What was that smell???
Uh, oh…It was ME!
It was my body odor. It had been a couple of years since it had been this strong. The last time I smelled like this it took 5 days of a yoga retreat in Alaskan wilderness to reset my scent. The preceding event was a watermelon placed on the desk of the only black physician in my clinic. Yesterday it came back as I sat in my chair trying to explain how the members of my Health at Every Size(R) community (all lovely, mostly white women) have made ignorant and even racist comments at times. I tried to explain that I think they need to come to terms with their privilege before their space can truly be inclusive. It didn’t turn out well, at least for me.
The meeting had started off strong. There was another black woman there, glory of glories! She backed me up when I mentioned that the HAES may not be accessible to many POC. She understood my dilemma about quitting the Leadership Team for the Association for Size Diversity and Health because that would mean that the POC total left on the team would be zero. And then she had to leave….
I had come to this meeting with the intention of being honest and I did not want to back down this time. There had been many other times I hadn’t spoken up in this and other gatherings; the fear of being ostracized–personally and professionally—by the only HAES community I had known was too great a barrier. I hadn’t spoken up, yet others—white folk–hadn’t either, yet afterwards they were able to tell ask me, “WTF was that about?!” These folk had been there longer than I. This group wasn’t the space for challenging thoughts and getting uncomfortable, I realized. And because of this it couldn’t be the space for me, at least not now.
And today I’d decided to let them know this. So when I was asked about a proposed outreach/program effort, I told them. “I think it’s great…but I think y’all will still be perceived as well meaning white folk to the POC you meet until you do your own internal work.” It took a long time for me to get it out. And that’s when I started to smell it. The smell that signaled the most intense fight or flight reaction my body knows. But I couldn’t flee just yet.
They wanted me to give them more details. By now my cortisol levels were impeding the parts of my brain that governed coherent speech, and I struggled to give them what they wanted. I tried to explain the complexities of privilege, and thankfully someone jumped in to help me. A woman told me that she could speak up about weight stigma if she were the only fat woman in a room of thin people, but someone else may not, and that was a difference in personality; it didn’t have anything to do with privilege or power. Right. About now the smell intensified and I felt the need to press the imaginary eject button. Due to this comment and a few other awkward statements about communication styles made by the same person, I was getting the distinct feeling I was being blamed for not having the ability to speak up sooner; that it was my own fault for not pointing out every insensitive, ignorant, classist, racist statement that flew across the table and letting it become an issue. Never mind the fact that we were in her home. Did I bring that spray-on deodorant…?!
I was asked again for more specifics, for ideas about education; all while trying to explain that this burden shouldn’t fall on the one POC and the person bringing up these issues. I even problem solved: “NOLOSE had recently done a good job of this; why don’t you talk with them?” I wish I could have spoken eloquently at the time. I wish I could have explained power and privilege and given them a crash course about dealing with our own institutionalized racism. But I couldn’t. At some point I remembered what I had already learned. This is not the space to challenge people. In fact I was even told at yesterday’s gathering that no one ever shows up to a meeting ready to be uncomfortable or challenged.
Maybe no one at that gathering does, but I sure do. I’m ready to have someone point out my blind spots, my racism, my ignorance, and when I eff up. And I think that for me to become a better HAES provider I need to. I think the movement needs it too. What do we do if the HAES Principles are not accessible? How to trans folk, disabled folk and chronically ill folk perceive the “love your body” message that so many HAES folk espouse? How does weight stigma intersect with other identities? How do we push the intuitive eating idea when people don’t have enough food to eat? How does “stop when you’re full” resonate to people with community and collective eating dynamics, where not finishing your plate is a sign of disrespect? I don’t know, but I’m not going to figure it out if I don’t ask! And as Fall Ferguson noted in her last HAES blog piece:
“There is no more neutrality in the world. You either have to be part of the solution, or you’re going to be part of the problem.” –Eldridge Cleaver
I’m going to get uncomfortable, and I hope you’ll join me. I want to move this movement forward, and hopefully you’ll come along. I’m going to start a new group for folks ready to challenge their thought and perceptions. The first gathering will be July 13th and everyone will be welcome; in-person and via online presence.
When I got home from that meeting, and hugged my wife she lamented, “Wow, this must have been super stressful for you” as soon as she smelled me. She, too, could remember the situation from two years ago. This time I was able to wash that smell away with a single shower, and it didn’t come back. I think the reason was because this time I had chosen to fight, not flee, and had the support to do so.
Jessica Wilson, MS RD will be bringing more of her experiences as a person of color working within the HAES model to her blog, stay tuned. Check out her new group: HAES’d and Confused: https://www.facebook.com/events/675167409215091/