Medical Fat-Shaming Almost Killed My Mom

by Holly Garcia
Scary Mommy and Tetra Images/Getty

As far back as I can remember, my mom was unhappy with her body. While she didn’t come straight out and say she hated her body, her neverending journey to change it and lose weight said everything she didn’t.

It was all innocent enough until I got older and realized how much my mom’s weight bothered her. Actually, it is more accurate to say how much people’s opinion of her weight bothered her. Now, you might think these opinions came from people she worked with or random strangers on the street.

It shouldn’t have been anyone, but if it had to be, I wish it had been someone like that who shamed her. I wish that it was someone who played an insignificant role in her life. Instead, it was medical professionals.

They never called her fat (to my knowledge) but were always primarily focused on her losing weight. Never mind what her blood pressure or cholesterol numbers were. Lord forbid they delve deeper into what her relationship with food was. Or maybe, a radical idea coming at you, offer her balanced, healthy eating ideas.

1998, after her 6-week postpartum check-up with my youngest brother, would mark the last time she stepped foot in a doctor’s office for over two decades.

Over the next 21-years, she would twist her ankle because of a fall and never receive treatment. There were a handful of times she had a cold, which was much more likely an upper respiratory infection, but she soldiered through without antibiotics. There even came a point in early 2019 she failed to mention, when half her face was paralyzed. She brushed it off as self-diagnosed Bell’s palsy.

Every time she failed to go to the doctor’s office, we would ask her — Mom, why don’t you just go get it checked out?

Because I don’t want to.

Because I don’t want to get on the scale.

Because they’re just going to tell me to lose weight.

The truth was, she would rather endure the physical pain and discomfort of her illness than be shamed by a doctor because of her weight. Unfortunately, the deadliest repercussion was yet to come.

Mom had been acting strangely for a week or so, when my sister finally coaxed her into going to get some routine blood work done. That same day, the routine blood work swiftly turned into a hospital admission. My mother wouldn’t leave a hospital room for months because of a Stage IV CNS lymphoma cancer diagnosis.

The strange behavior was due to a tumor in her brain pressing against her cerebrum and cerebellum (her speech and mobility). In the early days of chemo and blood transfusions, due to the tumors and the medication, she had no strength and needed a lot of assistance getting into her chair for chemo.


Getty Images/Science Photo Libra

I’ll never forget the time my Dad told me one of the nurses at a chemo session made an incredibly dramatized announcement — we’re gonna need the lift for this one. Even in the moments where her weight and body size should have been the least of anyone’s concern, unconscious bias reared its ugly head. At that moment, the nurse didn’t see my mom as a cancer patient; she saw her as an overweight one and didn’t think twice about shaming her.

This is only one example of the unconscious biases people who live in larger size bodies face all the time. For many people, body-shaming is second nature, whether it’s intentional or not.

I like to think if her doctor back in 1998 understood how much their shaming and words impacted my mom, they’d have thought twice about how they handled conversations about her body. In my mom’s case, fat stigma and fat-shaming were nearly lethal. It is no exaggeration to say if she hadn’t finally agreed to go in when she did, she wouldn’t be with us today.

This result was decades in the making. But I wondered if things had gotten better 21 years later. I was curious to know if things like this happened to women other than my mom.

I asked connections on various social media platforms if they’d experienced weight-shaming in a medical setting. A few brave souls shared that these experiences are more the rule than the exception. One woman described her own experience with fat bias at a recent doctor’s appointment.

The purpose of the appointment was to run blood work to test for a thyroid condition that could be impacting her mental health. The results came back, and her doctor immediately requested they be redone. Why? Because the initial blood work result that came back indicated she suffered from hyperthyroidism (associated with weight loss).

The doctor couldn’t wrap their mind around the fact that someone who presented as overweight would be suffering from a condition that causes many people to lose weight. Ready for the best part? The second time the blood work came back, it showed the same result. (Please note the sarcasm dripping from my words; I couldn’t help myself.)

Fat-shaming and unconscious biases about people who live in larger bodies are incredibly harmful to people’s emotional, mental, and physical health. Often, fat-shaming is not intentional, or even something people are aware they’re doing. But the problem is, it happens all the time.

If you are someone who lives in a body society deems socially acceptable, think critically before commenting on someone’s weight loss, weight gain, or their body in general.

If you’re someone who has been the subject of body-shaming, first off, I am sorry for your experience. No matter if it was in an obvious way or something more subtle, it shouldn’t have happened. It shouldn’t be on the people experiencing the shaming and stigma to educate everyone else. But the truth is, people who have never lived in a larger body have no idea what it is like to feel the way you have.

Please, if you aren’t currently keeping up to date with your emotional, mental, and physical health care, make that call and take good care of yourself. Let my mother’s close call be a cautionary tale of what could happen. Continue having these important conversations to end the stigma and encourage body acceptance for everybody.