Fat-shaming: you can’t tell if I’m healthy just by looking at me

photoFat people face discrimination in many ways and many settings. It often feels like the last form of sanctioned discrimination – people are comfortable publicly shaming, criticizing, putting down and harrassing fat people in a way they never would when it comes to race, disability or sexual orientation. Part of the problem is that naysayers claim they’re doing it for our “own good”. Fat bodies have become pathologized and synonymous with lazy, gluttonous and unhealthy. Why someone would want to bully someone else into “good health” is beyond me. Plus, stigmatization of obese people actually threatens health and creates health disparities. The thing is, you simply can’t tell someone’s health status just by looking at them. A thin person could chain smoke and eat junk food all day. A fat person could run marathons and be a vegan. And yes, a thin person could be healthy and a fat person unhealthy. Health assumptions, fat shaming and stigma becomes especially problematic in the medical establishment. In a study of 620 primary care physicians, more than 50% of them perceived obese patients as unattractive, ugly and non-compliant and up to a third found them to be weak-willed, sloppy and lazy. Most fat people could tell you of times when a physician prescribed weight-loss as the answer to symptoms and conditions that were not weight-related, while ignoring the actual cause of the problem.

When I was living in the UK  I went in for a routine appointment to renew my birth control prescription with a doctor I had never met before. Dismissing me as I asked for the prescription renewal, she looked me over and declared that I was too fat. She recommended that I take pills that would block by body’s absorption of fat. I asked her what the side effects of these pills were – she said she wasn’t sure. Wonderful response from a doctor recommending you put drugs into your body.  A quick google search reveals that fat blocking drugs result  in a whopping 5-7 extra pounds lost a year and that they cause anal leakage (fun!), abdominal pain and headaches. At no point did this doctor ask me what my eating habits were or what my exercise regime was. If she did, she would have found out that I was a vegetarian eating mostly a whole foods diet full of veggies and fruits, was going to the gym 3-4 times a week and was walking to and from work every day. Imagine that! She also didn’t take my blood pressure, or do any other tests to determine that I was, in fact, “unhealthy”.  It was bad medicine. Luckily, I didn’t let her intimidate or silence me and I walked out of there with a firm no to her unwanted and unwarranted weight-loss advice. It upset me to think what would happen if a younger or more impressionable fat woman was in my seat. Would she have just said yes to the recommendation of weight loss drugs? Would she have felt ashamed of her body and wanted to avoid going to the doctor? If she stopped going would she get the birth control she needed or help for other health issues or concerns she may have? Would she have internalized that advice to mean that thinness was always better, even if achieving it meant doing things that damaged her health? Being treated with dignity by healthcare practitioners should be the norm, regardless of body size.

There is no proven way to make fat people thin. If there were, the US diet industry  wouldn’t earn an annual revenue of 20 billion dollars. Weight watchers long term success rate - the number of people who reach and maintain their goal weight –  wouldn’t be less than 1%. Yet most doctors don’t tell patients that the vast majority of people who lose weight end up gaining it all back, plus more within 5 years. Or that studies show little support for the idea that diets lead to sustained weight loss or even health benefits. This isn’t an issue of widespread, collective lack of will power. Diets don’t work. Weight loss pills don’t work. Fat shaming doesn’t work.

I practice a Health at Every Size approach to my health. I believe that the best way to stay healthy is to put my energy into healthy habits for their own intrinsic value, not out of an effort to be thinner. I have wasted too much of my life going down that miserable path. I ride my bike to work, do yoga, walk every day and eat wholesome food because it makes me feel good, because I like being active and because it helps keeps me healthy. Ultimately, my health is no one’s business but my own, so other people’s opinion is irrelevant. It is not for us to pass judgement on anyone’s health. It’s frustrating to even have to write posts such as this – defending myself and other fat people for just wanting to live our lives free of shame, discrimination and oppression.

Nicaragua – I can’t escape you

I left Nicaragua six months ago knowing the experience had marked me, but not knowing when or if I would return. A few months later, while at a friend’s house party for a lil’ show my musician husband was playing at, word got out that I’d recently come back from the country of gallo pinto, poets, lakes and volcanoes and that two of the guys there were in the throws of a start-up international health development project in Nicaragua. Sitting in that crowded living room, serenaded by the music and over plastic cups of red wine, the founder of the project – a recent grad from Chiropractic College and all around brilliant guy – convinced me to join their adventure. It was a serendipitous night. I don’t believe in destiny, but I do believe that life has a way of taking us back to the people and places we feel called to.

