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Canadian Woman's Obituary Calls Out Fat-Shaming in Medicine

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Ellen Maud Bennett learned she was dying just days before her death. Despite an inoperable tumor, Bennett chose to fill her last few days with great food, flowers and humor.

Bennett also left a final message for other women of size who may have experienced fat-shaming from doctors, like she did:

A final message Ellen wanted to share was about the fat shaming she endured from the medical profession. Over the past few years of feeling unwell she sought out medical intervention and no one offered any support or suggestions beyond weight loss. Ellen’s dying wish was that women of size make her death matter by advocating strongly for their health and not accepting that fat is the only relevant health issue.

Bennett died in May at the age of 64 and lived in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. Her obituary was originally posted on July 14. Since then, it has resonated with people on social media and in the comments section of her obituary online. Many have shared experiences with fat-shaming from the medical community.

“I have been touched by Ellen’s story as a fellow person of size,” one person commented. “My mother spent five years seeing doctors for her pain and weakness and got the same treatment as Ellen until she finally found a doctor open enough to discover her autoimmune disease. Thank you Ellen for your words and your message.”

“I am sorry to hear about Ellen’s passing,” another person wrote. “I didn’t know her, but her thoughts on the medical professions bias towards overweight woman rang true. My mom passed in 2015 and often expressed some of the same sentiments to me about the medical profession and herself. I can’t help but wonder that had my mom felt supported and loved by anyone in the medical profession that she might have diagnosed her condition sooner.”

People in The Mighty’s community have also experienced fat-shaming while seeking help for their mental health or chronic illness. One contributor, Jenn Heater, wrote about an encounter with an ER nurse when she needed help with pain associated with chronic regional pain syndrome. The nurse told her she just needed to lose weight. When Heater told her more about her medical history, the nurse told her she was “screwed.” She added:

Later, I realized how I should have responded, ‘I have people that care for me. Good doctors and medical staff that fight for for me all of the time. Perhaps, you should find out a patient’s history before brushing them off. It doesn’t help anyone to be told their suffering would stop if they ‘just lose weight’ if you don’t have all of the information. And never, never tell anyone that they are out of hope.’

During a symposium about fat-shaming for the American Psychological Association, Joan Chrisler, a professor of psychology at Connecticut College, said some doctors do not take complaints from fat people seriously or assume that weight is the cause of their symptoms. This can lead to misdiagnosis or failure to run diagnostic tests.

One study presented during the symposium found that overweight patients were 1.65 times more likely than other patients to have undiagnosed medical conditions.

Weight-based prejudice can also affect people living with mental illnesses. “We must work harder to include more diverse narratives,” Mighty contributor Jenni Holman wrote. “Fat girls can have an eating disorder. Including them and allowing them to feel comfortable openly expressing their thoughts and experiences with this illness could make it easier for them to cope and recover. I know, at least, it would for me.”

Originally published: August 1, 2018
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