A gif of a stethoscope and a line of pills leading to a woman standing on a weighing scale.
A study determined that nearly three-fourths of the general practitioners held negative attitudes toward obese patients. Photos courtesy: Freepik and Pexels

Mental Health

How Fatphobia by Doctors Stops People From Getting Medical Help

‘It’s a really traumatic experience, each time [you go] to the doctor.’

In the middle of last year, Sonaksha Iyengar began experiencing symptoms of a cold and cough. When it didn’t go away on its own, she visited an ENT doctor in Bengaluru to get diagnosed. Despite describing exactly what she was there for, the doctor looked at her and said, “I hope you’re losing weight.” 

“You’re young, you have a beautiful face, but you need to lose weight,” the doctor commented, adding that she had enough food in her body so a liquid diet would work best.

This was not the first time the 25-year-old had been on the receiving end of such comments. Iyengar lives with chronic pain in different parts of her body, due to which she has visited all sorts of doctors over the years and has grown increasingly frustrated with the attitude directed toward her weight. 

“Every time you go, you have to mentally prepare yourself for the fatphobia that is going to come, all the fat-shaming,” the Bengaluru-based illustrator told Re:Set. “It’s a really traumatic experience.” Over time, the trauma from the interactions has reached a point where she feels that she would rather “live with the pain than see a doctor.” 

Unsurprisingly, her feelings are not unfounded. A French study determined that nearly three-fourths of the general practitioners who were surveyed held negative attitudes toward obese patients. A study of dental students revealed that 18% of them felt uncomfortable examining an obese patient while nearly 17% considered that it was difficult to feel empathy towards these patients. 

A study of dental students revealed that 18% of them felt uncomfortable examining an obese patient.

Research from the U.K. revealed that general practitioners were more likely to take a victim-blaming approach towards obesity, pointing to the responsibility of the individual. The patients in that study were more likely to attribute their weight to low-income or medical causes. The research adds that this difference in perceived causes for obesity may hinder communication between the doctor and patient. 

An image of Soumya Mishra wearing blue overalls and a dark full sleeve sweater.

Doctors’ visits became a harrowing experience for Mishra. Photo courtesy: Soumya Mishra

For others, like 24-year-old Soumya Mishra, weight has constantly been brought up not just by general doctors but by mental health professionals as well. Having been diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) in high school, she’d been told to lose weight. Research shows that losing weight through lifestyle changes can improve related symptoms, but PCOS can also lead to women gaining and retaining weight more easily.

Over the years, the Odisha-based freelancer took the medical advice and controlled her diet, but the needle on the scale did not budge. “I would cry [before going to the doctor] because I knew what the response was going to be…after [they make] me step on the weighing scale.” 

“I’ve seen a lot of clients [who] are afraid of going to the doctor, they’d rather not go… and I’ve seen people suffer through it.”

Around three years ago, Mishra found herself experiencing depressive symptoms and decided to visit a psychiatrist. “It’s because of your weight that you’re not active, you’re [having] depression,” she recalled being told by the practitioner. The psychiatrist then sat her down with her parents and suggested that she take medication to reduce her weight.

“I was already on antidepressants, sleeping pills [to deal with insomnia], medicines for migraine, and on top of that they wanted to add [these weight-loss pills],” she said. Later, the family decided that it was best not to continue with that practitioner.

“I’ve seen a lot of clients [who] are afraid of going to the doctor, they’d rather not go…and I’ve seen people suffer through it,” Aditi Ghatole, a Nagpur-based trauma counselor told Re:Set. 

“It is a known fact that medical doctors need training, even in the disclosure and handling of things,” Ghatole said. This bias that comes in might affect the entire treatment, she said, adding that while weight is an important factor, the lens of the diagnosis cannot be completely dependent on that alone. 

Also read: Why Teenagers Are Feeling the Pressure to Lose Weight During the COVID-19 Lockdown

Weight bias in the medical care setting also carries long-term implications. A study also showed that this may lead to postponement by overweight patients in seeking timely medical care and screenings which could result in diseases getting more serious. Without proper counseling and referral, overweight and obese patients could be at further risk of morbidity and mortality

For Mishra, her positive interactions with younger health professionals offer a beacon of hope as some are often aware of biases. She has come across those who have been open to communicating more and hopes that they will help her ease back into the process as she considers restarting therapy. 

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How Fatphobia by Doctors Stops People From Getting Medical Help