The project is called Doctors for Doctors & Nurses for Nurses. We provide full scholarships for young, impoverished, rural people to fulfill their dream of being a doctor or nurse. We are working towards increasing access to and the quality of rural healthcare in Nicaragua. We are empowering young people to be the agents of change in their own communities. I’m working on grant applications now with the hope of opening a clinic in Esquipulas next year with El Colectivo de Mujeres el 8 de Marzo, focusing on women’s reproductive health and other female specific health issues. We are life-long, local and life-saving.

Myself and Andrew, DFD & NFN Founder, with sponsored medical student Bryan and his family.

Myself and Andrew, DFD & NFN Founder, with sponsored medical student Bryan and his family.

In July the team and I headed down to Nicaragua for 2 weeks to meet with our local partner organizations, check in with our sponsored medical student, develop new connections and produce some exciting documentaries and short promotional videos for our work. It was an intense and rewarding trip – 18 hour working days were not uncommon. Beach days got tossed aside in favour of visits to rural communities and hospitals. We met some truly incredible people. I interviewed a woman who told me she has given birth 11 times – alone, holding on to a rope suspended by the roof of her house, kneeling over a bucket to catch the babies. They all survived. When I asked how, she laughed and said “Luck!”. I interviewed a gynecologist who is leading the fight for the legalization of therapeutic abortion – the right to have an abortion when the woman’s life is at risk.  She told me about a 15 year old girl with leukemia who was pregnant. Doctors were forbidden from treating her because it could compromise the life of the fetus. Both the girl and the baby died. I interviewed a doctor in a small, sweltering room at a small healthcare centre. He apologised for being so exhausted, but he had seen 300 patients that day and it was only 4pm. All of these stories illustrate to me just how vital the work is we are doing. There is a deficit of resources in the country. A lack of adequate care for people living in rural communities. A battle being waged over women’s bodies. So much needs to be done, and I am proud to be involved with an initiative that is trying to be part of the solution.

Our website just went live. Please check it out at http://www.doctorsfordoctors.ca or http://www.nursesfornurses.ca. We’re looking for more talented people to join our team. We’re looking for people to help us with publishing cutting-edge research reports. We’re looking for sponsors for some of the incredible and inspiring candidates we have lined up for our scholarship fund. Join me – join us – in saving lives and making people’s dreams come true.

What Louis C.K. got wrong about fat girls

Last week this clip from comedian Louis C.K’s semi-autobiographical’s sitcom Louis about ‘fat girls’ was making the rounds on the internet:

I’m generally a fan of Louis C.K.’s brand of comedy. He’s funny in a self-deprecating, relatable and dry sort of way. His bit ‘Everything is amazing and nobody is happy’ is a personal favourite. Now, I’m all for generating dialogue on fat discrimination and for greater representation of fat women in the media, but I didn’t like the way he depicted fat girls in this episode. I think he got a number of things flat out wrong about us fat chicks:

“What is it about the basics of human happiness, feeling attractive, feeling loved, having guys chase after us, that’s just not in the cards for us?”

This is a bullshit statement. All these things – happiness, feeling sexy, beautiful and loved and having men pursue us – absolutely happen to us, and not in the exception to the norm kind of way, or only by dating ‘chubby chasers’ kind of way or by tricking someone into dating us with our wicked personalities (that make up for our ‘sad and socially unacceptable’ fat bodies) kind of way either. Fat women date, fall in love, marry and live happily every after all the time. Every single day. Routinely – just like all other women. I’ve dated a veritable mixed goody bag of men, some of whom chased after me and fell in love with me. Last summer I married a wonderful and handsome “normal” sized man who won me over with his warmth, intelligence and offbeat sense of humour. I feel loved, attractive and happy. My story is not an anomaly. I know plenty of other fabulous fat ladies with similar stories of their own.

