THE OTHER DAY, a colleague brought to my attention an essay from The Washington Post called “A morbidly obese patient tests the limits of a doctor’s compassion” written by a Dr. Edward Thompson. Just the first two lines of it above had me furious. Not only were they a study in the power of negative metaphors, but as a fellow physician, they felt all-too familiar. They were the way I had, on many an occasion, heard patients’ bodies talked about; ways that I, during my training, had perhaps referred to patients’ bodies. The simple words felt so easy, so unexamined, and in that very ease was embedded their violence.
Let’s recap the imagery used. A very large man is compared to a mountain of flesh. He has a high and childlike voice. You don’t need to be an MFA in creative writing, or a sociopolitical genius, to recognize these as metaphors of the grotesque and infantile. And importantly, the patient’s stomach pain is not a stated fact, but a complaint, framed by quotes. This makes clear to the reader that the patient claims his stomach hurts. He is potentially malingering. The implication being that the obese are, well, complainers. Indeed, although studies show that physicians are nicer to thinner patients, many of my medical colleagues don’t seem to realize that personal and institutional violence against fat people (and I use that term in solidarity with the fat activism and fat studies movements) is a thing. A real, grotesque and infantile thing. A real, grotesque and infantile thing that negatively impacts the health care that fat individuals receive.