By Alicia Roeder LMHC, LIMHP, therapist in Iowa and Nebraska
In our rapidly changing world, society's relationship with body image and weight has evolved over the years. Sadly, however, weight stigma persists, affecting many in more ways than one might imagine. In this post, I'd like to share my personal narrative intertwined with research to underscore the far-reaching impacts of weight stigma in healthcare.
A Childhood Marked by Microaggressions
Growing up and to this day, I navigate the world in a larger body. I regularly visited the same pediatrician as a child. Even then, there were subtle hints and microaggressions towards my weight. Researchers have found that such comments, particularly when made to impressionable young minds, can lead to lifelong repercussions regarding body image and self-worth1.
Switching to an adult doctor at 18, I encountered a more blatant manifestation of this bias. On my first visit, my BMI was noted, and I was labeled by my BMI, but also reassured that I wasn’t “that bad.” Those words burned into my memory. Was I supposed to be happy that I wasn’t “that bad”? Or was I supposed to feel shame and embarrassment for being ridiculed in what should have been a safe space? There are no right or wrong answers in relation to feelings. But I certainly struggled grappling with how I felt with his comments after our visit.
It's noteworthy to mention here that BMI, as a measure, has been criticized for its oversimplification and potential to mislabel people's health status2. But for me, the emotional scar ran deep.
Weight Stigma and Pregnancy
During a time meant to be filled with joy and anticipation, even my pregnancies weren’t free from weight-focused comments. One such remark about weight gain recommendations fueled my struggles with disordered eating. Sadly, such experiences aren't isolated. A study indicates that pregnant individuals in larger bodies often face biased counseling, leading to undue stress during an already sensitive period3.
The Power of Self-Advocacy
Back then, my understanding of weight stigma was limited. I internalized the comments, often resulting in avoidance of medical care to protect my mental well-being. This avoidance is a trend observed widely, with many postponing or avoiding doctor visits for fear of weight-related stigmatization4.
But growth comes with time and understanding. As an adult and after much research, I finally found an OBGYN who viewed me as more than just a number on the scale. The relief was obvious, echoing the sentiments of many others who've found compassionate care after facing bias5.
A Journey to Healing and Empowerment
With greater knowledge about weight stigma's profound impact on mental and physical health, I've armed myself with compassion and self-advocacy. Though there's always that lingering apprehension when entering a healthcare setting, I now approach such situations empowered and informed.
For all reading this, know that you deserve respect and compassion in every healthcare interaction. I know that I am not alone in facing these sorts of incidences. While past experiences can sting, there's hope in finding professionals who understand and advocate for unbiased care. Let us stand against weight stigma and foster trusting, supportive relationships with our healthcare providers.
If you need help processing past experiences, or support in general, please reach out to a mental health professional. You can find a list of providers in Iowa at edciowa.org!
Puhl, R. M., & Latner, J. D. (2007). Stigma, obesity, and the health of the nation's children. Psychological Bulletin, 133(4), 557. ↩
Tomiyama, A. J., et al. (2018). The weight-inclusive versus weight-normative approach to health: Evaluating the evidence for prioritizing well-being over weight loss. Journal of Obesity. ↩
Mulherin, K., Miller, Y. D., Barlow, F. K., Diedrichs, P. C., & Thompson, R. (2013). Weight stigma in maternity care: women's experiences and care providers' attitudes. BMC pregnancy and childbirth, 13(1), 19. ↩
Phelan, S. M., Burgess, D. J., Yeazel, M. W., Hellerstedt, W. L., Griffin, J. M., & van Ryn, M. (2015). Impact of weight bias and stigma on quality of care and outcomes for patients with obesity. Obesity Reviews, 16(4), 319-326. ↩
Meadows, A., & Daníelsdóttir, S. (2016). What's in a word? On weight stigma and terminology. Frontiers in psychology, 7, 1527. ↩