by Jenny Copeland, PsyD
As a size acceptance advocate – and mental health professional – defensiveness is no stranger to me. Human beings naturally resist that which is unknown or uncomfortable to them. For many of my HAES® colleagues, I am certain we can comfortably say we are met with strong resistance when introducing our principles to other professionals and when encouraging patients to step away from the scale. But it is not the resounding “NO!” I am concerned with today. It is the defensiveness.
The dictionary defines defensiveness as being “excessively concerned with guarding against the real or imagined threat of criticism, injury to one’s ego, or exposure of one’s shortcomings.” Sigmund Freud would describe it as an unconscious manner of protecting the ego – the conscious self. While resistance might imply keeping something at arm’s length, defensiveness implies a certain amount of fighting back. As a community, we as size acceptance advocates often note the extensive and elaborate ways in which the ‘opposition’ defends their viewpoint. As a community we are not immune to this. We become defensive toward others in our own community with different perceptions, different actions, different motivations. We defend the legitimacy of our suffering against others who have differently suffered. And in the action of defending our position, we breed conflict and divide our ranks.
Freud would call this “splitting,” a dichotomous style of thinking wherein we see things as black or white, all good or all bad. This ultimately produces an “us and them” mentality which generally weakens the size acceptance movement. What emerges are divisions of the privileged and the exploited, those learned and ignorant of the movement, those with an eating disorder and those without, and even the thin and the fat. As a community, we could argue whether one group’s experiences of weight or size stigma are more or less significant, or even more or less legitimate. What would be the point?
The Health At Every Size® approach has sometimes been called a peace movement, one of acceptance and reconciliation for the past wrongs we have inflicted on our bodies. At these times when we are split from within and have pushed each other away, I wonder where our peace is. Sometimes we fight so hard to have our voices heard that we silence others’ – sometimes even the voices of our fellow travelers in this journey.
Karen Armstrong, a pioneer in religious studies, put it this way: “Look into your own heart; discover what it is that gives you pain. And then refuse, under any circumstance whatsoever, to inflict that pain on anybody else.” How wonderfully simple. Recognize and acknowledge that which has hurt us, then refuse to pass that same hurt onto anyone else. Stop the bullying in its tracks. Armstrong founded The Compassion Charter with this in mind. Although its roots are in religious and moral diversity, I think the sentiment applies to size acceptance as well:
The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.
It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism, or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others—even our enemies—is a denial of our common humanity. We acknowledge that we have failed to live compassionately and that some have even increased the sum of human misery in the name of religion.
In its simplest form, The Compassion Charter is a resurgence of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have done unto you. It is a value taught to many in their childhood, hopefully working to build regard and empathy for others. The question is, how does this apply to the size acceptance movement? There are different schools of thought for advocacy, whether we should take a ‘straight and narrow’ approach where we hold strongly to our ideals and refuse to compromise them in any shape or form. Others find value in the grey areas, working to reach those outside the community and gradually bring them into the fold. This is a debate for another time.
My question, then, is how do we best foster compassion for one another? How do we nurture our community and build relationships while still challenging each other to grow? I don’t think we accomplish this by saying some have suffered more or less at the hands of size hatred. I don’t think we accomplish this by saying the Health At Every Size approach is valid for some sizes but not for others. I think we can accomplish this by less defensiveness with one another. This would imply listening more often than we talk and finding space for every person in our movement – no matter what size, shape, gender, sexual orientation, race or ethnicity, socioeconomic status, level of privilege, age, ability level, knowledge level, and many other characteristics people may have. I think this happens through embracing the diversity within our ranks, recognizing each person’s unique experience as just that – unlike what we have personally encountered, but of equal value and legitimacy.
What do you think?