He Said, She Said: MEDA Conference Takeaways

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He Said

Today’s society is talking more and more about the idea of privilege. We often hear about white privilege, male privilege, and straight privilege, but people less commonly discuss another form that directly impacts our nutrition work: thin privilege.

My thin privilege became obvious to me four years ago when I went to the doctor about back problems. In early 2016, I wrote a blog reflecting on how different my healthcare experience was than that of many of my larger patients who go to their doctors about similar woes. Not only did I receive evidence-based medicine instead of a directive to lose weight, but some of my doctors even made assumptions (incorrect assumptions, at that) about my diet based on my size. That is thin privilege.

While I was already aware of some aspects of my privilege, the most powerful talk that I attended at the Multi-Service Eating Disorders Association (MEDA) national conference helped me to understand that my thin privilege includes elements I had never before considered. Caitlin Martin-Wagar, an eating disorder clinician and doctoral student in counseling psychology, gave a presentation in which she listed several examples of thin privilege, some of which you may not have previously considered either:

  • Chairs and airplane seats fit thin bodies.
  • Thin bodies are represented in all forms of media.
  • Thin people are never the punchline in sitcoms because of their body size.
  • When thin people go to the doctor, their health concerns are generally taken more seriously.
  • Thin people can buy dolls of similar build for their children.
  • Thinness connotes good morals and positive characteristics.
  • Thin people have an easier time shopping for clothing.
  • Thin people do not have to represent all people of their size.
  • In comparison to larger individuals, thin people receive less unsolicited health/dietary advice or veiled concerns about their health.
  • Employers pay thin people more.
  • Thin people face less scrutiny while eating in public.
  • As a thin person myself, I can write this blog without receiving accusations of being self-serving.

In order to escape weight stigma and in hopes of enjoying the same privileges as thin individuals, some people embark on weight loss endeavors that are most likely to make them heavier in the long run and worsen their health. If we are serious about wanting to help people improve their health, then we have to change our society so that people of all sizes enjoy the same privileges.

Ms. Martin-Wagar offered us professionals some tips regarding how we can combat weight bias within healthcare, but she also shared some ideas for how all of us can challenge thin privilege:

  • Read and learn about the relationship – and lack of relationship – between weight and health (which you can do on our Weight Loss FAQ page).
  • Consider the barriers and challenges of living with a larger body size.
  • Learn from larger-bodied friends about their experiences.
  • Do not make comments about people’s body sizes, shapes, or weight.
  • Be aware of weight bias veiled as concern.
  • Call out injustices as you witness them.

We do not live in a zero-sum game in which treating larger people better means treating thinner people worse. Rather, we can and must work to establish a society in which thin privilege is no privilege at all, just the same rights and respect enjoyed equally by people of all sizes.

 

She Said

This year’s MEDA conference had a number of interesting and informative talks given by experts in the field of eating disorders (ED). Throughout the day, I was heartened to see that the ED treatment community is starting to embrace the principles of Health at Every Size® (HAES) and Size Acceptance. But despite this positive movement, unfortunately what stood out to me this year was that we still have a long way to go in the ED treatment community when it comes to helping those in larger bodies who are suffering from an ED.  

Ragen Chastain, the author of the blog “Dances With Fat” and renowned speaker and advocate for HAES and Size Acceptance, was the keynote speaker on the second day of the conference. Her talk centered on the idea that given the culture that we live in (i.e., one that is fatphobic, diet-minded, and generally not welcoming to people in larger bodies), those who are living in larger bodies and struggling with ED can find it nearly impossible to fully recover as everything in our society tells them that being thin is the most important thing. Ragen’s talk hit the nail on the head, and it was interesting to see many of my colleagues in the audience nodding their heads in agreement with her points. At the end, Ragen received a well-earned standing ovation, and it seemed like everyone in the room was on the same page.

Well, not everyone, it seems. During the Q&A session after her talk, Ragen received a question from one of the ED practitioners in the room. This woman started out by saying that she agreed with everything Ragen had just spoken about, but she had an anecdotal experience that made her question some of Ragen’s points. She went on to explain that her “morbidly obese” brother had struggled with his weight for years, and it had gotten to such a dire point that a number of years ago he had gastric bypass surgery. As a result of this surgery, she contended, her brother’s weight went down and all of his troubling health conditions cleared up almost instantly. She went on to say that while she knows that some gastric bypass patients regain the weight due to “cheating” on their prescribed diets, there are those who maintain their losses and “good health.”

