the HAES® files: Finding the Compassion in our Peace Movement

by Health At Every Size® Blog

by Jenny Copeland, PsyD

As a size acceptance advocate – and mental health professional – defensiveness is no stranger to me. Human beings naturally resist that which is unknown or uncomfortable to them. For many of my HAES® colleagues, I am certain we can comfortably say we are met with strong resistance when introducing our principles to other professionals and when encouraging patients to step away from the scale. But it is not the resounding “NO!” I am concerned with today. It is the defensiveness.

The dictionary defines defensiveness as being “excessively concerned with guarding against the real or imagined threat of criticism, injury to one’s ego, or exposure of one’s shortcomings.” Sigmund Freud would describe it as an unconscious manner of protecting the ego – the conscious self. While resistance might imply keeping something at arm’s length, defensiveness implies a certain amount of fighting back. As a community, we as size acceptance advocates often note the extensive and elaborate ways in which the ‘opposition’ defends their viewpoint. As a community we are not immune to this. We become defensive toward others in our own community with different perceptions, different actions, different motivations. We defend the legitimacy of our suffering against others who have differently suffered. And in the action of defending our position, we breed conflict and divide our ranks.

Freud would call this “splitting,” a dichotomous style of thinking wherein we see things as black or white, all good or all bad. This ultimately produces an “us and them” mentality which generally weakens the size acceptance movement. What emerges are divisions of the privileged and the exploited, those learned and ignorant of the movement, those with an eating disorder and those without, and even the thin and the fat. As a community, we could argue whether one group’s experiences of weight or size stigma are more or less significant, or even more or less legitimate. What would be the point?

The Health At Every Size® approach has sometimes been called a peace movement, one of acceptance and reconciliation for the past wrongs we have inflicted on our bodies. At these times when we are split from within and have pushed each other away, I wonder where our peace is. Sometimes we fight so hard to have our voices heard that we silence others’ – sometimes even the voices of our fellow travelers in this journey.

Karen Armstrong, a pioneer in religious studies, put it this way: “Look into your own heart; discover what it is that gives you pain. And then refuse, under any circumstance whatsoever, to inflict that pain on anybody else.” How wonderfully simple. Recognize and acknowledge that which has hurt us, then refuse to pass that same hurt onto anyone else. Stop the bullying in its tracks. Armstrong founded The Compassion Charter with this in mind. Although its roots are in religious and moral diversity, I think the sentiment applies to size acceptance as well:

The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.

It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism, or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others—even our enemies—is a denial of our common humanity. We acknowledge that we have failed to live compassionately and that some have even increased the sum of human misery in the name of religion.

In its simplest form, The Compassion Charter is a resurgence of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have done unto you. It is a value taught to many in their childhood, hopefully working to build regard and empathy for others. The question is, how does this apply to the size acceptance movement? There are different schools of thought for advocacy, whether we should take a ‘straight and narrow’ approach where we hold strongly to our ideals and refuse to compromise them in any shape or form. Others find value in the grey areas, working to reach those outside the community and gradually bring them into the fold. This is a debate for another time.

My question, then, is how do we best foster compassion for one another? How do we nurture our community and build relationships while still challenging each other to grow? I don’t think we accomplish this by saying some have suffered more or less at the hands of size hatred. I don’t think we accomplish this by saying the Health At Every Size approach is valid for some sizes but not for others. I think we can accomplish this by less defensiveness with one another. This would imply listening more often than we talk and finding space for every person in our movement – no matter what size, shape, gender, sexual orientation, race or ethnicity, socioeconomic status, level of privilege, age, ability level, knowledge level, and many other characteristics people may have. I think this happens through embracing the diversity within our ranks, recognizing each person’s unique experience as just that – unlike what we have personally encountered, but of equal value and legitimacy.

What do you think?

8 Comments to “the HAES® files: Finding the Compassion in our Peace Movement”

  1. I remember when the women’s movement was challenged to become “more inclusive” by becoming the “everybody is wonderful!” movement rather than focusing on women.

    I can’t tell you how many times I heard, “But men are oppressed too!” Marilyn Frye’s excellent essay on oppression responded to that objection.

    Psychological theories aside, sometimes defending oneself is appropriate, e.g., when one is under attack.

    I really, really dislike being “diagnosed” rather than listened to. As in “oh, you’re being psychologically defensive” or “oh, you’re obviously in denial.”

    In weight oppression – yes, I can see that thin people suffer too. They need their own movement to define their own issues, some of which undoubtedly overlap with fat people’s issues. But unless you want to deny that thin privilige exists, you can’t deny that thin people benefit from it in ways that fat people don’t.

    • I agree. We certainly don’t have to compete over who is more oppressed but those of us in privileged positions, whether that be in body size, race, socioeconomic class, etc need to own and understand the privilege of that seat. In this case, for those in the cultures privileging thin body, we would all “get along” better if people could acknowledge that and perhaps even understand the pain, anguish and anger that sometimes accompanies the targeted group.

  2. First, I have no enemies so can’t speak very meaningfully to that. Second, I believe that people should be free to express themselves … up to a point. A British feminist has received a lot of flak for saying that women berate themselves because they don’t look like Brazilian transsexuals. Now, one can suggest that perhaps this was not the best way to express what she meant, and that is reasonable. However, inundating her with hate mail is not reasonable. How many fat activists have been swamped with threats of bodily harm? It is apparently considered by some men to be a reasonable way to express themselves, to say a woman should be fucked with a chainsaw, her children should be murdered, etc. We must remember that some people’s manner of disagreement or expression of their opinions is highly questionable, possibly dangerous and totally UNACCEPTABLE.

    And I agree with rg’s comment. It is important when trying to be reasonable and inclusive not to fall into the trap of simply being a wishy-washy wimp and forgetting what you were fighting for — women’s rights, fat people’s rights, etc — in the first place.

  3. It would seem to me that the point of the article is that the issues go deeper than “thin privilige” or “fat acceptance”. The true issue is accepting each other as we are and not judging each other at all! A separate movement for thin people would only divide people again instead of bringing us all together.

  4. I loved this piece. People in human rights movements have different styles–some are combative, some defensive, and some are pretty laid back. My own style is the third; even though many activists can make a great case for taking strong positions against the “enemy” (and actually, there are some real enemies out there), I am more inclined to use the golden rule whenever possible, and assume that someone I might view as having an opposing view, might have more in common with me than either of us might think possible. The thing to do is to tease out those common threads, and do some ally building instead of just make more enemies. The confrontational style, while perfectly valid, runs the risk of pushing away those who might otherwise be supportive in some areas.

    Too wishy-washy? Just espousing HAES® and/or size acceptance is pretty radical to start with. Taking a stand is one thing–repelling possible converts is something else. Was it Rodney King who said, “Can’t we just get along?”

  5. I totally agree with you. I know for myself I tend to have less compassion for those of a smaller size in regards to size acceptance issues. I have has to remind myself that the size does not matter. We all have struggles. This doesn’t mean I don’t still feel that defensiveness, but I have to chose to rise above that and listen with an open mind.

  6. May I suggest a further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion, The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

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