Yesterday was the 2nd Annual International Weight Stigma Conference, this year held at the University of Kent, Canterbury. It was an amazing day and people came from all over the world. I want to thank everybody who was involved in helping put the event together, and to all those of you who sent me good luck wishes.
It’s hard to decide which aspects to write about, especially because my brain is still so fried. But one thing that comes to mind is the impact of discovering either Health At Every Size(R) and/or size acceptance, and where you go from there. It’s a subject that came up a few times in different contexts.
When individuals discover this stuff, not only do they have to deal with overhauling everything they ever thought they knew about health and wellbeing, but they will find themselves at odds with everyone in their life – from their mother, their partner, their doctor, their friends. They will be up against a society that sends hundreds of messages every single day that they are wrong, their body is wrong, they need to change, and everything is their fault. It’s hard enough to pursue the journey of self-acceptance and self-love after all those years of self-loathing, without having to battle every step of the way with everybody you meet. The best advice I can give to these people is: you are not alone.
Then there are the health professionals, trained in the current dominant paradigm that obesity will be the end of us all and that weight loss is the only and the necessary solution. Even if they are open minded enough to take in the evidence, the evidence that they were never once exposed to in all their years of training; even if they manage to stand up to colleagues who believe they’re being dangerously negligent; even if they can continue to function in a system that requires them to pursue the goal of weight loss with every patient or client who walks through the door in order to meet their statutory requirements or continue to receive funding; even then, those same clients walk through the door, actually desperate for somebody to help them to lose weight. They don’t want to hear that they can be happy and healthy at the weight they are at now. They have constructed their imagined self at the weight they think they will one day be when they find just the right diet or exercise plan, and they’re not willing to give that up. There is a sense of helplessness among health professionals who feel they have to do something, anything, to help their clients. But just don’t know what to do. Most of these professionals have taken some kind of an oath to do the best for their clients, to do no harm, to act ethically. Knowing what they now know, this is what they have to keep coming back to. There are no simple answers. But if you want to sleep easy at night, you have to know that you are not part of the problem. That you are not making things worse.
And then there are the academics who research this stuff, who can’t get their work published. Publication is the life blood of research professionals. If you don’t get publications, you don’t get jobs and you don’t get funding. But even if you have a job and funding, starting to talk about the idea that maybe obesity isn’t the problem that it’s made out to be can be career suicide. The professional cost to these individuals can be huge. No academic tenure, hounded out of their institutions, funding refused or even withdrawn. In some ways, these people have the easiest choice of the three. They can choose to study a different area or ask a different question. To not pursue this line of enquiry. I would not blame anybody who made that choice. But I am eternally grateful to those academics who have put their livelihoods on the line to continue to get this message out, because it seems too important to them, too wrong, not to do so.
Setting yourself up outside of the orthodoxy is never simple. It’s a hard choice to make, and many people will feel unable or unwilling to make it. And that is entirely fine. Most people do not want to spend their lives swimming against the tide, constantly battling to stay in the same place. But for most of us, once we have recognised the truth of this new paradigm, once we have understood the damage and the human cost of the current system, we simply cannot go back. It’s not that we want to fight. It’s that we simply don’t have a choice.
At the conference yesterday, there were a mix of experienced researchers, activists and health professionals and open-minded ‘newbies’. There were lightbulb moments. But those people now have to go back to their lives and fight. I wish all of us good luck. And one day, after enough lightbulbs have gone off, maybe, just maybe, we will no longer be the ‘crazed’ minority, and we’ll be able to stop fighting.
Note: I just want to say that while Health At Every Size(R) and fighting weight stigma often go hand in hand, exposure to the two ideas may come at the same time, or one may follow from the other, they are not the same thing. Stigma is bad. It doesn’t matter if you are healthy or unhealthy, fat or thin, weight prejudice and discrimination is still something that we need to put a stop to.