Just A Friendly Reminder: Your Body Is Not A Number

Photographed by Bianca Valle
Working as a copy writer in the marketing department of a large health system when you're a size 26 is, for lack of a better word, complicated. Here's an example: I can remember sitting across from one doctor at her desk — during a work meeting, not a medical appointment — and watching her coldly, contemptuously, appraise every inch of me. When she finally spoke, it was, of course, to fat-shame me. “You know, losing weight is the best way to be more balanced and healthier all around," she explained. How was I supposed to brainstorm pithy "pins and needles" puns for her acupuncture services after that?

I loved my work, and I was damn good at it: My bosses praised me, patients thanked me, and doctors who were notorious for sending copy through multiple rounds of edits would respond to my first drafts with “Looks good!” Within a year, I was writing for the CEO. But despite my apparent professional success, it still felt like many of the people I worked with were only able to see my size — not my talent. The assumptions that many of them made about my life — which for the record, is balanced and healthy, thank you very much — are the very reason I'd avoided the doctor's office for years.

The one time I did go for a well exam at the gynecologist, I'd received a lecture about my weight. With my feet in the stirrups, she lectured me about weight-loss surgery, chirping that if I did it, I could eat whatever I wanted, "even chocolate cake!" She passed me a brochure as I left. I took it, feeling ashamed, powerless, and angry — what else was I supposed to do?

And now, I was the person behind those brochures, and a recurring thought started to nag me. What if an ad I wrote led a woman who looked just like me into that doctor’s office? And what if that doctor scolded and shamed her for her weight? What if I was, word by word, contributing to a culture that stigmatizes fatness by treating it as a kind of medical doomsday?

What if I was, word by word, contributing to a culture that stigmatizes fatness by treating it as a kind of medical doomsday?

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(I hope I don't need to spell this out, but just in case: Having a large body does not by definition mean you are unhealthy. In fact, research suggests being "overweight" may actually increase longevity. Without knowing anything about a person's blood pressure, cholesterol levels, fitness habits, and other factors, you truly can't assess their health just by looking at them. And some studies have found that shaming people about their size can actually lead them to gain, not lose, weight.)

From that upsetting ob/gyn appointment, I began cringing as I looked at my notes for a blog post on diabetes or an advertorial about joint health and saw the words “weight loss” or “balanced weight.” Even though my coworkers were sensitive enough to keep me off projects related to a new bariatric surgery initiative, I couldn't ignore the message: that, to my employers, thinness equaled health. I still wrote pieces that I found interesting and satisfying — web copy about robotically assisted surgeries, articles about funds to help underserved patients — but I couldn't ignore my feelings.

And then, my employer offered an "incentive-based" insurance plan: one that offered lower premiums to employees who aligned with a certain set of metrics — chief among these, of course, a lower BMI (which, it bears mentioning, has been discredited as a barometer of wellness) — and one that I would have to promote in a series of employee communications. I gritted my teeth and banged out the copy, then used my rage to fuel a job search.

I landed a grant-writing gig for a research program, hoping that a more rigorous, academic approach to health might limit the bias. But I ended up in meeting after meeting where “obesity” was spoken of as if it were the next Bubonic Plague. And yet, even in the presence of an actual fat person, these researchers would talk as if it was a given, of course, that I knew my body type meant certain doom. After a year and a half, I decided that I’d rather be bored than insulted. So I left the healthcare industry — perhaps, sadly, for good.

I can’t participate in a system that would reduce the whole of my health — which isn’t just biometrics or bone density, but my own sense of peace and purpose in the world — to my BMI or, frankly, to the way I look. I owe it to my younger self, that poor girl with a tear-swollen face, ashamed and embarrassed after hearing yet another condescending comment about her appearance. I owe it to every other woman who looks like me, who stumbles out of her doctor’s office feeling utterly defeated. And if she’s holding a brochure that I worked on, I'd like to say: I’m sorry. Your body is not some symptom or cause on a bulleted check-list. Your well-being isn’t determined by a number on a scale.
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