This woman’s sentiments went over like a lead balloon, and there were audible gasps from the audience. Ever the consummate professional, Ragen adeptly navigated this uncomfortable situation. She explained that while there are always some outliers who do well with stomach amputation, there are many more who suffer from complications from the surgery, such as lifelong issues with malabsorption, deficiencies, future surgeries to correct structural problems resulting from the original surgery, and even death. In fact, Ragen went on to say that fatphobia is at the root of the weight loss surgery industry because the medical professionals who advocate for these surgeries view fat people as less valuable; that it is better to risk a fat person’s life by having them get the surgery than letting them stay fat. In other words, the weight loss surgery industry is essentially telling fat people that their lives are not as valuable as those of thin individuals and that it is better to be thin and sick or even dead rather than fat.

While I would hope that this woman was the only one at the conference who held positive beliefs around weight loss surgery, I am not foolish enough to think so. Yes, the ED treatment community is getting better about not pathologizing certain body sizes and understanding that EDs can occur in people of all body sizes. But the fact still remains that we all live in this toxic diet culture that constantly tells us that fat is undesirable and unhealthy, that the pursuit of weight loss by any means is admirable, and that thin bodies are superior to fat bodies.  When you have been marinating in this culture for your whole life, it can be hard to realize your own bias around fat people. My hope is that Ragen’s talk changed some minds that day at the MEDA conference and made people think more about how their own fatphobia contributes to diet culture and undermines recovery for patients with ED.

Holiday Survival Guide

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It’s November, and that means the holiday season is upon us. Many of my patients have mixed feelings about the holidays. On the one hand, these celebrations can be a joyous time with one’s family and friends, full of tradition and connection. On the other hand, these same gatherings can be highly triggering and lead to serious anxiety. Of course, the fact that most holiday celebrations are centered around food can complicate matters even more.

While I love my family and cherish the holiday celebrations we have together, it can still be challenging at times. As I have written about previously, my family does not really understand the principles of Health at Every Size® (HAES) and Size Acceptance. In addition to this, my sister is Oprah Winfrey’s personal Weight Watchers coach and firmly entrenched in diet culture. Needless to say, my family gatherings can be seriously difficult at times!

Over the years, I have accumulated some practical strategies for dealing with challenging family situations, so I thought I would share them with you. Keep in mind that not all of these strategies will work for you, but, hopefully, one or more of them will aid you in navigating these tricky situations and permit you to enjoy the holiday season.

1. Create Safe Spaces

One way that I have found to help my family gatherings be less triggering is to ask my family to refrain from talking about dieting, weight loss/gain, or judgments about weight or food choices during our time together. This can be achieved by sending an email to the main holiday participants ahead of time or making a few phone calls. Another way to achieve this would be to send along some HAES materials to explain the basics. Finally, if you feel uncomfortable reaching out to everyone yourself, you could ask your significant other or trusted family member to relay this information to everyone else.

2. Have an Ally

While this might not always be possible, bringing a supportive friend, partner, spouse, or family member to a holiday gathering can be tremendously helpful. Ideally, this person would be someone who understands/is open to HAES and Size Acceptance and could advocate for you if needed. If your ally cannot be with you at the actual event, making a plan to talk, text, or Skype with them before and after the gathering can also be helpful and make you feel more supported.

3. Take Space

Sometimes despite best efforts, family members or friends will talk about dieting, weight, and/or moralizing food choices. Unfortunately, this is common practice in our society, and many people (especially women) use it as a way to bond with each other. If the conversation turns to these triggering topics, you have every right to get up and leave the table, room, or conversation. Take a walk outside, hang out with your nieces and nephews, play with the family pet, or just find another space and take a few minutes. Sometimes all you need is a few moments alone.

4. Set Boundaries

If a friend or a loved one consistently makes comments about your weight or food choices, you have the right to tell them that this is unacceptable. In the moment, it can feel very difficult to stand up for yourself, so it might be helpful to think of some replies ahead of time. Some examples could include “Please don’t talk about my weight,” “I would prefer it if you didn’t make judgments about my food choices,” or “My food choices are none of your business, so please do not comment on them.”

5. Practice Regular Self-Care

While of course I would recommend engaging in self-care activities year-round, the holidays are an especially important time to do so. Practicing intuitive eating and physical activity, getting enough sleep, and managing stress are some basic ways to take care of yourself. If you are in therapy, it can be helpful to prepare for challenging situations with role-playing, i.e., have your therapist help you practice your responses to difficult family members or friends.

In the end, sometimes holiday gatherings are just about getting through it with as little scarring as possible. Inevitably, Aunt Edna will start talking about her latest cleanse, or cousin Fred will comment on how much weight someone has gained/lost. In some cases, there really is nothing you can say or do to change a family member’s or friend’s thoughts about weight/dieting/food, so the best thing you can do is agree to disagree and move on. Remember that these events are time limited, meaning that they will not last forever. I hope that some of these strategies will be helpful for you during the upcoming months – you can do it. Happy Holidays!

