This post is supported by funding from Merck, through Merck for Mothers. The funding provided to the Fund for Public Health in New York City supports the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s efforts to reduce persistent racial and ethnic disparities in maternal health. Merck for Mothers is Merck’s $500 million initiative to help create a world where no woman dies giving life. Merck for Mothers is known as MSD for Mothers outside the United States and Canada. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of any aforementioned entity or New York City agency.
When Serena Williams shared that she was lucky to be alive after giving birth to her daughter, I completely understood what she meant.
I’m not a mother yet, but I’ve had a serious health crisis go ignored by doctors– and it nearly ended my life.
From my experiences navigating the doctors office, here are my top three tips for speaking to your doctor:
1. Ask your doctor to do their best:
Whenever I speak with a new doctor the first thing I say is “I’m a big girl and while I’m open to hearing your thoughts on my weight. I hope you’ll be able to support me with more than weight loss advice.” It is a simple sentence, but every doctor I’ve said it to knows exactly what I mean and they typically are open to the challenge.
2. Say what you need to say:
Health issues can be embarrassing, but if you get nervous when talking to your doctor and don’t share what’s bothering you, they truly can’t help you. I like to make a list of everything in my body that I have questions about (skin, joints, reproductive health, etc.) I keep the list on my phone and I read from it. This helps me feel more confident
3. Ask someone else:
When my doctors have ignored my symptoms, I should have gotten a second opinion. In the future if a doctor won’t hear me out or I feel unsatisfied with my care, I will seek out a second opinion, or a third… whatever is needed to get me feeling good.
I’m grateful that I’ve always had access to proper healthcare, but as a plus size woman, for years any issue I brought up to my doctor was met with the same response– lose weight.
“Doctor, my skin is breaking out in a rash.”
“CeCe, you really should lose weight.”
“Doctor, I slipped and broke my arm.”
“CeCe, we really need to get your weight under control.”
“Doctor, I’m on fire!”
“Well, if you’d lose some weight, maybe that issue would go away.”
Doctors often have a hard time seeing past my weight. I don’t have a problem with medical professionals advising me to lose weight in general — obesity is, of course, a legitimate health concern — but I take issue with this practiced response being the cure-all for any ailment I report.
As I mention in my Tedx talk, I focus on health as a practice, not a pant size. The health improvements from my physical fitness journey have been vast, and I feel better the fitter I get, but that doesn’t mean that weight loss is the general, one-size-fits-all advice for every medical ailment I experience.
I’m a professional and accomplished woman, but there is a dynamic in the doctors office that doesn’t always make it easy for me to advocate for myself. My doctor has years in medical school, but I have years living in my body. My desire when I walk into the doctors office is for my expertise in my body and my physicians expertise to work hand in hand, not in opposition of each other… but this takes work. It also requires me to speak up.
As a plus-size person, I have learned to be my own health advocate.
When women become pregnant, they often have more contact with the medical system than ever before and need to advocate for themselves in new ways. Particularly plus-size women who are becoming mothers are under intense scrutiny during pregnancy. The reality is that most plus-size women can have a healthy pregnancy, but this is far from the narrative we hear. The risk of potentially life-threatening childbirth complications needs to be taken seriously, but women also need to feel confidence in themselves and that their medical providers are listening to them.
The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene convened a group of community advocates who created the NYC Standards for Respectful Care at Birth – this document can serve as a tool to navigate these difficult conversations with your provider. Women of color, and particularly Black women, are at disproportionate risk for life-threatening childbirth complications, so finding a provider who you can communicate well with about your health is essential. You need to feel like you can ask questions about your pregnancy care, understand your personal risk factors for complications, and that you and your doctor are on the same team.
If you’re a plus-size person who feels that doctors discriminate against you or don’t listen to you, I understand the temptation to just stop going to the doctor altogether, but that’s not the answer, either. You and your body are valuable, and you deserve medical care at any size. Turning the conversation around in the examining room isn’t easy, but it can be done, and you can get your doctor to listen to you. It might just save your life.