Sports equipment as anti-fat-shaming devices

A few weeks ago, I went to the optometrist for my biannual eye exam and to get my reading glasses prescription updated.  During the eye exam, the doctor told me that I was suspect for glaucoma– my eye pressure was 17 (normal is 10–22, she said), but I had some evidence of damage to my optic nerve.  She scheduled me to have further testing done, which I did.  I’m extremely happy to report that I don’t have glaucoma.  Yay!  Whew!

However, during my first visit with her, while asking about what one can do for eye care, she said, “well, you should always wear sunglasses.  And watch your diet.  But of course it’s clear that you take care of yourself.”

Hmmmm.  What made it clear that I take care of myself?  I’m fat, cis-female, 55, able-bodied as far as she can tell, and currently not bleeding.  So far so meh.

But:  I rode my bike to the appointment (which, in retrospect was a bad idea; riding a bike home after getting your eyes dilated is not good).  I walked into her office toting one of these:

a white road cycling helmet, with silver accents

a white road cycling helmet, with silver accents

She saw my bike helmet, which, I surmise, must have affected her views about me and my health.

This is not an uncommon experience for me and my cycling friends, including Samantha.  She posted here in June about why she rides or walks to the hospital.  Convenience and refusal to pay exorbitant parking prices is part of the story, but there’s also this:

The thing is when I’m coming to the hospital I’m often seeing health care professionals who don’t know me. They make judgments pretty quickly on the state of your health and well being. Often I think they do that on the basis of weight. And there’s not much I can do about that.

I want people to get things right and to not make silly mistakes. So I try to help. It’s like when I go to new workout or a new gym when traveling and wear my CrossFit hoodie. The fitness instructors worry less about me. (See Traveling, new gyms, and thin privilege.)

Riding my bike in, arriving at the appointment in bike shoes, sandals, helmet in hand, sends a signal. I’m signaling that I’m an active person.

Yes– just carrying a bike helmet to a doctor’s office can stave off lots of preconceived (and ill-founded) notions about what people of my size are like.  It’s like a magic anti-fat-shaming shield, sending out signals far and wide that “This person is an athlete!  This person is fit!  This person is not what you think a typical fat person is; this person is ok!”

I have a bunch of mixed reactions to this.

First– excellent!  Let’s just issue bike helmets to all women with BMIs over 30 as the new new healthcare destination accessory.  However, not all helmet designs are likely to be effective, as they must be instantly recognizable.  Not like this helmet design that has yet to catch on:

Two views of an inflatable bike helmet, worn on the left as a scarf/collar, and on the right as an inflated helmet/hood, surrounding the head and neck.

Two views of an inflatable bike helmet, worn on the left as a scarf/collar, and on the right as an inflated helmet/hood, surrounding the head and neck.

But imagine the possibilities:  we just haul these things into the examining room (no need actually to wear them, though), and voila:  no more fat-shaming talk!  Wouldn’t that be lovely?

Seriously, though, my other reaction is frustration with healthcare relationships.  I don’t expect my optometrist to know about my life and health goals, but I do want to be able to talk with my primary care doctor/nurse practitioner about them.  This involves talking about my current activities, what I want to do, what I don’t think I can do, etc.  I also don’t want my health concerns brushed aside just because the provider sees a helmet and thinks that I must not be in need of any discussion about my activity levels, mood, nutrition, etc.

Of course, having such conversations with a provider requires something that we don’t have in the American healthcare system:

The word "time" in all caps in red

Signaling does help us make conclusions about other people rapidly.  And it serves a bunch of social purposes.  But in this case, all joking aside, it’s not clear that it is serving either me or my healthcare provider.  But until things change and there’s more time for us to get to know each other better, I’ll keep biking to appointments and bringing in the helmet.  Because it would be way to much trouble to kayak there and bring the boat indoors.

A man in shorts and a yellow coat and a life jacket, holding a yellow inflatable kayak over his head. He's standing in a crowd of commuting walkers downtown in a big city.

A man in shorts and a yellow coat and a life jacket, holding a yellow inflatable kayak over his head. He’s standing in a crowd of commuting walkers downtown in a big city.

 

 

 

About catherine w

I'm an analytic philosopher, retooled as a public health ethicist. I'm interested in heath behavior change, particularly around eating and activity, and how things other than knowledge affect our health decisions.I'm also a cyclist (road, off-road, commuter), squash player, x skier, occasional yoga-doer, hiker, swimmer and leisurely walker.

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