Weight Bias: Making People with Obesity Invisible

Saint Cecilia Invisible PianoFor people living with obesity, feeling invisible is familiar. For anyone, it’s hard to take. But when a person goes from being invisible to being noticed it can be jolting. Losing weight can do that and thus expose the unspoken bias that routinely confronts people with obesity.

Suddenly, people who would once look right through you are now noticing you. Treating you as fully human. It is gratifying and infuriating at the same time. You’re still the same person you’ve always been.

Rebel Wilson
Discovers Weight Bias

As a case study, the media is presenting the experience of Rebel Wilson. She played the role of Fat Amy in the Pitch Perfect series of musical comedy films. She declared 2020 her “year of health” and documented a year of losing 60 pounds and improving her diet, fitness, and self-care. It’s great stuff that she shared on Instagram and she received lots of positive PR from the whole effort.

She also notes that losing weight – even though she was already a star – made her more visible:

“What’s been interesting is how people treat you. Sometimes being bigger, people didn’t necessarily look twice at you. Now that I’m in good shape, people offer to carry my groceries to the car and hold doors open for me.

“I liked to think I looked good at all sizes. And I’ve always been quite confident, so it’s not like I wasn’t confident and now I’m super confident. I find it interesting that people pay so much attention to a weight loss transformation when there’s so much going on in the world.”

Of course, for ordinary humans, being invisible is more than an interesting side note. It can define a person and their prospects for life.

Doctors See Only Weight

This phenomenon plays out with a twist in healthcare. Some providers simply can’t see beyond the weight of a person with obesity. Liora Engel-Smith describes the experience of Alyssa McCord, who was having heavy periods and constant exhaustion. So she sought help from a family physician :

“The doctor said her stomach was cramping because she is fat. If she lost weight, he told her, the pain would go away. The doctor did not order any of the customary tests, such as abdominal ultrasound or blood tests to confirm his assertion. He looked at her and made up his mind, McCord said.

“McCord would later learn from another provider that an enlarged uterus caused the cramps and heavy bleeding. Blood loss from the heavy periods made her anemic, accounting for her fatigue.”

McCord and her suffering were invisible to that first doctor. He only saw her weight.

We See You

The bottom line here is that weight bias is becoming more visible. Fat shaming is no longer acceptable. When Cosmopolitan features people of all sizes in a story about healthy lifestyles, some folks wish those big people were invisible. But in doing so, they make their own bias visible to all the world. And increasingly, the world is rejecting that bias.

Click here and here for more on Wilson’s experience. For more on weight bias in healthcare, click here and here. But above all, join us here in the movement to stop weight bias.

Saint Cecilia Invisible Piano, painting by Max Ernst / WikiArt

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February 3, 2021

4 Responses to “Weight Bias: Making People with Obesity Invisible”

  1. February 03, 2021 at 11:43 am, Bongo said:

    I don’t get the use of this phrase “person with obesity”. I’ve never seen the two most obvious counter examples used such as a “person not with obesity” to describe most of the world population or a “person with underweightness” to describe those who are well underweight from a health perspective.
    Phrases that involve fewer words and which are more descriptive are available.

    • February 03, 2021 at 12:42 pm, Ted said:

      Perhaps you have never seen similar language for underweight because it is not a disease itself. Rather it is a symptom of many different conditions such as anorexia nervosa, starvation, or various wasting syndromes. In contrast, obesity is a complex chronic disease defined not by weight per se, but by excess adiposity.

  2. February 03, 2021 at 12:53 pm, Bernadette said:

    Person with obesity or person living with obesity are both ways of using #peoplefirst language as in the person is not their weight just as some one lives with autism rather than an autistic person. For those who may have a disease or disability
    , it is so important to look at them as a person first who may have an issue secondly.

  3. February 03, 2021 at 8:12 pm, BrianShankly said:

    Bongo – Your comment is nonsensical, we don’t describe people as having the absence of symptoms. To see this clearly, surely you can’t object to describing someone as “a person with cancer” on the grounds that you don’t describe the general population as “people without cancer’.

    You raise the issue of those who are ill with eating disorders that lead them to be underweight, saying you don’t describe them as having underweightedness, but what do you call someone with Anorexia then? They are either a person with anorexia, or someone who is severely underweight. Similarly someone who is obese is either a person with obesity, or a person who is severely overweight.

    The issue of doctors seeing the obese as somehow lazy, or having a self-inflicted disease and jumping to conclusions is a real one. Hate the sin not the sinner, and don’t judge a book by its cover are too traditional adages that should apply here.