When Anna Guest-Jelley--26 years old at the time--badly twisted her ankle, the Nashville native went to see her doctor. "Your ankle's probably swollen," she said, "because you're carrying extra weight."
Guest-Jelley, a yoga teacher, went along with her diagnosis. When the doctor reported that Guest-Jelley's x-ray didn't show any fractures, she returned home with instructions to ice her foot--and an all-too-familiar feeling of humiliation at the physician's focus on her size. "Almost every time I've ever gone to a doctor's appointment, I've experienced some level of shaming because of my weight," she says.
Her experience is shockingly common. Weight stigma is on the rise in America, according to the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, and, ironically, nowhere is it more deeply rooted than among health care providers. Multiple studies have found that doctors, med students, nurses, dietitians, and other health care professionals routinely stereotype their heavy patients. In landmark 2003 research from the University of Pennsylvania, for instance, more than half of the 620 primary-care doctors surveyed characterized their obese patients as "awkward," "unattractive," "ugly," and "noncompliant"--the latter meaning that they wouldn't follow recommendations. More than one-third of the physicians regarded obese individuals as "weak willed," "sloppy," and "lazy."
And it's women who bear the brunt of this characterization--even when they're not obese. Doctors' weight prejudices start when a female patient is as little as 13 pounds overweight--meaning her body mass index would likely be around 27--found a 2007 study from Yale University. (BMI is a measurement that uses a ratio of height to weight to categorize people as being of normal weight [18.5 to 24.9], overweight [25 to 29.9], or obese [30+].) "For men, the bias doesn't kick in until around a BMI of thirty-five, approximately seventy-five pounds overweight," says Rebecca Puhl, PhD, director of Research and Weight Initiatives at the Rudd Center. "That's a definite gender difference."