Zootopia

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Generally speaking, Zootopia is a really nice Disney film. As Joanne and I were walking out of the theater and talking about how much we both liked it, she turned to me and said, “There was only one thing about it that bothered me, and I am guessing you know what it is.” Sure enough, I did, as the same problem had caught my eye as well.

The main reason I like the film is because it teaches some wonderful lessons about having the courage to be different, break down barriers, and acknowledge and overcome prejudice. However, the writers missed an opportunity to apply these same themes to body size and instead reinforced widely-held stereotypes about larger individuals.

Although the film does feature characters of various shapes and sizes, both protagonists are stick thin while the rounder characters are generally presented in a more negative light, such as the main character’s portly father, who in his first scene explains how he was too afraid to go after what he really wanted in life and settled for one spent as a carrot farmer.

The most glaring example is Officer Clawhauser, a large, dopey, and disorganized character often shown with food or in the act of eating. An early scene in the film portrays him as so messy and oblivious that he is unaware that he has a donut lodged in his collar.

How ironic, and unfortunate, that in a film that is largely about breaking down stereotypes, Disney glaringly reinforces one. The writers probably never even considered there might be an issue with this because the sad truth is that in a society in which we generally reject stereotypes based on race, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, we inexplicably tolerate those based on body size that are no more accurate than the others, yet are just as abhorrent.

If you bring your children to see Zootopia, consider using the occasion to talk about body size and its associated prejudice. The film does a solid job of teaching that not all prey animals are cowardly, predators need not be savage, and the symbolism contained therein about the human race, but it misses an opportunity to shut down the stereotypes that heroes must be thin and larger individuals are glutinous, lazy, or unkept. This is where you, the parents, can come in and complete the lesson.

David Bowie

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David Bowie and Duran Duran are the only two artists I have been listening to virtually my entire life, and somewhere in an unpacked moving box in our basement sits my tape copy of the former’s Let’s Dance album that I got in kindergarten.

Although I do not care for everything Bowie released, I greatly respected his ability to oscillate between styles so drastically that I was left enjoying only parts of his catalog, as opposed to those of artists whose sound is so consistent that I can accurately base my impression of their body of work on a single song.

His versatility, I expected, would form the basis of the numerous tributes that poured in via social media yesterday as the shocking news of his illness and death became public. While some of them certainly did, several centered around the profound impact Bowie had on many individuals and our culture as a whole in terms of empowerment, self-acceptance, and tolerance for diversity and differences.

Nobody said it better than Richey Rose, a guitarist living in New York City, in the following tribute he posted yesterday:

“I had my Bowie phase a little over 10 years ago, when I was a sophomore in college. I had just gotten my first record player and found Hunky Dory at Pop’s (best used record store in my hometown of Lexington, KY). Of course I’d always known Bowie, especially because I’d just gone through a massive Velvets/Warhol/60’s & 70’s NYC discovery the year before… but that record was my first effort into becoming properly acquainted with him as an artist. Needless to say it opened Pandora’s box. I became obsessed and fully engrossed in everything he’d done. A friend gifted me an original pressing of Ziggy and I promptly wore it out; teaching myself all the guitar parts along the way. YouTube was just starting and there were interviews, videos, concert footage – it was my own personal archive into David’s creations and contributions to the world. I was beyond inspired. I’d always been self-conscious about being too skinny, too ‘pretty’ if you will, and had grown up being mercilessly teased because of it. Bowie was literally the first artist/person/thing to make me feel strong and powerful because of my body instead of feeling the total opposite, which I’d done for so many years before. I thought he was a total fucking badass; I thought he was God. Reading everyone’s stories today I realize that Bowie touched EVERY one of us on so many different levels… but not just musically. Sure his records taught me an invaluable amount about songwriting, melody, production, etc. but furthermore Bowie inspired and forever changed my perspective on life. For that I am eternally indebted and grateful. There’s certainly a bit of Bowie inside us all… RIP.

The bold face used above was my own doing in order to emphasize the passage that I expect most universally resonates and relates to our work as dietitians. Joanne and I do a great deal of activism in the size acceptance movement because on a daily basis we see the consequences of people living under the oppression of weight stigma: eating disorders, shoddy medical care, failing weight-loss pursuits, bullying, weight cycling, disordered eating, and other conditions, approaches, and consequences that only serve to worsen health, not improve it.

In an era when another celebrity gained our trust only to abuse it and built us up until it was personally and financially advantageous to tear us down, Bowie’s lessons of acceptance and being true to ourselves juxtapose in even greater contrast and feel that much more important to reinforce. No matter which Bowie era is your favorite, whether you are a Starman, Ziggy Stardust, Young Americans, Scary Monsters, Modern Love, Heart’s Filthy Lesson, Reality, or Lazarus fan, or even if none of those are your cup of tea, we can all recognize that he impacted our world in a way that extended well beyond his music.