A Critical Community: Reflections on ISCHP 2019

Perhaps particularly as a critical academic, finding community feels like one of the (pardon me) critical pieces of engaging in academia. It can feel lonely, sometimes, being the one to suggest that we look at the structural underpinnings of distress, explore the why behind methodological selections, and challenge even our own ways of looking at things. When we are around other critical academics, asking these kinds of questions feels more welcome—and, importantly, it is not about “calling people out” for being “bad people” or “bad researchers” but rather about calling us into accounting for why we do what we do, and how we do it.

A view of the Danube river with boats

A view of the Danube river with boats

I will admit that I did not feel much like climbing into a little tin box of an airplane and crossing the Atlantic to participate in 3 sessions and attend many more at this moment in my life. I’m in the midst of major upheaval of my life, moving across the world in two months, right after I get married at the end August. I had one of the worst migraines of my life the day before I left, and I was scared—I’ve been scared to do most things, lately, and feel a bit like I am lying in wait, my life paused as it somehow also spins out of control around me. There is a part of me that wants to hide under a rock until the storm has passed.

And yet. I knew that once I was on the plane and underway, I’d settle into my aloneness followed by my being-in-community and relish the opportunity to connect with colleagues who see the world in a similar way to me. And so off I went, packed up into a tiny suitcase and ready to spend 5 nights in Slovakia.

The first day was a surreal experience, as jet lagged experiences often are. Strolling through the streets of Bratislava, I reflected on solitude and community, on connection, and on who I am as an academic and a human. It all sounds a little melodramatic, but as I brought the icy pistachio gelato to my lips, I couldn’t help but feel at once uprooted and grounded, plunked in the middle of Eastern Europe in a country I’d never imagined visiting.

Uncharacteristically for me, I attended every session at the conference. I didn’t feel my usual need to retreat; quite the opposite, I was craving the togetherness that conferences can bring. I cannot over-state how important it was for me to arrive on the first day of the conference and be enveloped in welcoming hugs from colleagues in the Southern Hemisphere. I’ve spent the past several months talking with my Northern Hemisphere and especially North American colleagues about how I am “going.” Leaving. Uprooting. Here I was, neither here nor there, hearing, for the first time in person: you’re coming. And that slight shift made all the difference, as changing our language and perspective often does.

The first workshop I attended at the conference was on early career researchers in the neoliberal academy, with Drs. Abigail Locke and Maria Del Rio Carral. The timing for this workshop could not have been better; Abi and Maria shared reflections on the state of affairs in the neoliberal academy that resonated with my lived experience and also made me feel even more grateful than I already was about the fact that I’ve got a job come October. Some of the common features of the neoliberal academy we face as ECRs include the multiplication of ECRs, particularly in temporary fixed term contracts, the decrease in permanent positions, increasing competition and surveillance, and performance and efficiency-based criteria used in determining “who gets in.” Under these conditions—which Abi and Maria described as being like a pyramid, with few stable positions up at the top and the proliferation of PhDs at the bottom—more and more people are leaving academia. A reframe the presenters provided was that while we tend to see this as a “poor them” scenario, it’s worth considering how for many, leaving might be the best and most logical step. Academia, they shared, is a “greedy institution,” demanding of us both our work and our passion. Maria referred to the “passion trap” many of us fall into—the idea that we need to demonstrate how devoted we are to our work to open opportunities. And while we may indeed be passionate about what we do, we deserve respect and humanity and care. I was inspired by this workshop, which left me feeling justified in my ongoing pursuit of a stronger balance between who I am as an academic and who I am as a person.

Something that I love about ISCHP is that the presentations often leave me feeling simultaneously inspired and unsettled. Keynote talks in particular felt this way to me this year. Dr. Margaret Wazakili asked critical questions about what needs to shift in the narrative around disability and health to make space for and work toward true accessibility in our social structures, drawing on the African mantra of Ubuntu in South Africa and Umunthu in Malawi and Zambia (“I am me because of you”) to encourage a rethinking of inclusion. I had some thoughts throughout the presentation about the use of person-first language, which encourages a de-centring of the disability in favour of a focus on the person. I couldn’t help thinking about how in many disability activist spaces, disability-first language is preferred, as disability can be a key piece of a person’s identity (see this blog post for more). Language is always imperfect and contextual, and I wondered about the role of consultation with those who identify in various ways to drive all of our work.

Another brilliant and unsettling keynote was by Dr. Miroslav Sirota, who asked questions about what critical qualitative work can learn from the Open Science movement. Sirota shared examples of how data has been falsified and results over stated (through “questionable research practices”) in quantitative psychology as a segue into a discussion of the value of open data. I had a lot of feelings about the possible value of open data in qualitative psychology, as well as some of the possible drawbacks. While I agree that sharing data can help to increase the value of research participation (through use of data, as opposed to having it “sit on a shelf”), believe in transparency in research processes, and believe in access to information beyond the scientific community, I wonder about the assumption of replicability embedded in some of the open science movement. In qualitative work, we each bring our own lens to data analysis—it is unlikely that two people looking at the same data set will draw the same conclusions. Another aspect of my concern relates to whether researchers are (at present) trained to fully communicate with participants about what open data really means, and to provide the multiple layers and levels of consent that will allow participants to feel comfortable sharing as they wish, and not as they don’t. I think a lot about consent in the research process in general, and whether participants even read consent forms sometimes—when I participate in research, I’ll admit that I don’t always thoroughly explore what will be done with my data. Particularly for sensitive topics (and what counts as sensitive can vary, depending on who you are), I’d want to be sure that we were clear on how to respectfully navigate the ethics of open data and communicate about that with participants. This presentation also sparked a healthy discussion on Twitter, in which I learned even more about both the possible value and pitfalls of open data for qualitative work.

The final keynote by Dr. Linda McMullen explored framings of depression in popular media, and revealed the layers of critique and counter-critique around antidepressant use. I found this talk to be particularly interesting through its layering of the complexities around how people relate to their experiences of depression and to the use of anti-depressants—and, moreover, how this is presented in the media. One of the most frustrating things I find in seeing how depression is framed is this idea that one can simply overcome it by “thinking positive”—which evidently does not do justice to the seriousness of the experience of depression for many. I found McMullen’s presentation of the layered and intersecting frames of depression and anti-depressant use to be both sensitive and nuanced, as well as revealing fascinating ups and downs in how the media focuses in on a topic like depression.

Beyond the keynotes, I was inspired by the talks I attended that offered up challenging perspectives on issues such as birth and trauma, voice and methodology, and everything from the physical space of pharmacies to the culture of workaholism in the academy. In talks by Drs. Jenny Setchell and Rachelle Chadwick I found myself leaning into my proclivity to “apply theory to data.” In discussions about increasing the uptake of qualitative approaches in “high impact” spaces I felt myself getting activated about the need to advocate for better training, supervision, and awareness of quality qualitative work.

One of my favourite—and one of the most challenging—things about the conference was participating in a symposium on “illness narratives,” where participants shared 5 minute artistic provocations about health and illness. As a part of this symposium, organized by Dr. Kerry Chamberlain, I shared a digital story I made about my experiences of pain during graduate school and in my post doc. The backdrop is a dance I created about my experiences of doing a PhD on eating disorder recovery while recovered/in recovery from an eating disorder. I couldn’t not make this film; it felt important for me to process the pain and joy of grad school—right back to the “passion trap” I wrote about earlier on, this film reflects in part the draw toward doing work that feels meaningful, and the toll that this can take when you do care deeply about what you are doing and also feel the pull that neoliberal academia exerts toward constantly tying yourself up in knots. If you would like to watch the film, it is now available on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/349079233. Being a part of this symposium was also incredibly meaningful because the other contributions also welcomed vulnerability into the process of being and doing academic and activist work. They represented a blending of the personal, the political, and the academic. I will be thinking about the contributions for a long time.

Over all, this conference re-inspired me and reminded me of the academic and personal community that is out there, doing important work and challenging and encouraging each other. From the warm welcomes to the traditional Slovak dance lessons at the conference dinner, I am so glad I attended everything. As I settle in for a few months of wild preparations for the next stage of my life, I feel grateful to everyone who has generously shared their thoughts and time with me over the 6 years I’ve been a part of ISCHP.

"You Say You Want a Revolution...": Reflections on the Small t-trauma of Grad School

[Content note: discussions of the dark places grad school can take a person, including depression and anxiety]

I hesitated in writing this post, and I hesitated to publish it. It was pointed out to me by an astute human who I respect and to whom I am grateful for a generous and thoughtful review who read it before I posted that my ambivalence about posting could have something to do with still being invested in the system of academia (paraphrased) and I think that is true. I also think it can be a harsh and punishing system, even when things “go right.” The other levels of my ambivalence relate to trying not to focus on the negative, my anxiety, and also a desire to not disillusion; to maintain some hope for those who are in this strange world of academia, just doing what they love. But I’ve chosen to publish it, because it feels important. And, in some ways, posting it reflects a moment of “letting go” and moving through, of “being a student,” after nearly 30 years of studenthood. So here it is.

This photo was taken right before I defended my PhD. I am standing with my hands on my hips in a red room; my computer is propped on a stack of books. I am smiling, and I am wearing a black shirt and blue and white striped skirt.

This photo was taken right before I defended my PhD. I am standing with my hands on my hips in a red room; my computer is propped on a stack of books. I am smiling, and I am wearing a black shirt and blue and white striped skirt.

This is a post about the inheritance of 11 years in university; even when privileged, even when “doing all the right things.” This is not a post intended to scare prospective students, to garner attention or pity, or to malign academia. This is a post that speaks to one person’s reality, linked to broader, collective and systemic realities, and to invite others’ reflection on their own journeys. It’s almost a letter to my past self to say, things will be bad sometimes. And at the same time, there will be little joys. This is the nature of “doing what you love,” especially in a system that hammers the productivity imperative into you at every turn. This post is a reminder to not take yourself too seriously, to not wrap your identity into any one thing… and forgiveness if you do, and you have. Because it all makes sense, in this time and place. This is a call for compassion, empathy, and understanding—and collective action toward creating academic spaces where we can genuinely support each other; where we breed not contempt, call-out culture, and isolation, but collaboration and welcoming of difference.

A few days ago, I wrote a Twitter thread about my interpretation of the small-t trauma of my PhD. Shortly thereafter, a cascade of hormones from a ruptured ovarian cyst combined with an uptick in anxiety to generate a very taxing evening. As I lay on the couch in a city that is not mine, in pain, I contemplated the irony of having everything I’ve ever wanted and yet constantly ricocheting between contentment and anxiety.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, how the collective interpretation of what academia “should be” invades and interacts with the personal experience of doing scholarship: corrupting it, souring it, challenging all that I know to be good about it. Doing academia in a world that sometimes feels like it is quite literally burning down around us—through climate change, increasingly restrictive laws that govern and control the bodies of people with uteri, overt racism, transphobia, ableism, and swaths of other “isms”—is an exercise in continually considering a) how I can leverage my scholarship to make change and b) recognizing that the things that I obsess over are, truly, unimportant in the grand scheme of life. The thing is, when you spend a fair chunk of your life investing your whole self into a project you care deeply about, it’s hard not to make it the centre of your world. It’s hard to remember that academia isn’t really… well, normal. It’s not even comprehensible most of the time.

By all accounts, my PhD experience was a huge success. I was supported through my studies by a fantastic advisor who invited me to join in on exciting research projects. Through her, and through social media, I connected with many amazing feminist scholars and activists who were in my corner the whole time. I had (have!) supportive parents. About half way through grad school, I met my soon-to-be husband, who could not only talk philosophical theory with me, but also remind me when it was time to not talk philosophical theory. I got high grades in my grad school coursework, I followed the expected timelines, I earned scholarships that funded both of my grad degrees, I published articles and book chapters, and I presented at many conferences. I was told my specialization paper for my qualifying exam was “too theoretical” (notwithstanding the fact that it is literally supposed to be a paper about theory) but passed with flying colours. I defended my PhD, I got a post doc for a year, and then I got a dream job. I list these things not to brag—I paused over listing them for 2 reasons: (1) there is nothing bad about you, your trajectory, or your scholarship if this is not the case for you; and (2) naming my accomplishments makes me deeply uncomfortable. I am constantly waiting for someone to pull the rug out from under me, to the extent that I’ve recently admitted to myself that I often try to get there first. I list them, though to name that even when everything goes “according to plan,” grad school can leave scars.

