Weight Bias in Maternity Care

I don’t know how, besides cut and paste, to re-blog from a Blogspot site, so here it is. Feel the outrage yet?

Check out more of her brilliant writing here: http://wellroundedmama.blogspot.com/

Weight Bias in Maternity Care: Weight Harassment and Over-Testing

Here is an email I received some time ago, detailing one plus-size woman’s experiences with weight bias and harassment during pregnancy. I have redacted her name and location to protect her identity.

Her story perfectly illustrates several common forms of weight bias and obesity stigma that negatively impacts her medical care.

Is it any wonder that many people of size avoid seeing care providers when this is the treatment they get?

The Story

My name is xxxx, I live in xxxx with my [four children] and husband and I am a plus-size mama expecting my 5th child…I am 5′ 5″ and weigh around 200 lbs. (sometimes more, sometimes less).  I am a very active person, work out every day, keep a vegetarian diet and have never had any health problems whatsoever.

When I had my first child I weighed 180. For my first 4 children I had an OB who is around 5 feet tall and a size zero who lectured me CONSTANTLY about the perils of being an “obese mom” and hounded me about every single ounce I gained.

With all of my children I had terrible hyperemesis for the first 18-25 weeks, sometimes longer (and have had it again this time around, too) and that OB would tell me what a “Godsend” the hyperemesis was because it caused me to LOSE weight during that portion of my pregnancies (because of the hyperemesis I have only ever gained 20 pounds or less during any pregnancy). Her harassment got so bad I would wake up on the morning of appointments crying because I knew I had to go for a weigh-in.

She even told me it would be better if I DIDN’T breastfeed any of my babies so I could immediately put myself on a 1000-calorie a day diet and take caffeine pills post partum to start losing weight rapidly before my obesity “killed” me. Thank goodness I didn’t listen to this and breastfed all my girls till they were over 2. I believe I put up with all this treatment from my OB for years because I thought as a plus-size mom I “deserved” all the hostile behavior.

When I found out I was pregnant with this baby (due in June) I decided enough was enough and switched my care to a highly recommended midwife practice so I would never have to see my previous OB ever again. At my first midwife check-up I was sick as a dog and weighed in at 207 lbs. My blood pressure was completely normal (as it always has been). I liked the midwife and I thought all was going well, had a positive prenatal exam, put on my clothes and was about to go to reception to make my next appointment when the midwife suddenly came back in and said she “forgot” to talk about an “issue.”

I sat back down and she proceeded to tell me my BMI labels me as obese (like I didn’t know!) and as a result she wanted me to sign on for gestational diabetes testing EVERY FOUR WEEKS (I have NEVER tested positive for this, by the way!), wanted me to come in for “blood pressure checks” at the office every week even when I didn’t have an appointment because she was sure I would develop high blood pressure due to my size, and then told me if I gained more than 5-10 lbs while pregnant I was seriously endangering my life!!

I practically burst into tears! I’ve still been getting my care from her because I haven’t been able to get in to see any of the other midwives in the practice with my schedule and don’t have time to find another practice. I haven’t been doing the monthly gestational diabetes testing (I tested negative on my first check and haven’t been back) because I don’t have time for it AND haven’t been in for any of the aggressive extra blood pressure checks (I haven’t had any high readings for appointments).

I don’t understand the rationale in the medical community for harassing, scaring and berating plus-size expectant moms. I plan to try again to get to a weight that I (and only I) find more comfortable/ideal for me after I have this baby, when I think it is healthy to do so – but where is the wisdom in treating me like a “weight criminal” now?

You were right in your article that midwives need to treat every expectant mom AS an expectant mom, not as a patient who needs aggressive treatment for weight who also happens to be pregnant. If I have NO signs of any health issues or pregnancy complications, and everything is fine with my baby, then how is it necessary to focus on my weight RIGHT NOW? It’s frustrating and demoralizing, and that isn’t how any woman should spend her pregnancy!

The Lessons To Be Learned

It’s important to share this mother’s experience because many in the medical field are in denial about the amount and scope of weight bias in medicine.

There seems to be a particular lack of recognition of weight bias and its impact on maternity care of heavier women.