“You know what the sad thing is? It’s all I want. I mean, I can get laid. Any woman who is willing can get laid. I don’t want that. I don’t even need a boyfriend or a husband. All I want is to hold hands with a nice guy, and walk and talk – “

This makes fat girls look pathetic, as if we’re willing to take whatever a balding, middle-aged divorcee will throw our way. Or any man for that matter. All we want is to hold hands and hang out with a guy who is willing to be seen with us in public? Wrong. So, so wrong. We want the same things all other women want when dating – great chemistry, fun dates, good sex, humour, intelligence, respect and if we’re lucky finding someone who could be a real life partner (if that’s what we’re after). We’re not fish food for the bottom feeders of the dating pool.

“It sucks to be a fat girl.”

You know what? Yeah, it can suck to be a fat girl. There are a lot of things that can make being a fat girl really difficult: being bullied, having less access to fashionable and economic clothing, having to repeat over and over again that yes you can, in fact, be healthy and fat. Oh and there’s also having to face everything else that comes from fat discrimination. Yet arguably the worst of it is that people go around believing and spreading falsehoods about us – that we’re desperate, that men don’t really want to date us, that we don’t get a chance at happiness and love. The tragedy is that so many fat girls and women internalize this propaganda. When I saw through the smokescreen of these lies I realised that being a fat girl doesn’t have to suck – at all. So what if my body happens to be bigger than other people’s? I’m not going to go around apologizing for my size, and I’m definitely not going to let other people’s perceptions of my body affect how I live my life. These days I am rarely conscious of being fat. I love my body and appreciate the way it allows me to go on long hikes with my puppy, ride a bike or do yoga. I am grateful that it sustains me and works to keep me healthy. I’m a fat girl, but it doesn’t suck. Most days it’s pretty awesome.

I do give Louis C.K. some credit – I think his intentions were good. He was throwing his views into a debate about dating, weight and the unfair struggles of fat chicks. He was trying to be on our side. All he managed to do though was to show how misguided and offensive most of these views are, which isn’t that surprising given that the scene was written by him. So really all this is, is a white, straight, middle-aged guy’s perception of what it’s like to be a fat girl. More than anything this scene from Louis shows us what many men unfortunately assume life is like for us. Even more unfortunately, perhaps, is their reluctance to give fat girls a chance. It would have been more bold and powerful for Louis to just go ahead and date the fat girl on the show, without making any mention of her weight at all. That is something we need to see more of on TV.

CM8M: Providing shelter when the government won’t

womens-dayToday is International Women’s Day – a time to celebrate all that has been achieved for women’s rights in the last century and a time to pause and reflect on all that still needs to be done. We don’t live in a world where women have lives free from violence or where gender equality is the norm. I’ve been back in Canada now for a few weeks. In the conversations I’ve had with others, especially women, about my experiences in Nicaragua they often remark how fortunate we are to live in a country where women have recognized reproductive health rights and access to government funded women’s shelters. It’s true – while it’s not a perfect system we do have options.

One of the most important aspects of CM8M’s work in Managua is running a women’s shelter as a vital response to the overwhelming problem of domestic violence in Nicaragua. The State provides no services for women who are in urgent need of refuge and help. In the last seventeen years the Colectivo has safeguarded the lives of 5 120 women and their 15 360 children. Of this number nearly 11% (1 659) girls were victims of rape. These women have experienced horrific abuse, have often been threatened with death by their partners and have experienced psychological, economic, emotional and sexual violence. Most have very low educational levels and no formal jobs.

domestic-violence-victim-007The Colectivo’s women’s shelter provides a safe space where up to 35 people (13 women and roughly 22 children and teenagers) are housed and fed for a period of up to three months. The women receive support on moving forward with their lives and in dealing with the trauma they’ve been subjected to. The Colectivo coordinates with public officials and justice centers to ensure that the women’s legal cases are properly dealt with and that their children continue to receive formal education.

Currently there is no such shelter in Esquipulas, though the Colectivo is one day hoping to build a shelter on the top floor of their office. There is nowhere for women in the town and surrounding communities to go when they are in danger or in need. During my last week in Esquipulas a young fifteen year old girl visited us with her baby, desperate for help. She was from Costa Rica and had met her boyfriend, a twenty-two year old from Esquipulas, while he was living and working there. The year before, when she was just fourteen, they had a daughter. The relationship itself is illegal – a child of that age is not in a position to give consent. Her boyfriend convinced her to return to Nicaragua with him, but not long after arriving he began to beat her. When she threatened to report him to the police he fled, leaving her and their child alone with nowhere to go and not even enough money for a bus ticket back to Costa Rica. All of us at the Colectivo that day so badly wanted to be able to offer her and her daughter refuge and be able to ease her burden. We need women’s shelters so that we can protect the lives of women and children in danger. We need them so that when there are no other options, we are there. We need women’s shelters so that we don’t have to turn young, vulnerable woman like that girl away.

