An Open Letter to Brené Brown
I was at your Braving the Wilderness book event in Portland, Oregon earlier this fall. I have purchased and devoured almost every book you have written. I have had in-depth conversations about shame resiliency with my community and friends. I have read quotes from your book to my yoga students (I’m a yoga teacher). I strive to live my life wholeheartedly and I believe showing up and being vulnerable is the most courageous and powerful way to create real connection. You taught me the true meaning of empathy.
I would like to share a little bit about my experience at your Portland event, in the name of truly braving the wilderness, as you invited all of us to do.
I arrived at the event, eager and full of joy to get to see you live and in person for the first time. My best friend was with me and we were overjoyed! I got to my seat and realized it was really uncomfortable, my hips didn’t fit, and my knees were jammed into the person’s seat in front of me. I am 6’3 and fat (I prefer this term to “overweight” or “obese” as these terms are used to pathologize my body and dehumanize me). As I sat there perched and uncomfortable I thought, “Oh my god! Of course, I’m gonna go ask for a different seat because I’m here at this amazing event and Brené would totally encourage me to dare greatly, be vulnerable, and care for myself.”
I’m not sure if you have ever had to ask for a different seat in a public space, but it usually goes one of two ways for me. Either the people at the venue are kind and help me figure out a solution and I can talk myself off the ledge of a shame spiral, or they insist there is nothing they can do, so I shove myself in the seat that I barely fit in and stew in shame soup, later finding bruises on my hips from the arms of the chair and bruises on my heart from feeling, again, that I don’t belong or fit in a space that is designated for “everyone”. But that night felt different, I felt empowered and I felt brave.
I asked someone at the door to help me out, and they sent me to the box office where two really kind men helped me sort out a new solution. As I was standing there I noticed a gap in the curtain where the backstage area was, and I saw YOU! I even had a little thought that perhaps you have a brave-o-meter and can sense when an act of courage is happening within a 50-meter radius and wondered if you could tell that I was, in fact, standing there—courageous as fuck— and beaming because I participated in my life and I asked for what I needed.
Once settled in my new seat, I was comfortable and ready for the show. You came on and immediately had the crowd rolling and smiling and I felt a sense of connection with everyone. As you got into your groove, I was feeling it and then you started talking about loneliness. As you were talking about loneliness you quoted a study or fact that people are more likely to die from the effects of loneliness than smoking and obesity…I looked around when you included this word and I didn’t see shock, I didn’t see dismay, I just saw a bunch of people nodding and smiling.
But I felt confused, and I felt hurt, so let me tell you why…
My body has been pathologized my whole life by doctors, and healthcare professionals, and I always thought my size was my fault. I also thought that if I just found the right diet or the right amount of exercise, I could cure myself of the unbearable burden of living in a larger body.
I’m not sure if you know, but the guiding force behind the dieting industry is shame. And do you know the guiding force behind the so-called “obesity epidemic” is the diet industry? And the guiding force behind the diet industry is capitalism, not healthcare? Did you also know that the western medical system prescribes diets for weight loss as the “cure” for obesity when there is no scientific data that shows diets equate to lasting weight loss? There is actually more data that shows dieting leads many into a lifetime of disordered eating, which often results in a higher set point weight—the weight the body feels comfortable and stable at.
So as I’m sitting in my comfortable, arm-free chair that I had to advocate for myself to get, and I hear the word obesity coming from the woman who is supposed to be an expert on shame, I feel my heart sink. I did not choose to be fat. In fact, I’ve cycled between starving and gorging my body almost my whole life because of my fear of fatness. I am a lot fatter now because I tried to tamper with my body’s hunger system rather than allowing this amazing body of mine to be trusted to sort itself out.
Now you may be thinking, “wow this person who I don’t know, is sharing a ton of information with me, all because I used the word obesity?”
Yes, because using the word obesity is a micro-aggression and every time I hear it, I feel a little paper cut on my heart—a little reminder of what the world thinks of my body and me. Every time I hear the word obesity, I know someone around me is sitting in shame because someone else has just pathologized their body and dehumanized them. Fat people are dehumanized daily by society. Your talk was about how we dehumanize people. Do you not see the connection? People should not be dehumanized by the queen of shame resilience.
Over time, these little cuts on my heart become big gaping wounds and I know that you are in the business of healing shame and not fueling it.
So when I heard you use obesity in a context that could have been swapped out for any REAL disease or ailment without taking away from the point you were making, I had to say something. Because I love you Brené, and I love the work you do. But you spoke to a room full of people about how we have to stop dehumanizing our fellow brothers and sisters, and then you dehumanized every fat person in the audience. So please, please, please stop using the word obesity.
One of the greatest tools we have in the fat acceptance and body positive movement is your brilliant work on shame resiliency. It has helped so many beautiful, sad, confused, and self-blaming fat people find the bravery to live their lives. Day in and day out I have to navigate the world knowing that I might be dehumanized.
I might be referred to as an animal.
I might get called a fat bitch.
I might have to ask for another seat.
I might be refused a seat on an airplane.
This letter is not meant to shame you because I truly believe you don’t know about the experience of a fat person who is trying to reclaim their body and has decided that they will not be blamed for the cultural oppression and stigma of weight bias and fat-phobia. You, yourself, might be deathly afraid of being fat. I know that fear so deeply. And that’s why I feel it is my duty to share with you my experience. Because if we are truly going to make the world a better place then we have to do it together.
This world has a whole lot of amazing changemakers who happen to be fat. I think it’s time we invite sizeism into the diversity conversation to make space for healing. I’m in the wilderness with you Brené, let’s widen the lens together.
Anna Louise Eileen Chapman
Be Nourished Business Manager