This woman’s experience highlights several common forms of size bias in maternity care, and it’s important that caregivers become more aware of not only of the more egregious harassment, but also of the subtle biases that negatively influence care of women of size.


1. First, the most obvious bias in this woman’s experience is her care providers’ constant harassment of her about prenatal weight gain.

It’s one thing to encourage “obese” women to have good nutrition and to be careful about weight gain, it’s another to harass women to the point that they cry just at the thought of having to go in and be weighed. That’s just wrong on so many different levels.

Women should not have to be afraid to go to their care providers, and they should always be treated with dignity and respect, regardless of what the number on the scale is or whether that number has gone up or down. Duh.


2. Second, the scare tactics this doctor used over prenatal weight gain were WAY over the top.

Yes, current recommendations recommend that obese women gain 11-20 lbs., and there are some in the medical field who advocate even less gain. But as we have pointed out before, there are risks to very low gains (including more prematurity and small-for-gestational-age infants), and deliberately restricting to achieve very low gains may result in poor outcomes

I would also point out that this woman’s BMI puts her in the “Class I Obesity” category (BMI between 30 and 35). Research is clear that very low gains in this group is particularly dangerous. Yet here is a woman of Class I Obesity being told to gain only 5-10 lbs.!

This is the risk of hyperbole around restricted weight gain in pregnant women of size; many care providers hear the media stories and are taking the advice to an extreme, especially for those in the overweight and Class I obesity categories.

3. Third, it’s beyond irresponsible for this woman’s first care provider to pressure her away from breastfeeding so that she could focus solely on weight loss postpartum.

For one thing, breastfeeding often helps women lose weight and fat more efficientlypostpartum (though this experience varies from person to person). If the OB truly cared about weight loss, she would be encouraging this mother to breastfeed.

For another thing, research has clearly shown that long-term breastfeeding actuallylessens the risk of developing diabetes and heart disease, not to mention certain types ofcancer.

If she had succeeded in discouraging this mother from breastfeeding, this OB might have actually caused worse health outcomes. What kind of an idiot doctor does not know this research?


4. Weight bias can take more subtle forms, too, like over-testing for complications.

Because obese women are at increased risk for blood sugar or blood pressure issues in pregnancy, many care providers assume that an obese woman will (or almost surely will) develop gestational diabetes or pre-eclampsia. As a result, may implement extreme over-testing. (I’m hearing about this more and more these days.)

This mother was encouraged to undergo monthly testing for gestational diabetes (rather than one test early and one test around 26 weeks or so) and WEEKLY blood pressure checks. This is an outrageous amount of over-testing and completely unnecessary, especially given the fact that the mother had never had blood sugar or blood pressure issues in her four previous pregnancies.

Most care providers do not require such frequent testing of blood sugar or blood pressure for their high-BMI clients ─ but some do, showing an inflated sense of risk about plus-sized pregnancies.

There is NO study ANYWHERE which shows that 100% of obese women develop these complications. In fact, although the prevalence of these conditions is increased in high BMI women, the research shows that many obese women do NOT develop them.

Over-testing is costly, invasive, and also has potential for harm. While it is important to be aware that high-BMI women are at increased risk for certain complications, it is also important to keep that risk in perspective and not over-react. Excessive testing is a major form of over-reaction to exaggerated perceived risk, and seems to be becoming more common.

5. Finally, the use of The Death Card is particularly offensive.

“The Death Card” is frequently used with fat patients and is often used for the purpose of medical bullying, shaming, or scaring that person into compliance with the caregiver’s directions. Counseling about risk is one thing, but The Death Card has no place in good medical care.

This mother was told that she would “seriously endanger” her life if she gained more than 5-10 lbs. in her pregnancy. This is complete nonsense. There is NO research to suggest that if an obese woman gains more than 10 lbs. that she is endangering her life.

Furthermore, the anecdotal experience of thousands of obese women (who typically gain somewhere between 10 and 25 lbs. in pregnancy and somehow manage not to die) contradicts this scare tactic. So does the experience of this mother herself, who had gained around 20 lbs. with previous pregnancies and was just fine.


