Lately, it seems like physical problems, disabilities, and even that old comedic standby — jokes about being overweight — are off limits for mainstream humor. But as society has moved away from making fun of people with health challenges or physical issues, it seems like thyroid problems have become a catchall target for jokes and comedians. I have a theory about why this is: A lack of push-back.
“Thyroid problem” is code for being overweight
Comedians and jokesters have always loved to poke fun at people who are overweight. But as sentiments have shifted away from fat-shaming, there’s a workaround that is increasingly popular: the thyroid joke.
For example, you can’t search for the term “thyroid” on Twitter without seeing multiple Tweets every day of the following joke from comedian Emo Phillips:
“I saw a woman wearing a sweatshirt with ‘Guess’ on it. I said, ‘Thyroid problem?’”
The implication is, of course, that the woman in the sweatshirt is overweight, and the “guess” is that she has a thyroid problem. Somehow, by using thyroid problem as a “code” for overweight, the joke is deemed acceptable and even funny by many people on Twitter.
Advertisers have also gotten in on the action. An ad from Marriott Hotels featured a business traveler, sitting in a middle seat on an airplane, with a very overweight person sitting on the aisle. The voiceover touted the comfort of going to your Marriott hotel after a long day traveling while “stuck in the middle seat next to someone with a ‘thyroid problem.’” Another clear use of the “thyroid-equals-fat” code language.
The “thyroid code” is also popular with meme-makers on the Internet who want to fat-shame, and then spin it to suggest that the subject of their shaming blames extra weight on a thyroid problem. An example is the following: “American girls be like: ‘I have a thyroid problem!’”
There’s also a popular meme featuring Jabba the Hutt from Star Wars, saying: “I’m telling you … It’s my thyroid!”
Why it continues
Comedians, advertisers, and internet meme-makers know that if they fat-shame or make fun of people who are overweight, they will experience strong push-back. But they can make the same point using the “thyroid code” and get away with it, because there is little organized media advocacy for thyroid patients. Sadly, professional groups like the American Thyroid Association have never taken a stand against advertising or humor that denigrates people with thyroid disease. The end result? There is no downside to making fun of thyroid patients in the media.
There are examples of positive humor out there. They are often created by thyroid patients to help themselves and others cope with thyroid disease. There are websites dedicated to thyroid humor, and Pinterest boards featuring more positive thyroid-related humorous memes. For example, some thyroid patients have used the Someecards.com site to create popular memes like:
The ThyroidNation site has a good piece on finding the humor in Graves’ disease, the site DearThyroid is dedicated to humorous letters to the thyroid, and the Thyroid Cancer Survivor’s Association (ThyCa) has a humor page, including poems and song lyrics.
These sources use humor to bring laughter and levity to those who live with a serious illness, instead of simply poking fun at them.
“Golden Girls” got it right
Surprisingly, a comedy show did the best job of effectively highlighting the struggle of dealing with chronic illness.
Season five of Golden Girls began with a two-part episode focused on the character Dorothy, played by Bea Arthur. She reports to the ladies that she’s gone to numerous doctors for months to deal with some sort of flu. The doctors all tell her she’s fine. Says Dorothy:
“I am at a point now where I am so exhausted that sometimes I cannot speak — literally, cannot speak. There are days when I can’t get out of bed. Raising my arms to wash my hair in the shower is too exhausting for me. I can’t even do that.”
She is sent to another doctor, the smug and condescending Dr. Budd, who tells her that she is just getting old, and she should see a hairdresser to dye her hair, and implies that it’s all in her head — a situation all too familiar for many women with thyroid disease.
Dorothy finally sees a doctor who diagnoses her with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), another frequently overlooked health condition that, like thyroid disease, primarily affects women and is often misdiagnosed.
At the end of the episode, Dorothy runs into Dr. Budd in a restaurant, and calls him out in front of his wife in an epic takedown, saying:
“Dr. Budd, I really am sick. I have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. It’s a real illness … There are some things I have to say. Words can’t express what I have to say. What I went through, what you put me through …
Dr. Budd, I came to you sick and scared, and you dismissed me. Instead of saying ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know what’s wrong with you,’ you made me feel like a child, a fool, a neurotic who was wasting your precious time. Is that your caring profession? Is that healing?
… You know, someday Dr. Budd you’re gonna’ be on the other side of the table, and as angry as I am and as angry as I always will be, I still wish you a better doctor than you were to me.”
It’s no surprise that Golden Girls got it right. The episode was written by the show’s creator, Susan Harris, who herself had CFS and struggled to get properly diagnosed.
Over the years, many thyroid patients have told me that they laughed, cried, or cheered when viewing that episode, as they could relate all too well to being dismissed by patronizing doctors over the years.
Given the tendency for writers to use thyroid patients to make not-so-subtle fat jokes or insults, thyroid patients face two choices: Laugh it off and refuse to be insulted, or push back and call on writers and advertisers to put an end to the “thyroid code.” There are pros and cons to each approach, and only you can decide how you want to respond.
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Mary Shomon is a thyroid disease, hormonal and autoimmune health writer, and patient advocate. For two decades, Mary has been a leading force advocating for more effective, patient-centered thyroid and hormonal health care. Mary is the New York Times bestselling author of “The Thyroid Diet Revolution,” “Your Healthy Pregnancy with Thyroid Disease,” “Living Well With Hypothyroidism,” and 10 other books on thyroid disease and integrative health. She co-stars in two PBS health specials, “Healthy Hormones,” and “Vibrant for Life.” Follow her on Twitter at @thyroidmary or at her Facebook communities: ThyroidSupport and ThyroidDiet.