the HAES® files: Actually, This IS Our Job

by Health At Every Size® Blog

by Carmen Cool, MA, LPC

 

IMAGINE THIS: You are 40 years old. You have founded a nonprofit organization that mentors high school students, and teaches them to mentor one another, in acknowledging, respecting, taking joy in, creating sanity around, and celebrating their bodies just as they are.

You know what you’re up against. You’ve always known what you’re up against. You are up against the fact that 81% of 10 year olds are afraid of being fat, and teens are doing meth in order to drop a dress size before prom, and teens that have body dissatisfaction are less likely to use protection during sex.  But this is your heart’s work. This is what you’re here to do.

You are deeply committed to helping these students to own their power as activists. As always, when you’re working with any group, if you don’t provide some structure, then everything gets talked about but nothing gets done.  Making room for all of their experiences is precious to you, but you’ve learned to balance that with strong structure so their projects and ideas can come to fruition.

You’ve been doing this work for 2 long years, and you have 20 brave young people involved. They come every week and they tell the painful, wonderful, shocking, hilarious stories of their bodies. They talk about body image and peer culture and sexuality. You’ve heard them say amazing things – you’ve heard them say things that terrify you. You’re deeply committed to this work.

You’re walking down the hall one day at school and you overhear a conversation going on between the school counselor and a teacher.  They are discussing racially insensitive language that is being used in the school itself, and maybe even by some of the young people in your group.

The counselor stops you and says, “I’d like to see you address this issue in your group meeting with these kids”. And you look at her with your most professional face and say, “Actually, that’s not what I’m here for. That’s not my responsibility. It’s not my job to have those conversations.”

And in that moment, you believe it. You know exactly why you say it. You say it because you are there to talk about body image and weight-based oppression, and, if you’re honest, because you don’t want to believe that your kids would say something like that.

Now fast-forward 10 years. In those 10 years, you’ve seen these kids and a hundred others grow incredibly strong, you’ve seen them speak up and challenge teachers when they give weight-biased health information. You’ve stood in a US Senator’s office next to them in Washington DC and listened to them passionately asking for an end to body mass index report cards. You’ve heard them practicing with one another on how to respond to peer teasing and bullying.

And now, you see that statement you made all those years ago very differently. Now you realize what you wish you’d realized then, which is that all oppression is connected. And that, no matter how clear and strong they became in defense of body liberation, bringing that conversation about race to your kids was absolutely your responsibility.

In telling this story, I say you – and of course I mean me.

The hard truth is this: in that moment, standing in that hallway, that counselor challenged me to make the whole world a safer place, not just my part of it. And hearing those words come out of my mouth, it’s not my job, is one of the most cringe-worthy moments of my life.  And by the way, that cringe-worthy moment was made a thousand times worse by the fact I said those words not just to a school counselor, but to a school counselor who was also a Black woman.

During the rush of traffic this morning, in the build up to the coming Superbowl, I drove under a banner stretched across a bridge on I-25 that said, “Cops Are Killing Us For Sport”.  The banner, made by clergy and other Coloradans, was in protest of the recent murders that have gone unprosecuted in Denver.  Two days ago, Denver’s District Attorney’s office announced they would not prosecute the deputies who fatally restrained an inmate (black, homeless, mentally ill) at the Denver jail.

Stories in the news and conversations about equity and justice are at a tipping point. I have been reading and learning, but I have so many more layers to learn about the ways I privilege whiteness. In reading about the sign, I was reminded that the stakes for marginalized people have never been higher and I can’t be a part of shifting institutionalized racism if it’s always someone else’s job.

And when I say “I”, I of course mean all of us.

I am obviously not you and you are obviously not me. We all have privilege and we all have suffering and we all have it in completely different degrees and in completely different places in our lives.

Many people have asked me “So why is ASDAH talking about racism? What is going on? I’m not a racist, I’m here to talk about weight stigma!”

We are addressing it because these issues are not separate. It’s not possible to talk about one form of oppression without talking about all of the others because they are inextricably intertwined, in our culture, in our history, in our society and on our bodies themselves. ASDAH is absolutely about ending weight stigma, providing an alternative to weight-based models of health, and supporting people in discovering sustainable self-care practices. But it also needs to be about how those things come together within all of the other identities we hold every day. To fight for any part of it is to fight for all of it.

