by Angel Austin, founder of Sacred Space for Fat Bodies
The 2022 ASDAH Conference, with the theme, “Intersectional Liberation: What is Required of the Health at Every Size® Framework?”, is in the books! Held on Saturday, June 11, it was the most highly attended conference in ASDAH history. It’s been a year of growth and stretching that resulted in an increased membership of over 1,400 people. Conference attendance most definitely reflected this. The leadership team and the speakers were absolutely stellar. It’s impossible to share everything that was covered, but there were definitely some highlights and memorable moments that will stick with all of those who attended for the foreseeable future.
The time and care taken to create this event was obvious from beginning to end. Details like the caliber of speakers who were invited, the thought given to creating and executing every session, the number and naming of the breakout rooms available between sessions, the helpful and informative conference workbook, and the fat-positive music playlist that had us all wanting to shake something, made it one of the most meaningful and transformative conferences I’ve ever attended.
Each session and speaker were introduced by members of the ASDAH Leadership Team. A list of community agreements was read repeatedly throughout the day and a team member facilitated a short Q&A period at the end the sessions. This set the tone, creating an atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding among ASDAH Leadership Team members, speakers, and conference attendees.
Veronica Garnett, MS, RD, CC and ASDAH’s Vision & Strategy Leader, opened up the conference, encouraging everyone to share it on social media to increase attendance. Veronica asked us to cut on our video and greet each other so we’d feel more interconnected in the space. We were also asked to introduce ourselves in the chat, share our pronouns, and state our expectations for the conference. These were all such important steps because of the virtual nature of the conference. We didn’t have the benefit of being together and feeding off of each other’s physical energy, but we had the privilege of feeling truly seen (both figuratively and literally) by conference organizers and were able to share our thoughts freely in the chat. This is something not often accomplished in standard, in-person conference settings.
Imani Barbarin, a Black, superfat speaker and disability rights and inclusion activist, was the first speaker of the day. Her session was entitled, “What If I’m Never Healthy? Disability Justice, Healthism, and HAES®”. Key points she expressed were the importance of understanding that disability affects all of us who are marginalized at every intersection, regardless of our level of ability. This is because the entire reason for oppression is to disable us.
She also explained how broad the definition of disability really is, stating that it’s ANY symptom that impedes one’s ability to do one or more daily activities. This means that there are far more of us who are disabled than we think. We’ve just been persuaded because of societal influence to perceive disability a particular way. This is the root of ableism that’s so pervasive. She stated, “My physical manifestation of disability is one thing, but the way society is built to exclude me is entirely something else.” She went on to explain how society profits from the exclusion and oppression of disabled people, the “Ugly Laws” that used to ban disabled people from being seen in public, and how we are even ableist toward ourselves when we push ourselves to do things that hurt our bodies for fear of being seen (or even seeing ourselves) as disabled. She shared more important information and data, explaining that the concept of “health” is completely loaded and outdated.
Next was a Plenary session with author and speaker, Sabrina Strings, Ph.D. It was entitled “Fatphobia as Misogynoir: Gender, Race, and Weight Stigma”. During the session, she read excerpts from her book, describing the ways in which white, European society came to define and dictate the perception of the Black body and how this perception still affects and oppresses us today.
She also shared relatable personal experiences about seeing images of prominent white cisgender women on well-known TV shows, as well as people of color with life-threatening diseases, who were willing to do anything (even if it cost their lives) to be thin and “ACCEPTABLE”. These experiences are what inspired her to pursue her work.
She drew comparisons between the images of tall, white, affluent, cisgender American women near the turn of the 20th century and images of the same type of woman in modern-day America. She shared her conclusion that there isn’t much change and that these women still represent the societal “ideal”. She also read excerpts from her book that detailed the shift from Reuben’s “Venus in Front of the Mirror” being heralded as the epitome of voluptuousness (and beauty, by proxy) with the diminutive Black page as the foil to her buxom opulence, to racist scientists and artists equating fatness with greedy Africans who lived to eat and were good for nothing but hard labor. She also told the tragic story of Sarah Baartman, a South African woman who was enslaved, abused, and fetishized. She was used to both “terrify and titillate”, white, European men, a phenomenon known as “Negrophilia”. She also explained the flawed Origins of BMI and rampant medical fatphobia that’s extremely problematic and even dangerous today.
Dr. Strings shared more from her book (I can’t recommend it enough), but the Q&A session was especially interesting because there was discussion about thin privilege within the Black community. While Dr. Strings explained that she had no data to speak to the amount of thin privilege that takes place within the Black community, some of the attendees explained in the chat that lived experience should sometimes override data. I do hope we continue this particular discussion in future ASDAH events.
The next session began with a silent acknowledgement of all who have transitioned during this unprecedented time in history. This was especially poignant and necessary for me because I have experienced great personal loss over the last four years. The speaker for this session was Hunter Shackelford, an abolitionist, speaker, writer, and deathworker. Their session was entitled, “Dying to Live: Deathwork and HAES® as Pathways to Liberation”. Veronica Garnett introduced Hunter after asking conference attendees a question to ponder and visualize, “What does a good death look like to you?”. Again, this discussion was relatable to me, but I’d never considered that question until very recently in my life with the death of my mother and sudden illness of my father.
