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Sarah Thompson, founder of Resilient Fat Goddess, writes about body positivity, body liberation, and fat liberation at the intersections of gender, sexuality, and eating disorders. 

Baby and the Bath Water

My experience at the Binge Eating Disorder Association/National Eating Disorder Association national conference

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I recently had the opportunity to attend the Binge Eating Disorder Association’s national conference (BEDA) which was held in conjunction with the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) in Brooklyn. What does attending the BEDA/NEDA national conference have to do with baby and the bath water? You’ll find out later on. This was my very first professional eating disorder conference, and this is how I experienced it. It was for the most part a welcoming, friendly environment. Which I’m sure was due to the fact that it was wonderful to be in a place that doesn't support weight loss as a treatment for BED, and discouraged the use of the terms "obese" and "overweight." It is truly a breath of fresh air compared to the medical school environment from which I am on a leave of absence. I am a fat person. I reclaimed this word as a neutral descriptor of my body almost a year and a half ago. It was a process. It didn’t happen overnight. There are also many who have claimed the word, superfat, as a neutral descriptor for their body. It is one way to acknowledge that the experience of superfat person is much different than that of fat, small fat, and thinner people. To me, it still depends on how someone uses it, whether I get offended or not. If someone uses it as a negative descriptor, I loathe this. For people that haven’t reclaimed the word or that feel uncomfortable using the word, fat, to describe someone’s body, there are options. You can say – larger bodied person, person in a larger body, person at the higher end of the weight spectrum, and/or higher weight people. Dana Sturtevant, co-founder of Be Nourished, does a fantastic job of breaking down why language is important. You can read her article here: https://benourished.org/the-f-word/

For anyone who is still stuck on – why would the terms “obese” and “overweight” be discouraged from use? It’s a good question. It’s because they stigmatize body size. It’s because these words are no longer acceptable terms to most in the fat activism community. It’s because the people who the words are used to describe are not are settling for what the medical industry has to offer us. It’s because these words continue to be used as a weapon of oppression against those of us at the higher end of the weight spectrum. You will find higher weight people who will argue that these words are what they prefer. We can’t argue with the origins of the words though. Internalized sizeism and fatphobia effects people at higher weights, too. So, please pay attention to those of us who are trying to unwind our internalized weight stigma, and that of the collective. Again, this is why I was excited to be at a conference where the terms “overweight” and “obese” were discouraged from use.

If we are going to fight against weight stigma and for the equitable treatment of larger bodied folx, we are making the statement that we are against this form of oppression. This is not some attempt at a left-wing agenda. This is about liberation. The thing is that all oppression is connected. All. Of. It. So, it would be very short sighted to be for equitable treatment of larger bodied folx, but then leave out equity for people of color, disabled people, trans people, or anyone with a non-dominant systemic identity. This is why BEDA’s focus on social justice is crucial, not just to me as a fat person who has also recovered from an eating disorder, but for us as a collective. This is why I was excited to see sessions about people of color, healthism, and trans adolescents. We need to work towards destroying the myth that only white, thin, able-bodied, middle to high socioeconomic, cis, heterosexual women have eating disorders. Sure, these women do have eating disorders. They are not the only ones, and to focus on these stereotypes is to erase the experience of those without these systemically dominant identities. It is a major factor in contributing to the misdiagnosis and under diagnosis of people of color, fat, disabled, low SES, trans, and queer people with eating disorders.

I was honored to hear many of the speakers, meet many of the people that I follow on social media, and feel comradery with like-minded folx. It didn’t feel like enough time to speak to all the people I wanted to. I got to hear about complex PTSD, healthism, anorexia at higher weights, research with people at very low SES who have disordered eating patterns, and what it’s like for black women on predominately white campuses who have eating disorders. There was so much to take in! And while I loved so many things about the BEDA/NEDA conference, there are some aspects that I didn’t. I cannot only write about the positive parts. I have to write about my experience as a whole. I want to be clear that this is not personal criticism of Chevese Turner, the founder, president and CEO of BEDA. We have already emailed about my concerns, in addition, she sent an email to all attendees after hearing my and others’ concerns.


There was a round table discussion where a young woman facilitated the breakout session called, "Prevention and Treatment of Binge Eating Disorder in Racial and Ethnic Minority Females." I wanted to be able to support this session and learn more about women of color with BED. She was very unprepared in many different ways. The research she presented was problematic in that it focused on portion sizes in the latinx community and one article was even based on the "strong black woman" trope. She admittedly had only read the article about black women 2 days prior to the roundtable. In addition, she was unable to hear the feedback of the group, argued with the three women of color in the session, and defended her use of the research she choose. Several of us compassionately called her in to stop defending the research. After several attempts at trying to get her stop, she gave a poor apology "if" anyone was hurt by what she was saying. She said this after two black women told her they were offended. One of them let her know that her use of the word "minority" in the title of her discussion was offensive. We barely even discussed the topic of the roundtable, because she couldn't let go of defending herself. I offered to connect with her and to give her information on ways that she could work on her white privilege and white fragility, because she will most likely never learn this in a classroom.