We have an opportunity to explore much more directly how and why race, class, gender, gender identity, gender expression, ability, and others intersect with weight stigma.  We know that oppression is linked, and it can be powerful for us to delve more deeply into intersections.  For example, we can address the particular nuances in addressing weight stigma in communities where food access is a barrier to bringing HAES into those communities in authentic and holistic ways.  We can examine how internalized oppression in those who are gender nonconforming or disabled could throw their intuition about themselves and what they need and how this impacts our weight stigma work. It is not only relevant, but also critical, that we understand the links here.

Racism embeds itself in everything, and we’re all tangled in it. We need to keep asking, how does power and privilege play out in our mission? How do we create an equitable organization? These are big questions. But if we want to be a sustainable movement for years to come, we must address them. If we don’t evolve into an organization that is truly inclusive, ASDAH will no longer be relevant. And until we are clearly committed to anti-oppression practices, all forms of oppression will continue to divide and weaken our work.

Bernice Johnson Reagon, Professor Emeritus of History at American University, Curator Emeritus at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and Founder of the acapella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, said, “If you’re in a coalition and you’re comfortable, you know it’s not a broad enough coalition.” We are called not simply to co-create movements that benefit a few of us, but ones that truly create revolution for all of us.

I hope you’ll join us on February 20 for a chance for ASDAH members to come together as a community to have a facilitated conversation and an opportunity to develop anti-oppression skills and practices. In the coming days, you will be receiving information about how to register for this training that will be held 3-7 pm Eastern time.  It will also be recorded, so even if you can’t attend “live”, you can still register and receive the recording. It is a place to feel discomfort and still be gentle with each other in the process. Let’s be committed to fumbling and feeling – being real – taking risks – and being wrong. It’s ok to start from where you are. But you have to start. None of us are experts. It’s not possible to be perfect in doing this work. Personally, it’s my least favorite way to learn – but we learn by making mistakes.

We don’t live in a culture built on multiple systems of abstract oppression. We live it face to face. Word to word. Body to body. And to train our hearts and minds to dismantle that oppression is a never-ending journey. It is the work of a lifetime. And it is always our job.

 


Carmen Cool, MA, LPC is a psychotherapist in Boulder, CO, specializing in binge eating disorder. Having worked for over 15 years in the field of eating disorders/disordered eating, both in private practice and in treatment centers, she has been moving more into advocacy work. She has run youth programs since 2004, championing them to raise their voice and create new cultural norms around body image, and is a frequent presenter, locally and nationally on Health At Every Size®.   She was named “Most Inspiring Individual” in Boulder County and was the recipient of the Excellence in Eating Disorder Advocacy Award in Washington, DC. She is the current Board President for ASDAH. 

9 Comments to “the HAES® files: Actually, This IS Our Job”

  1. Carmen, thank you for your openness and vulnerability in sharing your experiences. This is my job too, and I will be there on the 20th.

  2. Oh Carmen, I love you!!!
    I love this post. I love the understanding and the humility and the willingness for ASDAH to take an important stand and say that a peace movement about bodies is inextricably a peace movement for the people who inhabit those bodies, and in order to learn how to be at peace in one’s body, we have to work for peace for those bodies’ very existence in a world that values and prioritizes only some bodies, depending on their colour, size, shape, weight, religious values (or not), abilities, age, etc.

  3. Powerful. Beautiful. Brave. Honest.

    Thank you Cameron. For all the work you do and especially for calling this organization onto higher ground. This video I just came across and that we will be using at an annual peace event we do locally each year connects body image and race as well. Thanks again. We need more leaders like you in the world! https://youtu.be/q0qD2K2RWkc

    Namaste,
    Julie

  4. I hear you and I agree with you, and I think its awesome that you are sharing your own evolution with others who can probably relate.

    However, I want to play Devil’s Advocate for a moment. This is not coming from a trollish point of view, but rather from a lifetime of participation in various movements seeking equality for various demographic groups.

    I do worry that — not always, but sometimes — fledgling movements get absorbed too quickly into larger more inclusive movements, before those fledgling movements can even identify their concerns.

    A recent example of that was the Black Lives Matter movement. Almost as soon as it got its own hashtag, other people started saying, “yes, but what about all these other groups; they matter too.” There were folks who almost immediately wanted to dilute that message to make it into an “All Lives Matter” message. I think we need to be cautious about embracing additional “all inclusive” amendments to our original concerns, before the original message is addressed.

    • In my observation, most of the people crying “All Lives Matter!” were Whites who didn’t want to discuss our own privilege in a society that favors us based on skin color. I don’t think your comparison really works, rg.