As I write, I am haunted by the thought that one day I will look back on this post and think: you knew one day they’d find out you were an imposter. 

And that is the problem.

Even in the most supportive immediate environment, grad school is a place that all but requires you to place your work at the centre of your world and your worth. Now, I have had colleagues who were very skilled at separating out grad school from the rest of their worlds, and who were much more able to withstand the battering winds of academia as a result. Not many of them have gone on to pursue academic careers; they probably know better. I’ve also met a handful of academics (my dad included, ironically—and we could get into the gender dynamics and generational shifts in the nature of academic work that enable that…) who balance work and life. I am not writing the collective history of academia; however, perhaps my experiences will make a difference to those who are struggling now.

I have to believe that it is possible to not let the world of academia consume you. Perhaps part of what makes the PhD so all-consuming is that it is the largest piece of work many people who pursue one have done at that time. Concordantly, it’s likely a time where most learning will happen—primarily through doing things wrong. It also lends itself to feeling like it is the collective of your work as an academic, because at that point, you don’t often have a huge body of other work behind you. In truth, no one really teaches you “how to academia.” You learn about things like authorship (which doesn’t look the same as authorship in “the real world” and involves an intricate dance of contributions and feelings), funding applications, peer review, qualifying exams, conferences, and more by doing them, and often by doing them wrong the first time you try. Or at least I did; maybe some people have a beautiful roadmap. I know that resources do exist online to guide the process, but sometimes these made me feel even worse. There are myriad guidelines for how much time to spend on X, Y, and Z—and none of them ever worked consistently for me.

I worked differently at different stages of my PhD. In the first and second year, I spent a lot of time in the office, reading theory and writing. Looking back, I wish I had enjoyed this time, instead of stewing about “whether I was getting it right.” I wish I’d listened less to the doom and gloom stories of people failing their qualifying exams and having to leave school forever. This is like when you say you’re getting your wisdom teeth out and Aunt Joan tells you about the time her second nephew five times removed lost feeling in his lip forever. People like to scare you. Do people fail? Absolutely they do. Do I want to hear about it when I’m working on keeping my head above water as I wade through Lacan and Merleau-Ponty? Absolutely not.

In my third year, I took on a practicum at an eating disorders unit about an hour and 45 minutes away from where I live. I drove there twice a week. I bought a car and paid $60 per trip to drive on the good highway for an unpaid practicum. I found this exhausting, mentally, physically, and emotionally. I simultaneously worked on collecting data for, analyzing, and writing my dissertation. I found this exhausting, mentally, physically, and emotionally. I was working on a major research project at the time, off the side of my desk, that involved interviewing people about their experiences of weight stigma in pregnancy and reproductive care. I found this exhausting, mentally, physically, and emotionally. In the winter term, I started teaching feminist psychologies at another university, about an hour and a half away from where I lived. I felt simultaneously exhausted and invigorated—which could really be the title of this whole experience. At any point during this year, I could have asked for help. At any point during this year, I could have taken a break, taken on fewer things, said no. I never did. By the spring, I was burnt out. I kept finding little mistakes I’d made that felt absolutely insurmountable, felt like they would ruin me. I went to very, very, dark places. I contemplated irreversible ways out for the first time in my life. And I told very few people how much I was struggling. I made morose posts with vagaries on Instagram, sure. But true, real connection was more rare.

Throughout it all, I appeared polished and happy to most people. They did not know that one day I walked for nearly four hours, sobbing, because I didn’t know what else to do with myself. In a particularly spectacular breakdown, I cried uncontrollably in public at a conference dinner in Prague—the poised exterior slipped and laid me bare.

Looking back, this time was clearly a turning point for me; I realized my approach was unsustainable. I started asking for help. I’d always cried in my advisor’s office (#FeministAdvisorThings), but now I did so and also asked for what I needed. I became clearer about what I needed. I tried to slow down. I tried to incorporate more “no”s into my vocabulary in an effort to make the “yes” mean more. I went on trips with my partner that had nothing to do with academia.

My fourth year was mostly a mental game of waiting; having finished a draft of my dissertation while in the throes of self-examination and spells of extreme, unstoppable productivity interspersed with lulls where writing a single word felt like a gargantuan task, I had a lot of waiting to do. I taught, I wrote articles unrelated to my dissertation, I worked for my advisor’s arts and social justice centre, and I waited. As I waited, I found myself continuously pulled back into anxiety. I sought therapy and found comfort mostly in the idea that I could always leave academia. Until I made that thought real for myself—for me, this involved creating a business plan to be a consultant—I felt immobilized by the crushing weight of needing to live up to the impossible perfectionist standards that had emerged out of the interplay between my own constitution and the perception of a punishing academic regime.

For me, success has always felt threatening. And, I’ve recently realized that this is related to my lack of trust and isn’t a grateful way to move through life. I’ve realized my default stance isn’t as generous as I’d like it to be. I assume that everyone is out to get me—which both doesn’t do justice to people’s generosity and also makes academia out to be a bigger part of the world than it really is.

The fact of the matter is, people have bigger things to worry about than the things that stress me out so much that I become literally incapacitated. The fact of the matter is, I have often ground myself down for no good reason. And I am fairly certain I am not alone. 

So, I can’t help but wonder: how much of this is internal, and how much of it is external? Is there some way that academia could be structured to provide a supportive and collaborative environment that does not make students feel like they need to be perfect in order to succeed in school and after school? Would I have felt less anxiety if I had not heard almost every day that there were no jobs in my field, or would that have led to disillusionment when it took a while to get a job?

If I were to go back and to give myself advice, I would tell myself a few things:

  1. Slow down.

  2. Reach out for help.

  3. Recognize that you will not do things perfectly, ever, and especially as a learner.

  4. There is more to life than your thesis or dissertation or Masters or PhD as a whole.

  5. Grad school is an itty-bitty part of the world. Your field is smaller than that. Your individual work is even smaller than that. This doesn’t mean it is not important; it DOES mean that it is not the entire world.

I see these lessons on the page, and I still struggle to hear them. I am riding the wave of imposter syndrome as I am about to embark on a full-time academic career. Even writing about this leaves me feeling raw, like I am inviting critique or questioning of my worth as an academic. Putting it all in perspective continues to be a challenge.

Throughout it all, I’ve cared passionately about the work that I do. This is the reason I push through the often-all-consuming fear, and why I am determined to continue to show up in a field that is not always kind. The moments that make me feel good are not those in which I receive academic accolades, which I recognize to be political and circumstantial affordances, in many ways. No, the moments I stay for are those where someone with lived experience tells me that getting involved in research has been meaningful. The moments when a research article or a blog post hits at the heart of the matter for someone who has been there. The triumph of seeing small changes in how people talk about eating disorders, weight stigma, and bodies. Seeing moments where students start to consider how power infuses everything and what they might do to address that in their work. I am committed to embodying my values in my research, my teaching, and my supervision. To at least trying to create collaborative and supportive environments where I can.

I would love to write a post that provides “top tips for supporting graduate students” but the truth of the matter is, I was shrouded about my struggles and pushed people away when I was struggling, so I am not sure any of those tips would have helped me, in the end. That said, I’ve heard it said to “check in with the strong ones,” before. Outward appearances of success can hide tumult inside. Of course, academia as a structure does not as a rule make space for those in advising capacities to check in with students. High supervisory and teaching demands collide with pressures to “publish or perish” –and increasingly, make impact or perish—may leave those with academic positions with little time to actualize their values. Calls for slow academia are far from new, and yet more positions are tenuous, short-term, and contractual than ever.

Despite it all, I still sometimes miss grad school. What I miss about grad school is probably the more Pollyanna-esque version of the state of affairs; the flexibility of hours worked, the freedom to explore a passion project, the ability to engage deeply with theory because I felt like it. The feeling of possibility and uncharted horizons.  

I am healing, slowly. I am learning and moving forward—more slowly than I used to. More purposefully than I used to. More collaboratively and intentionally than I used to. And the trauma still lingers, ever-present in the back of my brain, leaping out at me in moments of distress. Sometimes all there is to do is walk around for hours, reminding myself to breathe and thinking about the things that are good in my life that do not hinge on my success as an academic.

Why did I write this? It isn’t meant to dissuade anyone from pursuing grad school, or to continue on if they are already in, if that is something that they want to do. I suppose it’s more of a meditation on how success isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and how if the conditions don’t change, we’ll likely leave some broken shells of humans feeling deep inside like they’ve failed if academia doesn’t work for them. The way forward may end up being smashing the whole system down; whatever “the solution” (or more likely, solutions) is(are), it is not going to stem from one individual—the revolution will be collective, or the revolution won’t be.

Sometimes You Can't Just Eat: Pint of Science Talk

I had the great fortune of being invited to speak at Pint of Science 2019 in Guelph. This event brings science to the pubs, with researchers giving 15-20 minute talks in local venues. It was a fantastic experience; an audience of around 50 people asked wonderful questions, there was a specially-created beer, and trivia! I thought I would share the talk I wrote, though as per usual I did not do the talk exactly as written (#WordyProblems).

[Please note that I use the term “people in large bodies” rather than fat in places; many fat activists have proudly reclaimed the word fat and I do not consider the word to be a negative word. Given the audience for this particular talk, moving away from the language of “obesity” might be conceived as a step toward fat acceptance and—ultimately, hopefully—celebration. Language is imperfect, and my use of language is at some times more clumsy than others. I have also provided a few citations in places where I anticipated being asked questions; the audience was very receptive, and it’s always good to have a few key citations in one’s back pocket. That said, the content in this post is assembled from various thoughts, academic learning, and, most importantly, learning from interacting with people with varied experiences of living in their bodies in a world that tells them not to trust their bodies. That is, to me, the most valid form of expertise there is.]

I am standing in a pub filled with people, with my dark hair down, wearing a black top with pink flowers and black jeans.

I am standing in a pub filled with people, with my dark hair down, wearing a black top with pink flowers and black jeans.

When you think about someone with an eating disorder, who do you picture?

There are a lot of preconceptions about who might experience an eating disorder that circulate in our world. Common answers to the question of “who gets eating disorders” include thin, young, white women; the term “eating disorder” conjures images of hospital wings and feeding tubes. But what if I were to tell you that eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes? The statement might seem obvious on the face of it; and yet, there is still this idea that even if all kinds of people get eating disorders, the “sickest” are those who are very, very thin.

I’d really like to dispel a few myths tonight, so I may as well just name those myths as a way to begin.

  • Firstly: the myth that everyone shares a definition of what constitutes “normal eating”

  • Next: the idea that in order to get over an eating disorder, all you need to do is eat normally

  • Then: the concept of food and body morality—or, the idea that some foods are good and some are bad, and that you can tell what someone is eating by looking at them.

Eating disorders are life ruiners. They are also extremely helpful illustrations of some of the broader problems that exist around how we talk about food and bodies in society in general. Thinking about eating disorders makes a person think about food, and bodies, and our social surround. And in my opinion, everyone benefits from an approach to food, bodies, nutrition, and movement in a way that rejects binaries and rigidity and embraces diversity, difference, and intuition. So let’s think about this.

I’d like to start by asking you all: what is normal eating?

  • Is it normal eating to track calories? How about food groups? How about macronutrients?

  • Is it normal eating to restrict whole food groups? Are there cases when this is normal?

  • Does normal eating look the same for everyone? Does normal eating change depending on the time of year?

  • Do you eat normally? Why or why not?

When you start to think about normal eating and peel back the layers of our relationships with food and body, we open up a whole can of worms. Doing this work, I can’t remember a time when I’ve mentioned my work and NOT been greeted with a comment along the lines of “I’ve struggled” or “I know someone who has struggled.” Another common response, which I feel more unsettled by, is a comment to the tune of “I have the opposite problem.” To truly support recovery and body tranquility, I’d like us to take a minute to unpack that relationship. 

