Viral stories show how 'fatphobia' has life-and-death consequences— even for babies and kids

Many people who carry extra weight on their bodies have stories to tell about problematic medical care. Maybe a medical issue was overlooked because of their weight. Perhaps a doctor prescribed losing weight as a solution to an issue that had nothing to do with being fat.


In our society, fat is looked upon as a health hazard at best and a character flaw at worst. While evidence does point to obesity being a health risk factor, judgments about other people's extra pounds go far beyond concerns over health. Companies make billions of dollars off of perpetuating society's obsession with thinness, from diet pills to weight loss programs to plastic surgery, and fat jokes seem to be the final frontier of socially acceptable cruelty and marginalization.

This obsession with the size of people's bodies has consequences. People have no problem sounding off about health problems associated with obesity, but rarely do we hear people preach about about health consequences of the fear of obesity. Anorexia and bulimia come to mind, but there are also more nuanced tales of people facing medical neglect and abuse from others due to a pervasive fear of fatness. We're talking about illness and death in babies and children, all because of fatphobia.

RELATED: These 3 stories show how we're subconsciously teaching children to be fatphobic.

In a post on Facebook shared by Dadmin, a series of screenshots of Reddit stories illustrating how fatphobia can lead to dire health problems. Sometimes those problems are even exacerbated by healthcare workers themselves.

One person told the story of a substitute at a daycare where she worked questioning why a large baby needed to take a bottle. A coworker replied, "That's where all her nutrients are. She needs the nutrients and the water." The substitute replied, "But she's so fat. She doesn't need it." All babies need to eat regularly, and all babies's bodies are different. (For example, my own babies were super roly-poly, and all they had was breastmilk their first 10 months or so. My best friend's baby, also exclusively breastfeed, ate far more frequently than mine and was super skinny.)

As the poster pointed out, "Thin privilege is a small, pretty baby getting better childcare because the caretaker doesn't think she's too fat to be allowed to eat."

Dadmin/Facebook

Another person wrote about their cousin who had her kids taken away because she was starving her baby. Worried about her infant becoming "too fat," she only fed her one bottle of skim milk a day. "I don't want her growing up fat," she said. Even after having her kids removed for medical neglect, she still maintained that the doctors were wrong and she was right. According to the post, she said, "They just want fat kids so they can keep employed treating them for all those diseases that being fat causes."

Dadmin/Facebook

Other people chimed in with similar stories of babies being starved or evaluated as overweight.

"A parent brought in their six month old baby who was having breathing issues and kept getting sick," one person wrote. "The parent was asked if the baby was eating regularly and the parents straight up told the doctor that they only feed the baby once a day...They even had the nerve to say because they didn't want the baby to get fat. People like this are real. They would rather have a dead baby than a fat one."

Another shared the story of their exclusively breastfed 10-month-old being in the 99th percentile and the nurse saying, "He is at risk for obesity. You may want to keep an eye on that." She said later on, this same child measured off the charts but the doctor said at least he was in proportion. Because they can't control their "weight talk," which research shows is potentially harmful to children, this mother said she no longer allows doctors to weigh her kids unless it's medically necessary. (And it sometimes is. Medication dosages are often determined by height and weight, for example.)

Dadmin/Facebook

Another person wrote about how her mother had her dieting with her from the time she was 11, worried she was going to "get huge." She fed her less than 600 calories per day and grounded her when she found out her friends were bringing her lunches. She ended up in the ER and has struggled since with anorexia. "Please don't starve your fucking children," she wrote.

RELATED: A viral and heartbreaking hashtag proves body-shaming starts early for women.

As another user wrote, "Fatphobia is real and it kills."

Dadmin/Facebook

Sometimes healthcare providers think every health issue is weight-related, which can result in misdiagnosis.

One person shared a story of a college friend who had been having trouble breathing. The doctor told her to lose weight. Time and again over several years, she returned to the doctor with the same breathing problem, telling them she was dieting but couldn't exercise because of the breathing issue. It turned out she had a tumor on her lungs that wasn't caught. She died at age 25, three months after it was finally diagnosed.

