by Dr. Jenny Copeland
May our daily choices be a reflection of our deepest values,
and may we use our voices to speak for those who need us most,
those who have no voice, those who have no choice.
Working in community mental health is both a privilege and a challenge. Serving those who have the highest need and the least access is not an often sought after career. Life in these environments feels extreme: either highly rewarding or a seemingly never-ending series of crises. During a recent period of the latter, my team and I were physically and emotionally overwhelmed, using words like “drowning” to describe our experience. And I must say I was exhausted, but grateful for my team and the community we were building. As we worked to not only survive but also fulfill our passion for serving others, I was able to more fully realize the importance of the HAES® principles.
We often discuss the importance of well-being, respect for our bodies, and expanded views of health in eating, weight, and fitness specific contexts. But it is these other moments that are also important – and allow us to share the HAES message in a more innocuous situation. And it is in these moments that I have become more grateful for the HAES message. A message which has helped me realize the honor I have had to work with this team, even in the most arduous moments. Each of us has a series of choices and that means with each stumbling block we must decide its meaning for us. That means we must decide whether to become defined by the obstacle or use it to fuel our fires.
This has been a big year chock full of professional and personal growth experiences, not to mention the successes and roadblocks we have seen in our movement this year. From the recent groundbreaking meeting between Lizabeth Wesely-Casella and Chevese Turner, two leaders in our movement, with White House staff to a new proclamation of ‘obesity’ as a disease by the medical community, 2013 has truly been a roller coaster for us all. Living in this unpredictable environment, risking pieces of ourselves in pursuit of these principles, can be draining. I know I have, at times, wondered why I have chosen this path or even why I should continue. A recent Internet meme examined “who needs feminism” and provided a reminder of sorts:
The truth is, to do this work is a privilege of the highest kind. Think back to how you discovered size acceptance and the Health At Every Size® principles. I stumbled upon them through a series of fortunate events during my graduate training. But what if happenstance had not occurred – would I still be deeply entrenched in my former beliefs of weight as something to be cured and weight loss as a healthful pursuit? What about those who did not receive higher education or who have not had the opportunity to devote time and energy toward examining and challenging their perceptions? Or consider what it may be like for people who may not be exposed to the HAES principles in their lifetime, who travel through their personal journeys inflicting harm because it is the ‘proper’ thing to do in order to become healthy?
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines privilege as a right or benefit that is given to some people and not to others. Is it possible that we as a community may have achieved some sort of privilege, what Jamie Utt described as any unearned benefit or advantage one receives in society by nature of their identity? It may sound strange to describe an underdog as being privileged. But it is that time of year in America when we are asked to remember what we are grateful for in our lives. And the HAES message is so much more than something to write home about – it’s what keeps us going. It is more than simple behavioral choices to eat and exercise in a mindful and enjoyable manner. It is truly a set of values and guiding principles with which to approach the world around us.
Holding these values is not (often) easy. That is why this year I think it is important to ask not only why we like this paradigm, but why we need it and why we keep fighting these battles. Unfortunately none of us are strangers to the fact that not everyone knows about or holds this worldview. But we do have advantages over those individuals, and that is freedom: from body hatred, from the pursuit of harm to our emotional and physical well-being in the name of health, and from letting others define ourselves (and many more). That is why I know I need the HAES message:
Because no person should feel the need to change how they look or who they are to conform to others’ standards.
Because I am the expert in my body – and only I can decide what health means for me.
Because a person (and their health) is far more complex than their size, shape, or weight.
Because every person should have the opportunity to love, respect, and appreciate their bodies free from caveats imposed by society, doctors, or their own history.
And because there should never be a question of why I love my body. I just do.