The main body and dietary concern of the day is what has been labelled the “obesity epidemic.” In the circles I run in, this language and approach is not popular. Bear with me for a moment; I know it can be hard to move away from that framing. Some popular organizations have taken to using what is called “person first” language for “obesity,” saying things like “person with obesity.” This aligns with the framing of “obesity” as a medical disease. The problem, though, is that a body size is not a disease. Calling a body size a disease holds all kinds of possible problems for people who live in bodies the size that is labelled diseased. This is a problem because we know that the stigma against people who have larger bodies is actually linked to very poor health outcomes. People who are larger face social disdain; they may be shamed when out and exercising, or else patronized by people telling them they are “doing a great job!” even when they have been exercising for a long time (Ragen Chastain writes about this brilliantly on her blog Dances with Fat). There are assumptions made about people in large bodies no matter what they do; when doing behaviours that are deemed to be “healthy,” like drinking a green juice, people assume this is something new for the person or that they are trying to lose weight. When doing behaviours that are deemed to be “unhealthy,” like eating a cheeseburger, people assume that the person’s diet consists of 90% cheeseburgers (again, I am not the first to comment on the challenge of eating in public in a larger body in the face of weight stigma; Stacy Bias wrote about the “Good Fatty” trope and other fat activists have drawn on this to explain the expectations we put on people in large bodies). There is no winning. The kind of stigma tossed at people in large bodies has real consequences on a health and social level. There is research that shows that people in large bodies are discriminated against everywhere from workplaces to the doctors office—and that this discrimination has negative effects (e.g Tomiyama at al., 2018; Bacon & Aphramor, 2011; Danielsdottir, O’Brien & Ciao, 2010). There is research that shows that health risks like cardiovascular disease are related to weight stigma through the route of increased stress hormones—cortisol—in the body (e.g. Pearl et al., 2017). People in the weight stigma field, including researchers and activists, are calling for a reconsideration of what is causing the most negative health impacts—the weight, or the stigma.

We are all exposed to negative and stigmatizing messages about larger bodies. Jokes about people in larger bodies exist everywhere from the locker room to the wedding shower to the Avengers movie screen. Another layer to add is that stigmas can be cumulative and layered; the daily aggressions faced by people in larger bodies can build up and live in relation to other daily aggressions around other aspects of a person’s life; daily racism, sexism, classism, ableism, and more. As people move through their lives in their bodies, there is a sense of being “on display,” and only some bodies are accepted as “healthy” and therefore “moral.” Even those who exist in privileged bodies are taught, often from a very early age, that they need to be on the lookout for “letting themselves go.”

Now, this is not a talk against engagement in health behaviours. I am not going to tell you not to eat vegetables (though “health” looks different for all, and there is no moral obligation to “be healthy”—but that is a whole other talk I could give). However, I do think it is important to distance those behaviours from what results they might have on the body. This sounds outlandish in relation to a lot of health messages, but you really cannot tell how healthy someone is based on what they look like. There are many more markers of health than body size.

Most of all, we can’t put “obesity” and “eating disorders” on opposite ends of a spectrum. They do not exist in binary. People of all sizes can be engaging in behaviours that are eating disordered—and people in larger bodies are not only, as people tend to assume, only bingeing. Increasingly, there is an awareness that binge eating disorder has an element of restriction involved in its enactment. Basically, what can happen is that a person restricts their food intake, perhaps because they’ve been told by a well-meaning friend or a doctor that they need to lose weight. Well, our bodies are equipped to protect us, and to make sure that we are getting enough food to live and function. So, at the end of a long day of restriction, what do you think will happen? People reach for whatever food they can find to fill that void. Bodies react; bodies respond. Bodies need, and they want.  

Most of the research on eating disorders is still on anorexia. When we think about, and talk about, eating disorders, another thing that I’d argue we need to keep in mind is that—when we admit to ourselves—there is a part of us that is fascinated by the idea of restriction. I think this lies in relation to the culture around food and bodies I have described. Anorexia is highly dramatized in the popular imagination. It is treated as an object of fascination, because many cannot imagine restriction to the point of starvation. But importantly, anorexia is not purity, and binge eating disorder is not gluttony. Both are manifestations of an intricate dance between brain chemistry and cultural surround. And neither are easy to recover from in a world that doesn’t know up from down when it comes to food and exercise.

I mentioned before that what a person in a large body eats is scrutinized, a fact named by many activists in the sphere. So imagine: what if the person is also used to their eating being scrutinized, in the context of recovering from an eating disorder? In eating disorder treatment, people are called to essentially march in the opposite direction of diet culture and “anti-obesity” messages; a piece of chocolate cake might be on the menu and prescribed. In good eating disorder treatment—and I don’t have enough time to delve into eating disorder treatment which itself perpetuates weight stigma—there is room for people of all sizes to eat freely and develop a relationship with food outside of the scrupulous counting of calories and macronutrients desired in larger society. At the same time, eating disorder treatment often prescribes a kind of rigidity around food that can itself be hard to break out of. The transition from a highly supported eating disorder treatment system into the rest of the world can be an abrupt one: which messages about eating is a person in eating disorder recovery supposed to follow, especially if their body is no longer, or never was, small or emaciated? It is easier for many to encourage someone who is very small—who falls into that previously-described category of body-on-display, assumed to have anorexia—to eat a Dairy Queen blizzard than it is to encourage the same in a person who is in a large body—or even someone who looks like me. We are all told we are on the precipice of tumbling into ill-health by virtue of our body size and “poor health habits”. So why are we surprised that it is hard to recover from an eating disorder?

So, what can we do about this? How can we support eating disorder recovery, and how can we build positive relationships with our bodies?

It starts inside of us, as writer/activist/speakers like Sonya Renee Taylor make very clear. It starts by truly examining our own biases about size, about food, and about the link between these. When we become aware of our biases, we have a fighting chance against them. Overcoming body shame—and body shaming—is not just about pretending that you do not notice someone’s body size, or even what they are eating. In our world, we live in a visual culture that bombards us with glossy images of stylized and “indulgent” foods on Instagram, peppered with toned bodies that claim they have the next big diet and exercise secret—and really just have a very specific genotype that allows them to exist in a body that is revered as disciplined and pure. Navigating this mess is hard on a good day; for those who have a predisposition to assuming that their bodies are the problem and/or to develop eating disorders, it can create and excruciating dance between shame and blame. Many of these people will go their entire lives without having their eating distress validated as a “real concern,” living instead with the idea that they are only “good” when they are eating restrained.

If we want to get real about supporting eating disorder recovery, we need to get real about creating spaces for all bodies to be welcome. Because until we do that, we will only be half-heartedly pursuing recovery-oriented spaces. We need to recognize that we, as a society, aren’t very normal about eating. More than that, we need to make room for varied relationships with food. Ones that support cultural, personal, socioeconomic, ability-based, and other variations on what normal eating will look like. We need to build out food systems that do not generate food deserts or make cultural staple foods suddenly inaccessible when they become popularized. We need to talk to children about the value of foods beyond “good” and “bad,” “junk” and “healthy.” We need to stop talking badly about our bodies, because kids hear this. We need to make clothing that fits different bodies. We need to believe and trust people to take care of their bodies in a way that works for them, and make spaces that make this trust and care sustainable.

Ultimately, eating disorder recovery—and food and eating in general—is a social justice issue. This is true for many reasons, but among them that we’ve made recovery an impossible and inaccessible for so many people; through not recognizing eating disorders in anyone but the thinnest, the richest, the whitest, and the female, we are failing to provide support for everyone else. Our treatment systems and our broader worlds are designed with such a narrow population in mind that we forget that eating disorders are more than a fascination with skeletal thinness. And we forget that eating can be really, really hard. So let’s remember. Let’s remember, and let’s make space. It’s beyond time to move beyond revering kale above humanity.

References

Bacon, L. & Aphramor, L. (2011). Weight science: evaluating the evidence for a paradigm shift. Nutrition Journal, 10(1), 9.

Daníelsdóttir, S., O’Brien, K.S. & Ciao, A. (2010) Anti-fat prejudice reduction: A review of published studies. Obesity Facts, 3(1), 47-58

Pearl, R.L., Wadden, T.A. & Hopkins, C.M., et al. (2017). Association between weight bias internalization and metabolic syndrome among treatment-seeking individuals with obesity. Obesity (Silver Spring), 25(2), 317-322.

Tomiyama, A.J., Carr, D., Granbert, E.M., et al. (2018). How and why weight stigma drives the obesity ‘epidemic’ and harms health. BMC Medicine, 16, 123.

And countless fat activists, weight stigma scholars, and eating disorder researchers whose work inspires me every day.

On Productive Critique and Doing the Work in the Eating Disorders Field

There is so much to say about the ICED conference, as always. If nothing else, I can count on this conference to make me feel all kinds of ways… it’s good, bad, ugly, connected, and isolated, all wrapped into one big bow. I have been attending ICED for 5 years, and suitably my first ICED was also in NYC; it feels like a good moment to reflect and take a breath.

An image of the flatiron building in the evening.

An image of the flatiron building in the evening.

This year, I made a commitment to myself to take care of my body’s needs. This included: sleeping more, making sure to leave sessions if I got hungry and/or to prepare by bringing food along with me, only drinking coffee in the morning, missing more sessions than usual in order to be fully present in those that I did attend, and opting to socialize more one-on-one rather than doing the larger “socials” . I tried to balance my body’s not insignificant asks with a desire to show up and be present as an ally in spaces that are not always welcoming to different bodies. I was sometimes successful at both, and sometimes less so, but I am letting that go and considering how what I learned about both the content presented and about conferencing in a way that works for my body-mind.

As ever, it’s important to note that the critiques that I’ll surface in this post are systemic. Perhaps this is the case in all fields, but I only know mine. It seems that when critiques are leveraged, people automatically assume that they are being called a bad person. Public enemy number one. This is not the case. It is my true belief that people doing this work from all paradigms are good people. Generally, they want the best for people who are struggling to get by in a world that is profoundly messed up about food and bodies. They do not want people to suffer. There is often a noble goal behind the work, and sometimes the work is personal. And still, we all work within our disciplinary, personal, and social ways of knowing and doing, and we research and practice in a system that is itself grounded in hetero-patriarchy, white supremacy culture, and neoliberalism. And herein is the necessity of critique. Until we start looking at these issues as systemic, we will remain mired in petty arguments and miss reaching inside and doing the work we need to do to make change and make life better for all people who need and desire understanding.

I am also not under the illusion that my critiques are perfect, or that I am the first or best person to leverage them. Many, many people have been labouring to make change for years before me. Fat activists have paved the way for me to even begin to understand what I am talking about when I talk about weight stigma. People of colour have been saying—and living—important things that expose the problematics of social systems that uphold research and clinical practice that excludes and harms for years. Disability justice advocates have spoken out about access and inclusion in public forums for decades. We just haven’t been listening. And I am not perfect or beyond reproach, nor am I a hero for saying these things. I mess up all the time. I too feel defensive. But the fear of messing up cannot keep us from moving forward. From doing things differently. I would be lying if I said I was not afraid; afraid of publishing posts like these, afraid of speaking for others, afraid of being the squeaky wheel.

One of the most obvious tensions that comes up is that in our field, the systems have upheld the voices of white men as the ultimate “experts” on eating disorders. This has led, through replication, to white men often being the dominant voices in, for instance, plenary sessions. Removing this from the individual level is important. This is not saying that those men have not worked hard or that they do not have important things to say. And, there are also women and folks from marginalized groups (not mutually exclusive categories of course) who have important things to say as well and who have fought to have their voices and perspectives heard. We know that there are gender biases in research funding that have resulted in women not always having the funds to do the kind of research that gets attention. This is but one example of how women have been structurally held back from being at the podium.

There were some diverse, and very important, sessions at the conference. One particularly excellent workshop was about making the eating disorder field more inclusive and was led by Dr. Lesley Williams and Dr. Marisol Perez. Among the many things they spoke about, Williams & Perez spoke about the challenges of even entering the field when you are a woman of colour; and, when you do, there is a risk of being seen as an expert only about marginalized experiences of eating disorders. Which is, of course, an important expertise. But when we make marginalized folks’ expertise only about that, we neglect to acknowledge the broader experiences they hold. This session was important and highlighted how we need to be bringing diverse voices to the table—and, as Deb Burgard stated at a later session, re-shaping the tables themselves to fit those who are coming to the table—not only in sectioned-off parts of conferences. Diversity is not an add-on or a bonus. Marginalization, access, and stigma (conscious and unconscious) need to be at the forefront of our thinking.

As always, the issue of access comes up at conferences; for instance, the hotels themselves are not accessible (I struggled to get through some bathroom doorways!), and conferences are expensive. I spent over $2000 of my own money to attend this conference. I tried to Tweet as much as I could to share what was happening (through my lens, of course), but I know it is disappointing to not be able to attend conferences for financial reasons. We need to be thinking about this and considering how to open conferences up, if we wish to truly share and exchange knowledge. I know many people with lived experience and supporters in particular would love to be included. 

