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Pollydana The Pit Bull Learns a Lesson—Taking the Health At Every Size® Model to School, Part 2

by Dana Schuster, MS

In early April I shared with you some of my experiences promoting a HAES® framework in local school wellness efforts. Now I feel I must confess—since that time I have been called into the principal’s office not just once, but twice. Okay, so it was actually a summons from two different wellness coordinators and not the principal, but it definitely felt like the same dynamic.

The resultant two meetings could not have been more different from each other in tone or execution. In the first instance, I was told that a meeting was needed, without any explanation of the reason. On the appointed day and time, my main inquisitor arrived fifteen minutes late, and came equipped with multiple small pages of notes, mostly shielded from view in the palm of her hand. I soon realized I had been summoned to account for and relinquish my assertive style of communication, which they reported often results in other committee members feeling “shut down” or “like they have to walk on eggshells.” In short, my pit bull proclivities are apparently problematic. This was presented in an authoritative manner laced with both parental and physician overtones (she is an MD) and near constant reference to the palmed note-sheets. She was the informed expert professional, and I the lowly non-professional community volunteer who needed to be enlightened.

This meeting ended up going much longer than either my summoners (the co-facilitator was also present, so yes, it was two-on-one) or I had anticipated, largely as a result of the apparent need to keep trying to change my viewpoint, in the face of my calm but firm refusal to accept their perspective as the ultimate truth, or be cowed into a submissive/passive role on the committee. I did assure these colleagues that in fact, I did have quite a lot of knowledge, training, and experience in the professional realm, and that I would certainly attempt to be more mindful of my ‘passionate’ verbal tendencies in future committee meetings.

In stark contrast, the second meeting was not really a ‘summons’ at all, but rather an inquiry as to whether or not I might be willing to get together to discuss the upcoming year of wellness committee work. This wellness coordinator also explained that one reason for the request was that the group was planning to include the promotion of “healthy weight” for children as an area of focus, and she was aware that my perspective might be different from that of others on the committee. Of course I was willing to meet—especially when asked in such a reasonable manner!

The subsequent encounter was one of colleagues on an equal playing field, discussing areas of common perspective and difference, and brainstorming a mutually agreeable game plan for future work. Refreshingly, both of the colleagues present (the wellness coordinator and the food service director) in this second meeting turned out to be much more closely aligned with a HAES viewpoint rather than with the mainstream weight-obsessed culture.

I was very prepared for this second meeting, based on my assumption that we would be focusing on the “Healthy Weight Collaborative” program spearheaded by a local pediatrician. And herein lies one of the valuable lessons of this encounter: being prepared with information is great, but don’t be surprised if the anticipated test question doesn’t even show up on the final exam. I had researched the history and goals of the project, spoken on the phone with the physician, consulted listserv colleagues to review and de-bunk her cited ‘evidence’ and brainstormed my approach strategy for the meeting with HAES friends. In one of the more amusing turns of the meeting discussion, I had to be the one who finally brought up the topic of the Healthy Weight Collaborative, since it hadn’t even been mentioned in passing. The response? Acknowledgment that the pediatrician leading the effort was a great person with a good heart, but that the program was full of holes, not up-to-date or realistic in its goals, and problematic for the school district for a variety of reasons. And here I had spent considerable time carefully strategizing what parts of the approach I might be able to support and writing down my concerns and suggestions for framing changes.

An even more meaningful lesson for me emerged from this second encounter, however. There really is HAES change happening. Both of these colleagues are clearly in transition and moving away from the diet/fear/shame/weight-based approach of traditional health messaging and program development. One example was when the wellness coordinator and I simultaneously brought up Ellyn Satter’s work to answer to a question asked by the food service director. The coordinator then went on to talk about the influence of Joanne Ikeda in her training as a dietician. This was followed by the food service director telling me “I’ve changed ‘cause I’ve learned from you” over our years of collaboration. WOW. This was so incredibly validating and encouraging! Now the agenda for our upcoming wellness committee meetings will include presentations on each Satter’s concepts of division of responsibility in feeding and one on using a HAES approach to school wellness.

What I have realized is that it is time for me to look for opportunities to be a practical facilitator of this transitional process, and not only an assertive advocate of shifting from a weight-based to a HAES paradigm. For example, in this second meeting, we (1) brainstormed how the wellness coordinator might get buy-in from school staff and administrators for the efforts of the wellness committee this year without employing the fear and weight-based rhetoric of “obese children” being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes who might “die younger than their parents” and (2) re-framed how the food services staff might address questions such as “why don’t you sell Hot Cheetos or soda?” without good/bad food or weight-based framing.

I do wonder if the HAES message would have actually penetrated or been noticeable blips on the radar screens of my colleagues, if the teeth-baring Pit Bull had not shown up with such regularity, especially in settings where the majority of voices were espousing the weight-based beliefs of the status quo. And yet, these experiences have reminded me that my Pollydana persona needs to show up too, and that by holding a bigger space for the positive belief that transition is occurring, I might just help move it more effectively forward.

Thank you Ellyn, and Joanne, and all of you who challenge entrenched assumptions, share the HAES perspective, or quietly ask a question that tosses a small pebble into the previously smooth pool of traditional thinking. We all need to remember that each pebble can become a stepping-stone for the next HAES pioneer.

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