Fat Activism, Food Activism, and Health

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–By Shauna Aura Knight

Hi, I’m Shauna, and I’m a fat Pagan. I’m also celebrating having lost over 100 pounds in the past couple of years, and improving my health by leaps and bounds. Actually, this week I’ve hit a milestone of being about to cross under 200 pounds for the first time in 7 years.

Weight and health are an issue that recently divided the Pagan community in some drama. About a year ago there was a big hoopla about a post my friend Peter Dybing wrote on his blog. I can sum it up as, there are folks who were concerned about the number of fat Pagans and the health issues they observed in the Pagan community. The backlash from many Pagans was, stop judging me for being fat and I don’t need to lose weight for you.

It was a bit more heated than that, but there’s the gist. As with many things, I sit in the middle; I have to believe that there’s a middle road on this issue.

I’m obviously not writing this from the armchair. I have struggled with my weight for my entire life; I’ve been teased, shamed, made fun of, and discriminated against. As a kid, I was verbally, emotionally, and sometimes physically abused by my peers, and I have struggled with self esteem and the scars of rejection. It’s taken me a lot to get comfortable with who I am, and I don’t want to be judged for being fat. I’m sick of it, I’m tired of it. We who are fat are thought of as stupid, lazy, binge eaters, among other things.

Discrimination

People who are overweight face massive discrimination, and that really needs to stop. While I can’t change this worldwide, it is something that I believe that we can–in our Pagan communities–work to transform. Some of our bodies are built differently than others. Some of us have reasons that we have a harder time losing weight. And let’s face it, the BMI index is not very realistic. Me at 150 pounds, I’d look like a starved, bony husk. 180 is probably my best target weight. I’m still what society considers a fatass at 200 pounds, but I’m a fatass that’s happy with her body and feeling healthy.

However, I’m also writing this as someone who has worked hard to lose weight. At 300 pounds, or especially when I was 340 pounds back in my mid 20’s, I’m not a healthy as I am at my current weight. All sorts of health issues crop up for me the larger I get.

I have worked to get healthy as part of my spiritual practice, and  I’m interested in the places where fat activism and food activism intersect. If my body is a living temple of love, as one of my favorite chants says, how do I treat my body as a temple?

Some of us who are overweight have health issues related to our weight. So while I respect the “fat activist” perspective of, “I don’t need to lose weight to make you feel better,” as well as the scientific data that says that being overweight is not the massive health issue that many people assume it is, I would also offer that there are health issues related to weight. It’s not an either or–it’s a lot of gray area.

After I lost 50 pounds, I had an easier time moving. My foot pain got better. My back pain eased up. The borderline diabetic symptoms eased. After I’d lost 75 pounds, the foot pain was almost gone. All it took was losing 20 pounds to reduce symptoms from Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome.

I can’t credit weight loss for all my health benefits. I’ve written about my own process extensively here on my regular blog, because I don’t really know how much it was losing weight that helped reduce my depression symptoms, and how much it was eating more healthy. I can say that once I found out the right foods for me (no gluten, dairy, aspartame, low sugar, etc.) the weight fell off of me, and my depression symptoms eased up fast.

And I think that’s the middle road that I’m talking about here, because what I’m writing about isn’t actually about weight. It’s about health. I’d like to see Pagans value health more. Those who are overweight and it’s causing health issues–I’d like to see us losing weight to ease up those health issues. There are fat unhealthy Pagans, skinny unhealthy Pagans, smokers, you name it. There are lots of ways we can reduce the health issues in our community.

But yet I have to ask the question, why are there more overweight Pagans?

Community Contrast

Perhaps some community contrast is useful. I remember reading a study by someone going to Cherry Hill Seminary that offered data suggesting that Pagans are twice as likely to be overweight as non-Pagans. Wow. Anecdotally, I have always felt like my body type/shape was more accepted when I was at a Pagan event. So is it because we are where the “different” people go, because we follow a different spirituality?

Then I started attending events within the Burning Man community. (For those unfamiliar with Burning Man, I suggest googling it.) It’s a similar to Paganism in many ways; many Burning Man folks might define themselves as spiritual but not religious; there’s a lot of Yoga, meditation, breathwork, and other spiritual practices. I haven’t met many Burning Man folks who self-define as Pagan or who attend Pagan events.

When I go to a Burning Man event in Chicago to lead a ritual, I’m always the fattest person in the room. Even now having lost all this weight, I’m still likely to be the person with the most bodyfat. Given the similarities in Pagan/Burner subcultures and spiritualities, I’ve wondered about how this has come to be.