I am encouraged to have seen several sessions where presenters treated people with lived experience with respect and dignity, and integrated them into research design, though this was far from the norm. I also had a chance to chat with the wonderful Erin Harrop about how as researchers our bodies are always in the room, and was absolutely floored with all of the work she has been doing to incorporate this awareness and respect of participants in all of their wholeness and humanity into her studies. I was particularly buoyed by conversations I had with colleagues about how we can begin, as a field, to explore the biases we hold against people with lived experience and multiply marginalized folks. I hope that this work comes to fruition and that we continue to see change in this regard.

The final plenary session of the conference was one of the toughest, dealing with interventions to regulate emotions and to regulate binging. I went on a Twitter muse about how brains are treated as entities separate from the body and against some ideal norm, but I think a ramble on that here would take up too much of readers’ valuable time. I will instead focus on the problematics of interventions that endorse dietary restriction to “treat” binge eating disorder. Again, this is a systemic issue. The intervention presented was not that different from many others I’ve read or heard about. It would also be beyond the scope of this post to get into the complexities of the intervention described, nor do I wish to activate anyone in this space beyond the activation that may already be happening reading this post. Instead, I will quote a post I will be sharing to the AED community when I am able to access it:

“Some of the ways in which the intervention was described seemed to place restrictive behaviours at a higher moral level than binge behaviours and “emotional eating,” such that restriction (or another term use, “inhibition skills”) were seen as desirable for a subset of the population. I return time and time again to Deb Burgard’s astute observation that “we prescribe to fat people what we diagnose as eating disorders in thin people.” I find this particularly concerning in interventions that are aiming to treat eating disorders. And despite the fact that there is not a stated intention to promote weight loss, I find it hard to believe that a similar intervention would be prescribed to a client with a smaller body, regardless of reported binge behaviour. I understand how interventions like this come to be, given our cultural context around what “normal eating” could or should look like. And, I do not believe that endorsement of restriction is a good idea; there are ways of encouraging body attunement that do not require any restriction and that do not frame hunger as something to be afraid of.

Another thing to consider is the images used in the presentation, and what they symbolize. For instance, there was an image of a wrist wrapped in chains. This is the type of imagery that I might expect to see in a news story about eating disorders—which I’m sure we’ve all seen tend to sensationalize eating disorders—not at a professional conference and used to depict something positive. There were also images of fat folks depicted using the problematic “headless fatty” trope (for more on that, here is a post by Charlotte Cooper http://charlottecooper.net/fat/fat-writing/headless-fatties-01-07/), and other images that I, again, would not expect to see in a professional eating disorders conference setting.”

I realize I sound like a downer, and like I am not grateful for the opportunity to attend and present at conferences like these. This is not the case—I am incredibly grateful. I think these are conversations that need to be happening, in and outside of the field. In and outside of conference spaces, which see an attendance made up of only those who can afford to attend (on a financial, physical, psychological, spiritual etc. level). I had some amazing conversations at the conference with wonderful humans who are all working to try to make life better for people experiencing distress in their bodies and around food. There is so much power here; and there is power in the disagreement. I attended a difficult dialogues session where we were invited to try to disagree on things, and this space was one where we actually generated more agreement than I’ve seen in the past, about contentious issues. Because when we bring our disagreements, and our full selves, to the fore, we can work with that. We can move from there. Otherwise we are shouting into the void, expecting to be heard. I want to acknowledge that there is movement in the AED. There is a new Diversity & Inclusion committee, and I am eagerly awaiting hearing about ways that we can all help this committee to achieve shifts in the landscape.

So those are my Sunday afternoon rambles, as I sit in my living room on a cold March day, marinating in the post-conference feels. Thank you for listening, and I hope that we continue these conversations.

PhDs and Grasshopper Pies

I’ve spent a lot of time this week thinking about the problems in the eating disorders system. I know, what else is new. I thought about structuring this blog post as a list of things that I think could be changed, but I think I’ll save that for an upcoming solicited blog post for the Gurze catalog (so stay tuned). Instead, I want to focus on grasshopper pie.

Yes, you heard me.

I’m using this pie as a metaphor (I do that).

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The pie, it turns out, is a metaphor for my PhD. 

This pie is one of Christina Tosi’s notoriously difficult and multi-step recipes from Momofuku Milk Bar cookbook. It’s one of the entry-level recipes, I would say, given that it only involves combining 3 recipes and no pre-recipe prep; you can make the whole thing in about 2 hours.

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I’m a practiced baker. Baking is something that, for me, works out 90% of the time. We won’t talk about that 10%. I haven’t been intimidated by much in the kitchen, unless you’re referring to eating the end product, which is a different story entirely. Baking is comfort, and always has been, comforting for me. I learned the craft through measuring flour next to my mother in the kitchen at age 4.

I’m also a practiced student. I’ve been in university for ten, going on eleven, years. This is a drop in the bucket compared to longstanding academic careers, of course, but I know my way around a journal article. I also have the social capital to negotiate the (arguably) increasingly bureaucratic institution that is the university. I learned the craft through dancing around a lab with my father, a university professor in biomedical science, at age 4.

All of this is to say that I’ve been groomed to undertake both complicated pies and PhDs.

So far, it sounds like I’m boasting about my prowess in the kitchen and the world of academia. If only that were the case. For whatever reason, I come to fixate on the 10% of the time that things don’t work out, and forget about the successes. I come to fixate on the mistakes I’ve made along the way, and forget about the times when someone has told me that my creations tasted amazing or participating in my research was cathartic and healing.

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“Whatever reason,” I think, might also be the fact that I don’t really bake, or do my research, for me. Baking, writing, research, talking to people… these are things I love to do because they connect me. Frankly, I don’t even really like pie, but I make pie because I love to feed people; it feels like love. Research and writing are arguably a little more selfish; I get a lot out of these things on a personal level, ranging from a feeling of satisfaction in coming up with a model of understanding to making new friends to, ultimately, getting a few more letters after my name.

But those letters don’t mean anything to me if the people I do this research with don’t feel represented in my work or if the work ends up sitting on a self, insights ensconced in 270 pages of theoretical framing. I feel the need to leverage what I’ve learned to make radical change. To fundamentally challenge those systemic issues I alluded to at the beginning of the post and that I will continue to be loud about. I want people to listen to lived experience, and it would seem that for now, a way to do this is to share lived experience through research.

A pie is just a pie until it is enjoyed.

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Pies and PhDs are challenging. They are isolating and they are also connecting. They sometimes leave me crying on the kitchen floor, and other times dancing in the living room. They sometimes make me friends and other times leave me cringing when met with refrains like “you made me break my diet!” (good) or “my eating disorder is that I can’t stop eating” (if you are struggling with binge eating, I hear you, and I support you in seeking the help you deserve).

What I’m trying to relish, in both my baking and my PhD, is the glory in the mistakes, the imperfections, and the quirks. Because if—truly—my allegiances lie with the connections and systemic changes my pursuits create, these things are what makes all of it real.

The Things That I'll Never Know: Reflections on BEDA-NEDA Conference 2017

There are a lot of folks in the eating disorder community who are afraid of fat—the fleshy reality of it, the dietary version of it, and even the word. I am not talking about only those who are experiencing or have experienced eating disorders. No, many of those who fear fat are professionals working in the field.

Catching a moment of solitude

Catching a moment of solitude

I am not writing this to condemn any single person, and I wish to make that clear from the beginning. We are each living in a world that collectively shudders at the mention of fat.

“Fat is not a feeling.”

“Don’t use the word fat, it’s not polite. Say “person with obesity” instead.”

“We won’t let you get fat, don’t worry.”

“Eating disorders are a problem, sure. But obesity…”

“We want you to gain weight, but don’t gain TOO MUCH.”

These statements are microaggressions that target people in large bodies. And yet, they are statements we hear every single day in and beyond the eating disorders community.

It is refreshing to me when I attend a meeting of people within this community who are not afraid of fat. Who are fat, and who are not apologizing for it. Who recognize that fat is nothing more than a descriptor—not a moral status, not an indication of health, not a stopping point on the way to wellness or a better life.

It’s more refreshing still when the complex intersections between being fat and being marginalized in other ways are at the forefront of the discussion. Because people aren’t only fat. They are also living in bodies that experience privileges and oppressions. Each space of belonging intersects with others to create an embodied experience.

This is not a matter of adding up oppressions and privileges and creating a balancing sheet or hierarchy where certain people are more deserving of taking up space. It is about acknowledging diversity and checking ourselves when we make assumptions about “what it must be like” to live in a particular body, what bodies can and can’t do, and who is allowed to speak (or, frankly, exist).

I attended my first Binge Eating Disorder Association (BEDA) conference this November, and I found that more than most other eating disorders conferences, people were engaging critically and considering how their embodied experiences inform their work.

The conference began with a keynote presentation that got me more excited about eating disorder research than I’ve been in a while. Carolyn Black Becker and Keesha Middlemass shared their research on food insecurity and eating disorders. The data was clear and heartbreaking. People living in poverty, especially those with child hunger in the household, experienced significant eating disordered behaviours including restriction and bingeing. Talking to participants about why revealed saving food for the children or those more in need, and feelings of shame about late night binges borne of daily restriction.

This research was conducted so compassionately and truly in the interest of understanding the needs of people living in poverty; I was inspired by the questions the researchers were asking, including in whose interests it is to collect data on BMI (spoiler alert: not research participants). Dr. Middlemass is a political scientist, and newer to the eating disorders field—I appreciated her perspectives on how hung up those in the eating disorder community become on needing to know people’s weight in order to understand their experiences. “Outside” perspectives and new, community-engaged methods are absolutely essential for broadening our lens.

Many of the presentations at the conference focused on weight stigma and the terrible violence lodged at people in large bodies every day, including at the hands of doctors. While we tend to have a collective imagination for weight stigma in the media and even in general society, I think it is harder for fellow thin people to understand that weight stigma is literally everywhere. Hearing person after person share these experiences—from having doctors attribute every little issue to weight to being praised for weight loss undertaken by way of extreme restriction and over-exercise—was both terrifying and incredibly moving.

Equally important was the focus on breaking down cultures of expertise that uphold a single method of treatment for eating disorders, as if one-size were to fit all. In Hilary Kinavey and Dana Sturtevant’s presentation on healthism and ethics in treatment, Hilary said something that really stood out to me: if it isn’t trauma-informed, it isn’t healthcare. Being trauma-informed and providing ethical care means recognizing that you don’t hold the most expertise in the room, no matter how many letters you have after your name. It means being willing to listen to, believe, and work with people and their lived embodied experiences.

This work is profoundly social justice oriented. It is about size, but it isn’t about size. It’s about creating a world where difference is acknowledged and honoured. It is about changing systems so that instead of making assumptions, we invite people to tell their stories and believe their joys and their pain.

As I write this, it all seems so obvious to me. I am a thin person; a white person; a heterosexual, cis-gender woman. I pass as able-bodied. I do not know what it is like to live in poverty. I do not know what it is like to have racial slurs hurled my way. I do not know what it is like to go to the doctor for an earache and be prescribed weight loss. I do not know what it is like to turn on the news and see my body size being called an epidemic.

Because I don’t know, it would be problematic for me to decide what language people can use to describe their size.

Because I don’t know, it would be offensive for me to say “I know exactly how you feel” when someone says they’re feeling uncomfortable in their body. Do I know what it is like to have a day where my body makes me want to scream? Of course I do. But no one is telling me I’m right.

Because I don’t know—don’t feel, in a deep and embodied way—the echoes of years of this particular kind of violence enacted on my body, it would be troubling for me to speak on behalf of people in large bodies and otherwise marginalized bodies.

Change is always met with resistance. I have heard, since the conference, that some people were unsettled by the overt social justice stance of many of the BEDA presenters. This reflects fear. And in my experience, I rarely feel good when I act out of fear.

I invite us all to consider what’s going on inside when that fear bubbles to the surface—when the urge to fix and tether difference comes up. When the mind seeks to conquer the body. When you feel challenged. When you feel defensive.

I have felt that defensiveness. I have held problematic biases. I am sure I still do. I have acted out of fear. I used to be the person who thought that people who spoke out about social justice issues in overtly angry ways should be more tactful in their approach; I have fallen into the trap of wanting to (or actively) tone policing anger on more than one occasion. I wanted, and to a certain extent still want, everyone to play nice. But I’ve come to realize that it’s easier for me to play nice than it is for some others. Because when I play nice, people don’t (always) trample all over me and try to erase me and make me small.