  5. Hi rg, I wanted to respond to your worry. I think your example is one where there is a co-optation of a movement that derails and refocuses on the dominant group, and Carmen is talking about the opposite direction. The fat acceptance movement has had 40plus years of speaking mainly to white, young, able-bodied, cisgender women’s concerns. Maybe that is what you mean by, “our original concerns.” For us to make an effort now to work on our own awareness of our white privilege and structural racism, and join anti-oppression efforts that will make the fight against weight stigma and discrimination a part of a larger struggle – is not the same as your example. #AllLivesMatter seeks to reinsert the interests of the dominant group and is indeed at cross-purposes with #BlackLivesMatter. But think about it, MOST people who face weight discrimination are not being included by the fat acceptance movement. Their voices are not heard, their lives are not particularly visible, they are not “at the table” for all kinds of reasons. They may not necessarily be on fire to address weight discrimination because they don’t see themselves in what we have articulated so far, and/or there are a lot of other survival issues they face and only fixing weight stigma doesn’t address those issues – unless we understand how the oppressions are connected. It may even be the case that because most people believe that weight is “fixable,” pursuing weight loss might seem like a way to mitigate other kinds of oppression. For most people, the experience of having one’s body deemed less worthy is not clearly due to one issue – weight oppression is not clearly demarcated from class oppression, sexism, racism, healthism, ableism, etc. For young white able-bodied women who are fat, fixing the weight stigma issue will also restore a big chunk of their privilege. But for most people that is not the case. If we don’t take the experience of being oppressed around weight and understand that for most people, it is not the only issue that makes them vulnerable to being policed, deemed unworthy, and made the target of harm, then we are only fighting to essentially go back to a scenario where fatness no longer threatens the full granting of white privilege. I don’t think that is a social justice movement. Always eager to hear your thoughts, my friend, and I appreciate the discussion.

  6. Re-re-re-edited to fix a typo and to pull the all-caps sections, because, yeah, that’s what really matters. Let’s see if this ever gets “approved.”
    How about this: as soon as black activists start talking consistently about discrimination against fat people, we start dealing with racial issues. [Expletive], I can’t even find a HAES MD in the entire [expletive] country, and you want to take on issues that have nothing to do with fat people’s needs? How about working for fat people *first*. I seem to have this conversation about every five years. There’s always someone more important than us. No. Fat people first. Fat lives matter. We’re already being murdered on a daily basis. We’re denied access to life itself. We are already in extreme crisis. We need allies working for our welfare, not to have our meager resources diverted again away from us. No. Not “race.” (And, it looks likely you’re only advocating for an extreme left-wing approach, to boot.) No, not eating disorders. No, not thin people because they “suffer,” too. No. No. No. Fat people are as important as anyone else. We have the right to fight for our lives. We have nothing to apologize for, and plenty to do right here in our lilves. No. Fat lives matter and we need to deal with our needs, our murders and our lives right now.

  7. As a person of privilege, I am continually learning about what it means to work in solidarity with marginalized groups. It is important to me to not turn away from differing opinions and to engage with people who might think differently. For that reason, I am responding and apologize to anyone was was hurt by this comment.

    As ASDAH’s current president, I would like to assert that our commitment to intersectional work is not up for debate. Weight stigma is not just an issue for fat white people. Our community includes people of color, people with disabilities, people who have eating disorders, people who are gender nonconforming or trans, people of all ages, and people who are queer. Because other forms of oppression are part of our community, working on them is absolutely our job.

    I hear that you don’t experience that other marginalized groups are speaking for you. But to demand that other marginalized groups must speak up for us before we speak up for them is not the direction we should move in. Working towards becoming a more inclusive and equitable organization not just ensures that we stay relevant, but frankly it is the right thing to do.

    Weightism, racism, sexism, ableism, transphobia, classism – these oppressions are interconnected and we cannot work on the separately. ASDAH’s intention is to be a space where nobody has to check any part of their identity at the door. Do we have a lot of work to do? Yes. But we stand firm in our commitment.

  8. I applaud ASDAH’s commitment to intersectionality and appreciate all I’ve learned on this important topic the last few years. I look forward to more opportunities for continuing education on this topic so that I can be a more effective HAES advocate with different communities. Thank you, Carmen for a wonderful post. It pains me to hear from others who don’t recognize the importance of intersectionality in advocacy work.

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