Dadmin/Facebook

Yet another user shared a story of her little sister feeling fatigued and dizzy, getting nauseated at the sight of food, and suffering from abdominal pain at nine years old. The ER doctor dismissed it saying she was fat and probably just ate too many burgers. Her mom questioned the diagnosis and took her to another doctor who also told her that the girl was "just fat."

The pain got worse, the girl's skin began to yellow. A third ER visit revealed she had life-threatening hepatitis, which took a year to recover from. "If it weren't for my mother, fatphobia would have killed her," the person wrote.

Dadmin/Facebook

Clearly, some of these stories are extreme, and one must take Reddit stories with a grain of skepticism. But stories like this abound across social media.

And there is more than just anecdotal evidence that prejudice against fat people can cause real medical harm.

A 2015 Lancet study found that doctors take less time with obese patients and are more reluctant to screen them for other health issues. It also found that healthcare workers tend to stereotype obese people as less likely to follow medical advice and stick to medications.

A 2017 review of research from the American Psychological Association also found that medical discrimination based on people's size is a real issue, and obese patients are more likely to have undiagnosed medical issues:

"In one study of over 300 autopsy reports, obese patients were 1.65 times more likely than others to have significant undiagnosed medical conditions (e.g., endocarditis, ischemic bowel disease or lung carcinoma), indicating misdiagnosis or inadequate access to health care."

When societal judgments on weight start affecting people's medical care, we have a problem. And it can't only be fat people battling the issue—it's up to all of us to fight size bias and tackle the myriad messages we see every day that fat people are less than.

Dadmin/Facebook

As one Reddit user said, "I'd really like my thin followers to reblog this if you can. Fat people are already here for each other. We need you guys to help us out too. This is something I never see anyone actually talking about in-depth, and it's disappointing."

Let's talk about it now, and do what we can to eliminate fatphobia before it does more harm than it already has.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

I'll never forget the exhilaration I felt as I headed into the city on July 3, 2018. My pink hair was styled. I wore it up in a high ponytail, though I left two tendrils down. Two tendrils which framed my face. My makeup was done. I wore shadow on my eyes and blush on my cheeks, blush which gave me color. Which brought my pale complexion to life. And my confidence grew each time my heels clacked against the concrete.

My confidence grew with each and every step.

Why? Because I was a strong woman. A city woman. A woman headed to interview for her dream job.

I nailed the interview. Before I boarded the bus back home, I had an offer letter in my inbox. I was a news writer, with a salary and benefits, but a strange thing happened 13 months later. I quit said job in an instant. On a whim. I walked down Fifth Avenue and never looked back. And while there were a few reasons why I quit that warm, summer day: I was a new(ish) mom. A second-time mom, and I missed my children. Spending an hour with them each day just wasn't enough. My daughter was struggling in school. She needed oversight. Guidance. She needed my help. And my commute was rough. I couldn't cover the exorbitant cost of childcare. The real reason I quit was because my mental health was failing.


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Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

I'll never forget the exhilaration I felt as I headed into the city on July 3, 2018. My pink hair was styled. I wore it up in a high ponytail, though I left two tendrils down. Two tendrils which framed my face. My makeup was done. I wore shadow on my eyes and blush on my cheeks, blush which gave me color. Which brought my pale complexion to life. And my confidence grew each time my heels clacked against the concrete.

My confidence grew with each and every step.

Why? Because I was a strong woman. A city woman. A woman headed to interview for her dream job.

I nailed the interview. Before I boarded the bus back home, I had an offer letter in my inbox. I was a news writer, with a salary and benefits, but a strange thing happened 13 months later. I quit said job in an instant. On a whim. I walked down Fifth Avenue and never looked back. And while there were a few reasons why I quit that warm, summer day: I was a new(ish) mom. A second-time mom, and I missed my children. Spending an hour with them each day just wasn't enough. My daughter was struggling in school. She needed oversight. Guidance. She needed my help. And my commute was rough. I couldn't cover the exorbitant cost of childcare. The real reason I quit was because my mental health was failing.


Keep Reading Show less
True

Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."