To celebrate the ten-year anniversary of Judith Matz’s and Ellen Frankel’s Beyond a Shadow of a Diet: The Comprehensive Guide to Treating Binge Eating Disorder, Compulsive Eating, and Emotional Overeating – and the release of its 2nd edition –ASDAH’s blog committee invited Judith to reflect on the book’s enduring impact. If you have felt a resonance with this book in some way, be it personally, professionally or both, then we invite you to share your feedback in the comments section.
A few weeks ago I was leaving my yoga class when I overheard my instructor – I’ll call her Meg – say to another class member, “I hope I’ll lose weight this time.” Although I only heard this brief snippet of conversation, the disappointment that washed over my body immediately replaced the relaxing effects of the shavasana I’d just completed. This was my loving yoga instructor who begins every class with a lesson related to being peaceful in our bodies and our hearts. Only moments ago I was admiring the strength and flexibility of her body, and now I believed she was spreading the message that the pursuit of weight loss is a worthy goal.
I believe there are a lot of compassionate people in the mental health, health, and wellness professions who, perhaps like Meg, are unaware of the damaging messages they’re putting out in the world. Yet I’ll bet that most of them would agree that the cultural focus on thinness – that inevitably leads to blame and shame – is the antithesis of the physical, emotional and/or spiritual healing and well-being that they seek for their clientele. The heart of my work as a speaker, author, and therapist is to get people to change the conversation and realize that we are the culture! What we say in our professionals lives – as well as our personal lives – matters. A lot.
When I first began to work in the field of eating problems, my focus was on helping people end the vicious diet-binge cycle. It didn’t take long to realize that if I was going to help my clients make peace with food, it was essential to address broader issues related to cultural views of body size. Along with my co-author (and sister!) Ellen Frankel, we wrote our first book, Beyond a Shadow of a Diet, with the primary goal of getting therapists to explore their attitudes toward dieting, weight, and health, and we offered an alternative model that acknowledges size diversity. Ten years later, we’ve updated our book to include, among other topics, the latest research supporting the HAES® approach and social justice issues. Although there’s a long way to go, it’s a positive sign that books like ours continue to be published, creating a growing number of HAES friendly resources for both professionals and the general public.
There’s a good chance you’re already familiar with the starfish story, but just in case:
“Once upon a time there was a wise man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work.
One day he was walking along the shore. As he looked down the beach, he saw a human figure moving like a dancer. He smiled to himself to think of someone who would dance to the day. So he began to walk faster to catch up. As he got closer, he saw that it was a young man and the young man wasn’t dancing, but instead he was reaching down to the shore, picking up something and very gently throwing it into the ocean.
As he got closer he called out, “Good morning! What are you doing?” The young man paused, looked up and replied, ‘Throwing starfish in the ocean.’
‘I guess I should have asked, why are you throwing starfish in the ocean?’
‘The sun is up and the tide is going out. And if I don’t throw them in they’ll die.’
But, young man, don’t you realize that there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it. You can’t possibly make a difference!’
The young man listened politely. Then bent down, picked up another starfish and threw it into the sea, past the breaking waves and said, ‘It made a difference for that one.’”[i]
Writing is a labor of love for us, accompanied by our belief that if it makes a difference in just one person’s life, our efforts are well worth the time and energy. Over time, all of those “ones” add up.
With the release of the 2nd edition of Beyond a Shadow of a Diet, I wrote an article for Psychotherapy Networker, the largest magazine for therapists in the United States. I pushed the envelope and challenged therapists to examine their views of their higher-weight clients in an article entitled, Beyond Lip Service: Confronting Our Prejudices Against Higher-Weight Clients (a title given to the article by the editor – which I felt was a victory in and of itself); as of this blog’s publishing, the article has had over 13,000 views. I was also pleasantly surprised to see a couple of letters to the editor in the next issue of the magazine from therapists completely outside of my professional circle:
“Thank you for Judith Matz’s article…on confronting our prejudices against higher-weight clients. Understanding that prejudice within the helping profession is not only a common clinical concern but an issue of social justice is right on. Letting go of shame and finding self-acceptance is vital to personal recovery – and darn hard to do! I appreciate the evidence-based resources provided in the article and Matz’s challenge to all clinicians to look at our prejudices.”
“The article by Judith Matz on weightism was great. Many health professionals unconsciously perpetuate weight stigma, resulting in more stress and overall ill health for their clients. Therapists can begin the process of empowering clients by changing their own beliefs about body size.
Another one. Plus one.
I hope we’ve struck a chord in the therapist community, as well as with other health professions. It may be slow going, but anyone who is really listening to their clients’ experiences and reflecting on the outcomes of the pursuit of weight loss has to start having doubts about the efficacy of restrictive programs and plans. What if, as they’re having questions about why their clients keep struggling with weight loss, they come across Beyond a Shadow of a Diet? It’s always been Ellen’s and my hope that, because therapists are trained to examine their personal beliefs and experiences – and how they impact the treatment situation – they will be especially receptive to reconsidering their ideas and looking at eating and weight concerns in the more holistic manner we offer, which includes, according to a review by Adrienne Ressler of the Renfrew Center, “research, statistics, history, philosophy, wellness, ethics, culture, bodies and brains.” Recently, several college instructors also indicated their plan to use Beyond a Shadow of a Diet as a textbook in their course.
One. Plus one. Plus another one.
It’s slow going, but add up my ones with your ones, and we are making a transformative difference.
I will keep trying to get people to change the conversation. Without shaming anyone, I want people like my yoga instructor, Meg, to raise their consciousness and become aware of what messages they are spreading, often unintentionally, to their family, friends, colleagues and clients. One by one.
I’ll be speaking to audiences with this message:
“If you struggle with your own negative body thoughts, you’re not alone. But let’s stop spreading messages that indicate that thinness is the only road to happiness, sexiness and success. These messages have become so normative that we may not realize they create the shame that hurts not only us, but the people we care about as well. Instead, consider sharing your struggles in a way that honors your needs, but protects, or even strengthens those around you. It will take some reflection to change our conversations, but if we really mean business, not only can we do it, but we must do it.
And let’s change images that glorify thinness and vilify fatness to messages that honor the many shapes and sizes that human beings come in. Let’s compliment people on their accomplishments and character, not on their weight. Let’s have conversations about our interests and passions, not about our latest diet. Let’s be the pebble that causes the ripples that spread to a sea of acceptance and inclusion of people of all sizes.
We can change the culture. After all, we are the culture.”
Please share your “ones” in the comment section!