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Fat shaming, BMI and alienation: COVID-19 brought new stigma to large-sized people

Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES – Chrystal Bougon cried after the needle went into her arm. Not because her first dose of the Moderna vaccine hurt. But because, finally, being fat actually paid off.

The 53-year-old was inoculated in the parking lot of Kaiser Permanente in San José on a rainy Friday in March, four days after eligibility in California was broadened to include people with underlying conditions. Among them, a body mass index of 40 or more — 233 pounds for an adult who is 5 feet 4 inches tall.

Bougon’s medical record at Kaiser shows she is morbidly obese; as an activist, she prefers the word “fat.” Her experience with medical providers has been one incident of size stigma after another, she said, like the time she went in with a scratched cornea and was told to lose weight. She fears being hospitalized with COVID-19 and unable to advocate for herself.

“For that reason I decided, you know what, I’m not going to feel guilty about (getting vaccinated). I’m going to do it,” she said. “And I’m not going to apologize for it. I’ve been in fear the whole flipping time, staying home, avoiding everybody. I couldn’t do my job. I’m an electrologist. I remove facial hair. I couldn’t come to work. I couldn’t make money.”

That, however, is changing, thanks to a vial of vaccine, a very sharp needle and a policy switch that allowed women and men like Bougon a chance to be inoculated before the general public — in California, about a month early.

“It’s not every day that we get something for free because we’re fat,” said Bougon, who launched a YouTube channel called Fat Product Review.


For more than a year, the coronavirus pandemic has accentuated yawning inequities in American life, disparities in race and ethnicity, poverty and privilege. Black and Latino communities have been among the hardest hit, with death rates alarmingly higher than among white people.

The virus has underscored yet another serious inequity. Studies link higher body mass index, or BMI, with increased risk for severe COVID-19, including higher rates of hospitalization. Other research shows weight bias can keep larger-bodied people from seeking and receiving appropriate care.

At the same time, the pandemic has highlighted a clash between the medical establishment and the fat acceptance movement, between those who use clinical terms such as “obesity” and “overweight” and those who proudly describe themselves as “large-bodied,” “people of size,” “fat,” and even “super fat.”

In 2013, the American Medical Association recognized obesity as a disease. The fat acceptance movement argues it is possible to be healthy at any size.


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