February 17, 2022

Unheard and Unseen: Enduring and Overcoming Medical Trauma as a Fat Woman of Color

Content Warning: Loss of life, cancer, medical trauma

I am scrolling through my phone, reading post after post, not completely registering any of the words or photos. I stop on a particularly interesting post – an article detailing the loss of a black woman’s life due to missing preventable and treatable cervical cancer in its early stages.

This is not just the beginning of my own story, but the opening scene to the experiences of so many women throughout our community. There is nothing more terrifying than knowing this could be you.

The current research shows that fat cis-women are more likely to go without cervical cancer screening than thin cis-women, and black women die at higher rates than white women from cervical cancer. So, it is not difficult for me, a fat black woman, to make the connection between size and race in medical care, and how those two compounding risk factors create a perfect storm of sub-par medical care. “One more black woman lost to systematic racism and fatphobic medical treatment,” I think to myself and I continue scrolling. I am left with anxiety, fear, and more questions about how we got to this point.

It is clear that black women – and black women in larger bodies in particular – are disproportionately mistreated by our medical system that continues to uphold harmful values under the guise of “health and wellness”. There are countless diet and exercise program advertisements that promise a healthy body, while trying to force us into a shape rooted in early 19th century racism. I am also consistently met with cultural messaging, both implicit and explicit, that tells me that the body I was born into is wrong and needs to adhere to the same discriminatory medical standards, like BMI measurements, to be considered “acceptable”.

For myself and so many other women that I know, walking into a doctor’s office feels like charging into a battle. I find myself defaulting to my rehearsed responses when a doctor assumes that my illness is because of my fatness. It feels like my “fight or flight” response is activated at every question, every pause, and every moment my doctor looks at my chart.

Fat women seeking medical care are almost always told to “come back when you’ve lost some weight.” We are given a prescription of a restrictive diet and sent home to manage our growing shame and guilt over our food choices and activity level, without ever being asked what our lifestyle is actually like. We leave the office feeling mentally exhausted because we did not feel safe or heard. I often find myself avoiding medical care altogether, because I can’t afford to spiral into anxiety and depression every single time I’ve needed a simple check-up.

I now work with young people struggling with eating disorders as part of my personal protest against a system that denies fat people and people of color access to care through its mistreatment and assault on our bodies. I strive to share my story to empower others to challenge the idea that their body is inherently incorrect, unhealthy, or undesirable.

Historically, women have been ignored by medical professionals at the expense of our health and lives. But I reject the idea that this is inevitable. By existing as I am, and educating and supporting others as I do, I am radically opposing a world where my well-being is at risk because of systemic racism and anti-fat bias. I will continue to work every day to build a world where not one more black, fat woman is lost.

Zaynah Mahon is an Equip Certified Peer Mentor, where she works to treat patients with eating disorders and challenge the myths and assumptions around diet culture and thinness. She is passionate about writing essays that share how lived experiences inform the ways we see the world around us. She herself is in recovery from an eating disorder and wants to see a world where every single person is seen, heard, and treated for their illness no matter what body they live in. Zaynah also enjoys dancing, making art, writing, and practicing yoga, all of which is helping her relearn ways to connect with her most authentic self in recovery. For more information about Equip, please visit

If you or someone you love is struggling with an eating disorder, please reach out to us at The Alliance. Our team is uniquely qualified to connect you with the support needed to begin your recovery journey. Visit our national, interactive database to find eating disorder treatment near you today or reach out to us for more help and resources.

To learn more about the NOT ONE MORE movement, visit