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Actually, This IS Our Job

by Carmen Cool, MA, LPC

IMAGINE THIS: You are 40 years old. You have founded a nonprofit organization that mentors high school students, and teaches them to mentor one another, in acknowledging, respecting, taking joy in, creating sanity around, and celebrating their bodies just as they are.

You know what you’re up against. You’ve always known what you’re up against. You are up against the fact that 81% of 10 year olds are afraid of being fat, and teens are doing meth in order to drop a dress size before prom, and teens that have body dissatisfaction are less likely to use protection during sex.  But this is your heart’s work. This is what you’re here to do.

You are deeply committed to helping these students to own their power as activists. As always, when you’re working with any group, if you don’t provide some structure, then everything gets talked about but nothing gets done.  Making room for all of their experiences is precious to you, but you’ve learned to balance that with strong structure so their projects and ideas can come to fruition.

You’ve been doing this work for 2 long years, and you have 20 brave young people involved. They come every week and they tell the painful, wonderful, shocking, hilarious stories of their bodies. They talk about body image and peer culture and sexuality. You’ve heard them say amazing things – you’ve heard them say things that terrify you. You’re deeply committed to this work.

You’re walking down the hall one day at school and you overhear a conversation going on between the school counselor and a teacher.  They are discussing racially insensitive language that is being used in the school itself, and maybe even by some of the young people in your group.

The counselor stops you and says, “I’d like to see you address this issue in your group meeting with these kids”. And you look at her with your most professional face and say, “Actually, that’s not what I’m here for. That’s not my responsibility. It’s not my job to have those conversations.”

And in that moment, you believe it. You know exactly why you say it. You say it because you are there to talk about body image and weight-based oppression, and, if you’re honest, because you don’t want to believe that your kids would say something like that.

Now fast-forward 10 years. In those 10 years, you’ve seen these kids and a hundred others grow incredibly strong, you’ve seen them speak up and challenge teachers when they give weight-biased health information. You’ve stood in a US Senator’s office next to them in Washington DC and listened to them passionately asking for an end to body mass index report cards. You’ve heard them practicing with one another on how to respond to peer teasing and bullying.

And now, you see that statement you made all those years ago very differently. Now you realize what you wish you’d realized then, which is that all oppression is connected. And that, no matter how clear and strong they became in defense of body liberation, bringing that conversation about race to your kids was absolutely your responsibility.

In telling this story, I say you – and of course I mean me.

The hard truth is this: in that moment, standing in that hallway, that counselor challenged me to make the whole world a safer place, not just my part of it. And hearing those words come out of my mouth, it’s not my job, is one of the most cringe-worthy moments of my life.  And by the way, that cringe-worthy moment was made a thousand times worse by the fact I said those words not just to a school counselor, but to a school counselor who was also a Black woman.

During the rush of traffic this morning, in the build up to the coming Superbowl, I drove under a banner stretched across a bridge on I-25 that said, “Cops Are Killing Us For Sport”.  The banner, made by clergy and other Coloradans, was in protest of the recent murders that have gone unprosecuted in Denver.  Two days ago, Denver’s District Attorney’s office announced they would not prosecute the deputies who fatally restrained an inmate (black, homeless, mentally ill) at the Denver jail.

Stories in the news and conversations about equity and justice are at a tipping point. I have been reading and learning, but I have so many more layers to learn about the ways I privilege whiteness. In reading about the sign, I was reminded that the stakes for marginalized people have never been higher and I can’t be a part of shifting institutionalized racism if it’s always someone else’s job.

And when I say “I”, I of course mean all of us.

I am obviously not you and you are obviously not me. We all have privilege and we all have suffering and we all have it in completely different degrees and in completely different places in our lives.

Many people have asked me “So why is ASDAH talking about racism? What is going on? I’m not a racist, I’m here to talk about weight stigma!”

We are addressing it because these issues are not separate. It’s not possible to talk about one form of oppression without talking about all of the others because they are inextricably intertwined, in our culture, in our history, in our society and on our bodies themselves. ASDAH is absolutely about ending weight stigma, providing an alternative to weight-based models of health, and supporting people in discovering sustainable self-care practices. But it also needs to be about how those things come together within all of the other identities we hold every day. To fight for any part of it is to fight for all of it.

We have an opportunity to explore much more directly how and why race, class, gender, gender identity, gender expression, ability, and others intersect with weight stigma.  We know that oppression is linked, and it can be powerful for us to delve more deeply into intersections.  For example, we can address the particular nuances in addressing weight stigma in communities where food access is a barrier to bringing HAES into those communities in authentic and holistic ways.  We can examine how internalized oppression in those who are gender nonconforming or disabled could throw their intuition about themselves and what they need and how this impacts our weight stigma work. It is not only relevant, but also critical, that we understand the links here.

Racism embeds itself in everything, and we’re all tangled in it. We need to keep asking, how does power and privilege play out in our mission? How do we create an equitable organization? These are big questions. But if we want to be a sustainable movement for years to come, we must address them. If we don’t evolve into an organization that is truly inclusive, ASDAH will no longer be relevant. And until we are clearly committed to anti-oppression practices, all forms of oppression will continue to divide and weaken our work.

Bernice Johnson Reagon, Professor Emeritus of History at American University, Curator Emeritus at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and Founder of the acapella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, said, “If you’re in a coalition and you’re comfortable, you know it’s not a broad enough coalition.” We are called not simply to co-create movements that benefit a few of us, but ones that truly create revolution for all of us.

I hope you’ll join us on February 20 for a chance for ASDAH members to come together as a community to have a facilitated conversation and an opportunity to develop anti-oppression skills and practices. In the coming days, you will be receiving information about how to register for this training that will be held 3-7 pm Eastern time.  It will also be recorded, so even if you can’t attend “live”, you can still register and receive the recording. It is a place to feel discomfort and still be gentle with each other in the process. Let’s be committed to fumbling and feeling – being real – taking risks – and being wrong. It’s ok to start from where you are. But you have to start. None of us are experts. It’s not possible to be perfect in doing this work. Personally, it’s my least favorite way to learn – but we learn by making mistakes.

We don’t live in a culture built on multiple systems of abstract oppression. We live it face to face. Word to word. Body to body. And to train our hearts and minds to dismantle that oppression is a never-ending journey. It is the work of a lifetime. And it is always our job.

Carmen Cool, MA, LPC is a psychotherapist in Boulder, CO, specializing in binge eating disorder. Having worked for over 15 years in the field of eating disorders/disordered eating, both in private practice and in treatment centers, she has been moving more into advocacy work. She has run youth programs since 2004, championing them to raise their voice and create new cultural norms around body image, and is a frequent presenter, locally and nationally on Health At Every Size®.   She was named “Most Inspiring Individual” in Boulder County and was the recipient of the Excellence in Eating Disorder Advocacy Award in Washington, DC. She is the current Board President for ASDAH. 

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