Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Being My Own Beloved

Working with clients in my private practice, one of the things that always comes up at some point is the issue of body image. As a clinician, I'm curious to learn how people's body image affects their eating habits.  I often tell my clients, "Improving or changing your body image will take time. There is no quick fix and it may happen slowly but you can improve it."  As someone who as struggled with chronic dieting the disordered eating habits that resulted from it, I have my own experience with body image as well.  Personally and professionally, I think about the tangible things that we can do to help improve how we see and relate to our body.

As part of the Dietitians Unplugged Podcast I co-host with Glenys Oyston, RD, we recently were excited to interview Vivienne McMaster who runs an online program called Be Your Own Beloved. Her program is a 30-day course (she offers shorter and longer courses too) that encourage people to make peace with how they see themselves in images.  We interviewed her because I have had some clients who participated in her program in the past and they had nothing but great things to say about it. We also thought it would be great to share with our listeners in the hopes of exposing more people to the great work she does.  In talking to Vivienne, I was struck with how she encouraged the participants not to judge the photo taking process but instead to approach it with curiosity. When we got close to ending the interview, my podcast partner and I agreed that we should enroll in her next 30-day course.

I started the 30-day course on July 1 and it works like this: each day, Vivienne emails the group with a prompt.  The prompts are simple and you are free to interpret them in any way you like. With that, information you are off to start taking pictures.  What is really nice is that Vivienne sets up a private online group where you can post your photos (if you choose to) for other participants to see. The support you get from others in the program is very encouraging and helps build your confidence right away.

As a participant,  Be Your Own Beloved is quite helpful in getting you to process your own body image feelings in a gentle and safe way.  Because of my own personal work in the Health at Every Size® and Intuitive Eating, I've developed some tools to improve how I see my body, but it is still a work in progress for sure. It hasn't always been like that though. Up until fairly recently, I have struggled with very poor body image. Since high school, I remember thinking I was never muscular enough, never thin enough. I was too curvy, too flabby and always ashamed of my "love handles."  I have finally started to make peace with my body.  I'll be honest, I still struggle with body image.  There are good days and there are bad ones.  But overall, I've learned to appreciate my body more today than I did before.  Pictures have always bothered me and, especially as I struggle with accepting my body as it is, because photos have always been a true reflection with how others see you.

At the time of writing this blog, I'm about half way through the program and I wanted to share some of what I have already learned.  The images that I've taken have been some of the best selfies I've ever been in.  There are some days that I don't want to participate.  Some days my inner critic is very loud, telling me I'm not good enough or this is too hard.  Those are the days that I make it a point to be open to the process.  Those are the days that I am sure to challenge my inner critic and, over time, hope to make it much quieter.  I've also learned that curiosity must be a part of my consciousness.  At Vivienne's advice, I take a ton of pictures and that is so helpful. I don't judge them, I just take the pictures with curiosity responding to the daily prompt and just see what comes of it.  There are usually 1 or 2 gems in the 40 or so pictures I take.  As one of the only men participating in the group, I find that I've also learned how to read the daily prompt and make it mine.  I think that just because mostly women participate in the program, there tends to be a feminine quality to the images that are shared.  At first I tried to copy that notion but realized, hey, that is not me.  So with each prompt, I make sure to add my own interpretation.

This is something that has been personally and professionally amazing. Personally, it is a tool that is helping heal my body image.  Professionally, I have found a resource to recommend to my clients. I would tell them that it can be a transformative experience that will begin to heal your body image, to have a safe space to explore difficult issues.  I would tell them that Vivienne is kind, compassionate and knows how to help you on this journey.

I'm sharing some of the pictures I've taken.  I hope you enjoy them.  Some are vulnerable, some are fun but I'm sharing them so that you can see part of my process.  I hope you enjoy them as much as I've had taking them.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

My Response to Camp Shane Weight Loss Camps

I got the following email recently and rather than letting it linger in my inbox or just delete it, I've decided to blog about it and post my response online.  Read the original email and my response below. 

 Hello Aaron Flores,

Camp Shane is the longest running weight loss camp in the world, with 48 years of experience and expertise in the fight against childhood obesity. Including six camps nationwide, we also own and operate an adult diet program.

