Nurses have enough to deal with without body-shaming

This morning I clicked on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website to discover an article by Christian Pattison giving a novel criticism of the nursing profession. We’re all too fat.

If you go anywhere near the NHS, you can’t fail to see it. The woman who marches you over to the scales and carefully records your weight, the man who asks you to roll up your sleeve and tells you to expect a “sharp scratch”: what they often have in common – apart from a desire to help – is that they’re pretty damn big.

Oh dear. Where to start?

In fairness to Pattison, she concedes that one of the reasons why nurses can be overweight is because of the difficulties in living a healthy lifestyle when crammed around a busy and often long hospital shift. This has certainly been my experience. The heaviest I’ve ever been was when I was working a lot of night shifts on an inpatient mental health unit. I found the trick to keeping awake was a supply of sweets, junk food and strong, sugary coffee. When I got home all I wanted to do was sleep rather than go to the gym.

These days I work on a community team, mostly doing psychological therapies with self-harming teenagers. My body mass index is currently 25.5, slightly above the recommended range of 20-25 (though BMIs aren’t really more than a rule of thumb). I’ve actually lost a few pounds recently, though I wasn’t trying to. I took three weeks leave to do voluntary work at the Glastonbury Festival followed by a long, arduous road trip across Iceland. When I got back I stepped on the scales and discovered that my weight had dropped from all the travelling.

This is ironic because up to that point I’d been intentionally trying to lose weight and failing. I had a gym subscription, but didn’t wind up going as often as I should. I was trying to stick to a healthy diet, but hunger would kick in. This is a pretty common human experience, and I’m sure there’s plenty of people reading this who can report similar experiences. Which leads me to my retort to Pattison’s view, and this is a revelation which I’m sure will come as a shocker.

Nurses are human beings too, with human faults and failings.

There are currently 670,000 nurses and midwives on the NMC register. Plus an accompanying army of unregistered nursing assistants and support workers. We are not a race of superhumans set aside from the rest of humanity. Nursing is a vast undertaking, carried out for the people, by the people. There are nurses who smoke, who drink too much, who take illicit drugs, who have physical disabilities or mental health problems. And yes, there are plenty of nurses who are fat.

And you know what? Many of those people are perfectly good nurses. Even Pattison concedes that in her article.

Some of the best nurses are the biggest. This was clear at the recent Nurse of the Year awards, where quite a few of the winners were very big indeed. The link between a big body and a big heart might not have been as clear as this week’s link between fat and diabetes, but it was clear that being big didn’t stop a lot of people from doing their jobs extremely well.

But then she sets nursing an impossible goal.

In the NHS we’ll need, however, those jobs will have to change. The NHS workers of the future will need to be mentors, coaches and ambassadors for health. And for this, they will need to be a healthy size.

Sorry, but this isn’t remotely feasible, because nurses are not ambassadors. We are you. We are your hunger cravings. We are your sense of lethargy when you’re supposed to go for a run and really don’t want to. We are your nicotine cravings. Your desire to de-stress from a difficult day by heading to the pub.

This is by no means a bad thing. If I’m talking to a nurse about weight loss, and I want him or her to understand how difficult this is, and why people so often fail. In a different context, this reminds me of the regular discussions about mental health professions who have lived experience of mental health difficulties of their own. They often become “wounded healers”, better at their jobs because they’ve been there themselves.

Now, who’s for a slice of cake?

One thought on “Nurses have enough to deal with without body-shaming

  1. To cut a very long story of personal experience, anecdata and info from others in the know short, “comfort eating” is an unhealthy behaviour which allows people to function. You can’t hold down a job for long if you deal with stress and distress by caning two bottles of vodka or doing coke every day. Eating is often the addiction of choice for people in caring roles because it’s something you can do and still manage the obligations of your role. If they want NHS workers to lose weight, they need to offer help, support and better working conditions.

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