The over-the-top mistreatment of obese women has gone too far. While there are care providers who provide gentle, respectful care to women of size (thank you!), I hear stories of weight bias like this far too often.

This kind of treatment is the result of researchers’ (and media people’s) exaggeration around risk in the pregnancies of women of size. It is also the result of the shaming, dehumanizing medical school “education” many care providers received on the topic of obesity.

It is time for medical schools and researchers to lay off the rhetoric and the shaming, and to focus on how to provide real health care for people of all sizes.

Women of size should not be treated like “weight criminals” when they are pregnant…or indeed, at any time EVER. Gentle, respectful care should be the norm for ALL people, whatever their size. 

*What would you like to tell this mom’s care providers?


18 thoughts on “Weight Bias in Maternity Care

  1. This is so fucked up. I cannot even imagine the bullying that some women get. I’ve always been in my BMI range yet got told by my long-time gyno to get back to my “fighting weight” before getting pregnant. I’m sure women on the higher end of the scale are just tormented.

  2. I feel really sorry for anyone that has experienced this and I wish I could send them a big hug. I’m 30 weeks, 5’6″ and 215lbs. I gained 30 while pregnant so far. I’ve even asked my obgyn about my weight gain and he said it was fine and he believed me that I was eating healthily and it was just what my body needed.

  3. The treatment of this woman from multiple health practitioners is appalling. I think part of it is that being overweight is seen as a red flag in general to most doctors, regardless of the context. Then you throw in pregnant, which is also often seen as a “condition”, and what they see is comorbidities. If they would just spend the time getting to know her, which can be done through a proper history, they’d realize that her stats were perfect throughout her previous pregnancies, which is a better indicator of how her body reacts to pregnancy than generalizing from what they are taught about health and weight in med school. The fact of the matter is that spending a little more time to view a patient as a person goes a long way- both in supporting them in their wellness, but also in patient satisfaction.

  4. That is so horrible. I gained a ton of weight in my pregnancy and I always expected my OB to talk to me about it, but she never commented on my weight or made me do any unnecessary testing. I was hard enough on myself about my weight gain, if she said something I probably would have broken down in my hormonal preggo state. I don’t know why for so many the concept of a healthy, fit overweight or “obese” person is a contradiction.

  5. This breaks my heart and enrages me at the same time. Those care providers were so out of line! And even the midwife?! I would have expected better. I gained a significant amount of weight in all 3 of my pregnancies (50-65 lbs depending on which pg) and my care providers were kind and gentle about it. I can imagine having a Dr or midwife speak to someone that way would prevent them from seeking care when they need it. That is not ok!

  6. Thanks for sharing this. I am pretry upset for this woman’s chronic bullying by health professionals and that she feels trapped and can’t find care elsewhere. I worry about the scare tactics and unecessary interventions these doctors enlist. The breastfeeding bit is ludicrous.

    On the other end of things for a little perspective, going into a pregnancy with a low bmi, which also has health risks for the baby, doesn’t get anything close to this kind of treatment. Besides low birth weight, I don’t know what other issues there could be because I was not given any information on it and my midwife blew off my concerns about weight gain. (My Grandma, on the other hand, would write down my next appointment date and call me asking what the scale said.) I wish that all health professionals were trained in non violent communication and informed consent. We all need to be heard and treated respectfully no matter our weight.

  7. Sadly, this does not surprise me. As a plus size woman, I have had many negative interactions with health care professionals. I am lucky because my OBGYN isn’t one of them. I did have a consultation with a Maternal Fetal Medicine doctor (not the one I’m currently seeing) that was supposed to be about medication and my history with cancer where she only discussed my weight for the entire 20 minutes. I never went back and wrote them a pretty scathing but respectful e-mail as to the treatment I received. It saddens me that more health care professionals don’t seem to have the compassion or respect needed to treat ALL people fairly and kindly regardless of weight (big, small, or otherwise).

  8. My first RE mentioned my weight but my final clinic never said a word about it. So far, it hasn’t come up at my OB. I know I’ve faced more stigma from family than medical professionals. They always saw our infertility as being a result of my weight (I’m about the size of the gal in the story above) and thus made an unhealthy assumption. I can honestly say this fertility journey has given both my husband and I a healthier approach to life (diet, supplements, exercise, etc) that would most likely place us as healthiest out of my family – not dependent on size. Do I think that weight can affect fertility? Most definitely, but I also think often it has very little to do with it once you reach the point of IVF. As for pregnancy, it will be interesting to see what comes up. Thanks for sharing this story!

