A NOTE ABOUT OUR PHOTOGRAPHSSo many images you see in articles about obesity strip fat people of their strength and personality. According to a recent study, only 11 percent of large people depicted in news reports were wearing professional clothing. Nearly 60 percent were headless torsos. So, we asked our interview subjects to take full creative control of the photos in this piece. This is how they want to present themselves to the world.
This is Corissa Enneking at her lightest: She wakes up, showers and smokes a cigarette to keep her appetite down. She drives to her job at a furniture store, she stands in four-inch heels all day, she eats a cup of yogurt alone in her car on her lunch break. After work, lightheaded, her feet throbbing, she counts out three Ritz crackers, eats them at her kitchen counter and writes down the calories in her food journal.
Or not. Some days she comes home and goes straight to bed, exhausted and dizzy from hunger, shivering in the Kansas heat. She rouses herself around dinnertime and drinks some orange juice or eats half a granola bar. Occasionally she’ll just sleep through the night, waking up the next day to start all over again.
The last time she lived like this, a few years ago, her mother marched her to the hospital. “My daughter is sick,” she told the doctor. “She's not eating.” He looked Enneking up and down. Despite six months of starvation, she was still wearing plus sizes, still couldn’t shop at J. Crew, still got unsolicited diet advice from colleagues and customers.
Enneking told the doctor that she used to be larger, that she’d lost some weight the same way she had lost it three or four times before—seeing how far she could get through the day without eating, trading solids for liquids, food for sleep. She was hungry all the time, but she was learning to like it. When she did eat, she got panic attacks. Her boss was starting to notice her erratic behavior.
“Well, whatever you're doing now,” the doctor said, “it's working.” He urged her to keep it up and assured her that once she got small enough, her body would start to process food differently. She could add a few hundred calories to her diet. Her period would come back. She would stay small, but without as much effort.
“If you looked at anything other than my weight,” Enneking says now, “I had an eating disorder. And my doctor was congratulating me.”
Ask almost any fat person about her interactions with the health care system and you will hear a story, sometimes three, the same as Enneking’s: rolled eyes, skeptical questions, treatments denied or delayed or revoked. Doctors are supposed to be trusted authorities, a patient’s primary gateway to healing. But for fat people, they are a source of unique and persistent trauma. No matter what you go in for or how much you’re hurting, the first thing you will be told is that it would all get better if you could just put down the Cheetos.Emily went to a gynecological surgeon to have an ovarian cyst removed. The physician pointed out her body fat on the MRI, then said, “Look at that skinny woman in there trying to get out.”
This phenomenon is not merely anecdotal. Doctors have shorter appointments with fat patients and show less emotional rapport in the minutes they do have. Negative words—“noncompliant,” “overindulgent,” “weak willed”—pop up in their medical histories with higher frequency. In one study, researchers presented doctors with case histories of patients suffering from migraines. With everything else being equal, the doctors reported that the patients who were also classified as fat had a worse attitude and were less likely to follow their advice. And that’s when they see fat patients at all: In 2011, the Sun-Sentinel polled OB-GYNs in South Florida and discovered that 14 percent had barred all new patients weighing more than 200 pounds.
Some of these doctors are simply applying the same presumptions as the society around them. An anesthesiologist on the West Coast tells me that as soon as a larger patient goes under, the surgeons start trading “high school insults” about her body over the operating table. Janice O’Keefe, a former nurse in Boston, tells me a doctor once looked at her, paused, then asked, “How could you do this to yourself?” Emily, a counselor in Eastern Washington, went to a gynecological surgeon to have an ovarian cyst removed. The physician pointed out her body fat on the MRI, then said, “Look at that skinny woman in there trying to get out.”
“I was worried I had cancer,” Emily says, “and she was turning it into a teachable moment about my weight.”
Other physicians sincerely believe that shaming fat people is the best way to motivate them to lose weight. “It’s the last area of medicine where we prescribe tough love,” says Mayo Clinic researcher Sean Phelan.
In a 2013 journal article, bioethicist Daniel Callahan argued for more stigma against fat people. “People don’t realize that they are obese or if they do realize it, it’s not enough to stir them to do anything about it,” he tells me. Shame helped him kick his cigarette habit, he argues, so it should work for obesity too.
This belief is cartoonishly out of step with a generation of research into obesity and human behavior. As one of the (many) stigma researchers who responded to Callahan’s article pointed out, shaming smokers and drug users with D.A.R.E.-style “just say no” messages may have actually increased substance abuse by making addicts less likely to bring up their habit with their doctors and family members.
Plus, rather obviously, smoking is a behavior; being fat is not. Jody Dushay, an endocrinologist and obesity specialist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, says most of her patients have tried dozens of diets and have lost and regained hundreds of pounds before they come to her. Telling them to try again, but in harsher terms, only sets them up to fail and then blame themselves.89%of obese adults have been bullied by their romantic partnersSource: University of Connecticut, 2017
Not all physicians set out to denigrate their fat patients, of course; some of them do damage because of subtler, more unconscious biases. Most doctors, for example, are fit—“If you go to an obesity conference, good luck trying to get a treadmill at 5 a.m.,” Dushay says—and have spent more than a decade of their lives in the high-stakes, high-stress bubble of medical schools. According to several studies, thin doctors are more confident in their recommendations, expect their patients to lose more weight and are more likely to think dieting is easy. Sarah (not her real name), a tech CEO in New England, once told her doctor that she was having trouble eating less throughout the day. “Look at me,” her doctor said. “I had one egg for breakfast and I feel fine.”
