I am a college health educator and I am fat. I suspect that people do a mental double-take when I introduce myself as a health educator. My educated guess is based on the fact that fat stigma exists. In 2009, Salon published an article asking if Dr. Regina Benjamin, a renowned MD and recipient of the MacArthur genius award, was “too fat” to be Surgeon General. If folks are asking that about her, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine they’re wondering about me too. But here’s the thing. I don’t think my weight has any bearing on my qualifications as a health educator, and here’s a whole list of reasons why.
- Nutrition, fitness, and weight management are only one small part of a college health educator’s job. Depending on a college’s size and organization, they may not be in the job description at all. For example, my job description instructs me to spend at least 60% of my time on alcohol and drug abuse prevention, with a secondary focus on running our peer health education program. My next prescribed priorities are stress management, sexual health education, tobacco cessation, and sexual assault prevention. In my copious spare time (sarcasm alert) I attempt to cover the rest, including cold and flu prevention, cancer prevention, eating disorder prevention, and education around sleep, nutrition, and fitness.
- Not every health educator became a health educator because they’re a nutrition and fitness enthusiast. In fact, a lot of college health educators get into this field because of the badass health topics we get to cover: sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll. My academic interest in sexual health politics (the HIV epidemic, Roe v. Wade, etc.) are what led me to this field; learning more about other wellness topics in the process has been a bonus.
- You can’t accurately judge my health status based on my weight. Health does not equal thin. Plenty of thin people engage in unhealthy behaviors, and plenty of fat people engage in healthy behaviors. It is folly to assume that you know anything about a person’s health based on their appearance.
- Sometimes being a fat health educator can actually come in handy. Students struggling with weight, body image, or eating disorders sometimes feel more comfortable speaking with someone who they believe can relate to their experiences. Just as they might judge fat health educators as being able to relate to those experiences, they may judge thin health educators as being unable to understand their struggles. Clearly, you cannot tell by looking at a person whether or not they have struggled with weight, body image, or eating disorders, but it’s not far from the mark to assume that a visibly fat person has probably experienced fat stigma and can relate to what that feels like. The desire to receive help and support from someone who shares your experience or perspective is not unique to this issue. For example, many people struggling with substance addiction seek help from other recovering addicts. We see this in the sponsorship model in Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. It’s also not surprising that at any given time, 37%-57% of addiction counselors are in recovery themselves. I do not intend to equate the experiences of being fat and addiction because they are two completely different things. But sometimes it really helps to talk to someone who’s been there, you know what I mean?
- As a fat health educator, I know first-hand that nutrition, fitness, and weight management are not easy or simple – despite what some people would have you believe. I also know first-hand the unintended consequences of talking about weight management as if it were easy, simple, or even attainable for the majority of people. Those unintended consequences can range from frustration to self-hatred, from “fat talk” to dangerous disordered eating and exercise behaviors. As a result of this knowledge and experience, I am incredibly careful in my messaging around nutrition, fitness, and weight management. I avoid using calorie counts because those numbers can be triggering for people struggling with eating disorders. I stress Health at Every Size – a philosophy that promotes healthy eating and exercise behaviors for their own sake, regardless of whether or not they result in weight loss. I do not promote dieting, but I do promote making healthy dietary choices. I teach nutrition, fitness, and positive body image within a framework that supports an understanding of wellness as multi-dimensional – and I trust students to decide for themselves which dimensions they will prioritize.
It has been suggested to me that I should lose weight in order to be “taken seriously” as a health educator. This is so, so, so problematic on so many levels.
First of all, this is essentially saying that in order to escape the consequences of fat stigma, I should stop being fat. That’s a bit like suggesting a black person change their race in order to avoid the consequences of racism in the workplace, or that gay people stop being gay in order to avoid the effects of homophobia. With social stigma, the morally correct response is to fight to end the stigma, not eliminate the group of people who are stigmatized.
To be sure, being fat is different from being black or gay. I do not mean to equate these different experiences of oppression. Instead, I am suggesting that it’s not really helpful to think of being fat as something a person can necessarily change.
People do not always have control over the circumstances of their lives, especially in regards to health and disability, access to medical care, and financial security. Sometimes people may have medical reasons why they cannot lose weight. For others, the time, money, and energy it would require to lose weight may be more than they have to give. To assume that every fat person could lose weight if they chose to is a hugely reductive perspective, based in stigma, that denies fat people the right to their own individual stories, situations, and experiences.
To get more personal, I guess I could be classified as a person who “could” lose weight if I chose to. The thing is, I have made that choice in the past and it didn’t go so well for me. You can read all about in “My Breakup with Exercise.”
From my past experience, I know that In order to be a thin health educator, I would have to sacrifice to a degree that would have an overall negative impact on my life and personal wellness, as well as my job performance. For me, maintaining a low body weight is a mentally exhausting and extremely time intensive endeavor. It requires devoting nearly all of my free time to exercise and meal planning, to the extent that I do not have enough time or brainpower leftover to hang with friends, see shows, or work on creative projects like quilt-making, comedy writing and improv, and this blog.
The “decision fatigue” from focusing so much attention on food choices would also take its toll at work, leaving little decision-making power for my actual work. Plus, have you ever tried to go a whole work day on yogurt and salad? It’s not easy to keep that upbeat smile going when you’re hungry and irritable, and it’s definitely inconvenient when a serious one-on-one with an at-risk student is continually interrupted by your stomach growling.
However, with moderation, I can maintain a decent level of health without making those kinds of sacrifices. I may not be thin, but I can live a full life and perform my best at work.
For me, wellness continues to be a journey.
Each year I adopt new behaviors to improve different dimensions of my health and wellness. My priorities may change, but I will be continuing this journey for the rest of my life. My weight may or may not fluctuate as a result of my choices, but I refuse to think any less of myself for doing health education – or any work, for that matter – in a fat body.
So the next time you judge a health professional for being fat, take a step back and check your prejudice. It is up to all of us to create a future where professionals are judged not by their appearance, weight, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, or gender expression, but by the quality of their work.