Reflections on the Weight Stigma Conference 2016

I’ve set myself a bit of an unrealistic conference schedule this year; with that in mind, I thought that if I’m going to write conference recaps at all, I had better do them immediately. Otherwise, I’m likely to forget where I heard a little gem or misattribute some brilliance – can you think of anything worse than misattributed brilliance? (I’m sure you can.)

This week I had the pleasure of attending the 4th annual Weight Stigma Conference in Vancouver, BC. As I write this, I’m still sitting staring at the beautiful mix of mountains and beaches that makes Vancouver a spectacular place to conference. I was also – in the interest of full disclosure around my largely positive views of the conference – on the organizing committee for the conference. I will say, though, that I don’t think my opinion would be different had I not had some say in content and the privilege of working with the amazing folks leading our organizing team (Angela Meadows and Caitlin O’Reilly). I reflected on last year’s conference here, and as I wrote then, this community of folks fighting weight stigma really feels like a family.

I (and a few others) live Tweeted the conference, so you can catch up on the whole thing by browsing the hashtag #StigmaConf2016 – I’ll likely also make a Storify. Here, I’ll highlight some of my favourite moments.

Eating Disorders and Weight Stigma

This year, there were a few talks (including mine) on the subject of weight stigma in the eating disorders field. First, Sandra Gotovac from the University of Windsor presented material from an analysis of articles about eating disorders and how they discussed weight. She noted that when obesity is constructed as a disease (i.e., in the anti-obesity, war-on-fatness way), weight loss is constructed as its solution.

This, as she said, is in direct contradiction with what we know about eating disorders: namely, that weight loss can promote the development of eating disorders. As Gotovac reflected, some in the field do not necessarily question the idea that dieting is problematic regardless of size – there’s a tacit acceptance of dieting at higher weights, alongside a simultaneous problematizing of dieting at low weights.

The take home message is one I wholeheartedly endorse: we need to be naming and unpacking the major tensions between how we talk about eating disorders and how we talk about fatness. Another really important point she made is that body dysmorphia is described as if it is normal, or even necessary, amongst those in larger bodies – that is, Fat people are expected to hate their bodies and this is sometimes seen as a necessary step toward their “recognizing the problem.” Ok, now that we’ve put that horridness into the universe (the truth around how people really think about such things is rarely comfortable), I want to share two amazing quotes that really stood out from Gotovac’s talk.

“Hopefully everyone else is equally horrified that eating disorder researchers are saying people need to diet” – Gotovac

If one thing was clear from the talks at this conference, it is that the idea that weight is controllable often underlies problematic ways of talking about fat bodies. Jolanda Jetten, one of the keynote speakers, reflected on how this belief about weight controllability leads to the problematic entrenchment of anti-fat discrimination, for instance. When weight is seen as being controllable, people accept and endorse dieting as “solution.” There is a lack of acknowledgment that dieting is problematic and ineffective (if we see effectiveness as weight loss, which of course carries its own problems) for people of any size.

“Why is an eating disorder in a thin person perceived as a health behaviour in a fat person?” – Gotovac

When she said this, I nodded so hard my head almost fell off. This relates to how we control, discipline, and surveil bodies in society, etching out a narrow zone of normalcy around whose bodies fit, and telling those whose bodies don’t that they need to alter their behaviours, as if the shift in behaviours would necessarily lead to weight change.

This is a nice segue to my own panel talk, which feels a bit self-serving, but I suppose might be of interest to readers. Along a similar theme, my fellow panellists Carmen Cool and Hilary Kinavey (both amazing therapists from the US) and I explored weight stigma in the eating disorder field. We each reflected on our own experiences in our bodies in relation to clients and research participants, as well as exploring how we’ve seen weight stigma manifest in the eating disorder field. Some of the issues we explored:

  1. How problematic it is to define recovery as being between a BMI of 20-24

I’m pretty much just going to leave that one there; not only is BMI a flawed measure of health (say it again with me: BMI was never meant to be used to judge individual health!), but restrictive eating disorders are not unique to people in thin bodies. People of all sizes can and do get eating disorders – why are we rendering unrecoverable those whose bodies we (socially) reject?

