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Ashley Solomon, Psy.D is a psychologist who specializes in the treatment of eating disorders, body image, trauma, and serious mental illness.

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28 Oct

Walmart Used the “F” Word and I Didn’t Care

Current Events 1 Comment by Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul

Story

Social and traditional media has been abuzz for the past day or two as Walmart got lambasted for listing larger-sized female Halloween costumes under the label “Fat Girl Costumes.” When Jezebel “exposed” the story, Twitter lit up with comments slamming the retail giant for their apparent insensitivity and shameful decision-making.

I’m going to admit something, and I’m expecting, based on the backlash I’ve seen against Walmart, that this may not go over particularly well. But when I first saw the news story on CNN (right after an Ebola update and before an ISIS segment…), my first thought was, “Wow, Walmart’s more progressive than I thought.”

I’ve asked readers here before what they thought of the word “fat” and the responses were varied and enlightening. Still, at that point, the majority of readers felt that the word was not particularly helpful or appropriate.

Meanwhile, a movement continues to grow in which the idea and reality of fatness is embraced. That includes not just accepting size diversity, but accepting — and honoring — the word “fat.” The idea is that, much like other traditionally stigmatizing words, there’s an opportunity to reclaim the word and thus diminish the negativity and critical power associated with it. Personally, I love the idea of beating the haters at their own game. If I call myself fat — and not in a self-deprecating way, but in descriptive, neutral way — than I’ve taken away your power to insult and harm me with that word. Try again, jerk.

That said, it might be hard for some of us to imagine using the word fat for ourselves or someone else in a neutral way. That’s because so many other words have become embedded with the word fat deep in our brains — words like: lazy, self-indulgent, bad, wrong… It’s important to note the should-be obvious here, which is that none of those things are naturally or inherently tied to the idea of fatness, but our cultural and linguistic traditions are pretty powerful.

So I get the fact that some hear the word “fat” and immediately get defensive. That’s not because there is something inherently wrong with the word; it’s because in their minds they immediately hear all the other words associated with it and feel that Walmart is hurting its customers. If Walmart had said “Selfish, Ugly, Lazy Girl Costumes,” I’d support us being up in arms. But they didn’t. They just said a three letter word that could be argued to neutrally describe a portion of their consumer base.

Now, it’s equally important to consider that words don’t exist in a vacuum. Was Walmart supporting the fat-acceptance movement and promoting a progressive wave of feminism with it’s webpage? I’m not naive enough to totally buy that. But I also can’t say what the intention of the site was. The fact that they’ve now apologized profusely and pulled down the page seems to indicate that they are not exactly trying to make a political statement (or at least not one they were prepared to defend).

Alright, lay it on me… What do you think of Walmart’s “Fat Girl Costumes” page? What do you think of the word “fat”?

p.s. I actually feel a little more offended by the term “girl” in that phrase… You don’t see Walmart referring to adult men as “boys.” But that’s for another day…

 

17 Apr

Could a patch make you feel more beautiful? Does it matter?

Current Events No Comments by Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul

“I’ve been spending so much time thinking that if I could just get myself to like the outside, to feel satisfied with the external, then I would feel peace on the inside. But I realize that hasn’t work,” she said, shaking her head slightly and as her eyes shifted down. “Maybe it’s really about finding peace on the inside first, and the outside will follow. Maybe that’s the key to feeling beautiful.”

Her peer looked at her earnestly, her shoulders lifting into a shrug, and replied, “Or maybe when you feel peace on the inside, you just don’t care about beauty so much.”

I smiled at the reply, noting that I couldn’t have said it better myself. That’s exactly right, I thought. When you feel peace, there are more important things that how I look today.

And I think that sort of sums up my feelings about the latest Dove project. If you haven’t seen the video, under-cover Doves give unsuspecting women a “beauty patch” that they tell them will make them more beautiful. After a few days, the women report not noticing any changes. But soon they say that they are feeling different, more beautiful. They even notice how their own behavior changes as a result of this sudden “beauty.”

(Watch it here.)

Of course, the patch is a sham and the moral of the story is that there is nothing external that can make you more beautiful. Beauty comes from within. La de da.

Okay, okay — when I first saw the spot, I got a little choked up. I think seeing any woman start to feel better about herself gets me a bit emotional. Seeing the women’s reactions to hearing that they didn’t need a patch to help them feel more confident? There were truly touching moments.