I am no more perfect in my approach than anyone else. We are all living in white supremacist culture that enforces perfectionism, meritocracy, and inequity writ large. We all fail to fight it, at times. Particularly when the societal structure leads to our own advancement, it can be challenging and painful to step outside of it. But we need to. Hurting and failing are parts of life that we cannot avoid. I am lucky that I get to hurt and fail and learn and grow and laugh and cry in the presence of mentors and colleagues who are willing to go there with me. I hope you can find these people, too.

Apples and Applications

It’s fairly cliché to say that we are all built of layers; most people liken themselves to onions when referring to the layered nature of subjectivity. While still cliché, I’d like to claim the status of a gently-sweetened, buttery, and flakey apple pie. Equally layered and full of depth, I’m finding that the sweetness lurks beneath the crispy exterior.

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Those who follow me on social media might be aware of my continued introspection about this odd period of life I find myself navigating. I’m almost done my PhD, and I am currently applying to many fellowships and jobs and thinking about what’s next for me. I’m moving beyond the “tenure track or bust” orientation while also applying for tenure track positions. I’m building relationships with prospective supervisors for post-doc positions while often asking them to write me letters of reference for full time positions. I’m working as a part of a different grant team on a larger-scale project that, if funded, would be pretty game changing. I’m actively seeking paid writing and speaking gigs in health and mental health, building the contingency that I might end up freelancing or consulting. I started a free month of Linkedin premium.

That last item demonstrates the depth of commitment I have to this search. I’ve never been a fan of the platform, finding it ill-suited to capturing academic jobs and pursuits. And yet, here I am.

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These are all things that I’m doing, but they don’t capture the work that’s going on behind the “hustle” (oh how I hate that word). Beneath the 50-100 page applications lurks a deep sense of self-exploration—the cinnamon to the apples of my hustle. Throughout my academic career thus far, I’ve mostly known what comes next. Undergrad moved into Masters, which flowed even more seamlessly into PhD. I felt comfortable in grad school—nestled in a familiar environment, yet challenged by the collaborations I sought out, encouraged by my mentors, and enthusiastic about the changes I could make.

Over the course of the past few months, I’ve grown tired of being a student, yet equally uncertain about what is next. I initially framed this as an anxiety about the future—and it is that, too. But I’ve been increasingly thinking about how I can allow my values and desires to drive my pursuits in and beyond academia. It’s becoming about more than securing a tenure track position; it’s becoming more about whether that position would afford me the chance to collaborate with interesting and inspiring people. Whether I would be able to support students’ growth. Whether I would be able to do work that has relevance to policy and social systems. Whether I would be able to research and write without getting sucked into a competition for scarce resources.

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I’m probably imagining an academic utopia, but I’m doing it pragmatically. Hold your scoffs at my contradiction of terms: I really do think it is possible to do collaborative, ethical, and impactful work. I’ve seen it happen. This work isn’t free from mess, and often bumps up against the strictures of institutional bureaucracy. But it is human.

The human nature of the work I want to do is sometimes missed in the continual funding applications, the peer reviews that feel more like attacks, and the siloing of disciplines. But ultimately, we are humans, doing work with humans, for humans, amongst humans… and I believe we can do this work for good. When I think about the values that guide my pursuits, I think about connection, community, compassion, and curiosity. (I’m sorry about the alliteration, Glen.) I think about love and loyalty and learning. I think about respect and relationships.

I’m making this sound easy, and I’m getting away from the heart of the matter. I’m experiencing existential uncertainty that makes my days somewhat unpredictable. I wake up some days so excited by the possibilities that lie before me; some days I feel like no matter which path I take, it will be the right one. Other days, I find it hard to get out of the house, or to get motivated to do the most straightforward work-related task—particularly those that involve abstract or creative thinking. On these days, I do a lot of cleaning, or baking. These tasks have the kind of discrete end point I am seeking when I have wandering days. Put some flour, butter, and sugar together, add a bunch of apples and cinnamon, and bake at 350, and you have a pie. There’s a reason my kitchen overflows these days.

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I’m trying not to judge myself for this lack of motivation. Ultimately I know that it is part of the ebb and flow of life, and I’m being gentle with myself. Still, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that sometimes I want to run away, sell my pies, teach pilates and ballet, and write inconsequential things like this blog post.

But even if I ran away, I would still value connection, community, compassion, and curiosity. Love and loyalty and learning. Respect and relationships.

There would just be more pies, and fewer grant applications.

[Salted Treacle Butter Apple Pie from the Half Baked Harvest cookbook (which I highly recommend -- it is spectacular.]

 

On Solitude

I have a limited capacity for peopling. Call it introversion if you wish, but in general I have a tendency to get over-stimulated by a lot of exposure to other humans. I wouldn’t call myself “shy” per se, at least not since I was four years old and used to hide behind my mom when others would come to the door. Shyness doesn’t really capture the experience, though, nor does “social awkwardness,” which is another label I’ve alternately attracted or used in reference to myself over the years.

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People actually fascinate me—hence why I’ve been making a career of studying people’s experiences in their bodies and in the world. When I am around people, I commonly have a hard time not attending to them. If you get me one-on-one, I’m likely to try to start a conversation, and I tend to feel like it is my responsibility to ensure that everyone is having a good time. I like to make people happy.

This desire to make people happy, and an attunement to others’ affect, can lead to my energies being drawn somewhat out of my body. It leaves me feeling like a bit of a husk, when I do it too much. So I retreat, either emotionally or physically (or both) until I feel recharged.

I don’t always need to retreat from everyone. Usually I am ok to be in the company of people I know very well while I am recharging; my partner, my mom, a very good friend, or someone else who recharges in the same way. If I am pushed over the edge, though, I find that I need to find a way to get back into my body, or I will ironically turn on it, losing my identification with it and feeling detached and unhappy.

The way my introversion manifests can be confusing. Because I seem gregarious online and even sometimes in person, it can seem like I am being uncaring or uninvested when I do not reach out to make plans with people very often. My social anxiety also manifests in more inward way, making me seem like someone who is completely comfortable in a large room of people, even giving a talk I am not at all prepared for. Truth be told, this perception of comfort is borne of the determined streak that made me practice—not in my room, speaking to the dog, but by signing up for conference after conference until I no longer got hives when I stood up at the podium.

I am also more comfortable when I know that I will be able to retreat. At a conference, I can perform my peopling self because I have already planned my retreats. I book myself into Air BnBs at least a half hour walk from the conference venue. I relish dinners alone, full of kale and silence. I bring my yoga mat everywhere I go.

I fear, sometimes, that my limited capacity for peopling has led to some friendships fading. When something looks like it is easy for you, it is hard to explain how much it takes out of you. It’s also hard to ask to continue to be invited places because you like knowing that others are thinking about you when you might decline, or cancel at the last moment.

I’ve recently become more attuned to my own inner process of building up to my peopling capacity, developing a keener awareness of when I am about to cross the line and planning my retreat then, as opposed to when I am nursing a resultant migraine or suddenly angry or crying out of the blue.

Taking care of yourself sometimes means accepting that it won’t always be clear to others why you left the party without saying goodbye. Embracing your capacity means knowing that sometimes you will cross the limit for a good enough reason, and that the icks won’t stay with you forever.

Sometimes being me means knowing that I’ll always seem contradictory to some people.

I’m learning to let that be.

Plums and Politics

Let’s talk about evidence. I’ve been working on several funding proposals lately, as is the plight of the final year PhD student. Some of these proposals are based in Canada, some in the US, and some in the UK. I am getting well-practiced at putting quite a bit of effort and very little stock in any of these applications panning out. I accept the reality of the funding environment, and acknowledge how little most people care about eating disorders—so I need to work quite hard to convince people that eating disorders do, in fact, matter.

Convincing people that eating disorders matter is a tricky game. It’s kind of like attempting to make something that is vegan, gluten free, and made with “natural sugars” grab your tastebuds. Difficult, but not impossible. And no, the irony of that simile does not escape me.

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One of the things I have noticed about funding applications in the States in particular is that if you want people to care about eating disorders, something they care very little about, you’d sure as hell better use the methods they’re used to. There had better be some numbers behind your observations, or you might as well not bother. Obviously, this perturbs me.

Call me easily perturbed if you will, but I’m a firm believer in methodological innovation. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like people want to take the double risk: risking engagement with eating disorders, which are still framed as disorders of the young, white, vain, able bodied, and woman; risking trying something new with methods… or something very old, applied to the research environment. Like, for instance, talking to people. It shouldn’t be a radical idea. Asking to people about their experiences is about as risky and “out there” as sticking a bunch of plums in a dish and pouring maple syrup over them and expecting it to taste good. Oh wait…

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I have a very different definition of “evidence based” than many in the research community, eating disorders or otherwise, and place a very different premium on the importance of numbers to back up what we are saying. This is becoming clear the more I compete for the limited funds dispersed to study social phenomena, and the more I roll in eating disorder advocacy circles; both places tend to strongly value “hard science,” and see qualitative approaches as a handy little afterword.

There is a time and place for numbers. I have nothing but respect for quantitative researchers, and I do believe that it is possible to do good quantitative research. Numbers are compelling, and stats can even (GASP) be fun and innovative in and of themselves.

But numbers do not tell the whole story, nor are they inherently better for describing social phenomena, eating disorders included. They are simply different.

I have seen terrible quantitative studies on eating disorders that replicate the same errors that have pervaded the field for years. I’ve seen reliance on scales that we discovered long ago have fundamental flaws in their psychometrics (i.e., they don't measure what they are supposed to be measuring in the same way for different groups of people). Many of the scales used to determine levels of pathology and outcomes for eating disorders are built on the very assumptions many using those studies for advocacy argue against, for instance the idea that eating disorders are primarily tied to poor body image. Most of the scales were designed on white, Western populations, often clinical. A significant chunk of studies on eating disorders are conducted with people with anorexia, in clinical settings.

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As I write this, I fear that my words will be taken the wrong way. I have friends and colleagues who conduct quantitative research. I have read compelling accounts of eating disorders that use quantitative methods; I have cited statistics in funding applications and research studies. It is also worth noting that I’ve read terrible qualitative studies on eating disorders. I’ve seen studies include samples of people fitting a pre-determined set of criteria for recovery that claim to be exploring a definition of recovery. I’ve seen thematic analyses where the authors do little analysis and more counting of mentions. I’ve seen authors publish five articles that say essentially the same thing. I’ve seen claims of novelty on research that was done twenty years ago.

As I write this, I fear that I invite a gaze on my own work wherein it too will be criticized for not being innovative enough. But that’s just the thing: who defines innovation? So often, research funding is little more than a game of politics; whose work is en vogue? Whose methods align with the dominant spirit of the times? Whose name do the reviewers recognize and trust? What is the political funding climate under the party in power?

It’s important to acknowledge the fundamentally political character of the research enterprise because it helps us to recognize that science is never neutral. Every day, some voices are amplified above others due to funding and publication biases. Sometimes the most compelling “evidence” comes from someplace else entirely, but it doesn’t have the sheen of scholarly communication. Non-scholarly environments are, of course, no less prone to politics and biases. 

But we simply cannot say that stories are not evidence; of course they are. (So maybe let’s listen).

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On To the Bone, and Other Cinematic Representations of Eating Disorders

This post doesn't have a nice food photo to accompany it, and is therefore slightly off-brand, but it needed to be written.

I’ve been asked about my thoughts about To the Bone more times than I can count. I’m finding it hard to find much about eating disorders online these days that DOESN’T focus on the movie, which makes it rather challenging to find content for the social postings I am in charge of for a few accounts. And I have a secret:

I find popular media around eating disorders to be really boring.

There’s nothing interesting to me about watching treatment play out on screen. I’d rather not watch a movie about an eating disorder, because I’ve already experienced one, I’ve talked to people in much more in-depth and meaningful ways about their eating disorders, and I don’t particularly care to see another movie about a thin white young able bodied heterosexual woman with an eating disorder. Fewer of my bones might have shown when I was struggling, but that woman was me, and I have no particular interest in watching a cinematic version of that struggle.

This has nothing to do with being triggered; I watched both films and carried on with my life as normal, feeling no pull toward the behaviours that were once so compelling to me. Triggers are much more complex than seeing something and trying to emulate their bodily appearance or behaviours. This isn’t to say that these films won’t be triggering to some—I’m sure they will. But that’s only one small part of the issue, in my view.