If you are interested, we would love the opportunity to provide you with original content to publish on your site or blog, at no charge to you. With nine registered dietitians on staff, we have unlimited information to share. 

To see samples of our writing, please view our blog. Virtually every post is original. covers a wide array of topics for kids, young adults, and families. This includes:
  • Childhood Obesity/The Problem and Solutions
  • Nutrition Tips/Recipes
  • Fitness Tips/Exercise Suggestions
  • Healthy Lifestyle Suggestions
  • Featured Articles from Licensed Staff

Additionally, we have several high ranking websites that we would be able to feature you on as well.

We hope to have the opportunity to speak with you further about a potential partnership, and look forward to your reply!

Best regards,

The Camp Shane Team

Dear Camp Shane,

Thank you for taking the time to reach out to me and offering me free content to publish on my site.  
In my work, I never promote any sort of weight loss strategies, especially for children.  I believe in Intuitive Eating and Health at Every Size® principles and use them extensively in my practice. If these topics are unfamiliar to you, I recommend you do research about both using the links above.  

If you would have emailed me 10 years ago, I would have jumped at the chance to explore a partnership.  I too used to promote weight loss as a primary strategy towards improving health.  I probably would have been so ecstatic that I might have even asked to work with you. But I've changed a lot since then.  I've come to see, not only in myself but in the research, how a focus on weight-loss and restrictive eating habits only leads to disordered eating patterns and future weight gain.  

Aside from the unhealthful relationship with food, the stigma of being in a larger body is something that is caused from our focus on weight and our "one size fits all" mentality.  After all, what we are really teaching people when we encourage them to lose weight is: "Your body is not right; you need to fix it."  

When it comes to kids, putting them on any sort of diet where weight loss is the goal might be the worse thing we can do for them.  We are setting them up for a life-time of disordered eating habits, body shame and weight stigma.  I know you'll probably say, "Our program works!"  Show me the data--not the 6-months,1 year or 2 years after data--show me the 5+ year data.  I am guessing that if we looked, we'd see a vast majority of former campers gain their weight back.  You might say, "But it worked for some." But what about the majority?  Should we really employ strategies that only help the minority of people and ignore the negative effects on the majority?  

I'm kindly going to reject your initial offer, but I'm giving you a counter offer.  If you are still willing to be a partner, I'm game, but I am going to be the one to supply you with the content, not the other way around.  I'll write articles for you on a weekly or monthly basis that will focus on ditching the diet mentality, stopping the focusing on weight loss, learning to love your body no matter what shape it is, and developing a positive fun relationship with food.  I'm sure I can inspire your readers and campers to develop body-positive behaviors that will lead to long-term health, without ever focusing on a scale or encouraging them to lose weight.

I'm going to leave you with this thought.  Instead of focusing on fixing the problem of, "childhood obesity," what if we start to adopt the philosophy: there is no problem that needs fixing!  That's right, we don't need to see "weight" as a something that needs to be fixed, worked on, or changed.

To your campers, my message is this: "We come in all different shapes and sizes.  Expecting that we should "fit" within one idealized body type is just wrong. Your body is beautiful just the way it is.   There are no bad foods and no bad bodies.  Moving your body is fun and is not a punishment for what you ate." 

I look forward to hearing your response to my proposal,
Aaron Flores, RDN

Monday, July 4, 2016

Sorry, My Privilege Got In the Way!

I have a confession to make, I've been saying something offensive for some time.  I'm guilty, no way to hide it and no excuses. I used to say it all the time and I can remember being proud of exposing this type of "issue" to clients or groups. So what did I say that was so wrong?  It was this: "Fat is the last form of acceptable discrimination."

Now before you pass judgement on me, just read a little more, please.

