Medical Fatphobia: How Fat Shaming Almost Killed My Friend

Fat people are justifiably afraid of being patronized and dehumanized by doctors.

Last updated on Feb 13, 2023

plus sized woman talking to doctor chalermphon_tiam / Shutterstock

By Virgie Tovar

My friend and I met at the Curvy Girl Lingerie fashion show a few years ago. “I don’t mean to be a creeper," she said, "but I know you from the Internet.”

She later told me that her friend had to force her to say hi to me. I was immediately hooked: She wore vintage frames, was dressed in technicolor, and had a caustic sense of humor with the kind of side-eye people get medals for.


I got the sense she was someone I could spill the tea with, and that’s, like, 87% of what I’m looking for in a new acquaintance.

RELATED: America’s Real Weight Problem Is The Burden We Place On Fat People

When I found out fatphobia in the medical field had almost led to her death, I hadn’t seen her in months — not since that time we went to this little bakery in San Jose and we ran into someone she totally hated from high school who awkwardly came over and hugged her, despite the semi-hostile awkwardness we were projecting outward, like hateful Care Bear stares.

“I’ve been dealing with a lot. I had a medical scare,” she said to me. My stomach drops.


She tells me how she was exhausted all the time, unable to walk very far without feeling real, really bad.

She figured it was just her weight, because, hey, that’s what all fat people are taught to think whenever we have symptoms of literally anything, from dizziness to pain to swelling.

We forego doctor visits because we know with near-total certitude that we are going to be told to lose weight. That we don’t need care — we just need to “cut back.”

Her medical situation escalated such that she decided to go see her doctor anyway. They called her back after running some tests and told her she needed to go to a hospital as quickly as possible.


It turns out she had anemia and didn’t know it. Her life was in danger; her red blood cell count was so low they had to perform an emergency blood transfusion.

When she told me she was looking forward to donating blood herself as soon as she was able, I almost cried. Right there.

On the cinnamon roll, we were sharing.

When I was collecting essays for my book, "Hot & Heavy," back in 2011, a woman named Abby sent me a piece she’d written about her experience with being misdiagnosed because of medical fatphobia.

She’d gone to the doctor with severe and sporadic periods — she was out shopping, looked down, and saw she was leaving behind a trail of blood. We are already always seen as sick, so when symptoms begin to arise, we just see them as part of what it means to be fat.


She sensed something was really wrong, but when she went in for her appointment she was told by her (very thin) doctor that the trouble was that she was overweight and that she could leave this whole thing behind her if she just set her mind to shed some pounds.

Four years later, cancer that had already begun to grow back on that day of the appointment had spread.

A couple of years after reading that essay, I was asked to speak at a nurses’ conference in Philly. In preparation, I asked fat people to submit narratives about medical experiences that had shaped their view of healthcare.

RELATED: A Woman Fat-Shamed Me On The Subway And I Actually Fought Back


I expected to receive about 15 replies but ended up combing through 60 stories that left me shaking with rage.

Abby wasn’t the only person whose cancer went undetected due to a medical professional’s fatphobic bias. There were people who’d had unnecessary surgeries, openly hostile doctors, and who’d been refused treatment because of their weight.

I’m a fat person who under-utilizes her medical care coverage for all the same reasons that lots of fat people under-utilize medical care (if they even have it at all).

There’s a long list of grievances:

  • We’re afraid we’re going to get fat-shamed.
  • We’re afraid to get weighed because we’re taught to feel shame about our weight.
  • We’re afraid that a doctor will confirm that we have something that the culture thinks only fat people get — diabetes, high blood pressure, joint pain — and that we will not receive empathy.
  • We’re afraid to disrobe or be touched because we are taught to feel shame about our bodies.
  • We’re afraid of medical negligence and being told that, no matter what is wrong, our illnesses are essentially our fault.
  • We’re afraid of being patronized and dehumanized.
  • We’re overcome with anxiety about having to self-advocate.
  • We’re already always seen as sick, and so when symptoms begin to arise, we just see them as part of what it means to be fat.
  • We’re taught to devalue our bodies, so taking care of ourselves is not seen as a worthwhile pursuit.

All of these things lead to an insidious cycle — fat people experience medical fatphobia from care providers, which in turn leads to seeking less medical care. Then we wait longer to report symptoms, and, therefore, go untreated for lengthier periods.


When we finally hit a point where we can no longer deal with the symptoms, doctors will see us at our absolute worst health-wise, and their attitudes about fat people are confirmed. And the cycle starts all over again.

My friend is OK now, but after we parted ways and I went home, I started to think about medical fatphobia and how it isn’t just the moments when a doctor refuses to show empathy or provide proper care to a fat patient — it’s also all the moments when we as fat people choose not to seek the care we deserve because we’re intimidated.

I was reminded that fighting for fat rights isn’t just about fighting for access to clothing or the demand to be seen as beautiful.

It is also fighting for the right to have equal access to things that can save our lives, for the right to be seen as fully human, and for the right to know that our friends will be safe in the hands of a doctor — regardless of their weight.


RELATED: I Stopped Listening To Doctors Because They Almost Killed My Child

Virgie Tovar is an author, activist, and one of the nation's leading experts and lecturers on fat discrimination and body image. She has been featured on NPR, Huffington Post, the New York Times, MTV, Bust Magazine, Jezebel, and others.