When I watched To the Bone, I had my critical academic hat on (do I ever take it off?). I was lucky to be able to watch and discuss the film with my friends Emma and Glen; together, we cringed at a number of things in the film. Interestingly, though, I was actually more concerned with the homophobia, ableism, and paternalism present in the film. Some of what was disturbing about it, to me, actually had to do with some of what was accurate about it.

Let me explain. The character I disliked the most in the film was Dr. Keanu. I know, I know, he has some other name in the film, but I like to call him Dr. Keanu. I couldn’t suspend disbelief and still saw him dodging bullets, Matrix-style. In several scenes in the film, Dr. Keanu treats the film’s protagonist, Ellen, as if she were a child, without any agency and awareness.

Of course, we could talk for hours about agency and eating disorders, but I think we probably agree on the following key point: you can’t scare someone with an eating disorder into getting better. And yet, the idea that you can do so was, in my view, an accurate estimation of how many practitioners seem to approach eating disorders. Over at Science of Eating Disorders, I wrote about the problems with promoting psychoeducation alone without additional psychological support for people with eating disorders. I remember, acutely, the experience of being on a wait list for my eating disorder program and accessing the only support available to me at the time, which I referred to as “the group in which they tell me I’m going to die but don’t do anything about it.” It was one of the worst times of my life—and it didn’t help me get better. I couldn’t be “scared straight,” and I find the idea that all people with eating disorders lack awareness about what they are doing to their bodies to be infantalizing and untrue.

In general, men in the film were represented as the saviours—from Dr. Keanu, who works at a children’s hospital and is treating adults with eating disorders, who comes into Ellen’s room at night, and who decides to re-name her, to Luke, who could have been an opportunity to deeply explore the experiences of men with eating disorders and yet ends up taking on the role of Ellen’s mentor and guide, as well as her heterosexual love interest who tells her that she “needs to be touched by someone who cares for her.” Jokes are made about conversion therapy, and Ellen’s lesbian mother is presented in a stereotypical way.

Ableism also features, including through repeated mentions of having “calorie Aspergers” (not a thing, and not a funny joke). Exploring racialization in the film, we might also consider how the only people of colour in the film are either in service roles and/or in larger bodies. Further, the one client in a larger body, who is also Black, is depicted as suffering from binge eating disorder.

Body size, is, of course, a whole other kettle of fish. There has been a lot made online in advocate communities about the irresponsible nature of asking Lilly Collins to lose weight for a role that need not have been depicted in the way it was, as people can suffer from restrictive eating disorders at any weight. This decision did not surprise me, and as others have pointed out, it reveals the extent to which weight bias still rules the day. Many continue to assume that those with anorexia are in very small bodies and those in larger bodies suffer from binge eating disorder, and there is a lack of recognition of how it’s not really possible to lose that much weight “healthily.” Again, these debates are important but nothing new: the crystallization of weight bias not only in society in general but in the eating disorders community in particular has taken place in multiple fora of late. All I wish to add is that it’s important for all people to examine their weight biases, including those who have never experienced eating disorders.

One could argue that most movies contain this kind of ridiculousness. Admittedly, I was analyzing this movie rather than really watching it. I know, I can’t have nice things. I’m a critical academic and grad student—it’s literally my job to critically analyze things. I keep thinking about what my friend and colleague Emma said, as we watched: who is this film for, and how might it land for those who do not have the critical analysis agenda? It’s a good question, and one I’m continuing to ponder. It seems to me that those who do not do what I do a) think the film is insightful and revealing and b) assume I’d love it too. And that concerns me.

 

Bodies and Balsamic

It’s been a day of frustration with the way that health is peddled to the masses on social media. So, it’s been a day.

Almost every day, I get follows on Instagram from health and fitness Instagrammers and bloggers. A glance at our social media profiles might not actually look that different—while my Instagram might have a few more cupcakes, many of my posts carry the sheen of health. I think deeply every time I post something on social media, as I am aware of my position as someone who is openly recovered from an eating disorder and critical of diet culture. I know that having a thin, white, able body leads to my body being read in certain ways.

It can be oddly taboo to talk about health and fitness in recovery. Navigating the contradictions of having an interest in movement and having a history of disordered eating is far from straightforward. There is a double surveillance that can occur: on the one hand, your behaviours may be glorified by those who do not know about your eating disorder; on the other, those who know that you’ve experienced an eating disorder might give your salad the side eye.

Add to the thin privilege that allows me to bake strawberry basil balsamic cupcakes because I want a cupcake—and to eat that cupcake publicly and have it be seen as “cute” rather than gluttonous.

I navigate these tensions in a number of ways, and probably imperfectly. As I mentioned, I’m inevitably misread, interpreted as someone who wholeheartedly buys into gym cultures, someone who is so recovered that she doesn’t have to think twice about her exercise practices, or, conversely, as someone who isn’t as recovered as she thinks she is. I care about these misinterpretations not because of how they impact me personally—I know how solid my own recovery is, and I am happy to correct anyone who presumes that I think everybody should exercise or even that I personally spend time in gyms—but because of what they say about health, bodies, and eating disorder recovery.

In all honesty, I could not care less about what you choose to do with your body in terms of fitness and eating practices. This is somewhat of a controversial statement from someone who researches and writes about eating disorder recovery. Earlier on in my own journey and my work, I was quick to snap at those who drank diet coke, went vegan, ate Paleo, decided on gluten free, or any similar practice. I thought that these behaviours represented continued disordered eating, and I was vocal about it.

As my recovery has continued, and as I’ve spoken with many people in recovery through my research and advocacy work, I’ve started to change my tune. I’ve grown discontented with the idea that in order to be recovered you need to eat cute, stylized cupcakes. I’m tired of seeing lists that binarize disordered and non-disordered behaviours as if these uniformly applied to all people. I started being more generous toward others in recovery who are living in variously marginalized bodies and who inevitably face different pressures than I do. I can no longer pretend that eating a cupcake will be read the same way when a person in a large body does it, even when we’ve had similar eating disorder experiences.

This does not mean, though, that I can endorse fitness prescriptions that peddle certain types of lifestyles to all as if there were not differences in the types of exercise and eating that work for all. I cringe when I see someone write that they think everyone should wake up and hit the gym because they’ll be proud of themselves and no pain means no gain. I can’t stand the suggestion that we should ALL be eating gluten free, or that sugar is rotting our brains, or that “sitting is the new smoking.” These imperatives, and the overarching frame that a person who does not do these things is lazy, immoral, and unwanted, is untenable for me.

There is no one perfect route to health—and, further, health is not everyone’s aim. Frankly, we can’t know what will work for anyone else, we can’t judge someone’s health status by looking at them, and assuming that we can prescribe fitness in a uniform way is not only problematic but actually harmful. I have no problem with people enacting the ways of moving and eating that work for them—but we need to acknowledge that these practices exist in a political and social setting in which morals and bodies are configured as deeply entwining.  

Conferences and Confections

Conferences are strange bastions of self-presentation and self-reflection. I don’t know about you, but I always leave conferences feeling a strange mix of elated, exhausted, and reflective. It’s conference season right now, and I’ve begun my usual whirlwind of airports and blazers that sees me through much of the summer and into the fall. Three of my first four conferences of the year have been eating disorder/weight stigma oriented, which of course has me thinking about how I think the field can and should move forward.

You know, if I were master of the universe.

Sadly, I’m really only master of the kitchen at the moment (but I’ll take it).

Since I’ve been home, I’ve been reflecting on the culture shock that exists in the in-between of the worlds of anti-weight stigma and eating disorder research and treatment. Oh, and baking date squares.

At the 5th Annual Weight Stigma Conference, I teamed up with Erin Harrop and Jen Henretty to facilitate a roundtable discussion about weight stigma in the eating disorders field. We gathered a group of passionate others and talked about the issue in a meaningful way that tapped into some of the issues we see, including:

  • The exclusionary criteria that accompany eating disorder diagnoses, circumscribing certain bodies into certain categories and labelling larger bodies “atypical”
  • The definition of recovery as between a BMI of 20 and 24, which essentially delegitimizes the recoveries of those in larger bodies
  • The use of body tracing and other body image techniques that make fatness out to be distorted and wrong
  • The promise issued to those in treatment that they “won’t get fat,” a promise that re-inscribes a fear of fatness
  • The over-focus on anorexia in research
  • The use of weight loss as a “successful outcome” in studies about binge eating disorder

These issues and countless others often go completely unnoticed in eating disorder research and treatment. Being amongst others who do anti-weight stigma and generally social justice-oriented work is always a treat; the level of discussion at the weight stigma conference is always inspiring. It’s fantastic to start a conversation with the knowledge that you won’t have to explain why it’s a problem to shame people because they have a larger body, to equate food types with morality, or to create spaces that only accommodate thin (and white, and able, and heterosexual, etc.) bodies.

Enter: the culture shock of attending an eating disorder conference immediately after the weight stigma conference. Now, as always, these comments are not meant as an indictment of individual clinicians or researchers, or even the conference I was at per se. There were some moments of brilliance there, too -- notably, the acknowledgment of the heuristics we all work within and how all eating disorders are unique, even "atypical," because they reflect individual ways of eating and being.

My critiques are lodged with the broader perspective of where and how our work is situated, who it is intended to help, and how these communities might (or should) be involved in its production and dissemination. The critiques are leveraged in an effort to highlight how all knowledge and all treatment is socially and politically situated. We need to think about how those most impacted by our work will interpret and engage with our research and treatment. Their expertise matters.

Back to the scene of the conference. Within a day, I had heard weight loss proclaimed as a successful outcome for binge eating disorder. I had heard about patients “failing” treatment (rather than, as I’d prefer, treatments failing patients). I had wondered about the accessibility of the space to people in larger bodies, people of colour, people with disabilities, etc. I had pondered the gendered makeup of panels and session chairs and attendees. And I was not alone in my pondering.

It’s uncomfortable engaging in this kind of critique. I am not yet in a position of power when it comes to my academic career. I recognize that identifying systemic issues in the eating disorder field may not be popular. But I feel that because I have the relative privilege of being able to attend these kinds of conferences—a possibility still closed to many, particularly those with lived experience and those who don’t feel welcome in the space for a whole host of reasons—it is to a certain extent my job to speak up about these issues.

At the end of the day, I have the choice about whether or not I do this. The fact that I could choose to stick to the status quo reminds me that I must not. The fact that people are more likely to listen to me about issues of weight stigma being a problem in the field because I am thin, white, able-bodied, educated, etc. only reinforces the problem.

Eating disorder organizations can do, and are doing, better at addressing social justice issues. I have seen significant movement from organizations like NEDIC toward a centring of marginalized voices and a responsiveness to concerns oppressed groups raise. It is possible to move toward inclusiveness through listening, and avoiding the defensiveness and side tracking we’re trained to display when someone challenges us. 

I am not exempt. I am not the thin, white saviour, stepping in to speak truth to power. In many ways, I’m complicit in systems of power. It’s important that I name the imperfection and privilege with which I approach this work. The ultimate aim is not for me to be up at the podium, but for me to step aside and centre the voices of those who really need to be heard. As we chip away at the system, though, I can’t help but speak up, as uncomfortable as it sometimes makes me. I speak up because I could sit back, and that’s a problem.

[Vegan date squares from Get It Ripe by Jae Steele; made gluten free so more people will be able to eat them] 

Systems and Strawberries: A Post for World Eating Disorders Action Day 2017

Today is World Eating Disorders Action Day. Last year I was much more involved—check out my blog posts from last year here and here—but this year I’ve been much more low key about the day. This doesn’t mean I don’t care, or that I don’t think the day is important—I think it is an amazing example of bringing together people across the world to fight for better eating disorders treatment and research. My absence from the group has had more to do with practicing what I preach, in a way. It’s had a lot to do with learning how to say yes and when to say no in ways that fit for me. So this year I’m just saying yes in the form of writing a little about what I’ve been pondering lately, when it comes to eating disorders.

I’m a bit of a broken record or squeaky wheel or some other kind of cliché about repetitiousness when it comes to my fixation on the need to think about the broader systemic context when we think about eating disorders. Let’s leave aside, for a moment, the question of what role this system plays in the genesis of eating disorders (a complex question, and today isn’t the day for a debate) and consider instead what the system is doing to those seeking treatment and recovery from eating disorders.

