My Experience with the ‘Darkside’ of the HAES Community

my experience with the darkside of the HAES community (and four issues I have with it now)

** I am making a disclaimer front and centre so that there are no noncontextual assessments made of this post. I can’t entirely agree with fat-shaming or body shaming of any kind.  I do not think that any person should be treated poorly because of the package they come in. I believe in recovering wellness from any point in a person’s life – in making the most of the health that each of us is capable of attaining. Most importantly, I don’t think any person’s opinions should be ignored just because of the package they come in. While I agree with many views of the Health At Every Size movement, I disagree with the participants of the movement who have become so insular and unwilling to accept facts over extreme feelings  I am not speaking to every member of the HAES community. This post is about individuals refusing to engage outside of their echo chamber and my experience within the community.**

Every ‘journey’ takes its detours, and this one is about one of mine.

It was a detour down the rabbit hole that is anti-diet culture and radical body positivity.

Let me start at the beginning. My previous blog, BeetsPerMinute, was about health and fitness. I launched that blog in 2013 after beginning a process of healing my health and becoming a certified personal trainer and fitness nutrition specialist through NASM. I started the blog to talk about workouts, recipes and my experiences, both personal and professional.

Right around the corner from 2013 came the boom of ‘body positivity’ which I loved. As someone who struggled with multiple eating disorders throughout my teens and twenties, I loved the concept of people accepting bodies of different sizes, abilities, colours – all of it.

I am not ignorant to the fact that the modern body positivity movement was born from the radical fat acceptance movement which has roots going back to the 1960s.

Over the years, many fat activists believe the current body positivity movement has devolved into a party where size 12, white, (mostly) white, hourglass-figured women are predominantly represented over larger, less conventional (yet, more prevalent), and diverse bodies.

Essentially, what we are left with now is a movement which attempts to include the radical sentiment of the fat acceptance crowd packaged into mainstream body positivity which has caused anger and infighting within this ‘community’. Many fat positive people feel as though body acceptance has been co-opted by corporations and influencers to now package body positivity to be less inclusive to the fat community. Fat activists see their fatness as a political act. And I want to be clear, I think people have the right to be treated with dignity and respect regardless of their size, colour, religion, ability, and more. However, I believe that this respect for all bodies should be a two-way street and I no longer believe it is.

I want to talk about the anger and drive to change society by telling people they are no longer in the driver’s seat of their body and that it will do as it will, regardless of their attempt to change themselves. That intentional weight loss – even in the name of health – is NOT positive, but internalised fatphobia and an exercise in succumbing to an oppressive capitalist system.

via Instagram
Credit: DISfigured Film

A glimpse into fat activism online

Recently, I read multiple social media posts and articles by the self-proclaimed, “fat sex therapist”, Sonalee Rashatwar.

Rashatwar has made some bold claims about health, fat, and fitness. Some of the claims include:

I do not think it is a surprise that the man who shot up Christchurch, New Zealand was a fitness instructor. Nazis love this idea of an idealised body, so it makes sense to me that a fitness instructor might also think about an idealised body in this thin white supremacist way.”

“I truly believe that a child cannot consent to being on a diet the same way a child cannot consent to having sex.”

Food addiction is a fatphobic myth.”

I find much of what Rashatwar says to be problematic, with the exception that all people are deserving of respect and humility. What I am discussing in this post is where I feel that the expression of such extreme beliefs is convincing people who are damaging their health (and people who work to help them) that everything science has discovered is manipulation and there is no practical use for such advice.

Where my HAES journey began

I am now going to share something that I’ve only touched on in other posts. About two years ago, I received an email from someone who read my previous blog, BeetsPerMinute about my fitness plans for brides. Without reposting the email in its entirety I will share an excerpt:

Erin, as a person who claims to have struggled with eating disorders and body image issue for so many years, I find it appalling that you think it’s okay to tell women that they should be thin for their wedding. As if being fat on their wedding day is such a problem. Your views are extremely fatphobic as is your internalized self-hate, which is oozing, from this blog. Please do better.”

Ouch.

At the time I received this email, I was personal training a woman who was getting in shape for her wedding and thought brides would be a great demographic to help. I never got into personal training and nutritional therapy to capitalise on making people feel bad about themselves. Was I wrong for offering this service? Should I take the words of a perfect stranger to heart?

And I did take that message to heart. I am human. I still struggle with things, and one of the biggest reasons I got certified in fitness and nutrition is because of how many years I struggled.

Loving yourself and prioritising your physical and mental health are NOT mutually exclusive.  #health #mentalhealth #physicalhealth Click To Tweet

So, I tried to ‘do better’ as I felt that maybe, somewhere in that email, there was a kernel or two of truth. I bought both of Dr Linda Bacon’s books and started to follow the work of the anti-diet brigade. And I began to think that I was maybe part of the problem.

I consider myself to be very open-minded. I feel my deep sense of empathy causes me to continually evaluate how my words and actions make other people feel. I truly started to believe that what I had spent years doing, talking about exercise and nutrition, was harming others. I began to evaluate how much of my interest in this subject was fueled by my experience struggling with body image. Somewhere in the books, blogs, and podcasts, I was consuming; I decided that I was going to stop pushing myself and turn my back on what society wanted.

