{via etsy}

Yesterday, I introduced you to Deah Schwartz, an author and ardent supporter of  Health At Every Size. She challenges our society’s narrow standards of beauty and health and helps people develop healthier relationships with food, their bodies and themselves.

Below, Schwartz talks all about weight stigma and what we can do to fight it. She also offers fantastic advice on navigating the negative media we’re exposed to day in and day out.

Q: Why do you think weight stigma is so deeply entrenched in our society? Where does it come from?

A: I often ask myself that question.  Why the hate? Why the deep disdain? I mean as far as I’m concerned it is ok for people to have personal preferences about what an individual finds “attractive” or not.  For example, some people are completely dazzled by redheads, others, not so much.

But you rarely hear people voice a deep hatred or disdain for us “gingers.”

So why is this hatred and stigma so entrenched in our culture?  Some of it is about the money to be made by selling people dissatisfaction and then selling them something to fix the dissatisfaction.  John Berger explained this brilliantly in his book The Way of Seeing:

“The spectator-buyer is meant to envy herself as she will become if she buys the product. She is meant to imagine herself transformed by the product into an object of envy for others, an envy which will then justify her loving herself.”

 People also seem to think that fat people are causing a large part of the financial problems in this country and if it weren’t for obesity we would all have affordable health care.  These claims have been disputed over and over and yet there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of interest in the data, the message seems to be accepted at face value.

But honestly, I truly don’t understand why there is so much negativity directed towards fat people and why we cannot have a more live and let live attitude.

Q: What can we do to fight weight stigma?

A: We have to speak out whenever we see it happening, blog about it, write letters, anything to shriek out, “The Emperor HAS NO CLOTHES.”  Silence is agreement. Silence is approval.

What just happened at the Epcot Exhibit at Disney World is the perfect example of activism working.  The exhibit horrifically stigmatized fat people.  A bunch of people wrote newspaper articles, blogged, called, tweeted, shouted NO to Disney and the exhibit closed.  It was awesome!

The campaign against the Strong 4 Life Billboards is another example of fighting stigma. Don’t let the bullies run the playground.  Yes, definitely activism.

And if you are an artist: paint, write, create, express yourself in whatever your modality of choice is and show people of all sizes engaging in activities of all kinds.  Break the stereotypes in your own work.

Teach kids early on to accept differences in body types and to focus on who a person is not WHAT the person looks like.

Q: If you could change a few things about our diet weight obsessed society what would they be?

A: The first thing I would change is that we wouldn’t be living in a diet weight obsessed society.  But I guess that’s a cheat answer.  The main thing I’d change is the inexplicable hatred that is directed towards anyone who doesn’t conform to the societal standard of perfection and beauty.  Whatever happened to the Good Old American tenet, “Live and let live?”

The derision and humiliation directed towards people who don’t fit in is just mean and I HATE MEAN!

I would also make it a requirement for all medical professionals to take a mandatory Health at Every Size ® class so when they are treating their patients they are seeing the person first and assessing what this person’s profile for health instead of using BMI or body weight as a diagnostic factor.

Oh and stricter regulations on the diet industry so they couldn’t be selling their weight loss products as magic bullets, quick fixes, and the path to insta-happiness.  Oh and can we get rid of the Biggest Loser type shows?  And I’d also like to…never mind, you said a few things.

Q: Since our culture is so brutal when it comes to setting unrealistic and narrow physical standards and focusing on dieting, how do you suggest readers deal with the onslaught of negativity? I know that I get overwhelmed myself.

A: This is of course the ultimate challenge and brutal is an apt adjective.  It can be a vicious cycle. We pump ourselves up full of self-confidence and body acceptance and we walk out into the world and get hit by the billboards, the magazines, the relentless advertisements, and the rejection by people purely based on our bodies.

It is difficult to hold on to our resolve and continue to love ourselves.  And unlike the diet industry’s promise, there is no quick fix.

Self-acceptance would be a breeze if we were surrounded by everyone loving us and giving us positive reinforcement all of the time.  Of course that is completely unrealistic, so navigating through the negativity is a conscious practice.

  • RE: the print media, I practice a harm reduction approach.  I no longer look at the “mag rags” that tell me how wrong I am.
  • RE: commercials, that one is easy, I change the channel.
  • RE: the Internet, I comment, comment, comment and comment some more.  Get the opposing view out there and maybe others will join in!
  • RE: the fat talk diet talk, I have made it clear to my family and friends that I will not engage in these conversations and if they don’t like it, I’m sorry, but I don’t find it helpful or interesting to compare notes on how much all of us hate our bodies.
  • RE: medical care, I have found wonderful doctors who no longer insist on weighing me and who focus on my health not my BMI.
  • But the most important thing is to try and change the culture.  Organizations like Miss Representation, Normal in the Schools, and About Face are working in the schools educating boys and girls about self-esteem and eating disorders prevention.  Get active.  Join a movement. Find a support system. Know you are not alone and for those struggling with food issues, be kind to yourself and really understand that when you adopted those eating behaviors, they served a purpose.  Don’t beat yourself up as you address those problems, sheesh, there are already plenty of people beating you up already! Be patient and be assertive and keep your sense of humor!  I am a big believer in humor as a healing agent.

Q: Anything else you’d like readers to know about body image, weight stigma or self-acceptance?

A: There is always more to say!  The fact that you have found “Weightless” indicates that you have already begun to consider or accept that diversity in shapes and sizes of our bodies is natural and that to insist that all vegetables look like an asparagus is frankly ridiculous.  (No offense to the asparagus; it too is a beautiful veggie).

But keep moving.  Small steps matter. And I’m not talking about exercising — although moving our bodies keeps our bodies moving.

I’m talking about continuing to find ways to reinforce our sense of self, to fight weight stigma and to redefine the cultural norms about beauty.

One of the things I tell my clients is the biggest “wait” problem I see are people waiting to reach a certain weight before they allow themselves to live their lives.

Don’t put your life on hold.  Don’t wait until you look a certain way or weigh a certain weight. You deserve to live the life you want in the body you have right now.

More about Deah Schwartz:

Dr. Deah Schwartz is the author of the syndicated blog, Dr. Deah’s Tasty Morsels and co-author of the “Leftovers Workbook/DVD set,” a unique expressive arts therapy curriculum for therapists, and educators training therapists, in the fields of eating disorders and body dissatisfaction.

She has more than 30 years of experience using therapeutic art, music, drama and recreation activities in a variety of clinical and educational settings including Langley Porter Psychiatric Institute, Walnut Creek Hospital, Oakgrove Adolescent Hospital and worked with patients diagnosed with eating disorders, body dissatisfaction and affective disorders.

She has a BA in Theater, a MS in Therapeutic Recreation, MA in Creative Arts Education, and a Doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction.

Schwartz was a professor of Expressive Arts and Recreation Therapy at San Francisco State University for 10 years, specialized in Health and Wellness, and supervised the clinical internship program for undergraduate and graduate students.

I’m so grateful to Deah for her super wise and inspiring words!