My Body is Not a Billboard
Weight Loss Talk in Eating Disorder Treatment Marketing
by Mikalina Kirkpatrick
I am fat
I am fat. By most subjective definitions of the word I am superfat. I live in a world that reviles my body every day. Even at the Binge Eating Disorder Association/ National Eating Disorders Association (BEDA/NEDA) conference I experienced microaggressions daily. I was “sized up” over and over again; people looked up and down my body and avoided my eyes. Some people openly stared at me and looked away as soon as they noticed me noticing them. There was a certain “invisibility” I felt when thin, white, young, perfectly-put-together women refused to acknowledge me as I sat down at the same table with them for breakfast and said good morning.
I am a white, queer, cisgender woman. I hold a BS in Women’s Studies. I have financial resources to live comfortably with some luxuries. I am married to a cisgender man who is supportive of everything I do and want to do in life. As of this writing I am about to turn 40. I feel incredibly privileged to have had access to compassionate and knowledgeable professionals; ones who have guided me on an incredible journey of healing from what the medical model calls Complex PTSD and BED. I consider myself “recovered from” and “managing” both “conditions” and learning to thrive.
I am now working to help other people heal their relationships with food and body. I had the opportunity and pleasure to attend the BEDA/NEDA conference in Brooklyn in early November. I was thrilled to get to meet so many of the amazing people I admire as researchers, healers, and advocates who are helping people heal and get their lives back. And there was something important that came up that really needs to change.
The defense of “getting people in the door”
I very much enjoyed getting to see Deb Burgard and Judith Matz’s joint presentation on Dismantling Weight Bias in Eating Disorder Treatment. They have both been beacons of how to treat eating disorders with compassion and care without stigmatizing or pathologizing the bodies of people living in high-weight bodies. During the talk, there was a slide highlighting the weight stigmatizing language used by eating disorder treatment centers. The founder of one of the centers quoted on the slide happened to be in the room. When it came time for Q&A she said she felt the need to defend her clinic and herself.
I won’t claim to remember every word she said, but the gist of it was that their clinic believes that they need to use that kind of language to “get people in the doors”. That people are looking for weight loss and that’s how they get people to their site. The same person implied that doctors won’t refer their patients to their programs if they don’t talk about weight loss, and that it helps people seeking weight loss to be interested in their program. She said that they’re doing this because they want to help people, and this is how they reach people but they don’t actually prescribe or encourage intentional weight loss when the people are in the program.
Essentially, she said “We’re doing this because we care.” And I have no doubt that she cares about the people that come to her treatment center. I am not writing this to call out this particular person. I am writing this to reach out to all the eating disorder treatment centers, coaches, nutritionists, therapists, and other professionals who say that they work from a Health at Every Size® paradigm but continue to use weight-loss language in their marketing and outreach to “get people in your doors.”
It’s already hard living in a fat body. Why are you making it harder?
I am already, in so many people’s mind, a living, walking cautionary tale. People, often especially older, affluent, white women, openly sneer at me when they see me out in public. I catch people staring at me on a regular basis. When I have the energy and the emotional capacity to do so, I meet their eye with a level gaze as a way to remind them that I am real person, that I am more than just a body that they find grotesquely fascinating. It’s certainly not all the time, but it’s enough that I notice. It’s enough that it can be exhausting. This happens a lot in places like “health food” stores and other places where affluent white people hang out. 99% of the time, people look away as soon as they register that I am watching them watch me.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t walk around feeling like a victim. I have developed a lot of shame resilience because I have had the privilege of working with a variety of skilled, compassionate weight-neutral, trauma-informed people in the helping professions who practice from a Health at Every Size® (or what I like to call “Liberation at Every Size”) paradigm. On many days I am able to walk around with my head held high, embodied and taking up the space that I know I deserve in this world. Plenty of people meet my gaze and smile as I walk through a store or on a busy street and I feel seen by them as a person.
But I have no control over who encounters me and sees me as a person to interact with and who, instead, sees me as a deviant body, a problem to be avoided, a reason to stay on their diet, a reason to go to the gym before work, a reason to restrict and obsess and continue the cycle of self-loathing and hustling.