  9. This sort of thing pisses me off. I was afraid of doctors for so long because every time I went, it became all about my weight. Trying to get pregnant is what really turned around my doctor phobia, actually. Although the first thing my RE told me to do was lose weight, and she’s probably the first doctor I ever really took seriously about it. I am 5’6″ and I started my pregnancy at 194 pounds, but my doctors have never once said anything about my weight. “Obesity in pregnancy” is listed as one of my “conditions” on the post-visit summary they give me every time, but no one has ever even mentioned it to me. I still freak out every time I have to step on the scale (which–ugh–I have to do in about an hour), but so far it’s always been just fine and I am so grateful to be treated like a reasonably normal pregnant person.

  10. I feel terrible for her, but I would be lying if I didn’t say that this was a concern for me to about getting pregnant possibly this coming Sept. I hate going to Dr. as it is because they ALWAYS bring up my weight! My BMI is at a 36, kill me! I’m fat, and I’ve been fat my whole life! Honestly though, I’m also very muscular and very active, and muscle weighs more than fat, but whatever! What women need more from their medical providers, especially their OB’s/midwives is a little more guidance in eating healthier and making better choices, being a little more sensitive to the fact that WE KNOW WE’RE FAT and we don’t need to freaking hear it every appointment. I go into my appointments with my dr (only the required once a year because I just freaking can’t) and say, “Hey Dr. Gus, yup, still fat! Working on it, but still fat!” and that’s that. i feel so bad that this lady had to go through that, especially at a time with all the stress and joy of pregnancy.

  11. Absolutely outrageous!!! I’m overweight, I know I am, I’m not blind or stupid. I weighed 242 when I started with my RE in December, and I’m now 236. I’ve changed the way I eat (slowly) and am also trying to work on exercising, though I’m not the best at it yet. My RE did mention my weight on our initial consult, then again at our follow up. But he wasn’t mean about it, or say any of these things! I have PCOS, and he said that losing 10% of my body weight can help sort of push aside the PCOS and get my body working normally again. He also said that it will be healthier for me personally, which I know and agreed with. In fact, my husband said that I don’t like to exercise and hate the gym but he felt I should go…my RE actually STOOD UP FOR ME!! He told my husband that not everyone likes the gym, to not push it on me if I don’t like it, and to encourage me to find other things I like to do. I wish I knew this woman, or where she lived, to try to help do research for her to find a new Dr!! It’s absolute BS that Drs would talk to her and treat her that way! It makes me just want to cry for her. Isn’t bullying supposed to stop in high school!?!?

  12. This is INSANE. I’m so flipping tired of this. Though not larger lady myself, I’ve also had doctors try to pin problems with my fertility on my weight. Lo! My weight wasn’t the issue! It was the three massive polyps hanging out in my uterus that NO ONE TESTED FOR because it was easier to suggest that my weight was at fault.

    There is, sadly, a much bigger bias against overweight mothers, but this over-emphasis on size (rather than health) is leading to atrocious medical care for everyone. FOR THE LOVE OF PETE. #rantover

  13. Reblogged this on the common ostrich and commented:
    This is a great post about how the medical industry treats weight during pregnancy. Though this story is specifically about a plus-sized woman, I think there is a huge debate to be had about the medical industry focuses on size (big and small) to the determent of our overall health.

    As some may note from my recent post “Body Shoptalk,” I’ve become more aware about my own body issues through pregnancy. Though you may not face the same challenges as this woman, I REALLY hope you read it so that we can continue having discussions about what weight means to having healthy pregnancies and living happy lives.

  14. That is horrible. Makes me so angry that you or any other woman is treated this way. It’s so funny how our bodies become so public in pregnancy. I’ve had people tell me I look small for 5.5 months, then In the same day someone say hey can’t believe how big I am already. It’s not okay to comment like that! You look amazing and I can’t wait to meet your baby!

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