Without a cultural anthropologist on the payroll, I can only tell you the differences I’ve observed. I have noticed that in the Burning Man community, there seems to be a huge focus on ethical food, and healthy eating as a part of environmental justice.

In the Pagan community, I notice a lot of people talking about depression, fibromyalgia, chronic pain, and other related illnesses. In the Burning Man community, I don’t know that I have ever seen online or heard in person anyone talking about any of these. It’s also not to say that the Burner community is better; I also see rampant drug abuse in that community being generally tolerated.

Healthy Community
I’m not here to be judgmental or blamey of overweight Pagans. And I don’t believe that fat instantly leads to health problems–it doesn’t, for many people. I’m here to say that I want to see us all be the healthiest we can be, to honor our bodies, and our communities. So how do we do this in a way that doesn’t ostracize those who are overweight, while encouraging all of us to live healthier?

Partly it’s working to understand that we all have different bodies, different genetics. A size that’s healthy for me is between 180-200 pounds, which might look fat to you. Some of us will have health issues from being overweight, some won’t, some of us lose weight easily, some don’t, some are sensitive to certain foods, some aren’t. Health for you looks differently than health for me. One person may need 3,500 calories a day just to maintain a weight of 100 pounds; I gain weight eating more than about 1000-1200 calories a day.

Healthy is not synonymous with skinny; at 5’10, at 150 pounds I would probably look emaciated and still have the bone structure of a brontosaurus. I would be skinny and plus sized at the same time. Truthfully, I now have good self esteem about my body frame/size; I like being tall, strong, amazon.

What I don’t like is being so fat that it’s hard to get around at a Pagan festival, or when I’m running an event. I lost a lot of weight in my late 20’s, and then gained most of that weight back, largely from depression and going back to eating foods that are bad for my body. Over a year ago I began working to lose weight and get healthy.

Who is Fat?
Here’s what fat activism is for me; even when I’m at a weight where I feel fit and healthy, I’m still what the broader society would call a fatass. BMI still says I’m obese, I still have to buy clothes that are “extra large” or Plus sized, because of my body frame and bone structure.

For me, fat activism is that some of us have a larger body frame or a difficult time losing weight. Some of us have worked ridiculously hard just to lose some weight, and that we are can be overweight, healthy, and beautiful. So, anyone who judges me for being fat at the weight I’m at now, can pretty much go suck an egg as far as I’m concerned. 🙂

What I don’t support the fat activism of folks who are at a weight that is unhealthy for them, who refuse to try to lose weight because they believe they are catering to society’s image of what they should be. To be clear, I’m talking about people aware of health issues they have because of their weight, such as sleep apnea, but they refuse to try and lose weight because they feel this would be “giving in.”

In the past weeks I’ve seen posts from 2 different Pagans, one who was afraid to mention that she’d lost 40 pounds because she didn’t want people to judge her for losing weight. Another had posted about losing weight in a “health at every size” online forum and had been blasted for having weight loss as a goal.

Can’t we figure out a way to value being healthy, and not discriminating against fat people, and acknowledging that, for some of us, losing weight is an appropriate health goal? Just as for someone who is underweight, gaining weight is an appropriate health goal? And that for some of us, the fat we carry doesn’t mean we are binge eating or stupid, it just means we are built bigger. Can’t we hold that paradox?

I do support Pagan communities, community leaders, and community members, championing good health and working to help community members get healthy. I don’t support people turning into fat police.

As I write this at 200 pounds, I’ve noticed tremendous noticed health benefits: more endurance, stronger, less back pain, foot pain, joint pain, less lethargy and exhaustion. Financially, it’s easier for me to find inexpensive clothes that fit me And, since I also value the activism of talking about sex, sex is physically easier too.

Healthy Living 

Not everyone loses weight easily. I know that it took me my years to find what food works for me, and, it requires tremendous sacrifice on my part of foods that I like. The times when I’ve screwed up my eating plan by eating bread or dairy, it’s clear to me how bad that food is for my body. Depression, brain fog, joint pain, acne, lethargy, and migraines, have all followed, so at this point it’s just as much about feeling healthy as it is about weight.I think that the lessening in my depression symptoms, for me, are less about my weight and more about foods (wheat, dairy) and chemicals in processed foods that my body is intolerant to.

