by Fall Ferguson, JD, MA
October is a fun month for me as a teacher. It’s the beginning of our academic year, and I have the privilege of introducing our new students to their course of study and the field with a course called “Foundations of Health Education.” It’s my job to provide the framework that these students will use to construct their education as well as their understanding of what it means to be a health educator.
This past week, our theme was “Health and the Whole Person.” Having teased out a number of definitions for “health” the previous week, our next task is to look at the trending concept of “whole person health” in order to get behind the buzzword. What does it mean to say that health has multiple dimensions? We explore the science of the mind-body connection and the placebo effect. We also talk about the importance of relationships and connection to health, emphasizing that health is more than one’s performance on a set of physiological markers.
I show them an excerpt from a TedMed video in which Dean Ornish talks about his research on cardiac patients and the importance of love and relationships to heart health. It turns out, Ornish has found, that there is more to mending a “broken” heart than we thought. His research (both quantitative and qualitative) shows that people who feel isolated are three to seven times more likely to get sick and die and that intimacy and connection are healing while isolation impedes healing. This is something that most of us know intuitively, but now there is research to back up our intuition.
When I watched the video this time, preparing for what I would say to the students about it, I was struck by what Ornish says about the opportunity he perceives with his patients:
“The really interesting question is how we can use the experience of suffering as a doorway to transforming our lives.”
To paraphrase the bumper stickers, suffering happens. Even if we were able to create a utopian world in which we eliminated all social and economic sources of suffering such as poverty, unemployment, hunger, war, violence, stigma, etc., there would still be human suffering. We would still get sick. We would lose people we care about. We would hurt each other’s feelings. We are human, and it is part of the human condition that we hurt sometimes. We grieve. We suffer.
Health educators, like many other professionals in health-related fields, often come into contact with people because they have been suffering. They may be sick or in pain. They may be seeking to regain something lost – their sense of well-being or perhaps a sense of meaning and connection. Let’s put it this way: people rarely seek health education when everything is hunky-dory.
In an effort to inspire my students about their new chosen profession, I suggest to them that we have the opportunity and privilege of standing in the doorway with our clients as they begin this process of transforming their lives. And (you saw this coming, didn’t you, dear reader?) this got me thinking about what we do in the HAES® and size acceptance communities. Are we able to witness the suffering – the weight cycling, the harms of bariatric surgery, the stigma, the discrimination – and see doorways?
Last week it was announced that Michelle Obama is planning an appearance on The Biggest Loser, thus lending the authority of her position to this, this… well, to the worst kind of bullying, fat-shaming, dangerously unhealthy example of entertainment profiting off the backs of fat people. Many have already written eloquently about the harms of this show and shows like it (for example, this recent piece about TBL and Michelle Obama). There are already a petition and a video protesting the First Lady’s plans, and an open letter is expected to be released tomorrow.
I am glad that our community has rallied and made it clear that it’s not OK for the First Lady to endorse weight shaming and unsafe weight loss practices. But what I want to talk about here is the experience of witnessing it as a HAES advocate – again and still. This show has been on for a long time, and this is actually NOT the first time the First Lady has appeared on it.
Am I the only one who wonders how the First Lady, and what sometimes seems like 99% of our culture, can look at a television show like this and not see it for the vile, cynical, despicable, prolonged act of cruelty that it is? It actually purports to offer “hope” to the very people it is shaming and taking advantage of for profit!
It’s easy to get discouraged. At times, I feel like howling like a wounded animal. How can this be happening – again and still?
And then I remember the doorway. I don’t just want to lick my wounds – I want to find a positive path here. I want to take this collective suffering and transform it. I often feel like I need to have answers when I write for this blog, or at least some of the answers. Today, I just have questions: Can we use this cultural moment as a doorway to transformation? What does that look like?