Let's Stop Fat-Shaming Pregnant Women (Oh, and Age-Shaming Too)


By Salma Abdelnour Gilman

A Huffington Post article this week makes the long-overdue case that doctors need to stop fat-shaming pregnant women who suffer from obesity or are simply overweight. In a nutshell:

"The reality is that the vast majority of overweight and obese women have perfectly normal pregnancies. But medical professionals are not immune to society’s tendency to disrespect fat people," as Brianna Snyder writes in the HuffPo article, titled "Fat-Shaming the Pregnant: How the Medical Community Fails Overweight Moms."

What does that disrespect look and sound like? Bullying women into believing that they'll be required to have a C-section if they don't lose weight. Frightening plus-size women into thinking they're risking their lives just by becoming pregnant. Asking them to abort the baby, lose weight, then get pregnant again. The horrors go on.

Snyder quotes the Our Bodies Our Selves contributor and childbirth educator Pam Vireday, who notes that "Some women of size have been told that if they get pregnant they’ll surely die, that they’re committing suicide by pregnancy, that their baby will have only a 5 [percent] chance of survival."

While obesity does carry certain increased risks, for instance of gestational diabetes, the percentages of pregnancies or births harmed by the increased risk remain low, as the report points out. And although no one is claiming that good nutrition isn't important during pregnancy, pressuring women into losing lots of weight while they have a baby in utero is risky. As Dr. Neel Shah, assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive biology at Harvard Medical School, puts it in the HuffPo piece: "Eating a healthy diet is good advice for all pregnant women. But attempting to lose weight is dangerous."

HuffPo's article deserves attention, and with luck it will lead to heightened awareness of fat-shaming in the medical community.

We'll only take issue with one tidbit in the article, where it says: "Pregnant women with other risky conditions ― like having a family history of diabetes or high blood pressure or being over age 35 ― don’t seem to be chastised or dismissed like fat women are."

Sure, it's probable that overweight and obese women suffer more insults and borderline abusive behavior by doctors than women with medical histories like diabetes; but calling pregnancy over age 35 a "risky condition" is misleading when it's stated flatly and without context. Women over 35 do often get "chastised or dismissed" by health professionals, especially as they approach 40-plus.

My own doctor, a well-respected OBGYN in New York City, told me she didn't consider my "advanced maternal age" pregnancy risky.  But while I don't suffer from a weight problem, when my weight gain went slightly over the expected amount in the first trimester of my first pregnancy, she tsk-tsked and offered to send me to a nutritionist. Her reaction surprised me. But that was nothing compared to what overweight women routinely experience at doctors' offices and hospitals.

It's time to expose and put a stop to the widespread, underreported fat-shaming in the medical community. HuffPo's article is an excellent start.

Photo by Josh Bean via Unsplash.