So what are some of the ways we each can encourage each other to live healthier? Let’s look at some things that are probably not so good for our health:

  • Smoking
  • Fast Food, Processed Food
  • Aspartame and other “sugar free” sweeteners
  • Processed sugar (cane sugar) added to many foods
  • High Fructose Corn Syrup
  • Genetically modified food, hormonally treated meat, meat from animals treated with antibiotics
  • Preservatives and other chemicals added to foods

There’s more, but any of these certainly aren’t doing our bodies any good. Some of us will tolerate aspartame or metabolize sugar better than others. Some of us are allergic to gluten (wheat) or milk. Some of us respond well to red meat, while others metabolize a vegetarian or vegan diet better.

How this activism works for me is to eat healthy and by example show how it has improved my life. It’s also to build a culture valuing healthy eating and living in the communities I serve.  I believe the answer, over time, is to encourage a culture of healthy living, and help each person to figure out what that looks like for them.

I’d like to see more Pagan food co-ops, more Pagans growing their own food or buying ethically-treated/non-hormone-treated meat, more Pagans supporting farmer’s markets, or heck, even farmer’s markets at Pagan festivals. I’d like to see Pagans living earth-centered values. Let’s treat our bodies as a temple to be the healthiest we can. And let’s treat the earth as our temple by eating food that has low environmental impact, eating meat that doesn’t come from mistreated animals.

Let’s also value each other in our communities by not shaming and judging people who are fat. Maybe they have health issues and mobility challenges because they are fat. And, maybe they are fat because of other health issues. Can you hold compassion for them and not make assumptions about why they are fat?

And going further, instead of going to the other extreme of the posts I see about “Real women have curves,” can we stop shaming people who are skinny just to make ourselves feel better? I know people who have a hard time gaining weight to get over 90 pounds. Just as I have a hard time losing weight. Can we stop body shaming and acknowledge that we all have different body sizes and shapes, and honor them, while also working to be the healthiest we can?

So what about you? How can you get healthier, or help promote healthy values in your community?

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BioShauna2Shauna Aura Knight is an author, artist, ritualist, community builder, activist, and spiritual seeker. She travels nationally offering intensive education in the transformative arts of ritual, community leadership, and spiritual growth. She’s the published author of books and articles on leadership, ritual facilitation, and personal transformation, as well as an author of fantasy fiction. Her mythic artwork is used for magazines, book covers, and personal shrines. Check out her blog on Pagan leadership and community building or her web site for more information on upcoming classes, rituals, books, and articles.

6 thoughts on “Fat Activism, Food Activism, and Health

  1. Patty Teague

    I have often thought, that as much as I complain about being larger than I like, How easy it is for me to lose weight when i actually bother to do somethng. I realize other people find it hard to do, and this is no comment on them. If it easy for me to do, shouldn’t I just shut up and do it? I think I should. Thank you. Very thought ful.

  2. darlene

    I am not pagan. Although I did practice it in my past. I still found this article very helpful. I think this could apply to the community at large too. We can all make more health-conscious decisions when it comes to what we eat and where it comes from. This might be difficult for us to do. We live in a world where everything is processed (or so it seems). I think every small step we take to live this way will help us form the big picture we are trying to get to.

  3. Editor B

    Great article, well-written and thoughtful. I like where you’re coming from.

    A year or two ago, when I mentioned my interest in contemporary Paganism to a friend, I was surprised when he made a comment to the effect: “Isn’t it a bunch of fat chicks?” I was shocked that a highly educated individual would make such an odious remark. But it bears out the idea that there is indeed a stereotype floating around out there in the popular culture.

    But I thought it was just a stereotype. You mention an article with statistics actually correlating Paganism with obesity. That would be very interesting to see. If you can dig up a link I’d appreciate it.

    For my part I’ve been kind of obsessed with health and well-being lately. I do see taking care of ourselves and each other as a form of religious devotion.

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  5. Allec

    To me, Fat Activism isn’t ignoring health problems but making health a personal matter. A lot of the discrimination that happens is when people look at a body and immediately judge, “That is unhealthy” without knowing anything about the person. People equate losing weight with being healthier.

    I honestly feel uneasy when someone is aimed at losing weight. To me, that is having the priorities in the wrong area–even with someone who has weight-related health issues. Instead, I rather hear about the health benefits. Such as, “Hey! After changing my diet, I’m finally done with this illness!”

    My boyfriend is barely 170 pounds. Yet, when my mom says that I need to lose weight to be healthier and that he just needs to change his diet. We eat the same meals–but you wouldn’t tell him to “lose weight” to be healthier.

    Fat activism, or at least my activism concerning weight, is to change that dialogue. We BOTH need to eat better. It has nothing to do with weight–it has to do with not eating enough meals in the day (we eat snacks and call them meals.)

    Everyone’s body is different. Generalizing health is problematic. Each person is an agent of their own health. It isn’t for strangers to comment on or to criticize.

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