How did I learn that this phrase was offensive?  Let's go back to May of 2016.  I was at an eating disorder conference and this phrase came up in the middle of a weight stigma/bias presentation.  One of the presenters said this phrase and a fellow RD, whom I have a lot of respect for, stormed out of the room.  Her frustration and anger was so intense that she needed to remove herself from the room. The words clearly offended her in a very deep way.  I thought of what I might do if I were in front of the room and had seen my words affect someone so deeply.  What if I said something that offended someone so much that they had to leave the room? I had said these words so many times without thinking how it might offend someone.  What if there were other words I was saying or beliefs I was espousing that were equally as offensive? I sat in the presentation and started to get very uncomfortable.  It was a feeling that permeated through my body and I realized that my privilege as a straight white male, had done it again.  "Privilege" is a word that has been bouncing around in my head for a short-while now.  And what I mean by short-while is that as a 43 (nearly 44) year-old man, I have probably spent 41 of those years (mostly) oblivious to my privileged status in society.  I've only recently become aware of how, as a straight white male, I'm living the game of life on the easiest setting possible.  I might have been aware of my privilege but only until the past few years have I really started to understand and accept it as it relates to society and to my work as a dietitian.

So there I am, sitting in this conference, struggling with privilege.  Realizing that in my life, on the "easy setting," I don't see some things that are going on around me. I don't feel or live with or experience the discrimination that happens every day to people of color, immigrants, the LGBTQ community or any of the other marginalized voices in our society.  I won't see it unless I start to open my eyes.

After the conference session, I went out for a cupcake with a colleague I respect very much. I've only met her in person a couple of times but she is the type of person who makes you feel instantly comfortable and understands all the different issues that come up within the Health at Every Size® community.  So who better to talk to about my uneasiness and privilege than her? (I'm looking at you Carmen Cool). There we are, sitting down to cupcakes and blurt out something to the effect of: "I've been saying this phrase for so long and I never thought it would be so upsetting to someone else.  I can understand now how upsetting it might be as I see there are still so many 'acceptable' ways people are discriminated against, but as a person of privilege, how do I do better, ask questions and not be offending people whom I respect?" I can't remember her exact words with how she answered me but I can remember that it was concise and honest.  She said that by having conversations like the one we were having in that moment is how you do better!  Being open and understanding my privilege, not denying it, is how I start to be an ally.  I have found in my work as an advocate for Health at Every Size® and exposing weight stigma in our society, there are times when I'm too scared to say something for fear of offending someone that is marginalized or oppressed.  But what my wise friend taught me is that being open, admitting your willingness to learn, discuss, see and hear the other side is how we do better.

Speaking with respect to weight stigma, too often we just deny there is a problem.  We say, "Well, I don't see it," or "How can that be?" or even, "If you just lost weight, you wouldn't have this problem."  Those comments reflect a thought pattern that is very dangerous.  It's the argument that because you have not experienced it, you think it doesn't exist.  That is the same argument the oppressors have used when discussing issues of race or sexual orientation.  "It isn't discrimination or racist or oppressive because I don't see it that way."  Of course you don't, you have different privilege.

I'm learning.  I am a work in progress. "Easy setting" living does't mean I can't work every day to better understand how my privilege might cloud my perception of someone else's reality.  It doesn't mean I can't understand or be willing to change or be open to the discussion.  We need more safe spaces (like the one I had with my friend/colleague) to be vulnerable to each other and share our stories and not just hear, but really listen to someone else's story.

I'm going to leave you with quote I saw on Facebook by Tigress Osborn, a fat activist from Oakland, California.  It has helped me gain perspective on how I can be a better ally and if I'm going to frame weight as a social justice issue (which it totally is), then I need to be a better ally to all movements, not just the one I identify with.  That is intersectionality and learning to see the big picture.

Do not let your friends use the phrase "fat is the last acceptable prejudice." The way to heighten awareness of fat discrimination is NOT by belittling other forms of prejudice. Fat people experience discrimination far beyond "people were mean to me" and that shit is REAL and needs to be understood and stood up against. But claiming that we live in a culture where fat hatred is allowed and other hatred is not is some super privileged bullshit to say, and if you actually think that is true, you are not paying attention. If you've been saying that, no. Just no. "But if they said that about Blacks/gays/women/...." Nope. Still no. First of all, they still do. See, for example, the entire internet. Second of all, if your standard for liberation and equality is based exclusively on media visibility and social tolerance for saying mean things without repercussion, you need to come up with a better standard of freedom. Cuz when "they" can't tell jokes about you on tv anymore but they can still run you out of your neighborhood, rape you in scores while no one gives a damn, and shoot you in the street and shrug, it is not a diversity utopia where everyone but fat people are free. Stop. Saying. That. Shit.  -- Tigress -