I get it. We all have to market ourselves
You know who does have some control over that? The few eating disorder treatment centers and other healing centers who are helping people heal their relationships with food and body, and who practice from a HAES® approach.
To treatment centers who use weight loss language to “get people in your doors,” you say that you use this language in your SEO to get people who are looking for diet programs to click on your URL. Fine. I get it. When people are looking for weight loss retreats or fad diet centers we want them to find the HAES-based alternatives. I can see why you feel the need to use the behind the scenes stuff to get your page to show up in search results.
I’m not saying organizations need to announce on their front page, “We don’t believe in intentional weight loss, you should come give us a try anyway, we’re gonna help you heal!” I fully understand that in a world that stigmatizes fat as much as ours does that you have to be nuanced. But I would argue, there is nuanced language and there is weight loss talk that perpetuates and recreates weight stigma.
When you dangle the idea of weight loss on your front pages and in your blog posts like a carrot to “get people in your doors,” when professionals and treatment centers write about how “Intuitive Eating may help you lose weight”, or when your program offerings highlight how your clients “learn to control their emotional eating and help their body find the healthy weight that is right for them”, or even worse if you talk about how your clients can “learn how to lose weight safely after treating their eating disorder,” is when you’ve gone too far and you are doing harm. Harm to me and harm to other people who are struggling with food and eating. If you are purportedly offering treatment from a HAES paradigm, if you are supposedly a “safe space” for people who are struggling with the intensely difficult work of body acceptance and healing disordered eating but you are using vague not-quite-promises-of-weight-loss language to “get people in the door” then you need to think again about how your messaging is harming the people who you are are trying to help.
What about the people who don’t walk through your doors?
I know how sales funnels work. For every X number of search results you get a certain percentage of click throughs–people actually looking at your site. And for every person who looks at your front page, a certain percentage of those people will read multiple pages and some blog posts to see what your company is about. For every person who spends some time on your pages, some percentage will sign up for “more information” or your free e-course on how to whatever, and of those people a certain percentage will walk in your door. And pay you money. And maybe that is when you tell them “this isn’t really about weight loss, surprise!”
And I’m sure that you do help those people who can afford to leave their lives behind for a few weeks, buy a plane ticket to fly to you, and pay your fees, to spend weeks at your facility to learn what you have to offer. But what about the rest of those people who spent time on your site and read your blog full of strategically vague weight loss language; language that your marketing team feels so clever about? What about the person who was just starting to learn that it’s possible to accept their body and was told by their friend or therapist that “this place is different, it’s not about weight loss”? This person then comes to your website only to get the same message they get everywhere; that their body is a problem that needs fixing, even at this place that supposedly has a more compassionate perspective? And what about all the people who read your blog or subscribe to your Facebook posts because you are a leader in the field but who can’t afford to come to your retreats to learn the real truth?
How many people are going to be searching for hope, searching for that voice that will finally tell them that they are okay, only to find language that perpetuates diet culture and perpetuates the idea that their bodies are problems that need to be fixed now! As Deb Burgard so aptly put it, “you are doing harm.”
My body is not a billboard.
And what about me? What about the harm you are doing to me and other fat people in this movement? Remember us fat people in the movement? When I hear how an organization that is supposedly on my side of the battle is continuing to use the mental image of my body and bodies like mine as a cautionary billboard, to convince people to give you their money, it makes me shudder with anger. You are perpetuating the idea that if their bodies don’t look like mine already, then the idea of their bodies becoming like mine is a valid and motivating fear. The use of my body as an image to be used to “motivate” people to seek care feels shitty. If you or your organization is using weight loss language to sell your programs, you are not safe to me, regardless of whether you call your program HAES-based or not. You are not safe to me and you are not safe to other fat people. We, who live in a world that constantly reminds us that we are not welcome unless we are at least “trying” to change our bodies day in and day out. If you are using weight loss language to sell your programs, you are not on my side. You are not my ally. You are capitalizing on weight stigma, you are doing harm, and I am asking you to stop.
Mikalina Kirkpatrick is a Be Nourished Certified Body Trust® Provider living in Portland, Oregon. Learn more about her work at https://mikalinakirkpatrick.com