the HAES® files: Reflections on Growing Up

by Health At Every Size® Blog

by Dr. Jenny Copeland

The only time you really live fully is from thirty to sixty. The young are slaves to dreams; the old servants of regrets. Only the middle-aged have all their five senses in the keeping of their wits. ~ Hervey Allen ~

I turned 30 last week. Although tradition may dictate we stop acknowledging our birthdays after 29, I am privileged enough to have the wonderful influence of my family, friends, and this community encouraging me to embrace myself and my life as is. Aging brings with it many changes. I am constantly learning new lessons about me, my body, and the world around me, gathering (what I hope is) wisdom to carry me through.

This being an important milestone for me, I felt the pressure to share whatever insights I may have acquired thus far. My instinct was to reflect on my own experiences with weight stigma, what led me to participate in this movement in the first place, and why I choose to remain present in it. In the past I have written about my experiences of body shaming (here) which led to a conversation on thin privilege versus fat oppression. Participants in the size acceptance movement inevitably must acknowledge elements of their own layers of privilege and bias – a worthy practice in self-awareness and honesty among allies working collectively to dismantle problematic attitudes and behaviors in modern society.

Yet, it feels disingenuous to wax philosophic about these issues today. The more time I spend in this movement the more I realize the importance of honoring individual ideals and learning to trust your instincts. I believe the beauty of this movement – of feminism in general – is in providing the opportunity for freedom to choose. To not have our perceptions and attitudes dictated by industry or those who benefit from body shaming. To be free to embody ourselves and live in this world in a way which is genuine and authentic.

Unfortunately, it is not as simple as saying “be yourself” or “accept yourself” or “cherish the body you have.” As a professional, I work with people of all shapes and sizes who are challenged by body hatred of varying manifestations. Some have clinically diagnosable eating disorders, others come for help for a variety of emotional health problems only to discover their body is a core component of that, and still others make a pit stop in my office on their journey to fulfillment through weight loss. I often do not agree with their choices in how they care for themselves and their bodies. These decisions are embedded in each person’s unique story and experiences in the world. My training allows me to make guesses and offer suggestions, but I admit they are the experts in themselves and will know better than anyone else what drives them – although they may not have discovered it yet. I can only hope to help them gain these important understandings of themselves.

Who am I to declare how someone should love or accept their body? It truly is not that simple. We do not make a single choice to accept ourselves. Rather it is a continuous process of turning our mind away from the old perceptions to those which are decidedly more positive and ultimately embracing of who we are today. That journey will look and feel different for each one of us. Size acceptance is certainly not a one size fits all perspective. As this illustration featured on Medium demonstrates, there is great diversity in life:

Body Shapes

Perhaps this is not meant to be a journey of accepting our bodies, but to truly discover who we are: to understand our most genuine selves and how to live consistently with that self in our daily lives.

How then do we apply this principle to our personal lives and/or advocacy work? I believe I may be able to offer some wisdom – or at least some suggestions – in this regard:

Create not just a safe space for exploration of these issues, but a space which allows the opportunity for respectful debate, challenging of perceptions, and the development of insight into not only our areas of potential privilege or oppression, but also the biases we harbor – no matter how long we have identified as members of this movement. Our list-servs and blogs cannot be the only opportunity we provide for such activities as they can limit the perspectives being shared for a variety of reasons. For example, it takes great courage to share contrary perspectives in established communities – online or otherwise – for fear of backlash or disapproval from those we hold in high regard. What if we created a space where disagreement is not only welcomed, but encouraged? Our humility in this regard may provide us as a community greater opportunity to continue our growth – and further our movement.

Maintain a culture of willingness rather than willfulness, remaining open to the many possibilities our movement may offer – and that others may offer our movement. Each person we include brings a unique perspective we could treasure for the opportunity it allows us to grow. Maintaining openness to learning not only fosters the growth of our community, but encourages others who are outside of this movement to do the same.

Honor the many ways in which one can express and practice body positivity or size acceptance. Whether we look like a badly drawn dolphin or a pierogi, the very existence of such movements provides the opportunity for freedom and choices in our daily practice. We may or may not agree with another’s decisions, but we can revel in our ability to have them.

Ami Angelowicz and Winona Dimeo-Ediger of The Frisky crafted a genius list of powerful body affirmations in this vein, providing the opportunity for inspiration toward body positivity in a manner which allows personal interpretation. My favorite is this:

Better-Body-Affirmations-For-Young-Women-600x450

We are at our best when we encourage others to be their best, genuine selves. Therefore let us not simply say, “accept your body and the bodies of those around you,” but rather embrace a message which fosters self-exploration and the discovery of our unique personal meaning for acceptance. That is wisdom we can all benefit from.

3 Comments to “the HAES® files: Reflections on Growing Up”

  1. I got a chuckle about the spoof on body shapes, but at the same time, I was sobered by the thought that shape discrimination exists, and sometimes undermines the work we do in promoting size acceptance and HAES. That’s one reason I regard the plus-size fashion industry as an uncertain ally at best. The push to describe larger women as “curvy” and “real” women, just substitutes another kind of pecking order, and does not really encourage body positivity in everyone…

    Anyway, thanks for a great essay!

    • Bill,

      I definitely agree about “shape discrimination” – as an additional factor that is different from size discrimination per se. I also believe that “shape discrimination” goes above and beyond difficulties in finding appropriate clothing, although people with certain shapes do experience more trouble than others finding economically priced clothing that actually fits.

      Some day maybe the issue of shape discrimination can be addressed. For example, women with large breasts and thin legs are (wrongly) ascribed different personality characteristics, motivations, competencies, etc., than women of exactly the same height, weight, and “BMI” who have small torsos and a large behind, or women of the same height and weight who have large thighs and whose legs don’t taper at the ankles.

      Men with large chests or large mid-sections are ascribed different personality characteristics, motivations, competencies, etc. than men with large hips or thighs. Etc., etc. etc.

      Its not “just” about size — it is also about shape.

      Also, people (of both genders) who are what would be considered to be “well proportioned” can get away with higher weights w/out the same amount of discrimination that would be heaped on those of exactly the same height and weight whose shape is not what would be considered to be “well proportioned.”

  2. Lovely post Jenny. Very thoughtful and incisive. I really enjoyed it.

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