by Erin Harrop, MSW
I have had the privilege of being an ASDAH member for several years. I joined ASDAH around the time of the 2015 conference, thrilled to see a Health At Every Size® (HAES®) organization truly endeavoring to be intersectional in their approach to weight stigma. As a social worker, social justice is a core value of my profession, and integrating weight oppression into social justice work has been a key area of my research and clinical practice.
My own learning about social justice has been a long, ongoing, imperfect, bumpy, vulnerable, challenging, illuminating, interesting, rewarding, surprising, and at times, embarrassing, painful, and frustrating process. Learning about the systemic oppressive forces that affect my view of my body from a weight-stigma perspective has been an immensely liberating experience. Acknowledging my privilege has been confusing and exhausting. Confronting my own racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, ableism, and transphobia has been scary, transformative, and deeply important.
One of the most impactful learnings for me at the 2015 conference was Lisa Marie’s clear introduction of Tema Okun’s characteristics of white supremacy culture. Within this work, Okun describes 15 values and beliefs that underlie much of Westernized, white culture, including the following: a sense of urgency, perfectionism, worship of the written word, defensiveness, quantity over quality, paternalism, either/or thinking, power hoarding, fear of open conflict, objectivity, individualism, only one right way, belief in “I’m the only one,” progress is more/bigger, and the right to comfort. While some of these characteristics are not inherently unethical (e.g. sense of urgency), they reflect a certain world view, a certain set of values, and certain cultural norms that are in no way universal, necessarily ethical, or even preferable to other ways of being.
For me, one of the most striking things about this list is how performing many of these characteristics is, in effect, a double-edged sword. For me, adhering to these beliefs both: 1) promotes my success in Western academic and professional environments, and 2) contributes to feelings of decreased mental health, lack of embodiment, and poorer social connections. As a doctoral student, I live most of my waking hours in an academic culture that thrives on many of these characteristics (e.g. worship of the written word, sense of urgency, individualism, perfectionism). As a social worker in an emergency room setting, I frequently live in a world of urgency, objectivity, paternalism, and fear of open conflict. I have learned these languages well; and learning other ways of being is hard—and can be uncomfortable.
One of the most empowering things about Okun’s list is that I can begin to actively acknowledge these values within myself (sometimes for the first time), intentionally try on other ways of being, and then repeatedly practice these new ways. In fact, I can practice these new ways of being until I live into a new normal; I can start to act differently, feel differently, and think differently. Each time I intentionally sit with discomfort, willingly walk into conflict, honor diverse ways of knowing, investigate potential shortcomings before defending my position, or try to see the myriad of grays in between the black and the white, I play a small role in dismantling my own culture of white supremacy that I was born into.
This journey into acknowledging privilege and learning to dismantle oppression has not been a linear, predictable path. In fact, sometimes, the harder I try (take for instance, utilizing more gender neutral and inclusive language), often the more microaggressions I perpetrate. Now that I am more aware of what racism looks like, I can be shocked (and saddened) by my own assumptions and internal reactions—but I can also intercede when I see microaggressions taking place (or perpetrate one myself), and offer a perspective of social justice, however imperfectly. Additionally, because I now sometimes lead trainings on these topics, my mistakes are often amplified by the presence of a microphone, an audience, and sometimes a recording device—to replay my mistakes over and over for all the world to see (or at least the small segment of the world who listens to the podcast, or watches the video). Working through my mistakes helps challenge those parts of me that are fragile and perfectionistic. For me, being committed to social justice and the dismantling of oppression in all its forms—weightism, racism, sexism, heteronormativity, transphobia, ableism, and others—means that I am committed to learning, and committed to learning from the mistakes that I will, inevitably, make.
So, what has all this got to do with ASDAH? From my perspective, quite a bit—but I’ll focus on three areas: 1) ASDAH’s strategic plan, 2) the 2018 ASDAH Conference, and 3) the ASDAH blog.
In 2016 ASDAH launched a new strategic plan, dedicated to becoming a more inclusive social justice organization, which tackles weight oppression from a more intersectional standpoint. According to our website, ASDAH is committed to “understanding, respecting, and working from a platform of intersectionality.” Based on my experience as a board member this past year, ASDAH has been working hard to integrate intersectionality with integrity—and not just for show. Thirty-four ASDAH members attended our organization-wide anti-oppression training in February, and the entire board attended an additional training as well. We have re-examined our membership structure, and expanded our reach and diversity. And our work is still in the nascent stages; we are on a long-term journey.
Our upcoming 2018 conference continues the conversations about weight stigma and intersectionality that we began at the 2015 conference. Tackling topics like this is difficult work—especially in group settings. It challenges how we think about the world, and how we think about ourselves. We will necessarily encounter different opinions and perspectives—and that’s a beautiful thing. This year, we have an amazing line-up of keynote speakers (Shilo George, Gloria Lucas, Lindo Bacon, and Substantia Jones), speaking from diverse world experiences. I’m excited to see how we are engaged and challenged as an organization.
Lastly, the ASDAH blog has been on an unplanned, unfortunate, seemingly endless hiatus since July 2017. Last year, after a problematic blog post that endorsed ideas contrary to ASDAH’s mission, many members expressed feelings of concern, betrayal, frustration, and disappointment. Additionally, as a new board, ASDAH leadership, though scrambling behind-the-scenes, was slower to respond and address the concerns. As someone who was so upset by the blog that I personally made a list of “13 points that I thought were problematic” about the piece, and as someone who was simultaneously on the ASDAH board, this was a challenging time. However, this experience resulted in bringing to light many things about the organization, the needs of the membership, and the needs of the times, which leadership continues to address.
I bring this up, because ASDAH has not had a blog post since that “incident.” For some, it was a highly publicized experience, uncomfortable, with diverse opinions, and open conflict. And as an organization, we have shied away from re-approaching our blog. Though we have revised our community guidelines for online communication, and vamped up our blog approval process, we haven’t actually written and published anything! Perhaps, I would venture, we have been afraid of conflict, afraid of making another mistake, striving for “blog perfection,” not wanting to risk discomfort. Sound familiar?
So, I’m writing my first-ever blog post. I’m doing it for you, my beloved ASDAH family, because I believe in our mission, and I want to see us grow as the diverse community that we are. Today’s blog isn’t perfect. It’s woefully incomplete. I’ve repeated the word “intersectionality” far more than I would like. It is, in places, a bit mellow dramatic, I end at least one sentence with a preposition, and it’s currently 54 words over the word limit.
As I take the plunge to be your experienced-in-HAES®-yet-inexperienced-in-blogs ASDAH blog coordinator, I hope that other members will also be willing to submit a blog to help further the ASDAH mission. If you have an idea for a HAES®- or intersectionality-focused piece, we would love to read it! Please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and let’s walk bravely into this blog world together.
Here’s to bravery, mistakes, and dismantling oppression one baby step at a time!
Erin Harrop, MSW, is a doctoral student in social welfare at the University of Washington and medical social worker. She studies eating disorders in higher weight persons, and leads the student group, SWAG: Sizeism, Weightism Advocacy Group.