Fat Phobia

Obesity Campaign Poster
Obesity Campaign Poster (Photo credit: Pressbound)

Maybe it is the fact that swimsuit and shorts season is fast
approaching for many of us in the non-tropical parts of North America. Or maybe it’s just that I’m facing yet another round of reading and grading nursing student papers, many of which are by students who remain fervent in their anti-obesity zeal. But there seems to be a lot of recent news articles about obesity, and about the effects of our national obsession with weight control and with our deeply entrenched fat phobia.

Upfront, I’ll admit it. I have a fat phobia. I already knew this. I was noticing how many times I included weight in my physical descriptions of people in my own writing or in my conversations with my husband. But my fat phobia seems to be a fact and not just a hunch. I just took the Fat Phobia Scale from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. I scored at the highest possible level of fat phobia. Although I am currently and have been for most all of my adult life, of normal weight, I was anorexic for a few years as a teenager, followed by a rebound into the overweight category for a while as a young adult. I know first-hand what it feels like to be both under and overweight, what it feels like to be in those different bodies of sorts—how people interact with you differently because of your weight. I am well aware of how stress and poverty and genetics are more powerfully connected with obesity than are the commonly perceived individual character flaws of gluttony and laziness. I am also aware of the recent research on the “obesity paradox” indicating that obesity may not be as bad for a person’s overall health as we have been taught to believe. (see NYT article Obesity Paradox: Thinner May Mean Sicker, by Harriet Brown, 9-17-12). I encourage my students to confront their own biases that can negatively affect their patient care—all the ‘isms’ we traditionally try to address, such as racism, classism, heterosexism, etc. But ‘fatism’ still seems to be not only tolerated but actively encouraged within our nursing educational system. I’ve been part of that and will try to mend my ways.

Two recent NYT articles spurred my interest in this topic. One by Tara Parker-Pope, entitled Overweight Patients Face Bias (4-29-13) reports on a study at Johns Hopkins indicating that physicians showed less warmth and compassion with patients who were overweight. The second NYT article (by Jan Hoffman, 5-1-13) entitled When the Doctor is Overweight, reports that patients are less likely to trust doctors who are overweight. Studies indicate that nurses are twice as likely as physicians to be obese (and depressed), even after controlling for income and education levels (see references below). For hospital nurses obesity is often linked with job stress and sleep cycle disruptions. I imagine that the same sort of ‘fatism’ bias negatively affects patient care by nurses.


Olivia Katrandjian/ABC News, Study Finds 55 Percent of Nurses are Overweight or Obese, 1-3-12.

Carolyne Krupa/American Medical News, Doctors Follow Own Advice for Healthy Living, 10-24-12.

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