On October 27-31, 2012, the American Public Health Association (APHA) held its annual meeting in San Francisco, CA, with approximately 13,000 public health professionals and students in attendance. This year, the Association for Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH) took a booth at the four-day Public Health Exposition. Four ASDAH members committed to staffing the booth: Shelley Bond, Dana Schuster, Paula Szloboda, and Fall Ferguson. ASDAH members Natalie Ingraham and Sonya Satinsky also spent significant time at the booth talking to visitors about a weight-neutral approach to health.
In addition, Sonya, Fall, Dana, and Natalie participated in a panel sponsored by the Committee on Women’s Rights entitled “Women’s and Children’s Health At Any Size.” The four presentations approached the HAES model from a range of perspectives: Sonya’s important research on size and sexual behavior; Dana’s compassionate work with children and youth; Fall’s critique of weight-based health promotion as contrary to the ethical norms of the public health professions; and Natalie’s nuanced analysis of “The Biggest Loser.”
We asked these six “HAES ambassadors” to share their experiences at the APHA conference with us.
Shelley Bond: This is my very personal experience in the ASDAH booth at the APHA conference. I was way out of my comfort zone, for one thing. I’m light on the academic background and much of the vocabulary and concepts that go along with that. On the other side, I have many years of experience in the area of women’s health (Peace Corps in Africa and Planned Parenthood in SF), as well as a long-term interest in public health. I mention all this because it was important to my experience at APHA, and I want to share with my fellow ASDAH members that even if you are in an ASDAH booth on Mars, as long as you can relate to Martians/people and have a passing experience with the color red, you are probably equipped to do a good job in spreading the word. My feet hurt, my hips weren’t happy, walking was difficult, parking a bitch, traffic ridiculous… AND I loved being with my fellow ASDAH peeps, talking with visitors to the booth, meeting the other vendors, and feeling like I was very directly spreading the HAES word.
I was very impressed with how intelligent, open, aware, and serious about the work our visitors were. Many – maybe even most – were young and so enthusiastic about their work. I remember one impressive young woman who is in charge of the entire anti-obesity program(s) of her state. She was clearly intrigued – and even a believer in the HAES model – and we could almost see her mind working on how she could inject some HAES ideas into her programs without losing her job. A slightly older MD saw our booth as he walked the aisle, stopped just north of us and turned around to read the banners, went to leave but reconsidered and ended up coming back for a chat. He started out by suggesting that we were in denial. We countered. He was also someone who had lost weight and managed to keep it off for a reasonable period of time, so he was a true believer (in the weight-centered health paradigm). I kept having to remind him that his experience was not typical. We talked to him for a long time and didn’t make a dent. He did drive us seriously nuts, but he was one of the exceptions. Most people were supportive or at least interested. It was all a fabulous experience and I’m very glad I participated.
Fall Ferguson: I had some trepidation going into this event, thinking that we might encounter hostility. I am happy to report I was wrong. The response was overwhelmingly positive. We met community health workers who work with teens on body image and self-esteem. We met school health professionals who told us tragic stories of weight-based bullying and eating disorders. We met environmental health advocates who don’t agree with the perpetual “obesity” framing and were grateful for the reframing that we were able to offer. We met public health students who intuitively understand that the war on obesity is misguided but didn’t (until now) have a language to talk about it. And so on…it was inspiring to talk with so many dedicated people who want to do better by the individuals and communities whom they serve. That was the big takeaway for me: we all share the same goals and values around helping people to live well.
There were a few people we couldn’t reach. There was the man who was annoyed because he couldn’t use our Yay! Scale™ to weigh himself for his required self-report to his online weight cycling program. And the woman hawking VLCD (“Very Low Calorie Diet”) products who casually suggested she’d be “more than happy to come and chat” with our members wasn’t really interested in hearing what we had to say. I also saw fear in the eyes of some passers-by who eyed our banner but just kept walking. We will never know for sure, but I suspect that for many who actively prescribe disordered eating and exercise practices to their clients and patients or make a living from anti-obesity efforts, our message is indeed quite threatening. For the most part, however, those who stopped at our booth and came to our panel brought open minds and open hearts.
In contrast to the serious demeanors to be encountered throughout most of the conference, our booth visitors were consistently smiling, laughing, and having fun “yaying” themselves. It was clear that people appreciated the essentially positive and uplifting nature of our message.
Natalie Ingraham: I was pleasantly surprised at the number of positive interactions with attendees at the conference. I honestly expected more hostile interactions or push back but most of the people we talked with were open, friendly and quite a few folks were really excited to see us at the conference. I only had one negative and frustrating interaction (that carried over into our session, unfortunately) but I felt like it was handled well even if I don’t think our message really “sunk in” for this person in particular.
This was my fourth time attending APHA and having the ASDAH booth (with its amazingly friendly faces) was such a welcome relief for me personally. Last year at APHA, I spent a lot of time going to “obesity epidemic” sessions that were so negative and weight focused, and I made sure to take time out to talk to presenters about the HAES® paradigm. It was exhausting! This year, I only went to a few presentations and saw a few posters that were frustrating in their “obesity epidemic” focus, but knowing I could go back to the ASDAH booth and talk weight-neutral “shop” was such a relief! I really hope that ASDAH can continue to have some kind of presence at APHA because it really feels important that we show up and try to change the conversation about health.
