Sorry All You Well-Meaning Medical Professionals, But Wearing A Fat Suit Is Not The Same Thing As ACTUALLY BEING FAT

A UK hospital is teaching its employees to be more sensitive to their fat patients by making them wear a fat suit. Unfortunately this noble effort undertaken in the best of intentions is totally freaking misguided and rooted in the same assumptions that cause problems in the first place.
Publish date:
January 3, 2014
fat, doctors, fat shaming, body politics, scared of doctors, doctors suck sometimes

Today from the Department of Good Intentions, a thousand hospital employees in the UK are being trained in kindness toward fat patients by wearing a “fat suit.” Jezebel has the details:

The suit weighs about 13 lbs., but when donning it, a person can feel a decrease in mobility and have trouble breathing. It's sure to be eye-opening for health care workers who might not even realize that seemingly simple things — lying flat, getting comfortable in a chair, having blood pressure taken — can become complicated or difficult for a person carrying more weight. In October, there was a guidance published in the UK, urging doctors to be "respectful" and "non-blaming" of obese patients. This "fat suit" program — which is only in one hospital at the moment — seems like a good start. The suit itself was a charitable donation, but it would be amazing to see them in hospitals all over the UK — and the US as well.

Lest you immediately assume the worst, here’s a BBC News clip demonstrating this sensitivity project at Peterborough Hospital, and in fairness, the folks participating seem wildly earnest about it, which is refreshing in a medical culture that is generally pretty eager to make assumptions about fat folks, if not be outright rude and body-shaming.

In the video, a hospital employee toddles around in the aforementioned fat suit, experiencing what it’s like to, uh, walk and sit and lie down and be swung around on a lifty-swing person-moving device while fat. The employees in the clip also talk about their growing respect for the dignity of fat patients.

Let’s be honest though -- being hospitalized is rarely a dignified experience even in the best of circumstances. I’ve only been properly in the hospital once, my stay lasting about 36 hours after having my gallbladder out, and while I expected to have some pain and general discomfort, I was utterly shocked by all the little things I hadn’t prepared for, like when I became consumed with the need to be allowed to put on a pair of underpants pretty much immediately after being moved from the recovery area to a shared room.

With distance, this urge seems bratty and superficial, but following the surgery I felt weirdly like an inert piece of dead gross meat, and something as simple as UNDERPANTS came to represent all that was normal and human about me, and so I obsessively pestered the nurses until the shift changed and one of them finally took pity on me and let me have my freaking underwear. (I was so relieved I inadvertently flashed the whole room in my haste to lurch out of the bed and get those panties on.)

And this is extraordinarily banal compared to what many folks experience -- I had one of the most common abdominal surgeries in the US, and was recovering at home a couple days later. Lengthier hospital stays can necessarily involve all sorts of understandably undignified moments in the effort to health up a body that needs it, regardless of that body’s size, but obviously fatter people are sometimes a little more exposed to this, especially when hospital employees don’t know how to manage their physical volume.

I mean, I was in there for less than two days and still I had a totally weird issue when the nurse tried to fit me with a broad white abdominal binder made of thick institutional elastic, shortly after I woke up from the anesthesia. After she spent several minutes fruitlessly trying to tug the thing around my middle, she had to ask for help from another nurse to get the ends to meet because the thing was clearly too small.

Through my post-anesthesia haze, I remember blearily observing that it seemed unlikely I was the fattest person ever to have my gallbladder out, and maybe they should find a bigger bandage. (We’re gonna need a bigger bandage.) The nurses agreed that I was not, but did not stop to look for a larger option and just doggedly jiggled my already-fragile post-surgery midsection back and forth like two lumberjacks sawing through a particularly thick tree, until they could get the velcro to overlap.

I was angry, but too fucked up to do anything about it.

Anything that helps medical professionals at all levels to better empathize with their fat patients is a positive thing; it’s hard to describe even the most banal stuff like Chair Panic (i.e. “Will I fit comfortably in this narrow chair with arms, or will I fit uncomfortably but in a way that no one can tell so I can just suffer quietly to myself, or will I not fit at all and everyone will know and OMG I’M A MONSTERRRRR”) to someone who has never experienced it, and I suppose if donning a fat suit -- or “bariatric suit” as the video euphemistically calls it -- can help a bit, that’s a useful thing.

So I can see and affirm the good this project is seeking to accomplish, and may in fact be succeeding at. But there is a risk here, because while putting on a fat suit may help not-fat individuals to understand some of the basic challenges of being wider than the specs one’s environment was built to, it’s not a real simulation of how it feels to be actually real-life fat.

In the very beginning of the clip above, the hospital employee currently inside the suit -- which is purportedly meant to give the wearer the proportions of a 560lb person -- talks about the disomfort of lying on her back, and how she’s finding it difficult to breathe. While useful as a tool to illustrate the three-dimensional realities of obesity, I’m a little put off by the assumption -- common to anyone who climbs inside a fat suit -- that this suit somehow accurately reproduces how a universal fat body feels.

Frankly, it’s a lazy assumption to make, if an unsurprising one, but the truth is that much like bodies of every size, all fat bodies are different. They feel different, they function different, and there is no uniform singular baseline experience of life in a fat body. Some don’t breathe so well, true, but some don’t have this problem. Some have extremely limited mobility and some are relatively agile and flexible. You can easily have two fat people who technically weigh the exact same number of pounds but who have radically different problems and concerns.

While it’s inevitable that assumptions about Fat Life based on a few hours in a fat suit will happen, more assumptions do not help people to be more sensitive. Assumptions are the real problem here; that is, the problem is medical professionals making assumptions about a person’s ability or comfort, when really what’s needed is for said professionals to learn how to ask questions directly -- but respectfully -- of an individual patient to assess their needs. This is hard because that language is difficult and awkward, because there is so much social and cultural shame wrapped up in acknowledging a fat person’s size, even in a medical setting, often for both the medical employee and the fat person herself.

Although it often takes a back seat to empathy, sympathy -- by which I mean the ability to acknowledge and comfort a person in difficulty even without understanding exactly how they feel -- is just as powerful. And I believe it’s more practically useful for medical professionals to learn to sympathize with their fat patients, rather than to assume they know what it’s like.

In the end, I think this project has the potential to do a lot of good, but only if the participants don’t rely on it as a valid reproduction of fat experience that reinforces existing assumptions about the trials and trevails of seeking medical care in a fat body. While it’d be grand if one fat suit could render us all capable of thoroughly empathizing with fat people as a monolith, it’s just not a real prospect. Fat bodies are as individual, quirky, and diverse as all bodies. And when we can make this as common as the conventional wisdom that all fat bodies are fat for the same reasons and sick for the same reasons and that they are defective, broken, or simply unwanted for the same reasons -- only then will we see any real cultural shift in how fat patients are treated.