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Committed to a New HAES View

by Dana Schuster, MS, Internal Policy Chair

NOTE: I am writing this as an individual and not as a representative of the ASDAH leadership. All viewpoints and perspectives are solely my own.

When I was first introduced to the Health At Every Size® concept some thirty years ago, I think I needed it to tell me three things:

  1. My fat body was not wrong/bad
  2. Dieting/restrictive eating was not the path to better health
  3. Exercise was not an obligation for the purpose of weight loss

I heard the HAES tenets as outlining a new ‘program’ for me to follow that could fix my relationship with food and physical activity, and allow me to feel better about myself.

As I look back, I see myself being empowered by this understanding of the HAES message to view myself as a ‘good fatty’ (i.e. fat and healthy) who could advocate for myself and other fat women to receive quality unbiased medical care, find enjoyable exercise opportunities in non-judgmental settings, and eat whatever foods we desired.  This was a diet-reactionary viewpoint. I saw thin people and men as “others” responsible for my oppression, and I felt they did not have a place within my new framework beyond needing to get over their weight bias. I had absolutely no understanding that my ability to engage in and benefit from the HAES approach was actually grounded in my privilege as a white, cis-gendered, educated, financially stable, temporarily able-bodied young adult.

My view of the world – within ASDAH, the HAES® model, and more broadly – shifted significantly just over a year and a half ago when a couple of my colleagues dropkicked me into awareness about white privilege and institutionalized racism and oppression. I sadly acknowledge that my first reaction was to become loudly defensive, questioning, and argumentative. I went to a place of denial when confronted with the information that both my personal behaviors and the perspectives of the groups I belonged to presented barriers to access for People of Color (POC) and other marginalized community members. I sincerely apologize for my reaction.

Fortunately I have moved beyond my first response to being called-in to examine my privilege. By choosing to engage in self-reflection, I have exposed myself to readings and videos that share the authentic experiences of others and participated in anti-oppression trainings such as those recently sponsored by ASDAH under the leadership of Lisa Marie Alatorre. Each of these experiences challenge me, bring up hard to feel emotions, and push me to move beyond my sense of shame and fear to pay attention to the world differently.

To those of you in the fat activism and HAES worlds who fear that attending to the issues of structural oppression, racism, and intersectionality will take away from or dilute the work of combating weight stigma, I would ask that you try hard to not let yourself get stuck in that fear.  One truth I have learned by allowing myself to begin looking at the HAES paradigm through the lens of intersectionality is that what might result from accepting this perspective IS EXACTLY what our movement needs.

The reality is that I am NEVER just a fat person in this world. Everyday when I step out I am also white, female, heterosexual, atheist, arthritis-challenged, no longer young, and a myriad of other things. While some of my identities might expose me to discrimination and prejudice, mostly I will find myself in the privileged power group.  As such, I, and others like me, must acknowledge the historical and structural bias embedded in our policies, infrastructures and personal perspectives, and use our power to advocate for those who are oppressed and marginalized by the very structures we are part of.

The ASDAH introduction to the revised principles states:

“Health should be conceived as a resource or capacity available to all regardless of health condition or ability level, and not as an outcome or objective of living. Pursuing health is neither a moral imperative nor an individual obligation, and health status should never be used to judge, oppress, or determine the value of an individual. The HAES approach honors the healing power of social connections, evolves in response to the experiences and needs of a diverse community, and grounds itself in a social justice framework. “

In these words I now find my jumping-off place for HAES embodiment moving forward.

The HAES concepts of my past are currently informed by my understanding of their limitations when viewed through an intersectional lens.  I am not fearful that this could result in a dilution of focus or efficacy. In truth this is the very path that will lead us all towards health justice.

Dana Schuster, MS, Internal Policy Chair, is a Health and Fitness Instructor with a Masters in Rehabilitation Counseling. She was an exercise instructor for Kaiser Permanente for 13 years, co-founded Women of Substance Health Spa, and currently teaches exercise classes at Every Woman Health Club in Redwood City, California. Since 2005 Dana has been involved in School Wellness Policy development and implementation as an avid HAES® promoter at both the county and district level. She served as President of ASDAH from 2006-09 and as Vice President from 2013-14.

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