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A Dream Come True—The Power of Community

by Judith Matz, LCSW

Last night, the night before ASDAH’s pre-conference event in Chicago, I had a nightmare: I’m walking up to the podium to speak and I realize that all of my notes are missing. I’ll have to speak from memory, but the lights are shining in my eyes and I can’t see anything.  As they finally stop glaring, I realize that I’m high up on a platform, and my audience is so far back, that there is no way they’ll be able to hear me. Then I realize that everyone in the audience is dancing, so I just give up on my presentation and join in (okay, that was the fun part!).

I frequently present at workshops and conferences, and while I always feel a bit of anxiety as I walk up to the podium, I’m not particularly anxious about public speaking. But this event was different for me. Months ago, I had been contacted by ASDAH’s president, Fall Ferguson, to help organize an event for the Chicago area that would draw in people to teach them about the HAES model, since this was the location of ASDAH’s biannual educational conference. I jumped at the chance because I’ve been craving a stronger HAES community where I live, and together we created Wellness Beyond Weight: What You Need to Know About The Health At Every Size® Paradigm.

As I collaborated with Fall on the event, I found myself in a position where different aspects of my professional life would intersect. I was representing ASDAH and wanted to come through for them by creating a meaningful workshop and attracting enough participants to make the investment of time, energy and money worth it for the organization. This was the first time I planned an event where I asked other organizations to become sponsors, including Timberline Knolls, ANAD and Dominican University; I was relying on connections I had made with individuals at these groups who had indicated they were HAES friendly, but I wasn’t sure whether all of them had fully embraced a HAES philosophy. I was inviting other colleagues in the area to attend, some of whom had previously identified themselves as either using or interested in the HAES framework, but others presumably were unfamiliar with this approach. And finally, I had sent an announcement of the workshop to our Diet Survivors Group email list, which meant that people I worked with in my practice – either currently or in the past – might decide to come. I felt like the hub of a wheel with a lot riding on me.

Friday morning came, and about 40 participants shared in the experience that began with my talk on Overcoming Binge Eating and Negative Body Image Through HAES, and Fall Ferguson’s presentation on the Science and Policy behind HAES. We were fortunate to have an all-star panel of presenters, including Deb Burgard (Eating Disorders and HAES), Jeanette DePatie (Redefining Fitness “Success” and Creating Programs You Can Stick With For Life), Elisa D’Urso Fischer (Dietitians, Nutrition Counseling, and the Use of HAES), and Kathy Kater (Teaching Kids to Care for Their Bodies.) The icing on the cake was a reading by Arlene Brennan who shared her journey of HAES in her personal life—everyone in the room was moved by her powerful words.

At the break, we could feel the positive energy coming from people who were clearly excited about what they were hearing. But the best was yet to come. I think it’s important to make sure everyone’s voice is heard when considering challenging topics, and in the second part of the workshop we created that experience. Participants were given the choice of four breakout groups as they decided which description best fit where they were at in their HAES journey, and I asked each of the group facilitators to share something about their groups:

#1: It all sounds interesting, but I’m not sure I agree with HAES…

Deb Burgard: I was moved by the openness to the HAES model even in the skeptics’ group, and the clear devotion to patients.

#2: HAES is new to me, and I’d like to learn more about how to incorporate it into my professional life…

Fall Ferguson: I was impressed by the quality of relief among the participants in our breakout group: relief to (finally) have a shared vocabulary for what they had come to regard as dysfunctional about the current health paradigm; relief to have support for a new approach; relief to have discovered allies.

Kathy Kater: It was uplifting for me to hear professionals who are relatively new to HAES expressing so much passion and enthusiasm about finding an approach that is positive and effective, without any of the harm inherent to weight-based approaches.

#3: I already use HAES in my professional life and would like to be part of the Chicago HAES community…

Judith Matz: To both my surprise and pleasure, this was the largest breakout group as people identified using HAES in their professional practice and searched for more community. I was thrilled that there was interest in creating a listserv to keep us connected, and a specific plan to meet again in September as the Chicago HAES group.

Elisa D’Urso Fischer: I found the energy of the group very inspiring and an indicator that professionals and the public are truly ready for the HAES framework.

#4: I use/would like to use HAES in my personal life…

Arlene Brennan: What really struck me was how far this work has come…and how much further it needs to go!

Jeanette DePatie: I was amazed at how quickly everybody opened up and shared specific challenges and triumphs from their own work and family lives. In just a few short minutes, the support and camaraderie was palpable. I found it extremely encouraging!

As it turned out, this was no nightmare – at the risk of sounding cliché, it was a dream come true! I think that one of the biggest lessons from our Friday morning pre-conference event is the power of community. Prior to the workshop, I had the ASDAH community behind me to collaborate; I couldn’t have put the event together on my own. During Wellness Beyond Weight, we created a sense of community as people shared information and experiences that were empowering both personally and professionally. And now it looks like we’ll be able to develop a stronger HAES community in the Chicago area so that we can network and support each other’s efforts to implement and spread HAES principles.

People are looking for community. The HAES paradigm has become popular enough that there are a lot of people looking for connection around these ideas. It also turns out that some people are using HAES tenets, but hadn’t (or still haven’t) realized that there is a name for what they’re doing and a place to find like-minded people. I like to think about all of the HAES supporters around the country (and the world) as dots of sanity amidst the anti-obesity frenzy, and that one of ASDAH’s greatest functions is to help connect those dots. We were able to do so successfully on a recent Friday morning in Chicago.

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