holding_sunThis year the Colectivo in Managua only has 18% of the annual cost of the shelter covered out of a budget of $140 000 needed to cover all the costs. The Colectivo in Esquipulas doesn’t have any money yet for such a service. On International Women’s Day we need to remember that women’s rights organizations need us for support in the pursuit of economic resources. We are privileged to be in a position where we can afford to help. If any of you would live to give to the women’s shelter initiative in Nicaragua please let me know and I can put you in touch with the Colectivo. Your donation will go directly to the shelter and I can promise you your support will matter and will make a difference.

World Radio Day 2014

wrd2014Today is World Radio Day. The day was established by UNESCO as a means “to celebrate radio as a medium; to improve international cooperation between broadcasters; and to encourage major networks and community radio alike to promote access to information, freedom of expression and gender equality over the airwaves”.

The power of radio is indisputable. According to UNESCO you can find a radio in the homes of 75% of the world population. It is the medium that reaches the largest audience worldwide. Those living in rural areas in the developing world have limited access to computers and internet access – radio is often the only effective means available to reach them. Radios are inexpensive, portable, lightweight and run on batteries – important in places where electricity is unreliable.

Many women and men in Esquipulas and the surrounding rural communities are illiterate. The majority of the women who came to the Colectivo for help in the last two years have not studied beyond the second grade. One out of every five women in Nicaragua over the age of ten is unable to read or write. So you can’t get to them through newsletters, brochures, or books, but you can through the radio.

I was told that it was only within the last five years that mobile phones were being widely used in Esquipulas and internet arrived just within the last two years. There is one cyber cafe in town and I don’t know of any residents that have the internet in their homes. Many people here don’t have social media accounts or even an email address. Electricity comes and goes without warning.

radiostationCurrently the only radio stations in Esquipulas are run by the local churches. The Colectivo is hoping to step in to provide a much needed resource. They are in the process of developing a community radio station that will be run by women and young people whose content will not be dictated by religious beliefs.

The Colectivo’s radio station will serve five main purposes:

1) To produce an entertaining soap opera that will educate listeners on issues of importance to them, such as health, education and violence against women. Young people and women in Esquipulas and the surrounding rural communities will help produce the content – giving voice to marginalized populations.

2) To advance women’s knowledge of their rights. The radio station will provide a public forum for discussion and learning about ways to end violence against women and women’s access to justice and legal aid.

3) To provide vocational radio training and development programs for young people and women. Women are underrepresented in media roles in Latin America. The Colectivo wants to change this.

4) To report serious incidents of violence against women and to denounce organizations that do not comply with the law or that discriminate against women.

5) To rent airtime on the radio to local organizations as a means to generate much needed ongoing income for the Colectivo.

The Colectivo has already received a grant from the organization Hivos International for this project, but they need a lot more to make it a reality. The equipment must be purchased, the station must be licensed and personnel need to be trained. The biggest difficulty the Colectivo faces is their lack of financial resources. Most charities around the world deal with this challenge, but it feels more acute here in the developing world. The Colectivo used to receive considerable funding from Catholic organizations in North America, but this was pulled due to their pro-choice stance on abortion. I don’t know if the radio station will become a reality. I hope it does and soon, because it would do so much good.

Trees of life: come bask in the glow of irony

There’s something you can’t miss as you make your way through Managua. They hover tall, like an amusement park spectacle on the streets and roundabouts. At night their yellow glow can be seen through the traffic miles away. They are called the Trees of life. As one commentator put it, it’s as if we’ve walked into the chocolate factory and are now in Willy Wonka’s world.

arboles

Trees of life on Bolivar Avenue in Managua, Nicaragua.

It is said that these trees of life are an initiative of the country’s first lady, Rosario Murillo, who sees them as representative of Nicaragua’s happiness and prosperity. In one of Murillo’s speeches she announced that the trees are a way to celebrate the “…really happy feeling inside, as we convert the city into a celebration of its great blessing, prosperity and victory”. 

