have always been in a fat body (although at times it has been straight size through restriction and overexercise), I have had a troubled relationship with medical professionals. Starting from a very young age, I became aware that my larger body was something problematic and to be feared. I have very early memories of feeling ashamed of my body whenever I would be weighed at the pediatrician’s office. I remember my pediatrician warning my mother about my weight percentile on my growth charts, and in turn she would turn her concern into “let’s fix this” mode, keeping an eye on my eating and monitoring my portions. I remember being weighed in my kindergarten class, and everyone’s weights were listed next to their names on the chalkboard, so everyone knew where they “ranked” in body size. I was the heaviest girl, of course.
As I got older, my fraught relationship with medical professionals continued. When I entered my late teens, I switched over from my childhood pediatrician to a family physician who was also a family friend. At one point, I believe he treated at least four of my five nuclear family members. And every year, I would dread going to see him as I knew that my weight would be brought up as an issue. Of course, there were a few years when I had lost weight that I looked forward to going to the doctor as I knew that I would receive praise and encouragement to keep going (never mind that what I was doing to lose the weight could qualify as an eating disorder). But even occasional weight loss didn’t stop me from feeling anxiety when going to the doctor. Because I knew that my body was still “wrong.”
When I found Health at Every Size (HAES), I felt like I could finally breathe for the first time. At last, here was a paradigm that welcomed my body and encouraged me to take good care of it, no matter what size I was. I stopped my periods of dieting and worked on improving my relationship with food and my body. I found a physician who is weight-inclusive and treats me as a whole entity, not just my weight. I learned how to advocate for myself in medical situations when my weight would be brought up as an issue. I have helped countless patients navigate their own troubled waters of medical weight stigma. I have been in therapy for many years and continue to work on these issues as they arise.
But despite all of this work I have done and continue to do, most medical situations result in that pit-in-my-stomach feeling. I flash back to the decades where I was taught that my ailments or injuries were due to my weight and that feeling of shame and embarrassment that would wash over my face when a doctor would give me the “weight lecture.” All of those years of hearing that my fat body was to blame for almost anything negative occurring to it sunk in deep and etched into my brain. So whenever I have a medical situation, whether it is slightly elevated cholesterol in my lipid panel, a knee injury, or sleep issues, my knee-jerk reaction is to brace for the inevitable “weight lecture.” Never mind that I have found the unicorn of PCPs who not only understands and practices through a HAES lens, but also lives in a larger body herself which makes her even more empathetic. I know that my PCP’s office is a safe space and that my fat body will be treated with care and respect.
And even with all of this knowledge, the past trauma that I have received around my body in medical settings is still present. It makes me sad and also makes me incredibly angry. I think about all of my patients who have been through similar experiences with their healthcare providers. I think about the fact that I hold a lot of privilege (being small-medium fat, white, cis gender, heterosexual, able-bodied, financially stable, etc.) and that those who don’t hold those privileges are treated as less than at best and are downright abused at worst in these medical settings.
It is really enough to make me feel very cynical and jaded about the medical profession as a whole, and as a result, I am hesitant to seek out medical care. But despite this, I know that the only way things are going to change in our medical system is if enough of us stand up and refuse to be treated this way. The more patients that I can help to advocate for themselves in medical settings, the more doctors I can try to educate about the harms of weight stigma, and the more that I can speak up in moments of witnessed weight stigma (along with racism, homophobia, and a plethora of other abuses), the more I feel I can somehow make a difference, even if it is just for one person.