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]