the HAES® files: When Prejudice Precludes Proper Healthcare

by Health At Every Size® Blog

by Ragen Chastain

When I was in college I had knee pain.  I was at the lowest weight of my adult life thanks to an as-yet undiagnosed eating disorder.  I went to the doctor and he gave me over a dozen options – had I considered massage or rolling it out on a rolling pin or baseball bat (these were the pre-foam roller and tiger stick days)?  He offered to prescribe physical therapy, saying that they could use ultrasound, ice, muscle manipulation and specific exercises to rehab the knee.  If all else failed we could look at surgery he said.

I did massage (ouch!), rolling on a baseball bat (double ouch!) and physical therapy and the knee got better.  It turned out that the problem wasn’t the knee itself but rather tightness of muscles and the IT band pulling on it.

Fast forward to a few years ago: after years of weight cycling my weight had finally stabilized thanks to my shift from a focus on body size and dieting to a focus on healthy behaviors.  I had the same knee pain that I’d had before, and this time I was one hundred pounds heavier than I had been during my ED days.  I headed to the doctor to get a prescription for physical therapy.  He told me the only thing that could possibly be done about my knee was weight loss.  I explained that I had this same pain at a much lower weight and that I would like to treat it the same way.  He said that there was “no point” in prescribing me physical therapy since I was “obviously too lazy” to do the exercises they would prescribe.  After finally talking him into prescribing the PT, he said that it “better work” since nobody would consider doing surgery on someone my size.

This is the healthcare that fatphobia has wrought.  A world where doctors feel free to stereotype fat patients. A world where thin people who go to the doctor get evidence-based options that are shown to solve their health problem, and fat people are diagnosed as fat and prescribed weight loss whether we have strep throat or are holding a severed limb (despite the stunning lack of evidence that it will lead to a smaller body or better health – which are, of course, two different things).

Doctors are subject to the same bigotry as anyone else, and in a society rife with racism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, ageism, sizeism and more, doctors’ personal prejudices can have a seriously detrimental effect on the ability of people in oppressed groups to get access to good evidence-based healthcare.  As a fat person we can see this in a number of ways.

Assumptions/Stereotypes 

The fat phobia of our culture – in which the government actively encourages everyone to see fat people as walking stereotypes – leads to doctors who feel confident putting more faith in their stereotypes of us than in what we actually tell them.  I can’t even count the number of times a doctor has told me to eat less and exercise more without having asked me how much I eat or exercise.  I once had a doctor tell me “I know it’s going to be hard, and you’re going to want to quit, but I need you to starting walking ten minutes a day.  I promise it will get easier.”  This was near the end of my training for my first marathon and I was regularly walking for 15 and 20 miles at a stretch.  When I told the doctor that, he said that if I didn’t want to do the walking I should just say so – not make up a story.

Lack of Evidence-Based Medicine and Informed Consent

When a doctor “prescribes” weight loss to me (which they have done when I presented with strep throat, a broken toe, and a separated shoulder) I always ask “Do you think that a recommendation of weight loss constitutes the ethical practice of evidence based medicine?”  They say “Yes.”  So I reply “Can you give me a study where participants lost the amount of weight that you are suggesting that I lose, maintained that weight loss long-term, and gained the health benefit you are saying it will have?” The answer ranges from “Everybody knows that you can lose weight if you try hard enough” to “I’m sure that there are studies.”

The answer is anything but the name of a study, because there isn’t one.  There isn’t a single study where more than a tiny fraction of people maintain weight loss long-term; in none of those studies was the weight loss more than a very small percentage of body weight (often 2-5 pounds); and, there isn’t a single study that has even attempted to prove that people who maintain weight loss receive health benefits.  This whole weight loss paradigm is based on guesses and bad science.  Thin people get all the same health problems that fat people do, and they aren’t prescribed weight loss. So why do they get evidence-based interactions and we get “try to manipulate your body size in a way that we have no reason to believe will make you thinner or healthier?”  That’s not evidence-based medicine. Doctors who fail to tell patients the truth about the research are also guilty of the ethics breach of failing to give the patient the opportunity for informed consent.

Refusing Treatment Based on Prejudice

A friend of mine was recently denied minimally invasive arthroscopic knee surgery by an orthopedic surgeon who claimed that her body size made the surgery too dangerous.  The surgeon gave my friend a referral to a bariatric surgeon.  So simple knee surgery with very few known side effects is too dangerous, but stomach amputation that often results in life-altering side effects and death is a great idea?

The idea that weight loss is a path to health is a Galileo issue – it’s widely believed, fervently supported, and it’s heresy to question it.  But “everybody knows” isn’t the same thing as “evidence-based.” If we are to give fat people access to good healthcare we must start by letting go of the idea that manipulation of body size is a health practice, and the mistaken belief that behaviors that supposedly promote weight loss are the same thing as behaviors that support health.  Healthcare providers must address their own prejudices and overcome them to see each patient as an individual who deserves ethical, evidence-based, compassionate care.

