Body-Shaming Can Damage Your Physical Health, Too

Woman on scales

by Katie Rosseinsky |

It turns out that body-shaming isn’t just inappropriate, unnecessary and potentially damaging to our self-esteem and self-worth: a new study suggests that derogatory comments about weight and size can impact upon the physical as well as mental health of those who experience it, especially if a healthcare professional is the one doing the ‘shaming.’

While a higher BMI can of course be linked to health problems, if a patient feels they are likely to be treated in a judgemental, patronising or antagonistic way thanks to their weight, they might postpone or avoid seeking advice from their doctor, according to a review of research presented at the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association (as noted by Refinery29). This in turn can lead to delayed diagnosis and treatment.

‘Disrespectful treatment and medical fat shaming, in an attempt to motivate people to change their behaviour, is stressful and can cause patients to delay health care seeking or avoid interacting with providers,’ explained Joan Chrisler, a psychology professor at Connecticut College.

Some doctors might recommend different treatments to those who are overweight than they typically would to those with ‘healthy’ weights, potentially postponing important tests with the seemingly catch-all solution of ‘losing a bit of weight,’ it was suggested in the symposium titled ‘Weapons of Mass Distraction – Confronting Sizeism.’

As Dr. Chrisler put it, ‘Recommending different treatments for patients with the same condition based on their weight is unethical and a form of malpractice. Research has shown that doctors repeatedly advise weight loss for fat patients while recommending CAT scans, blood work or physical therapy for other, average weight patients.’

Bias can also be experienced in the form of what Chrisler describes as ‘microaggressions’: ‘a provider’s apparent reluctance to touch a fat patient, or a headshake, wince or ‘tsk’ while noting the patient’s weight.’

The study found that weight-based discrimination might be worse when it intersects with the likes of racism, ageism, sexism, transphobia and class-based prejudices.

A potential solution? The authors propose that medical professionals need to be better trained in order to confront this often unconscious prejudice and learn how to speak to patients in a way that is more empowering, less hurtful.

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