by Fall Ferguson, JD, MA
This month, I would like to talk about burnout – specifically activist burnout. It can be exhausting to have to continuously re-assert the same points over and over, points which seem “self-evident” to the activist.
Points such as: That restrictive dieting and obesity messaging and weight stigma and body shaming all cause harm, and in combination can be devastating.
Points such as: That an approach to health that emphasizes body acceptance, collective action to remove barriers to health, and individualized approaches that promote sustainable and pleasurable health behaviors just plain makes sense.
Note: This post is directed primarily at the seasoned HAES advocate, but I recognize that some readers may be new to the HAES model. If these points aren’t “self-evident” to you, then I refer you to the many articles, books, videos, and other resources on the ASDAH website. Great places to start include this 2014 article highlighting limitations of current approaches and suggesting that a HAES approach is promising, or Lindo Bacon and Lucy Aphramor’s excellent dispelling of myths about the weight paradigm in Nutrition Journal. My purpose in this post is not to actually fight another battle, but to remark on the nature of the war.
Using Up Sanity Points
It’s common among HAES advocates – and I imagine among many other activist groups as well – to remark upon the amount of “sanity points” it uses up to engage in certain acts of activism. I think of sanity points as the wherewithal to confront the most challenging ideas, opinions, and attitudes. Especially ideas, opinions, and attitudes that not only contradict our own, but which seem to belittle us or intended to shame us.
We need extra sanity points, for example, to attend an obesity conference or to read and analyze the hateful comments to a size acceptance piece published in a mainstream publication. I have nothing but admiration for those who seem to have boundless capacity for engaging in the size wars. Some of us get war-weary after a time. Dictionary.com defines the phrase war-weary as “utterly exhausted and dejected by war, especially after a prolonged conflict.” Yes, I think war-weary is a good way to describe those times when it’s really hard to muster the sanity points to keep fighting.
So, as happens from time to time, I have been running low on sanity points lately. As is usual in these cases, I believe, it wasn’t any one thing that got me to this state, and I won’t bore readers with the details. We all have those weeks or months when it feels harder to do the harder things, and it feels like we are running on fumes. That was my state of mind and body when a recent article entitled “Call for an urgent rethink of the ‘health at every size’ concept” from the Journal of Eating Disorders crossed my path.
With gratitude, I will leave a detailed response to the article to the competent efforts of others. I summarize my take on the article here simply to advance my story: the principal author, Amanda Salis, PhD, argues “vehemently” (her word) that it’s dangerous to tell people they can be “healthy at any size” because if you stay at a higher weight for too long, you will get stuck there, and your kids will too. Dr. Salis is in favor of promoting healthy behaviors as long as it is with the motive of “nipping excess weight in the bud – while it is still possible.” This don’t stay fat for one more minute because you might get stuck that way trope strikes me as just another variant on traditional obesity fear mongering, with some dodgy genetics thrown in to advance the and your children will be fat too trope as well. What cost me sanity points in this instance was not so much the “urgent” message itself, but the fact that it was published as a peer-reviewed commentary in the Journal of Eating Disorders. I was discouraged that a commentary on the HAES model passed the peer review process without providing a single citation to a HAES-based source. I was also discouraged that it was seen as useful or even credible to have a non-HAES advocate (Editor-in-Chief Phillipa Hay) write a “response” that describes Dr. Salis’ arguments as “persuasive.”
So now what?
There are anti-obesity articles published every day, so I can’t tell you why this one in particular hit me harder. It probably had as much to do with whatever else was going on my life than the article itself. The question that interests me here is what next? How to regroup and reignite the activist fires within? I have three ideas to start the list:
- Strategic Retreat: It has to be OK to retreat and “reboot” from time to time. A little R&R away from the front, as it were.
- Support: It’s important to seek support from others. I am not very good at this; I tend to brood alone and in silence. But when I overcome that instinct and reach out, the HAES and size acceptance communities are incredibly warm and supportive.
- Perspective: Fighting the good fight can’t be about winning every skirmish. I see the cultural shift slowly happening; we all do. Our success breeds outrage among those who have the most to lose. The more acceptance accorded to the HAES approach, the more strident some voices will become in opposition. I am deeply interested in building bridges and finding commonalities of purpose as a long-term strategy, but I also know that there will be those who are not open to making alliances, and you can’t win everyone over.
What are your strategies for recovering your sanity points?
And yet it moves…
The quotation in the title of this blog post—“And yet it moves”—is often attributed to Galileo after his trial for heresy because he argued that the earth revolves around the sun. Apparently, Galileo’s judges refused to even look into his telescope to examine the evidence. (Sound familiar? Like, say, running down the HAES model without even really understanding or referencing it?) Galileo was ordered by the Church not to teach or even “hold” his dangerous ideas, and eventually was sentenced to the equivalent of house arrest.
Scholars debate whether or not Galileo really said “And yet it moves,” but it doesn’t really matter to me. I like to imagine that he thought it, whether he actually said it or not. And, the real point is that the ideas he espoused were stronger in the long term than any attempt to silence either the man or the ideas.
I also like the analogy because Galileo wasn’t actually the only one to assert heliocentrism; Copernicus published the idea over two decades before Galileo did, and many who came after also worked to promote heliocentrism before it was finally accepted. I find it helpful to understand that I am part of a lineage of HAES advocates, and the burden does not rest on any one of us.
We can take inspiration from the phrase “And yet it moves” as a rallying cry that transcends its historical origins. Let it help us to have the courage of our convictions. Let it motivate us to persevere in practicing with integrity. Let it remind us to support each other when the voices of orthodoxy seem particularly strong. Let it persuade us to keep on holding our colleagues accountable by asking them how the weight-based paradigm actually promotes health.
So I say to you, and to myself… And yet it moves.