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Why Talk of the Obesity Epidemic and Calorie Counts is Actively Harmful

[trigger warning for eating disorders, suicidal thoughts]

I had a very painful experience yesterday that I’d like to share.  I thought about doing this privately, but I decided that it was worth talking about in public because my readers mostly come for a mix of queer issues, feminist, and human rights law, and you may not be aware of the insidious harms of body shaming and talk about the “obesity epidemic.”  There is a slim chance that the person I’m telling this story about could read this article.  I hope that if she does, she’ll understand that it’s not about her, and I’m not saying that I hate her as a person or that she’s a bad person.  I don’t want to shame an individual here.  I want to point out the context of her words, that we live in a society where vitriol like this is acceptable.  For that reason I’m not saying who she is or how we met, just that she’s someone I know in a professional capacity.

So here’s what happened:

We got into a discussion about the “obesity epidemic,” where I was arguing that a lot of the public health messages about obesity harm more than they help, and that children shouldn’t be shamed into diet and exercise.  Her position was very different, so I decided to disclose my personal history of eating disorders (probably EDNOS, I don’t really know how to categorize it yet) in hopes that my perspective might be one she hadn’t considered.  It didn’t really do much good in the abstract, but eventually we got around to talking about the calorie signs that many big cities now require to be displayed in restaurants.
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Mental Health, Stigma, and Activism

This post has sort of been a long time coming, but it’s a challenge to gather my thoughts on what I’d like to discuss here.   For a long time, my identity has been heavily organized around sexuality and gender.  That’s where most of my activism goes, as well as most of my writing and academic work.  I’m sensitive to gender- and sexuality-based discrimination in my own life and in the lives of others.  But lately, I’ve been thinking about another kind of discrimination, and another kind of identity–one that it’s much scarier to claim.

I spend some of my blog-reading time each day on disability, a topic that’s of interest to me because it falls in with so many other oppression- and kyriarchy-related topics, because I don’t know enough about it, and because it affects so many of those near and dear to me.  I am a TAB (temporarily able-bodied) person, and so I have never really identified with disability, but that has been changing.

None of these things are diagnosed, partially because of the challenges in seeking professional assistance and the potential of community rejection, but I show pretty strong signs of depression, anxiety, social anxiety, and binge eating disorder.  I had to fight my urge, just now, to put the adjective “mild” in front of those words, because the stigma against them is so heavy, and I can practically see the judgment coming.

I’ve judged other people for their mental health problems.  I’ve used words like “crazy” to describe people, and as a brightline rule to apply to myself–“I may have some issues, but I’m not crazy.”  I’m ashamed to admit that.  By some definitions, I probably am crazy.

The fact is, normal is relative.

We live in a world that encourages mental unhealth.  Just sorting through the challenge of trying to find a good eating disorder recovery blog that is body-positive, supports HAES, and doesn’t use the language of control and oppression and restriction, is really tough.  That’s because we’re taught that it’s healthy to hate our bodies, healthy to restrict our eating, and if food controls our lives, it has to do with weakness and willpower and personal responsibility.  Similarly, anxiety is normal in a stressed-out world, as is depression.  Those things are “just what everyone has,” but if someone asserts that it actually is a problem, it actually is greater than normal, zie becomes stigmatized, unhealthy, crazy.

I’m tired of guilt.  I’m tired of all the fucked-up issues I have surrounding food and money.  I’m tired of feeling the burden of the constant pressure to maintain a reputation, an online presence.  I would love to write and be an activist for a living, but it’s not a profession that cuts people very much slack.  There’s pressure to constantly produce, not to have an “off” day.  There’s pressure to be able to be social and travel and do things whether or not you feel like it.  There’s pressure to present as healthy, calm, with it, in control.  Of course, there’s very little money in it, so it’s not a very welcoming place for folks whose mental health issues are exacerbated by not having enough.

I’m not going anywhere.  But I am starting to learn and accept that I may not be cut out for this career, for activist “fame,” for material success.  I’m going to keep writing and keep reading and keep talking to people, but I’m going to accept that my periods of disappearance due to social anxiety may mean that I lose a lot of people and am never seen as a member of the community.  The time it takes to tackle my “issues” may take away from the time I have to tackle the world’s issues.  I may be seen as “less than,” “not good enough,” or “unprofessional” by some people and organizations.  I’m going to learn to be okay with that, because the guilt and the shame and the pain of a world that I visualize in constant judgment is too much for me.

I wanted to put this out there because I know I am not the only blogger, writer, or activist in this position.  I want to let you know that you’re not alone and your struggle is valid and the stigma against you is shit and it’s not your fault. I’m not sure I can offer a very reliable ear, because the pressure of correspondence is often difficult for me, but I can try.