At least a few times a month, I am asked for resources for people suffering from eating disorders—people themselves, supporters, acquaintances, and coworkers of people with eating disorders approach me, knowing my area of interest, and ask me if I know of any good services available for people with eating disorders. They usually ask if I know of anything in the Canadian context, but sometimes they’re requesting supports in the States, the UK, or elsewhere. Are there eating disorder treatment programs in these places? Of course (well, maybe not “of course,” if you think about the fact that the Canadian territories and several provinces lack significant supports…). Can I guarantee that the person will have a positive experience when they attend that treatment? No, I can’t.

I want to be crystal clear that this is not an indictment of individual clinicians who treat eating disorders. Particularly in Canada, I know many well-trained, compassionate, and hard-working eating disorder healthcare professionals. However, the systems we have in place to treat eating disorders are not meeting the needs of people seeking treatment. What gets in the way? Here’s an incomplete list:

  • Overwork and burnout amongst healthcare providers, working long hours in a field that is stigmatized (see this post I wrote a while back for more)
  • Treatment approaches that are rooted in white supremacist cultural norms (such as perfectionism, sense of urgency, a focus on quantity instead of quality—see this brilliant page for more)
  • Colonized treatment settings (see this post for more!) and other culturally inappropriate treatments that demand that patients perform a kind of White Western recovery built on stereotypes about eating disorders
  • Long wait lists, which have the dual problem of: a) making people who could really use support immediately stay stuck on a wait list, which may also contribute to feelings of “not being sick enough” to deserve treatment and b) meaning that there is a very low threshold for people being kicked out of programs, as there’s always someone else waiting on the wait list
  • Lack of funding for patient-centered and community based treatment, meaning that people often have to leave their whole lives behind in order to pursue treatment—something that is not possible or accessible to all
  • Missing or insufficient transitional services for people leaving or kicked out of treatment, meaning that people often return to toxic environments that perpetuated distress
  • Weight stigma that pervades treatment settings in insidious ways; again, this doesn’t have to look like an individual healthcare provider being fatphobic. It can look like weight thresholds for treatment, eating disorder treatment programs that also market weight loss programs, and the promise that “we won’t let you get fat”

This looks fairly bleak, doesn’t it? This might surprise those who know me as a highly critical individual, but it always feels uncomfortable, to me, to focus on the negative. But we have to. If we actually want action, we need to delineate what needs to be acted upon. We can’t simply tell people to love their bodies in a world that tell them their bodies are wrong—not only because of thinness norms but also because of racism, classism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, transphobia, etc. We also can’t just tell people to “go get help” when the help is neither available nor appropriate. My list above is but a snapshot of the myriad places for action.

What can we do? How can we act? I’m no longer satisfied with only critiquing, and yet I’m often hesitant to propose concrete recommendations—because of the spaces of privilege I occupy (my whiteness, my thinness, my age, my heterosexuality, my cis-genderness, my passing-as-able body) there are weak spots I likely cannot see, and preferred ways of action I likely do not know. Because of this, my number one recommendation for action is to listen. To deeply listen to those who aren’t usually able to talk about this. How do you listen to those who can’t speak up for fear of negative consequences? That’s a tricky one. My best guess is to open spaces up—to acknowledge and recognize when and how our systems are shot through with power dynamics and gilded with privilege. And when people speak and their stories and experiences are not as expected; when people speak about how mainstream systems aren’t working for them, don’t tell them they’re wrong. Listen, acknowledge, and act.

[I also made a heart shaped strawberry-rhubarb galette, picture above... but that feels somehow less important.]

Cheese and Change

I love being a researcher. I really feel like this is the career for me; I’ve always been curious, and I like to know things. Of course, the route I’ve chosen doesn’t lend itself to certainty. I tend to research things without answers, and I report results in an almost annoyingly non-prescriptive fashion. I’m regularly asked by reviewers to comment on the implications of my work, and I always do so somewhat hedgingly – forever with the caveat that no one size fits all.

When I found a subject that enamoured me enough to focus my attention on it, I decided that I would devote (at least a good chunk of) my life to learning more about it. The more I learn about eating disorders, the more I realize there’s so much more to be done. Especially with respect to inviting marginalized folks in and honouring their perspectives, the eating disorders field is in many ways a fledgling. I’m also learning that, in my opinion, if we want to make change in how we prevent, treat, and research eating disorders, we need to do it in an interdisciplinary way. No, scratch that – we need to do in it a way that transcends disciplines and invites those from the margins to the centre. We need to redefine whose expertise counts, how we make our decisions, and what matters as knowledge.

If we put together some unexpected ingredients, I think we might find that we’re better able to manoeuvre within systems and scaffold change that ultimately rearranges those systems. I believe that this broader rearrangement is necessary if we want to see the changes really take root.

There is resistance to this change, and this coming together, though. I don’t mean coming together in a superficial, “let’s forget our differences” kind of way – and this is important. I mean it in a “let’s acknowledge our differences, name the lenses we’re looking through, and let’s have uncomfortable conversations” kind of way. Let’s put ricotta and mango into a muffin, mix it up, and see what happens.

Cheesy baking metaphors aside (or are they ever really aside? I live and die by the cheesy baking metaphor. Oh dear, there’s even an unintended pun in this particularly cheese – ricotta), there’s a frustrating part about being a researcher, too – particularly one interested in talking to diverse and often marginalized people, and one oriented toward social justice. The frustration lies in taking a bird’s eye view of the tensions within the field while simultaneously listening to stories of those who’ve been forgotten by the system, and feeling powerless to do anything about it.

Contrary to popular belief (or perhaps not…), I don’t really have much power. Sure, I have privilege – I have privilege in spades. Things come easier to me because of my privileges, and people are more likely to listen to me because of my white privilege, my cis-gender privilege, my thin privilege, my heterosexual privilege, my academic social capital, and more. Unfortunately, relative to the dominant voices maintaining the status quo, my status as PhD student performing qualitative, feminist, critical research is low. Moreover, the audience I reach with my work is often already familiar with the frameworks I’m using and perspectives I’m sharing. On the broader stage, most people don't need to listen to my critiques. There really are no consequences for ignoring me. I don't have much power, but I still have more of a voice than those who tell me their stories - which tells you something about how power works in this (and probably other) fields. Problematically.

This is frustrating not because it denies me fame and fortune. It is frustrating because time and again, I’m told about the problems with the system, and the pain of people with eating disorders and their supporters who struggle to navigate unwieldy systems and who face marginalization and outright oppression when they try to do so. And all I can do is pick away at the edges; critique, name, tweet. I hold these stories, and they ground me while they propel me forward – but sometimes all I can do is hold them.

Often, I’m the first person to whom people have told their stories to – because no one else has asked. I’d like to invite these stories into the discussions “we” have, at the academic and policy level around eating disorders. These stories should be central to decisions. Research participants, patients, supporters… they are not just pieces of data or outcome statistics. They are people, in all of their complexities. This feels incredibly trite to write down… and yet somehow the obvious nature of this statement doesn’t always lead to greater inclusion.  

Somehow I’ve wiggled my way into this discussion at the level of the field more broadly. And that’s great. But it’s not really me people need to listen to – it’s my participants. I feel a great responsibility to those who’ve been generous to share their stories with me; their un-collapsability (new word for you) needs to be named; the differences and shared frustrations need to be acknowledged. I’m unsatisfied with simply recording them in my (very wordy) dissertation.

This post isn’t really about mango ricotta muffins; it’s a call to action. It’s a call to listen, to honour, to hold – and to move.

[Mango ricotta muffin recipe from Single Girls Kitchen]

Sticky Buns and Shrinking

“‎You're not the same as you were before," he said. You were much more... muchier... you've lost your muchness.” – Lewis Caroll, Alice in Wonderland

Sometimes things in life are just a little… excessive. Like, for instance, sticky buns. Horrible name aside, these delicacies have a lot going on. From the rich, yeasted dough to the caramelized pecan topping, you don’t pretend a sticky bun isn’t a ball full of sugary glory. There’s joy in the muchness of a sticky bun.

I am a lot. You might say I’m “muchy” – I feel things very intensely. Coupled with a lifelong commitment to honesty, my intenseness often extends outward, enveloping those who are close to me. I can imagine this might be overwhelming, particularly in a world in which we are told that we need to be small, quiet, and demure. I get very sad, very anxious, and very, very angry. These are emotions I hate, and that I’ve spent a long time trying to let myself feel. It’s only recently that I’ve come to understand that my muchness also includes the depth of the feelings I enjoy – when I am inspired, I can write thousands of words per hour. When I love someone, I love with every fibre of my being – so much that it aches. When I am happy, my laugh is infectious.  

I spent a while trying to shrink myself; partially in a self-protective way, I pretended, for some time, that I wasn’t a lot. More than physically, I shrunk emotionally. I fell into the smallness of numbness – refusing to feel the feels that overwhelmed me and made me aware of the depth of the ache. Part of this endeavor of shrinking was tied to the depth of my sensitivity to others’ muchness, too. I easily absorb others’ emotions – I am hyperaware of the weight of others’ feelings. Whether or not it was conscious, my shrinking was a retreat from this sensitivity.

The problem with denying my muchness was that it burst out in fits and starts – it was caramel, simmering silently until, in a moment of inattention, it bubbles over into a sticky mess. Like that sticky mess, it took a while to clean up.

I sometimes struggle to talk about my endeavours to get closer to and accept being a lot. It’s hard to frame shrinking endeavours without being accused of seeing my own eating disorder (and, by corollary, others’) as some kind of choice. Is it a choice, though, to retreat from intensity? Is it conscious? I would argue, here and elsewhere, that it was intertwined with societal discourses about being a woman – being small, being quiet, expressing only the good feels and only in certain settings – but this doesn’t mean it was a choice. This also doesn’t mean that I do or ever did buy into the validity of these discourses. Being aware is not being immune. Leaning into the sway is not accepting it as valid. Protective mechanisms do not need to be volitional to be socially rooted.

Getting back to the metaphor at hand, it took me a very long time to let myself rise. I still hear and feel the call to stay low, hard as a rock and protected from the onslaught of emotions – yours and mine. Is not listening a choice, or is it, too, circumstantial? I hope the nuance comes through… it is neither. It (acceptance, recovery, or what have you) is a complex interweaving of thoughts and emotions; of lives and relations and contexts. Sometimes it is sweet. It’s always muchy.

Pecan Sticky Buns on Eater.com

Retrospective Rhubarb

Eating disorders tend to have a revisionist history. Many of my research participants have commented on gaps in their memories around the experience of having an eating disorder; flashes of moments invade the present, interspersed with others’ retellings of their histories. Set in stone in clinical notes are the observations others have made; in eating diaries self-imposed or prescribed, our own bodily histories may dance across pages, disembodied or viscerally felt.

There are times when our memories conflict with those of others. Our stories may morph and change over time. As we become someone else in the eyes of others, our bodies may take on different significance for those seeing them. We aren’t the only ones to make meanings of our bodies, our recoveries, and our histories. To look at the pages and pages of medical history many of us hold, we are likely to find not the certainty we are looking for, but deviations and perhaps even embellishments. Objectivity is a slippery beast.

Today I went to speak, for the seventh time, about my recovery at the treatment centre I was treated at. I have a complicated relationship with these invitations – in one, I mark the invitation as a recognition of my recoveredness in the eyes of the establishment and fear that my presence and story reinscribes a particular recovery narrative. As I baked strawberry rhubarb squares on Monday evening, I wondered about the ethics of telling my story, and the balance between offering hope and telling a story that has already been told.

Time and again I settle on telling my story in the context of the treatment centre. I must admit that this is partially a selfish performance – there’s something about reflecting that reminds me how I have come far, which is particularly interesting as, believe it or not, I don’t actually think about how far I have come on any kind of regular basis. My recovery goes largely uncelebrated in my life, usually until something tests it. For all that I make a career of eating disorder work, I live in my present recovery without much nostalgia.

A more unselfish reason for the telling lies in the possibility of providing hope with at least some acknowledgment of the unfinishedness and imperfection of recovery to those struggling. It’s easy to forget, I think, that sometimes a rosy-ish story can be comforting, when I go on my rants about the need to complicate recovery. There was a time, I think, when I wanted the comfort of thinking recovery was perfect, and that may serve for a while. It’s a balance between hope and pragmatism every time I step into the uncomfortable position of role model.