Leap credit Richard Sabel.JPGRagen Chastain is a trained researcher, three-time National Champion dancer, and marathoner who speaks and writes full-time about body image, health and wellness. Ragen has spoken at venues from Google Headquarters, to Darmouth and CalTech, to the We Are Girls conference. She is the author of the blogs DancesWithFat and IronFat, and the book Fat: The Owner’s Manual. She is the editor of The Politics of Size – Perspectives from the Fat Acceptance Movement, published by Praeger, and co-editor of the work in progress “Throwing Our Weight Around:  Real Stories of Fat People in the Fitness World.”

Ragen is a feature interviewee in the documentaries “America the Beautiful 2 – The Thin Commandments,” released by Warner Brothers,  “A Stage for Size” released by USC Films, and “Ragen’s More Cabaret” released by PBS, and a movie about her time as a fat competitive dancer is currently in active development. Ragen lives in Los Angeles with her partner Julianne and their adorable rescue dogs Bu and ChadShannel, and in her free time she is training for her second marathon and her first IRONMAN Triathlon.

(Photograph by Richard Sabel.)

5 Comments to “the HAES® files: When Prejudice Precludes Proper Healthcare”

  1. We’re always focused on weight as opposed to health, which is what is so problematic, in my view, about all of those weight-loss reality shows. It annoys me so much when the person loses weight and is like “I feel like a person!” or something. Like really? You weren’t a person before? I think we further ingrain the idea that thin / athletic = healthy, as opposed to self-acceptance and healthful / mindful practices = healthy. Your account of your experience is important for us to remember when we talk about “professional” interventions in health. Yikes.

  2. I would have commented, Ragen, except for your inclusion of transphobia, a slur that is hurled at women who dare to think that men DO NOT BELONG in women’s sex-segregated spaces. It is also hurled at lesbians who do not want to have sex with men (who want to pretend they are female), and now it is hurled at gay men who do not want to have sex with women (who want to pretend they are men). I really wish people would think through the implications of transgenderism, including knowing the specifics of giving children puberty blockers, giving anyone cross-sex hormones, and surgeries that destroy healthy tissue.

    • Dogtowner,

      I stand with trans people and against the horribly misguided, bigoted, and oppressive “crotch and chromosome check” mistaken beliefs about gender in which you are currently mired. I will not allow you to use something I wrote as a platform to spew hate and bigotry unchecked. How dare you presume that you know better than someone else what their own gender is?

      The fact that you may not have a frame of reference that allows you to understand something or someone does not give you license to declare that they don’t or shouldn’t exist, or to spread bigotry and intolerance while claiming that you are somehow the victim because people you don’t understand or agree with are allowed to exist in the world. If you don’t want to be in spaces with trans people, then it is 100% your responsibility to remove yourself from spaces that trans people are enjoying.

      As a fat woman, as a queer woman, as someone just trying to be a decent human being I stand in solidarity with trans people and against the hatred and vitriol that you are spewing. I urge you to spend some time educating yourself and have included some sites below to help. It’s important to understand that trans people are dying because of this type of bigotry and oppression: [The next paragraph contains stats about anti-trans violence that may be triggering, they can be avoided by skipping to the next paragraph.]

      According to the Movement Advancement Project, most transgender participants reported some form of violence: 35% reported forced sex, sexual assault or rape, 42% reported some form of physical abuse and 80% reported verbal abuse. Trans people are 40% more likely to attempt suicide than the general population. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs tracking, while trans-people made up only 2% of their entire sample, trans-people made up 16% of all murder victims. The numbers are highest among trans people of color. As long as you are participating in anti-trans oppression and abuse (as you did in your comment above), you hold personal responsibility for these senseless tragedies since you are actively working to create an oppressive anti-trans culture. It’s unconscionable, and I’m asking you to stand for trans people and against transphobia.

      Regardless of whether you choose to confront your bigotry and educate yourself, I’ll say again for clarity that any issue you have with trans people is your issue alone, and you are responsible for solving it in a way that does not adversely affect trans people and their ability to move through the world safely and enjoy their rights to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness.

      ~Ragen Chastain

      Links: (These are certainly not comprehensive and I I welcome others to include other links as well)
      http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonkblog/wp/2015/01/22/the-state-of-transgender-america-massive-discrimination-little-data/
      http://www.bustle.com/articles/87452-5-shocking-facts-about-transgender-suicide-and-violence-that-you-need-to-know
      http://www.transpoc.org/
      http://www.transrespect-transphobia.org/
      https://twitter.com/hashtag/transphobia
      https://feministsfightingtransphobia.wordpress.com/
      http://www.lambdalegal.org/sites/default/files/2015_fighting-anti-trans-violence-fs-v6-singlepages.pdf

    • Dogtowner, your disturbing attitude is exactly what transphobia is. It saddens me to see someone in such a positive place as the Health At Every Size Blog showing such hate and bigotry toward others. I hope you examine your attitudes and bigotry and learn to be a more accepting and less hateful person.

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