I mention the use of the word "minority," because if those choosing the sessions had recognized this as a problematic term which is othering to those in non-dominant identities, then maybe this session could have been looked into further. It could have been possible to catch that this young woman was out of her wheelhouse to facilitate a discussion on such a deep, sensitive topic. I will say I am incredibly grateful that this session did not affect more people. There were about 10 of us in attendance. It was extremely difficult to see the harm she was doing, and I can only imagine what it was like for the women of color in the discussion.

Then, there was a session that was on transgender adolescents with eating disorders which left so much to be desired. While it wasn't harmful, it offered little information to me. It didn't offer discussion of how treating transgender adolescents significantly differs from treating cisgender adolescents. For example, the difference of navigating gender dysphoria and body dysphoria. They didn't include any information about trans girls, except to define who a trans girl is. The presentation focused primarily on trans boys. This to me represents a gap in providing information about trans adolescents as a whole. Maybe the presentation should have stipulated that it was about trans boy adolescents, that could be a start. Even so, it leaves out a whole group of folx who also suffer from eating disorders. It also begs the question, why aren’t trans girls seeking treatment for their eating disorders? Each presenter did make a point to say they were not a trans expert. I’m also aware of the “expertise” trap. So, while I appreciate their transparency, my question with the utmost respect would be - why then did they feel confident to do this presentation?

Next there were the chairs. I am a person who borders the line between fat and superfat. Walking into the first general session on Friday morning, I was disappointed to sit down with my friends and not be able to have one chair underneath me. The chairs were so close to each other that my friends and I basically had to sit between the chairs to be comfortable. To give you a visual, I was sitting on 1.5 chairs, because I couldn't move the chairs apart to have hip room. And I need plenty of hip room. I understand it was crowded. I understand the need to have enough seats for everyone. And at the same time, it was demeaning to have to sit there between two seats because the chairs weren't set up in a way that fit me while at a conference that is well aware of weight stigma and bias. It left me feeling unseen. I didn't even want to draw attention to it, because I am so used to this being the case anywhere I go. It wasn't until others spoke about it, that I felt like I could speak up. Granted the chairs weren't hooked together, which happens sometimes, and makes it impossible to move the chairs apart. Suggestions for the future: Speak with the hotel staff ahead of time to have 2-4 rows across the whole space where there are less chairs and more space between them. Let the audience know that this is priority seating for fat attendees at the start of the conference.

I'd like to echo what Dr. Charlynn Small and Dr. Mazella Fuller, two black women, mentioned during their talk which was that it would have been nice if theirs wasn't the second to last session of the conference. And I do wish that last video they showed with the man speaking about food
deserts in urban areas didn't have him speaking about obesity the way he did. The rest of their presentation was stellar. The core of that video wasn't terrible, but it didn't need to fat shame in the midst of addressing access to food. Here is a great article read on food deserts or the foodscape argument: http://foodfatnessfitness.com/2016/06/21/foodscape-argument-fatphobia-poses-radical-social-critique/#comment-4280

It is also necessary to speak about how Ms. Turner did respond to my email about the conference with an apology to take responsibility for the situation with the chairs. Here is part of her email:

“First, I want to apologize to our fat and super fat attendees for the conference seating; especially the seating in the grand ballroom. We really got this wrong and frankly, know better. The chairs were extremely uncomfortable to begin with and the fact that so many were jammed in to the conference hall with no consideration for how demeaning this was to fat folx is a problem. I hear you and apologize that this left you feeling unseen during a conference that is claiming leadership within the eating disorders community around weight stigma issues and intersectionality. I am humbled by the individuals who took the time to speak with me about this – I appreciate your labor and we will do better going forward.”

She also addressed the other problematic sessions:

“Second, I want to apologize to those who attended any session that was problematic and hurtful to any attendee. I have already received some feedback concerning two sessions that clearly indicate our screening and decision making process needs work. I apologize to anyone who was hurt by these sessions and want you to know that we understand now that we must do better in order to truly walk the walk. Thank you to those who called in speakers to help them understand why their session was problematic. This is not easy labor and I am appreciative of those who stood up to address the oppression.”

It takes quite the leader to be able to send an email to the entire attendee list and admit where things went wrong. I am grateful to Ms. Turner for her authentic leadership style. I look forward to seeing how BEDA grows more fully into their social justice commitment, and how we can work together to create more equitable practices in the future. Because if we as an organization want to demonstrate our commitment to social justice and anti-oppression work, and not just give the appearance of intersectionality, we have to look at the processes that allowed these events to occur. It means that all of us white people must be doing our work to untangle our own internalized white supremacy, as well as internalized fatphobia and sizeism. This is the key to questions that were asked of Dr. Small and Dr. Fuller at the end of their session which revolved around white practitioners interacting with clients of color. If we, white people, don't do our work, we will never be able to do the work or have the cultural humility necessary to meet clients of color and others with systemically non-dominant identities to access eating disorder treatment and/or professional conferences.

One of the things that I keep coming back to as a fat eating disorder activist is that we cannot throw the baby out with the bath water. Those of us who have the bandwidth and privilege must keep showing up in the midst of change, growth, and problems, so that we can effect change within organizations, institutions and professional fields. It is the only way we can move the dial. I am committed to doing this work and moving the eating disorder field forward with addressing anti-racism and anti-oppression work. I hope you will join us, because we cannot separate racial and social justice from healing.


 

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