This balancing act is often complicated – not only by my own memory of a time that was and embodiments that no longer haunt my flesh, but by others’ selective and revisionist histories of the depth of my illness. Time and again, I find my psychiatrist asking: “when did you accept your diagnosis of anorexia nervosa?” or revealing how closely I toed the line between inpatient and day hospital. The truth of the matter is that I was not diagnosed with anorexia nervosa – I was diagnosed with eating disorder not otherwise specified, because my weight was just above the cut off and I (ironically) still menstruated thanks to the birth control pill. There was never any question of my being inpatient, at least not a question that was ever asked to me.

So why the revision, I wonder? My psychiatrist celebrates my recovery, perhaps in complicated ways tied into the need for hope within the eating disorder profession itself, when so many patients die or cycle in and out of treatment. Is the revisionist worsening of my illness a way to build confidence in systems that don’t always serve – and if so, what is the impact of this and where is the impetus for the system to change?

I also wonder: who is to be believed? Some might write off my interpretation of this revision as due to denial of the seriousness of my illness and believe the one in authority. But I am not in denial – I was very sick, and I needed help. Yet in privileging the diagnosis of anorexia nervosa as the most serious one, we miss those stories of people not diagnosed with anorexia but who struggle enormously and deserve help. Many people in larger bodies will never be diagnosed with AN and will be repeatedly told that they are “doing great.” After all, as Deb Burgard has been saying forever, “we diagnose as eating disorders in thin people what we prescribe in fat people.”

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So I wonder about the ethics of this revision, and what it offers to our collective imaginings of seriousness. The diagnosis of anorexia is also more easily re-written onto my form, embodying as I do the privileges of whiteness, heterosexuality, able-bodiedness, middle classness, and relative thinness. Would it be so easily retrospectively applied to someone whose recovery body exceeds the expected?

My thoughts are unfinished, and don’t really relate to the beauty of the post, which is due entirely to these strawberry rhubarb bars, which happen to be gluten free and vegan, because everyone deserves delicious food. So perhaps the only real link is there – in that everyone deserves the deliciousness in life – and yet we socially inscribe categories around who is worthy.

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[Strawberry Rhubarb Bars from Minimalist Baker]

Time and Tapas

Time has a curious hold on me. I’d be willing to bet it probably has one on you, too.

I’m a very lucky person: I have a partner who is extremely flexible in terms of rolling with my schedule; while he works a 9-5, he understands that my work often flexes and flows around, functioning in bits and starts and seeping into the evenings following long afternoon pauses. He also understands my meal times, and I often joke that he has a degree in hanger management for his ability to forecast my need to eat at regular intervals lest I become a raging beast of a girl on an empty stomach.

This weekend we went to Montreal for a vacation – a work-less vacation, an experiment on my part, undertaken in an effort to lessen the grip that my email has on me. I set an auto reply and resigned myself to unanswered notifications glaring at me from the cracked phone screen. I packed only two books on feminist philosophies of time, and a small notebook. For me, this is progress.

Curiously, I’m seeing time everywhere, right now. In my dissertation, I’m contemplating the ways in which people in recovery tend to question their own narratives and memories; their claims to the discursive “space” of recovery with all of its socially perfectionist trappings. I’m wondering about how treatment systems tend to remove people from time as it marches on in their everyday lives and imposes a new time structure that resembles rigid neoliberal time. Returning to the “real world” can feel like an abrupt departure, in this context – moving from a time-space where choices are made for you to one where everything and nothing has changed; where not everyone pauses at noon on the dot for a lunch break and where you’re suddenly expected to choose your correct choices for health.

In my own life, I’m wondering about this persuasive pull of time. I wondered, this weekend, why I itched to know what time we’d seek sustenance in the morning. I wondered why I felt the need to drink my coffee at 10am, to eat a snack at 4:30pm, to be in bed by midnight. Our vacations are often dictated by “Andrea time” – so I decided to try Alex time for a change.

My experiment ended up yielding an eerily similar schedule, were you to break down the activities and times – we ate meals around their usual times, woke up before 9, and went to bed before midnight. And yet, it felt different to renounce the rules – if only for a weekend.

The truth of the matter, though, is that the flexibility to follow your whims, when it comes to time, is not always there. You can’t always linger over a delicious 4 course dinner of tapas while sharing deep thoughts over a seemingly bottomless glass of wine. The constraints of contemporary working society’s structures don’t really allow for the intuitive.

This is one reason why – despite philosophically agreeing with concepts like intuitive eating and despite my own habitual 2:30pm walks in the woods – I don’t necessarily preach the virtues of mindful living within the current neoliberal capitalist time structures we live in. Ideal as it might be to decide you’d prefer to have cake for lunch and to have it at 3pm, it’s not always possible.

Does that mean I’m resigned to neoliberal time, content to re-impose these structures on those who’ve fallen out of step (or, conversely, overly in step) with these temporal logics? Not at all… it’s just yet another case for the need to consider the momentary, micro-action and the broader chipping away at the system that we must do to actualize a different kind of world that is open to multiple relationships to time and bodies in space.

[Photos: Glorious meal at Restaurant les 400 Coups, Montreal]

Egg Whites and Embodied Subjectivity

I think it’s probably fair to say that I think about my embodied subjectivity more than the average person. I was thinking about my embodied subjectivity the other day while sifting flour endlessly in the service of creating a lime pistachio angel food cake for my mom’s birthday. As the egg whites whipped in the KitchenAid, I pondered the challenge of moving body love discourse beyond the mirror image – and loving one’s body when it isn’t doing what it’s “supposed” to do – even when it looks like it is or should be.

Body image, you could argue, has become somewhat of a buzzword; many of us are concerned with how bodies are framed in society – objectified, denied access, confined to certain spaces, etc. A glance at Instagram or other social media sites reveals thousands of posts about body image, body positivity, body love. I know that I surround myself with a rare set of humans who consider these issues on a deep and systemic level, moving beyond the rhetoric of “just love yourself! Love your curves! But be sure to eat Special K!” brand of body positivity that co-opts the terms of a movement to sell products and peddles discontent in the name of fixing it.

I also know that it is easier to love my body than it is for some to love their bodies. I do not face the same kind of scrutiny that people in marginalized bodies do when I walk down the street. I hide behind my averageness, as averageness easily slides into “normalcy.” I’ve written about this ad nauseum, but it bears repeating. While owning my body privilege does not a) exempt me from experiencing its impact or b) solve anything, it’s still an important part of participating in the communities I participate in. Further, and as others have more convincingly argued, the body positivity – or fat acceptance – movement is not really my movement.

Sometimes when I give talks about eating disorder recovery, I cringe at the questions about how long it took me to love my body, because I fear that my “timeline” will impose a set of criteria. I also fear that my answer will perpetuate the idea that everyone in eating disorder recovery needs to be able to shout that they love their bodies from the rooftop, or that they somehow need to rise above the “average person’s” experience of body insecurity, body shame, or body struggles.

I get frustrated when talk of body love only touches the surface of the body, too. This is not a discussion of form versus function; I’m not saying “we need to focus on what our bodies can do, not just what they look like!” – after all, the function argument can easily veer into ableist territory by asking people to celebrate normative movement. Both an aesthetic body love (i.e., realizing that fat is beautiful) and functional body love (i.e., focusing on the joy of movement) can ignore the reality of loving a body that doesn’t always function the way we want it to. They can leave alone the question of: how do I love this rebellious instrument that aches, that breaks out, that stops moving as I am telling it to? How do I love this woman-body that’s not acting as I’m told a woman-body should? The theory behind body love is, of course, that all bodies are loveable, no matter what they do or look like. But in practice, the words often end up being hollow, accompanied as they so often are by images of normative, privileged bodies.

If you follow me on social media or know me in person, you probably know more about my hormones than regular friends know about each other. Hello, my name is Andrea, and I share my whole life online. Over the past 8 or so years I’ve struggled with extreme hormone fluctuations often resulting in lots of pain, nausea and other unpleasant symptoms. As a result of the out-of-control-ness of my body, I have often found myself fighting it. The more I fight it – like overworked dough – the more it resists me.

On my way home from Toronto (to deliver said cake) yesterday, I listened to a podcast that discussed body love in the context of chronic illness and PCOS. While I don’t have PCOS (my hormonal issues bear no name besides “I have no idea what’s wrong with you,” if you ask a doctor), the podcast really got me thinking. It made me think about whether I really enact body love, or whether I only love my body when it’s doing what I want. It made me consider how maybe the time I need to offer my body love the most is when it isn’t doing what I’m told it’s supposed to do.

I hesitate to co-opt this discourse either, as most of the time my body still abides by the ableist requirements set by society. I also wonder about the invisibility of hormonal issues, among other chronic conditions, and what it means to have a body that looks normative but rebels inwardly. As per usual, I have no solid answers, but it felt like a thought worth sharing, this working on my relationship with my body in times when it isn’t convenient. And while those who ate my cake might not be pleased to hear that my thoughts about my hormones infused the cake, it’s the truth. If only enacting this were as easy as making a lime glaze and sprinkling on some pistachios.

Lime Pistachio Angel Food Cake - recipe from Bon Appetit

Red Velvet and Revolution

I want to talk about making mistakes. Yet again, baking can act as an allegory for my mistake-making, in life. Most of the time, things go smoothly when I bake. Because I’ve been baking for so long, it’s not intimidating for me. I can reasonably expect that when I cream butter and sugar, add some eggs, vanilla, milk, flour, and baking powder, I’ll get a nice cake at the other end of a sojourn of 25 minutes at 350 degrees.

Sometimes I get ambitious, though. I approach baking with reckless abandon, never thinking to myself “well this is going to fail.” In general, it’s a great approach. It has led me down many baking rabbit holes that have yielded either deliciously crispy oil-fried doughnuts, to … crying on the kitchen floor covered in two types of icing and countless layers of unevenly textured cake layers.

I approach my work with reckless abandon, too. Unfortunately, because I work in academia, I do often expect to fail when I try to push up against the boundaries of the academic status quo. When I prepare a new paper or apply for a grant, I always suspect that somewhere in my future I’ll be lying on the kitchen floor crying, covered, this time, in rejected manuscripts and lost forms.

It all sounds terribly melodramatic, doesn’t it? Most of the time, my work, and my baking, fall somewhere in between. My manuscripts get rejected a few times and then, finally, get to be revised and resubmitted. Usually my red velvet cupcakes come out pink.

Sometimes I get ambitious, though. I expect myself to juggle too many projects and say yes a lot. I wind up answering emails at all hours of the night and in the early morning, I have trouble just watching a movie when I could be simultaneously searching the literature or cleaning my data. I push the burnout under the rug until it bubbles up uncontrolled, revealing to me oversights and errors I missed in my rush to get everything done on time.

When I buy into the busy contest, I am the one who ends up losing. When I buy into the busy contest, it’s like accidentally swapping baking soda for baking powder: it all bubbles over, and I have a big old mess on my hands.

I am currently emerging from a week of acute anxiety over mistakes I made while buying into the busy contest, trying to be perfect, and not asking for help. The visceral character of the anxiety – making it hard to eat, to sleep, to be – taught me a number of lessons I’ve been intellectually aware of for a while but somehow unable to incorporate into my self-concept.

That’s just the thing, isn’t it? You can know that you’re burning out, and not want to contribute to the busy contest, and yet still have it happen and contribute to the very thing(s) you hate. For me, step one has been admitting that the way I’ve been working over the past few years is not sustainable – I’m beginning to finally let myself accept that work, and life, are for the long-game.

Of course, this all sounds quite idealistic and ignorant of the social strictures that require people to work constantly, and often for low pay, to live in this world. Certainly, I recognize my privilege in being able to decide that I won’t be answering emails after 10pm (or at least I will try not to…) and that I’m only going to say yes to projects that truly excite me. This shouldn’t be a privilege, though – and it reveals the paramount need to transform the systems that bind us in an ever-owing relationship with capital.

Undoing these ties will not be easy – particularly not for those who have been multiply marginalized. The last thing I would want to say is that we all just need to breathe, take a bubble bath, and bake some red velvet cupcakes and it will all be ok. I know that it won’t; but baking the damn cupcakes is going to give me the energy that I need, right now, to do the work that might yield one of the many microscopic shifts required for widespread systems change.

So is this a post about red velvet cupcakes, or revolution?

[Baking notes: I used Sweetapolita's red velvet cake recipe for the cupcakes and her cream cheese icing recipe from her cookbook for the frosting]