Doctors, quite often, don’t listen to women. I wish I were making that up, but there are sad statistics to back it up: They minimize our pain, they cut us off after a mere 12 seconds of talking, they automatically assume any and all of our symptoms are due to being female, hysterical or both. To be fair, men are not immune to being shut out by the white-coat wall and doctors are under an immense amount of pressure with heavy case loads, but it does seem that women bear the brunt of the problem.
The latest way doctors are dismissing female (and to a lesser extent male) patients has to do with their weight. In women who are overweight or obese, some doctors assume that any complaint is both caused by, and can be cured by their weight. It’s called weight discrimination, and in a study done by the University of Pennsylvania, more than half of primary care doctors said they assumed negative things about their patients and their health because of their weight, and a third confessed to shaming patients for their weight. (And that’s just the ones who would admit to it!)
But the numbers only tell part of the story. To understand how deeply painful, frustrating and even life-threatening weight bias can be, you have to hear the stories from the women themselves.
1. They ignore serious symptoms. “I went to see my doctor because I was hemorrhaging only to be told it was just heavy periods because I was fat. Nope. It turns out I had endocervical cancer with a tumor the size of a grapefruit.” Nechamah S.
2. They don’t do proper testing. “I went to see my doctor for intense pain and what I thought was appendicitis. I was rushed into emergency surgery because he said I had a twisted ovary and would die of gangrene if I did not have surgery right away. It turns out it was just a cyst and could have been taken care of without surgery. I got my medical records after, and in the records the doctor said that I was ‘obese’ and that he could not feel my ovaries and so he had to do emergency surgery. Obese? I’m a size 14.” – Cheri G.
3. They don’t take your medical history into account. “I went to see my doctor for back pain and all he would tell me was that if I wasn’t overweight I wouldn’t have back problems. Come to find out later I actually had a slipped disk. The experience has really affected me since. I’ve never been “skinny” and I have weight issues due to all the meds I’m on. It’s not like I sit around and eat doughnuts all day. Not that there’s anything wrong with that but I feel like all overweight people are categorized together no matter what the underlying issue.” – Katie H.
4. They dismiss the most probable diagnosis because of your weight. “I have high androgens, cystic ovaries and no period yet, I had a gynecologist and an endocrinologist tell me that they couldn’t diagnose me with polycystic ovarian syndrome until I lost 10 percent of my body weight. So I went from 197 to 165. I still have all the symptoms but now I have been passed on to yet another doctor because it’s supposedly a weight problem, not an endocrine disorder.” – Camille M.
5. They tell you losing weight will cure all your problems. “I suffer from infertility, endometriosis, miscarriages and chronic headaches. They all clearly stem from hormone issues, yet I have often been told that weight loss would cure all. Well, I lost over 100 pounds and it didn’t. In fact, it made some of my health problems worse and it even added another when my chronic dieting progressed into an eating disorder.” – Leah K.
6. They see weight as the cause instead of the symptom. “After I moved, I started having major health issues that were really effecting my ability to function. My general practitioner and OB-GYN dismissed it as from being overweight and they said I just needed to exercise and eat better. I knew that the weight was a symptom and not the cause, however. I finally found a wonderful endocrinologist who diagnosed me with hypothyroidism — of which one of the symptoms is weight gain — and was very caring about it.” – Marianne F.
7. They make assumptions about your body and health without checking. “My (female) doctor didn’t want to listen to me at all when I had trouble getting pregnant and thought I was making it all up. She said “You’re 23. When you’re 30 come back and I’ll help you get pregnant, you’re too young to worry about it right now.” I had to see multiple doctors before one decided to actually test my hormones at various points in the cycle. Eventually, I was diagnosed with PCOS. If that doctor wouldn’t have tested me and put me on fertility meds I’m not sure I would have ever been able to get pregnant.” – Candace A.
8. They tell you it’s all in your head. “I’ve had chronic pain in my legs and lower back for two years. It got so bad I had to quit my job as a waitress and stop doing a lot of things I loved because I’d easily fatigue and not know how my body would react. When I went to see my doctor at the VA, he talked to me like I was a little kid — telling me to take vitamins, rest and of course lose weight. He implied it was all in my head. Finally I went to another hospital system and asked for an MRI. The results clearly showed I have two disc herniations. I have had herniated discs this entire time! It kills me because my pain has been caused by something physical (that was not my weight!) and something could have been done to fix it. Instead, I suffered for years.” – Amber M.
9. They give different advice to thin people with the same symptoms. “I’ve suffered from heavy periods for years but my doctor kept blaming them on my weight. So I found a new doctor and asked her what she told skinny people with the same problem. She agreed to run some tests. We found out I was extremely anemic and had other problems; eventually I got a hysterectomy. She was wonderful.” – Sue H.