Then there are the glaring cultural differences. Kenneth Resnicow, a consultant who trains physicians to build rapport with their patients, says white, wealthy, skinny doctors will often try to bond with their low-income patients by telling them, “I know what it’s like not to have time to cook.” Their patients, who might be single mothers with three kids and two jobs, immediately think “No, you don’t,” and the relationship is irretrievably soured.
When Joy Cox, an academic in New Jersey, was 16, she went to the hospital with stomach pains. The doctor didn’t diagnose her dangerously inflamed bile duct, but he did, out of nowhere, suggest that she’d get better if she stopped eating so much fried chicken. “He managed to denigrate my fatness and my blackness in the same sentence,” she says.
Many of the financial and administrative structures doctors work within help reinforce this bad behavior. The problem starts in medical school, where, according to a 2015 survey, students receive an average of just 19 hours of nutrition education over four years of instruction—five hours fewer than they got in 2006. Then the trouble compounds once doctors get into daily practice. Primary care physicians only get 15 minutes for each appointment, barely enough time to ask patients what they ate today, much less during all the years leading up to it. And a more empathic approach to treatment simply doesn’t pay: While procedures like blood tests and CT scans command reimbursement rates from hundreds to thousands of dollars, doctors receive as little as $24 to provide a session of diet and nutrition counseling.
Lesley Williams, a family medicine doctor in Phoenix, tells me she gets an alert from her electronic health records software every time she’s about to see a patient who is above the “overweight” threshold. The reason for this is that physicians are often required, in writing, to prove to hospital administrators and insurance providers that they have brought up their patient’s weight and formulated a plan to bring it down—regardless of whether that patient came in with arthritis or a broken arm or a bad sunburn. Failing to do that could result in poor performance reviews, low ratings from insurance companies or being denied reimbursement if they refer patients to specialized care.
Another issue, says Kimberly Gudzune, an obesity specialist at Johns Hopkins, is that many doctors, no matter their specialty, think weight falls under their authority. Gudzune often spends months working with patients to set realistic goals—playing with their grandkids longer, going off a cholesterol medication—only to have other doctors threaten it all. One of her patients was making significant progress until she went to a cardiologist who told her to lose 100 pounds. “All of a sudden she goes back to feeling like a failure and we have to start over,” Gudzune says. “Or maybe she just never comes back at all.”60%of the calories Americans consume come from “ultra-processed foods”Source: British Medical Journal, 2016
And so, working within a system that neither trains nor encourages them to meaningfully engage with their higher-weight patients, doctors fall back on recommending fad diets and delivering bland motivational platitudes. Ron Kirk, an electrician in Boston, says that for years, his doctor's first resort was to put him on some diet he couldn't maintain for more than a few weeks. “They told me lettuce was a ‘free’ food,” he says—and he’d find himself carving up a head of romaine for dinner.
In a study that recorded 461 interactions with doctors, only 13 percent of patients got any specific plan for diet or exercise and only 5 percent got help arranging a follow-up visit. “It can be stressful when [patients] start asking a lot of specific questions” about diet and weight loss, one doctor told researchers in 2012. “I don’t feel like I have the time to sit there and give them private counseling on basics. I say, ‘Here’s some websites, look at this.’” A 2016 survey found that nearly twice as many higher-weight Americans have tried meal-replacement diets—the kind most likely to fail—than have ever received counseling from a dietician.
“It borders on medical malpractice,” says Andrew (not his real name), a consultant and musician who has been large his whole life. A few years ago, on a routine visit, Andrew’s doctor weighed him, announced that he was “dangerously overweight” and told him to diet and exercise, offering no further specifics. Should he go on a low-fat diet? Low-carb? Become a vegetarian? Should he do Crossfit? Yoga? Should he buy a fucking ThighMaster?
“She didn't even ask me what I was already doing for exercise,” he says. “At the time, I was training for serious winter mountaineering trips, hiking every weekend and going to the gym four times a week. Instead of a conversation, I got a sound bite. It felt like shaming me was the entire purpose.”
All of this makes higher-weight patients more likely to avoid doctors. Three separate studies have found that fat women are more likely to die from breast and cervical cancers than non-fat women, a result partially attributed to their reluctance to see doctors and get screenings. Erin Harrop, a researcher at the University of Washington, studies higher-weight women with anorexia, who, contrary to the size-zero stereotype of most media depictions, are twice as likely to report vomiting, using laxatives and abusing diet pills. Thin women, Harrop discovered, take around three years to get into treatment, while her participants spent an average of 13 and a half years waiting for their disorders to be addressed.
“A lot of my job is helping people heal from the trauma of interacting with the medical system,” says Ginette Lenham, a counselor who specializes in obesity. The rest of it, she says, is helping them heal from the trauma of interacting with everyone else.