So, I registered as a HAES personal trainer back in 2016. HAES is Health At Every Size. I still stand behind the belief that healthy lifestyles should be inclusive regardless of size, age, race, gender, dis/ability, sexual orientation, class, religion and other human attributes. I understand that ‘health’ can and does look different on everyone. I also believe that people should be encouraged to engage in a healthy lifestyle without a focus on weight loss or aesthetics. I will always support any person if they approach me about recovering their wellness with dignity, respect, and compassion.

I understand that weight is a symptom of so much more than any of the lazy stereotypes associated with it. It's tied up in so many systems. However, there is a fine line between encouraging someone to love themselves and going around calling… Click To Tweet

Where I now disagree is that you can be genuinely healthy at any size. Are there some people whose weight will not impact their overall health? Perhaps, but I’d like to see how that weight has impacted them by the age of 45 or 50. I have seen far too many cases of this not being so in my personal and professional life. When people start advocating that exercise and weight loss for the purpose of overall health are ‘toxic behaviours,’ I can no longer support that aspect of the movement. I understand that weight is a symptom of so much more than any of the lazy stereotypes associated with it. It’s tied up in so many systems. However, there is a fine line between encouraging someone to love themselves and going around calling people who choose to determine how that self-love manifests (i.e. exercise, weight loss,etc.), ‘toxic’.

I spent nearly two years in this space. I stopped training clients regularly and started to drink and eat more than ever. At first, it felt good to take that ‘pressure’ off of myself. Instead of working out for 60-90 minutes per day, I whittled it down to 30 minutes, then 20 and some days (consecutively) 0 minutes.

Eventually, I started to struggle with motivation at all. I was always angry. I had let my blog and coaching fall by the wayside. I sincerely lost a part of my identity.

Deep down, though, something never felt right, and even in this alleged ‘inclusive’ space, I was still never allowed to have thoughts or feelings about what was said. I had thin privilege and my ‘feelings’ were invalidating someone in a bigger body’s existence.

I was overweight for the first time in years, and I didn’t find it liberating or a radical act. I felt lethargic and fed up. My drinking had increased because I felt so depressed from not exercising regularly and ‘intuitively’ eating far too much food.

You see, I had gained 25 pounds – and at 5′ 1″ that was a significant amount. In fact, my BMI registered as overweight. My period began to come less frequently. I went from a size 2 to a size 10 (UK 4 & 12). I physically felt like shit.

During this time Amy Schumer’s film, “I Feel Pretty“, was released and I watched social media explode about how insulting the film’s message is because Schumer is the ‘beauty ideal’. Honestly, it was around this time that I started to feel like I had heard that comment hundreds of times. I have seen Schumer repeatedly get torn apart for being ugly, fat and many other descriptors. She has to have thick skin to continue to thrive in the public eye. But I also felt annoyed by the ridicule she was receiving from the online critics, because I could relate. Even with my weight gain, I was still labelled ‘thin’ and conventionally fit the beauty ideal. The struggle I was having with my body was treated with the same disdain by members of the very community I was trying to appease that Schumer’s was. I had surrendered my passion for fitness and nutrition, walked the anti-diet walk, changed my body and mindset, and at the end of the day, my struggles were still being invalidated. Where was the positivity? The support? I then realised; I was damned if I did and damned if I didn’t.

The beginning of the end

The cracks had started to form, and all of a sudden I began to think, ‘I’ve only gained 25 pounds, and I feel terrible, and my hormones are whacked out how the hell does a person carrying 2-5 times that amount not feel terrible too? How can they be truly healthy that way? Is it worth it to do this to myself just because I think that somehow I was a cog in the oppression wheel? Am I losing my marbles?!

On March 5, 2018, I woke up and pulled my head out of my ass and took a long look in the mirror. I was hanging out with the wrong crowd. So much of the work the anti-diet brigade does is used to make people who care about weight loss for health, and fitness feel like self-righteous challengers.

From that date forward, I quit drinking, cleaned up my diet and busted out my personal trainer cap. Within four months of filling my life with nutritionally balanced portions of food and daily exercise guess what happened? I lost nearly 30 pounds and felt like my old self again and I have kept it off for over 14 months.

The experience was what led me to further my education and start this new blog and to renew my love of holistic wellness and spreading helpful information about nutrition, emotional eating, fitness, and the struggles of finding where you fit in. I will not allow outside assessments of who I am cloud what I already know is real ever again.

The final points of this post were a bit long-winded to get to (apologies). However, I needed to go through this experience to know myself better. Having taken my life and my health towards the edge and back gave me valuable insight and what I believe to be a considered opinion on the subject of health at every size and my core issues with the extreme side of the HAES community on both a personal and professional level. And as a final disclaimer, I want to say: people have the right to exist in whatever body they are in – without hate or prejudice. But I also believe that people have the right to care for themselves; however, they see fit – without judgment or unfair criticism. Nobody has to lose weight if they don’t want to, but they don’t get to invalidate anybody else’s decision to do so or to be proud of it.

I am certain that this post will be picked apart and challenged and that’s okay. I can also say that this post could be turned into a 500-page book filled with more of my personal experiences, experiences of others, and accompanied by facts and statistics, but people set in their ways will continue to believe what suits their narrative. Perhaps this post suits mine. I don’t believe people should be treated poorly for the body they live in, but I also believe that it goes both ways. If someone had the right to judge and tell me that what I was putting out into the world is toxic, then I have a right to address it and discuss what I find wrong with their criticisms.

How do you feel about the HAES movement? Have you had an experience similar to (or different) from mine? Let’s discuss!

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