Women and nonbinary people are more likely than men to say they have experienced discrimination from a medical provider or been denied medical services, and the disparity is particularly acute when it comes to weight-based discrimination, according to a new 19th News/SurveyMonkey poll.
About 11 percent of women say they have faced weight-based discrimination when seeking health care, more than double the share of men — 5 percent — who report similar experiences. About 33 percent of nonbinary people said they had either been discriminated against or denied care because of their weight.
In total, 69 percent of men said they had not experienced any discrimination from a health care provider, compared with 61 percent of women and just 17 percent of nonbinary people who said the same. The largest share of nonbinary people who said they faced discrimination from a health care provider said it was because of their gender or sexual orientation, a finding in keeping with last year’s 19th News/SurveyMonkey poll.
The poll found little difference in how women of different races perceived experiencing weight-based discrimination from their medical providers. Black women and Latinas were less likely than White women to say they had never experienced any type of discrimination from a health care provider.
Health data collected by the federal government shows that women are somewhat less likely than men to be considered overweight or obese according to body mass index. This metric has come under criticism from medical providers, in part because of its crudeness — BMI is calculated using only height and weight, without considering elements such as body fat or muscle mass — and in part because it is often not relevant to a patient’s actual medical need. This summer, the American Medical Association, which represents physicians, said that doctors should rely less on BMI as a sole indicator of individual health, noting that it often does not accurately reflect body differences across race, gender and age.
The advent of new prescription weight-loss drugs such as Ozempic and Wegovy has put even more attention on people’s weight, and on the gender gap involved in how it is perceived. A KFF poll released in August found that women were substantially more likely than men to express interest in trying such medications, a divide that pollsters attributed to the heightened societal pressures put on women’s bodies.
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Lisa Pous, a 55-year-old woman from near Austin, Texas, said she has struggled to find adequate health care in large part because doctors focus on her weight, instead of addressing other medical concerns. It’s a pattern she’s noticed since she was young and one that persists to this day.
“I hit about 140 pounds, which I don’t consider overweight whatsoever — I’m 5-foot-4 and I had a healthy body and huge tits. I wasn’t looking overweight in any way that my friends or anyone else would say,” she said. “But it seemed like no matter what I went in for, it was, ‘Oh you're heavy.’”
The focus, she said, has hindered her ability to access needed medical care. When she began menopause, Pous experienced significant bleeding — enough, she said, that she frequently used an entire bag of menstrual pads in a day. The bleeding went on for more than a year, she said, but it felt like it was impossible to get doctors to care. The only thing they wanted to discuss was her weight.
“I was told it was inconsequential,” she said. “But my weight, they were really concerned. They kept asking, ‘Did I know about weight support’ and ‘Did I know about healthy dieting.’ But to be honest, I didn’t care about healthy dieting.”
Now, Pous rarely goes to the doctor. It isn’t worth the trouble, she said, and she rarely feels like her actual medical needs are acknowledged. She wasn’t surprised by how many women had similar experiences.
The 19th News/SurveyMonkey poll was conducted online from August 24 to 31. SurveyMonkey reached a national sample of 20,191 adults, with a modeled error estimate of plus or minus 1.0 percentage points.
Several women told The 19th that the way doctors discussed or focused on their weight made them less likely to seek medical care — a finding consistent with the criticisms doctors have levied against emphasizing BMI in particular.
Marina Sagradyan, a 45-year-old writer in North Hollywood, California, said she gained weight after experiencing an assault several years ago. When she visited doctors, the only things they discussed were diet and exercise, to the extent that she no longer felt comfortable going in for her physical.
“I didn’t want to go to doctors because doctors would tell me to lose weight,” she said. “Doctors are meant to care. I know from the experience of other women I’ve talked to that weight is a touchy subject.”
Ani Sepekoff, a 34-year-old cheesemonger in Brooklyn, New York, said she is now hesitant to go to the doctor, in no small part because of how physicians have focused on her weight. In her case, she said, doctors focused on how skinny she was — and as a result, took years to diagnose her diabetes, a condition she believes she has likely had since childhood.
Sepekoff began losing weight quickly as a college student. At one point, she said, she was less than 95 pounds and struggled to stay awake. Doctors thought perhaps she might have narcolepsy and prescribed her medications to stay awake. But it took visits to several different physicians before anyone ever thought to test her blood sugar.
“Every doctor I’ve been to after middle school has basically brushed that possibility aside because I’m so skinny, but plenty of diabetics are thin,” Sepekoff said.
When a doctor finally did test her blood, she said, he was stunned by just how high her sugar levels were and encouraged her to go to the hospital immediately. Without quick care, he worried, she could die.
Sepekoff’s diabetes is now under control. But, like Pous, she is now far more hesitant to visit a health care professional. She doesn’t trust them to accurately assess her health needs. And she wouldn’t be surprised to hear other women feel the same.
“Women and weight are like water and fish,” she said. “It’s so imbued in regular culture to notice a woman’s weight, that why would any medical professional be necessarily outside of or above that? We’re always too fat or too skinny.”
More data helps us better cover and serve women, women of color and LGBTQ+ people. Here’s why we tackled this project — and how.