Sonya Satinsky: So, this was probably the fifth or sixth annual APHA meeting I’ve attended, and they are all exhausting. But this year, the exhaustion felt different. In previous years (and I imagine will still happen in years to come), I’ve walked out of sessions, been ignored in Q&As, and felt completely disheartened by the paternalistic, fat-phobic research and rhetoric I’ve heard at APHA “obesity” panels. This year, having the ASDAH booth available and the truly inspiring HAES® warriors inhabiting it was like a salve for my soul!
This is not to say that APHA doesn’t have wonderful people who attend, who came to our session, stopped by the booth, got excited when they heard what I would be presenting (about the relationship between body size and sexual behavior in women) . . . what I found was that we have allies all over APHA. Attending the Population, Reproductive, and Sexual Health reception, I spoke with a woman who exclaimed, “Where are the Health at Every Size panels at this conference?” and I was able to say, “There is one! Wednesday, 12:30pm!” which felt awesome. What this says to me is how important it is that ASDAH was there this year, and that we continue to propose panels that promote HAES. This is the 3rd year in a row that we’ve had a panel, and they just keep getting stronger and stronger, and bigger and bolder and more inspiring. As a longtime APHA member, I can say with great confidence that I can see a slow paradigm shift towards weight neutrality happening before my eyes, and I’m hugely grateful to folks like Fall, Dana, Shelley, Natalie, and Paula for doing the very difficult and very visible work of promoting weight-neutrality in a field that hasn’t been open to it for a long time.
Dana Schuster: One of the first things I became aware of at APHA was how incredibly fabulous it was to be part of a HAES team. This was a very different experience in contrast to being at the Childhood Obesity Conference as the sole ASDAH exhibit booth representative. One would of course expect that an event like this would be far easier to manage from a logistics perspective with a team, and that the group would also help mitigate the overall sense of exhaustion that comes from being “on” all day, day after day. However, the most amazing aspect of our team for me, which I hadn’t really thought about in advance, was the way in which this sub-section of our HAES tribe could work so well together to tag-team, reach out to others, support one another, and bring our individual styles and areas of expertise to bear.
My experience at APHA also totally reinforced that I LOVE engaging in discussions and watching what happens when people hear for the first time that they do have a choice – that the HAES model is an alternative to the weight-based framing that has governed their work and approach to life. I found the vast majority of the people I talked with to be open and eager-to-learn folks, who truly wanted to provide services to others that facilitated health. Yes, there were those outside of this category who were a tad more challenging to interact with. Dr. Epidemiologist, for example, who felt his animal research clearly proved that higher weight led to certain types of cancer and that we were “in denial” with our weight-neutral stance. It became abundantly clear as he talked, and talked, and talked – trying to convince us of the errors of our thinking – that it was actually his born-again-if-I-can-do-it-anyone-can recent 23-pound weight loss that was driving his intensity and persistence. His critical energy couldn’t hold a candle, however, to the experience of talking with one lovely young Korean woman who shared that she was struggling with “still needing to lose a few more pounds” based on her BMI. We spoke for a brief time about HAES weight neutrality and the risks of promoting the current weight-obsessed framework, and it was apparent that this was new and helpful information for her. Yet, it was the opportunity that arose to look directly into her eyes and tell her “You are beautiful and valuable EXACTLY the way you are” – clearly something she had never heard from anyone before – that may have been the life-changing HAES gift that our presence provided.
Paula Szloboda: As a new member of ASDAH, I enjoyed my first experience working in the booth at the APHA conference. It was clear that many people are looking for an alternative to the weight-based health paradigm predominant in the public health arena. Our presence was a service to these individuals. It was most interesting to watch the reactions of visitors to the booth as they approached the Yay! Scale. Most people began removing their shoes, outerwear and purses in order to get an “accurate” reading on the scale. As the scale revealed a positive descriptor, the delight was evident; and many times, the individual would then begin piling on the accessories that had been previously discarded in order to get a second reading with another positive and inspirational word. There was laughter and joy at the ASDAH booth. Strolling through the exhibit hall, I noted that laughter was not a common sound at this event. It is my impression that ASDAH made a very positive impression through the written materials provided, conversations held at the ASDAH booth, and the panel presentation.
All: To sum it all up, we would encourage all HAES peacemakers to consider what gifts you each might have to contribute when the opportunity arises to participate in a similar event. Perhaps you, like Natalie and Sonia, can bring research knowledge and a youthful vibe to interactions; or like Paula, a calm, open, and “I’m great at listening” aura that encourages people to approach and engage. Maybe like Fall, you have an ability to cite supporting scientific evidence and provide an ethical, compassionate framing for the HAES message, or like Shelley can draw people in with a creative energy, and keen observational, genuine, people-supportive manner. And there are very likely a number of you out there who share Dana’s passion, positivity, and perseverance. Without a doubt, it will be this amazing composite of personal and professional resources that enables us all to more effectively connect with the diversity of people who are tired of the destructiveness of the weight-based battle. After all, it is our Health At Every Size® paradigm shift which offers peace in an atmosphere of war.