Going to the doctor has always been a fraught experience for me. As a child, I was consistently in the highest percentile for weight-for-height, and my pediatrician expressed concern from the get-go. He would talk to my mom about my weight in front of me, and it is probably one of my earliest experiences with the feeling of shame.
As the years went by, my experience with doctors didn’t improve. I would fear going to get check-ups, bracing myself for comments about my weight and how I would need to “do something about it.” Even on the occasions when I would go to the doctor having lost weight, I would be anxious and fearful that my doctor would congratulate me and tell me to “keep doing what you’re doing,” as that meant I would have to continue to restrict, over-exercise, and obsess about my weight.
When my PCP retired about six years ago, I made the conscious decision to try and find a weight-neutral doctor. A fellow non-diet dietitian recommended a concierge doctor as someone who did not push back when she was told that discussions of weight would be off the table. I met with this PCP and explained to her my concerns and my desire to be treated through a weight-neutral lens. While it was clear that she typically practiced from a weight-normative perspective, she said that she understood and would not push back on me regarding weight matters.
Despite having this conversation with her at the outset, I still felt anxiety and dread for my doctor’s appointments going forward. Even though I knew she would not bring up my weight in a negative way or push me to lose weight, the 35+ years of fatphobia I had experienced in the medical space up until then was not so easily erased. After many years of therapy, I’ve come to understand that all of those negative experiences I had with my doctors were traumatic events and that these types of experiences have led to my profound distrust and anxiety regarding physicians.
It wasn’t until about a year ago that I was able to find a doctor who expressly practices Health at Every Size®(HAES), and this has made a huge difference for me. The fact that she truly “gets it” and treats me as a whole person (i.e., not just a number on a scale) has greatly reduced my medical anxiety. I don’t hesitate to reach out to her with my health concerns as I know she will give me sound medical advice that is not tinged with weight stigma. In the event that I need to see a specialist, however, my old fears return, and I have to figure out a way to ensure that I get good medical care.
Many of my patients in larger bodies can relate to my feelings around going to the doctor. Most of them dread going to see doctors because they know that the topic of their weight will inevitably come up. In many cases, these patients have put off getting help for health concerns for fear that they will be weight-shamed. One of my patients struggled with indigestion for months before finally seeing her doctor only to find out she had multiple ulcers. Unfortunately, this experience is not unusual for fat patients. These kinds of instances are often noted as “noncompliance” in medical charts, further promoting the false idea that fat patients are to blame for their health issues when it is really weight stigma at play.
Over the years, I have worked with a number of patients on advocating for themselves in medical settings. In most cases, these strategies are successful, leading to the patient receiving respectful, weight-neutral care. I thought it could be helpful to share these strategies with our readers.
One strategy that has proven to be quite successful for my patients is reaching out to the new provider via email or the patient portal before their initial appointment. I have a template email that I recommend for my patients, but of course it’s best to tailor it to one’s own particular circumstances. In this initial message, I recommend telling the doctor that you are looking for weight-neutral care and providing examples of what that looks like. Some examples are not prescribing weight loss as a health intervention, not weighing the patient unless it is medically necessary (e.g., for proper dosage of certain medications), and not telling the patient the number if they do need to get weighed. In addition, it can be helpful to tell the physician that you have been practicing the concepts of HAES and intuitive eating and that you are happy to provide them with resources if they are interested in learning more.
Sometimes even if you have messaged your physician directly, that message does not get relayed to the rest of the medical staff. This can result in the staff being unaware of your no-weighing preference and lead to an uncomfortable situation at the first appointment. To lessen the chances of this happening, some of my patients have reached out to the medical office manager or the primary care nurse at the doctor’s practice ahead of time to specify that they do not want to be weighed at their appointments. You can also ask them to note it in your chart that you do not want to be weighed so that the staff is aware.
In the event that you are unable to reach the physician or medical office manager before your appointment, many of my patients have found it helpful to bring “Don’t Weigh Me” cards with them to their appointments. These cards were created by Ginny Jones, the founder of more-love.org, an online resource for parents who have kids with eating disorders. Ginny explains that in her own recovery from an eating disorder, getting weighed at the doctor’s office was always a major stressor for her. After investigating whether one needs to be weighed at every doctor’s appointment (hint: you don’t), she found that not being weighed at the doctor’s office greatly reduced her stress when going to these appointments. Ginny created small, wallet-friendly cards that you can use to facilitate the conversation with healthcare providers about not being weighed. Even if you don’t end up giving the card to your doctor, it can be helpful and empowering to look over it while in the waiting room prior to your appointment.
For some patients, even doing the above is not sufficient to allay their fears. In these cases, I recommend bringing a supportive family member or friend to the appointment as an ally. Ideally, this person should be someone who understands HAES and will help you advocate for yourself if you face weight stigma. Even if this person does not end up needing to intervene in any way, just having them next you can be an enormous help. When our bodies are flooded with anxiety, it’s often hard to remember all of the details relayed to us by our physician, so having someone there with you to take notes or ask follow-up questions is a helpful strategy.
Sometimes even doing all of the above does not work, and patients are still subjected to weight stigma at the doctor’s office. In these cases, I remind my patients that they have the right to find a different doctor who will respect their wishes regarding weight-neutral care. Though weight-neutral providers are few and far between, if you can find a fat-positive network in your area, often there will be a referral list of recommended providers (and ones to avoid). For instance, I am a member of the “Boston Area Fatties Meetup” Facebook group (a fat-positive group in Massachusetts), where members can ask for recommendations for fat-friendly doctors and other providers. This group also has an excel spreadsheet of fat-friendly providers in Massachusetts which can be searched by type of provider and location.
Currently, the Association for Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH) is working on compiling a list of fat-friendly providers into a database called the Health at Every Size® Provider Listing Project. According to the ASDAH website, they are working to create a better and more comprehensive listing of healthcare providers who are especially sensitive to the needs of marginalized groups including “Black people, trans people and superfat and larger people.” ASDAH has also provided a timeline of the different phases of this project, and currently (March 2023) they state that they will be launching their “new and improved” listing beta. We will be sure to keep you posted when the HAES Provider Listing is available for use.