It’s obvious that the government is using this spectacle of lights as a political strategy. The trees are big, flashy and opulent. So look, citizens of ours, Nicaragua is booming! See how happy we have made you! They have underestimated their citizens though, who see right into the heart of the irony of it all. These trees of life have become a running joke around the country. Most meetings and workshops I attend include at least one sardonic reference to them. The government’s attempt at using light installations to construct a reality that does not exist has failed.

Critics have pointed out it would have been more appropriate to have planted real, living trees if you´re going to call them the trees of life after all. To me they only serve as a reminder of how industrial and sterile the world has become. We forgo nature in favour of the artificial. We create that which is supposed to celebrate the very thing we have destroyed – the earth’s natural resources.

And what about the cost? There has been an unsurprising lack of transparency from the government, but the newspaper Confidencial has calculated that each tree likely costs more than $20 000 US. This doesn’t include the costs associated with energy consumption and security – they are guarded by watchmen 24 hours a day.

Nicaragua is the poorest country in Central America. Nearly half of it’s population lives in rural areas and 68% of them are surviving on just over $1 US a day. By my count there are about 25 of these trees in Managua. It’s shameful that $500 000 then was spent on something so frivolous. Why not invest that money in education or in social services such as women’s shelters or healthcare? In Esquipulas there is just one small health centre – closed at night. If you have an emergency outside of opening hours, you either wait or you drive the 2 hours to the nearest big city (if you have a car). Half of a million dollars could go a long way in this country, and would have been better spent investing in the welfare of the people than creating an eye sore in the capital.

I want to be like the air

Last week I took part in the last of a series of workshops on gender equality with representatives from different organizations around Nicaragua. The last evening I finally had a chance to see the Colectivo’s theatre group perform their feminist play ‘Ser como el aire quisiera´or in English, ‘I want to be like the air’.  All of the plays the group performs are written by the actresses themselves in extensive consultation with the feminist movement and survivors of domestic violence. The group’s mission is to generate critical reflection on the subordinate status of women in society and in the process they hope to transform this reality.

theatregroups

Actresses: Sandra Arceda, Migdalia Tórrez, Martha Meneses and Cristina Arévalo Contreras.

‘I want to be like the air’ focuses on a woman named Shante who is being abused by her husband. She comes into contact with three women at a studio, where they are rehearsing for their own play. She shares with them the story of her life, her dreams and her fears. Through the process all their lives are transformed. Shante spends most of the play with her leg attached to a stool, representing her captivity to her abuser and her own internalized sense of worthlessness and objectification. She feels as if she is just another piece of furniture in the house.

The play unmasks the excuses many abused women make to defend their abusers and to  justify the violence they are being subjected to. It makes you feel the difficulty victims face in admitting the abuse to close family and friends and even to their own selves.

Shante protests:

¨I  know he loves me¨

¨He is not a bad person¨

¨He says he won’t do it again¨

¨No one else will love  me¨

¨It was an accident¨

¨I deserved it. He was right. I hadn’t done the dishes. I hadn’t cleaned the house¨

¨He wasn’t always like this. Maybe he will return to be the man he once was¨

As the play continues, and with the help of the other characters, Shante confronts her situation and sees her husband for who he really is – a violent man who doesn’t deserve her love and who has no right to dominion over her body. She sees the freedom, joy and lightness in leaving him – in being like the air. She unties the rope binding her to the stool. She dances and sings and smiles. She is free.

This play, and theatre more broadly, is a powerful way to explore gender discrimination and violence against women in a way that is accessible to a wide audience. ‘I want to be like the air’ balances the gravity of the issue of domestic abuse with humour and the musical elements of song and dance. It is sobering and entertaining, a difficult combination to achieve. It is hard to get men and boys interested in feminism and women’s rights. Many young women these days are also distancing themselves from the label ‘feminist’, believing the myth that the word signifies angry, man-hating, extremist, no fun activists.  The arts is a creative tool to help people see that this is their issue too. If you believe in equality between men and women, you are a feminist. Feminism and the equality of the sexes belongs to all of us.

The Colectivo theatre group has performed all over Nicaragua and in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. I would love to see their show brought to the United States and Canada one day.

Look, gentlemen judges. What I most want is my freedom. I want to laugh, write, read, shine, reach for the stars, fly.