  1. Our own bodies are read by clients and participants, and this impacts interactions

A nice theme at the conference was that our (intersectional, along class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, size, and more) own bodies matter in interaction. The research results we have are inevitably shaped by who we are, as are therapeutic interactions. As I wrote in this post, therapist body size impacts therapy – we can’t ignore this and pretend like we’re all interacting behind invisibility cloaks. While people seem to be more open to this for therapy, I argue that it matters in research too. I also unpacked body privilege and recovery (my own included) in this post.

  1. Eating disorders are a social justice issue, and we need to consider discrimination against fat people as a part of that social justice fight

Thinking at a systems level is important if we actually want to change how much people are able to feel at home in their bodies in this world. We can’t simply work with individuals and “fix” their relationships with food and weight and shape and then toss them back out into a world where they are told their bodies do not fit; where they are told, as Marilyn Wann put it, that they are not human. As she said: “”If Fat people aren’t welcome in society, don’t even talk about our health.” We need to both work with people individually and push for social and systemic change – largely at a policy level, I would argue.

Discrimination and Moving to Action

This push for policy change leads nicely into another theme I was ecstatic to see present at the conference: the need to actually make change. This is tricky: attitudes about Fatness (like other axes of discrimination) are thoroughly engrained in society. They are thick and often feel immovable. As Caitlin O’Reilly and other panellists in a symposium about a program called Balanced View (designed to improve clinician weight bias) noted, many resist moving away from the medicalization of fatness (i.e. don’t want to move away from seeing “obesity” as a disease or problem to be dealt with). Panelists reflecting on a new book called the Fat Pedagogy reader also noted how in order to learn, people need first to unlearn their preconceived notions about what it means to be fat. Change is hard, slow, windy, and troublesome.

The acknowledgment of intersectional spaces of oppression and privilege also made me feel optimistic about the power of this group of humans to make change – for example, Marilyn Wann highlighted how it is impossible for us to talk about Fat without talking about class, too – many “food reform” movements carry racist and classist undertones.

Innovation in change making was evident in the way that many presenters approached this work. Kevin Lindsey, one of the keynote speakers, reflected on how it can be hard to win discrimination cases in courts, even when the discrimination is along race, class, or gender lines. Our hyper-individualizing culture does not make this any easier – people are expected to pull up their socks and deal with discrimination alone. However, he also shared the power of stories in making change, highlighting how working in collectivity to point out hypocrisy and discriminatory treatment can make movement in seemingly immovable areas.

Others discussed the power of language and how shifting the way we talk about weight and size can lead to substantive change. From calling out microaggressions against fat people, as Lauren Munro explored, to changing quantitative measurement instruments designed to measure weight bias, something Patricia Cain is tackling, the way we talk about fat and those in larger bodies matters. Marilyn Wann began the last keynote by getting us all to yell FAT – and there was power in that moment.

I feel as though I’ve barely scratched the surface of the awesomeness that was this conference. Because this is for the Science of EDs blog, I’ve mostly focused on eating-disorder-related talks, but would love to explore in more detail some of the others. If you’d be interested, let me know in the comments and I would be happy to write more (you know how I am).

I will leave you for now with this thought from Marilyn Wann on the need to think beyond normative notions about whose bodies fit:

“I’m just not interested in drawing lines across a bell curve and defining people’s bodies as inadequate” – Wann

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Andrea is a PhD candidate focusing on individual, familial, and health care definitions and experiences of eating disorder recovery. She has an MSc in Family Relations and Human Development and a BA in Sociology. In her Masters research, she used qualitative and arts-based approaches (digital storytelling) to explore the experiences of young women in recovery from eating disorders. Andrea has recovered from EDNOS. She can be reached at andrea[at]scienceofeds[dot]org.

One Comment

  1. This is fab. I wish I’d been there. Always happy to hear more on this topic, especially as a body positivity advocate as well as an ED survivor 🙂

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