As Hunter went on to define deathwork and how it can be centered in physical death, they explained that it’s also about the death of identities or relationships. It can be about significant change or even the death of concepts like anti-Blackness and white supremacy, or anti-fatness. They also discussed the labor involved in being disabled and having to fight to live while dying.
Hunter also explained the deathwork done around gender violence, gender oppression, Blackness, and all related intersections. They talked about the deathwork involved in caring for self in the midst of fighting for liberation and stepping back when necessary. There was also discussion of the preservation of personal agency when planning for death.
The closing keynote, entitled “Health, Policing, and the War on Black Fat”, was delivered by author, speaker, and activist, Da’Shaun Harrison. Like Dr. Strings, they also shared excerpts from their book, “Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness”. They discussed the objectification and enslaving of Black people and the European tendency to perceive Blackness as unworthy or the “antithesis of health”. They also explained how “health” is a framework in which Black people will never fit.
They also pointed out the fallacy of BMI and told the heartbreaking story of Gina Score, a 14-year old white girl who was killed because she was neglected after passing out from heat exhaustion at “fat camp”. They also shared how the racist, eugenic origins of the BMI are used to perpetuate harm to Black folx and anyone deemed “o***e”. They talked about the “N*****s by the Pound” or “Two Ton Challenge” run by judges and prosecutors in Cook County. It was a race to be the first to prosecute 4,000 lbs. of Black defendant flesh. The more a defendant weighed, the more they were worth. This was an inherently racist and fatphobic practice.
Da’Shaun also talked about the destruction of oppressive systems and how overwhelming and impossible it seems, but how very necessary it is and how we’re up for the challenge. This session was informative, but also painful and appalling. It was challenging, but also a privilege to attend.
Next was the Panel Session entitled, “From Theory to Practice: The Necessity of Community” with Kimmie Singh, Joy Cox, and Ayana Habtemariam. This panel was especially enlightening because defining community can seem pretty straightforward, but this panel outlined some of the nuance and adjustment required to be in community with others. They made it clear that community doesn’t always mean that everyone agrees, gets along, or even has the same goals. They shared that what it does mean is that people can show up as their authentic selves and be accountable to each other. Community is about rawness and healing. It’s about growth.
Community, especially in matters of fat liberation and racial justice, is of utmost importance. This discussion was so relatable, especially as a person who exists at multiple intersections and holds space for others who do, as well. I strive to build community, but I’m always on guard because I’m watching for white violence or fatphobia wherever it may reveal itself. I can make no assumptions and am often frustrated when fat white people are racist and my own Black people are fatphobic. The prevailing message that stood out in this panel was the idea that community is not a given. It must be intentional to be viable.
The final session was entitled, “Dreaming of New Worlds: HAES® in the Future”. It was led by Lisa Marie Alatorre and Misia Denéa. It was a vision session and the focus was on determining how to move forward in light of what we now know about issues with the concept of “health”. The most interesting part of this final session was the Jamboard exercise. We were broken out into groups where we all gave input on and answered questions about what we’d like the future of ASDAH to look like. When we came back together, Lisa Marie read some of the responses. Having more representation across multiple intersections and changing the name of the organization to remove the word “health” were mentioned most. Meditation and intention setting, led by Misia Denéa, sealed our vision and dreams for this work.
Jaden Fields, ASDAH Advocacy & Development Director, wrapped up the conference by announcing the theme for the coming year, “Dreaming New Worlds: HAES® in the Future”. Jaden also announced the launch of the “Abolish BMI Coalition“. It’s designed to do away with this flawed, useless metric used to measure health and to create a world that moves beyond health and focuses on the wisdom of the collective to provide just and representative care for marginalized folx across all intersections. He shared the purpose of the Coalition and the shared values as we move forward in this work.
The 2022 ASDAH Conference was a primer in cooperation, true community, and painstaking care. I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that I came to the conference feeling the heaviness that is our world today. I had been dealing with tragedy, grief, loss, trauma, fatphobia, oppression, racism and the pervasive presence of white supremacy, and other indescribable pain. This conference gave light and air to so many of these things, removing the weight of them for a while, giving me space for processing. I felt perceived and understood. I felt like a part of a collective trek toward hope. Details like the inclusion of a Superfat/Infinifat breakout room made me know that leadership listened. The Jamboard made me know our thoughts had value and were deemed integral to the path forward for ASDAH.
The importance of true representation among fat people, the LGBTQIA2S+ community, Black, Indigenous, Latine, and disabled folx, and so many other marginalized groups, is made evident in ASDAH leadership. I went away feeling hopeful that this will continue to be reflected as membership grows and we do this powerful world-destroying and world-creating work together as the thriving community we seek to become.
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