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.