Contribute Try STAT+ Today

Last year I treated a young patient struggling with body image issues. This child’s parents feared that being fat was a harbinger of a horrible future. Their fear was not uncommon, as we live in a culture that idolizes thinness and equates fatness with moral failing.

I, too, internalized these cultural messages, and as a result developed a complicated relationship with my body that I am working hard to repair. Despite my own journey toward achieving health at every size, I worried about my ability to help my young patient become more resilient and find peace in theirs.

I expressed this concern to one of my clinical supervisors who told me that it’s important for my patient and his family to see that everybody and every body can thrive. I was the embodiment of that message.

advertisement

I’d never considered my visibility as a plus-sized woman to be an integral component of my social justice work. I had assumed that my body did not deserve to take up space in my work as a physician. My attending physician’s advice really prompted me to explore that assumption. I began to examine the image of the ideal physician. 

In middle school, I remember doing a research project on an influential woman. Recognizing my love of science, my teacher encouraged me to do a my report on Dr. Jocelyn Elders, the first African-American appointed surgeon general of the United States. While learning about her accomplishments, I remember reading articles that criticized her body and suggested that she was too fat to be America’s physician role model. 

advertisement

As a premed student in college, I also witnessed our surgeon general at the time, Dr. Regina Benjamin, get torn down for her weight. Throughout my medical education and training I’ve been quietly nagged by the worry that my accomplishments would be undermined, too. But in caring for this young patient, I was forced to face this fear head on. 

Nearly two decades later, fatphobia persists. It is also promoted by modern medical apparel brands that sell the image of the ideal physician. Figs, a company that blends fashion with practicality in a direct-to-consumer model, is thriving in the $50 billion medical apparel industry. Like other fashion enterprises, Figs uses its marketing materials to express who its ideal customers are and the lifestyle potential customers can aspire to. The Figs image excludes bodies like Elders’ and Benjamin’s. Bodies like mine. 

The company’s most recent campaign, “Outside the Box,” can be found everywhere from Instagram to Boston’s subways to billboards in New York City’s Times Square. It features nine medical professionals the brand describes as “AWESOME HUMANS who embody the outside the box mindset through their perseverance, innovation and dedication.”

Figs sells apparel up to 2XL, but the racially diverse models and brand ambassadors chosen to showcase its products are all straight-sized — reinforcing the idea that medical professional role models cannot be fat, not to mention differently abled or gender nonconforming. I admire the physicians celebrated by the campaign because they are, in fact, awesome. But the stigmatizing exclusion of larger doctors is not. This choice fails to challenge conventions of body privilege while it promotes a stereotype of who can be a steward of health. In this regard, Figs woefully neglects to think “outside the box.” 

It will take time to undo the impact of fatphobia on my own consciousness, but also that of my patient, my patients’ parents, and the public at large. The reality is that physicians have all types of bodies. Embracing a more inclusive image of physicianhood that celebrates body inclusivity, acceptance, and positivity will not only honor the diversity of the human experience, but also challenge the cultural assumptions that health and wellness cannot be promoted by a fat physician.

While fashion houses and big box stores alike are being held accountable to this socially conscious standard, this conversation about body inclusivity has not made its way into the medical apparel industry. I think it’s time for that to change. 

  • But being fat DOES spell a “horrible future.” It’s called knee pain, back pain, increased risk of blood clots and ensuing venous insufficiency, impaired mobility, getting easily winded…come ON, it’s a difficult life. Ask any obese, especially morbidly obese, person over 40, especially 50. When you add smoking and NO structured exercise to the recipe, it gets REALLY horrible. This world is full of big problems. The decision by the makers of medial scrubs to exclude fat models is certainly not one of them. Good grief.

  • As a fat nurse, I had to get my scrubs custom made, because my size wasn’t available. I first had to prove I could make it through a year on the job before they’d even order them. And then I had to wait another year before they were finally ready. Fat nurses exist, and we need work clothes!

  • Where’s the scrub line for doctors who binge drink? #healthateveryMELD

    Give me a break. A thin person isn’t necessarily healthy but an obese person is never healthy. As “physician role models” we owe it to our patients to demonstrate good health, including maintaining a healthy weight.

    • There is a range of bodies between “thin” and “obese.” The ad campaign excludes women with hips and butts and boobs and “thick” waists and large thighs. Many of these women are fitter and healthier than the thin models in the ad campaign. It IS possible to eat a healthy diet and exercise and still carry some extra weight. A lot of thin women do not have a healthy lifestyle and are still thin. They may eat fast food and sugar regularly and never exercise and take anti-hypertensives and cholesterol meds. They are still more likely to be chosen for a Figs ad campaign instead of the woman who eats a healthful diet, hikes and runs 4-5 days per week (and has the muscular legs and butt to prove it) and has good cholesterol and BP, but who carries some extra weight due to genetics. Additionally, “healthy” also refers to psychologically health, not just physical.

    • Alcoholism and drug abuse is a big problem amongst doctors. Sadly that’s not visible from the outside and usually doesn’t get uncovered until the walls come tumbling down and people have died, or have life long complications. I’d rather have a fat doctor, if you don’t mind.

  • Jennifer, thank you for this excellent piece. While I always hope for my patients to be at healthy weights, what’s even more important is that they feel good about themselves in so many other ways. I’m sure that your patients see you as a role model; you offer them hope as well as reassuring them that healthy and “awesome human” professionals come in many different colors, shapes and sizes.

  • This article is an absolute joke. First there is a difference between curvy and fat, plus size is ridiculous because no one can agree on a definitive cut off of were normal and the plus start. Curvy is genetic, fat is lifestyle. As a medical professional you should observe objective on a daily basis the detrimental effect that poor lifestyle decisions accumulated into chronic medical issue that reduce the functionality of people. Medical professional should stand for the ideal standard of health and body because they know better. Its comparable to doctors that smoke cigarettes outside of hospitals. Figs did there job of providing that fit a wide range of people that fit up to 2XL. If some needs to wear 3XL they would need some intervention to correct that. As for figs models, that is the job of a model to reflect good health. Social justice as you mentioned and title yourself as is often misguided and over sensitive plus over reactive to mundane social situations. I personal expected better from you and your title. This is the first article I have ever left a comment on because your think medical thinks seems misguided by your social justice thinks, plus separate the two and stop tell people obesity is acceptable.

Comments are closed.

Your daily dose of news in health and medicine

Privacy Policy