But something about the whole thing still leaves me feeling… conflicted… Maybe it’s the fact that these women believed themselves to be putting on a patch — assumably of medication — and didn’t question at the outset what “chemicals” were seeping into their bodies. I realize this happens every day with things like diet pills and special creams that are purchased with similar intent. But it still weirds me out.

Then there’s the fact that the project was created by Dove, a company, like any other hygeine and beauty company, who profits from women feeling that they need their products to feel beautiful and better. I’m not dissing Dove here, specifically. I think they make good products, and I like their soap. But my cynicism, usually buried deep, starts to emerge when I watch this. So you’re telling me that women don’t need anything external to feel good? Well then your sales just dropped… Oh, you want us to still buy your sixteen products though to feel good? I see.

And last, I think I’m a little tired of the message that if we feel good on the inside, we’ll be beautiful on the outside, for the reasons stated above. I think if we feel truly good on the inside, we give importance to things other than how we look on the outside. That’s not to say that anything is wrong with wanting to look and feel beautiful. It’s just what I notice when I think about the truly happy and content people that I know. They aren’t slobs, but they don’t pay a whole lot of heed to their appearance either. It’s not scientific fact, just an observation.

But I’m curious what you think… Do you like the Dove ad? Did you tear up at first like me? What do you make of it?

09 Feb

Why The Biggest Loser is Dangerous (and has nothing to do with Rachel…)

Advocacy 2 Comments by Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul

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There’s a delicate balance in discussing the case of The Biggest Loser contestant Rachel Frederickson’s extreme weight loss. Commentators around the country — world? — run the risk of focusing too much on Rachel herself and the 155 pounds that she shed to be crowned the TBL champion. Around the internet this week we’ve been bombarded with claims that Rachel is “anorexic,” “has an eating disorder,” or is, “disgusting.”

I’m always curious when I hear the popular media report that someone is “anorexic.” I wonder when the “anorexic” person sat in that journalist’s office and reviewed the DSM-5 criteria, and where exactly they received their graduate degree in psychopathology. You get my drift… The fact is that assigning who has and eating disorder and who does not based on physical appearance is a dangerous practice. It’s harmful not only to those individuals being diagnosed, but to everyone with eating disorders.

Unfortunately, many of the writers who have addressed the TBL finale have fallen into the trap of trying to diagnose Rachel. The real issue, though, is The Biggest Loser itself. It makes me sad and frustrated that it took Rachel’s win to shine a spotlight on the freak show that is this competition. (It wasn’t bad enough, apparently, that they put their abhorrent antics to adolescents last year…)

We’ve be hearing for years that The Biggest Loser promotes extraordinarily dangerous weight-loss practices.  Contestants have reported exercising working out (for eight hours per day in some cases) while significantly injured, prohibited from consuming doctor-prescribed substances, and eating far below even the minimum amount of calories to sustain a person. Worse, contestants have reported that they were treated as sub-human, humiliated and shamed throughout the competition (go read Golda Poretsky’s expose — parts I, II, and III — now if you want more gut-wrenching details).

As angered as I am about what I consider to be human rights violations on the part of the TBL machine, what makes me most angry about the whole enterprise is the fact that they are duping the American public. They are systematically lying to the masses and the result is weight stigma and the promotion of unhealthy behaviors. The lies range from telling the public that a contestant lost X number of pounds in a “week” when it is anywhere from 5 to 14 days (and thus setting up dangerous and unrealistic expectations for home weight loss) to claiming the contestants are given a stabilizing  network of support, which is then pulled out dramatically when the cameras are turned off, according to a former trainer.

The show touts health, wellness, and the just how HAPPY you’ll feel when you’re THIN! But what’s behind the curtain is something much darker. Like most of the media, TBL is an enterprise dedicated to ratings and product endorsement. Does Rachel Frederickson’s weight loss concern them? I’m inclined to think not given the show’s history, and would imagine that producers are eating up (no pun intended…) the astronomical attention given to the show since the finale.

So if you’re as disgusted as I am, what is there to do? There are letters to write and petitions to sign, but the most useful thing we can do with our time and energy is to shift our tube time to another program. Don’t get counted in the show’s statistics, even if you’re watching is disgust. Don’t buy into the TBL enterprise with all of their merchandise. And most importantly, don’t get sold the idea that this kind of weight loss is realistic, sustainable, or healthy.

What was your reaction to The Biggest Loser finale? 

03 Feb

Trigger Warning: Are These Warnings Really Helpful?

Ideas to Consider 3 Comments by Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul

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{image credit :: World Bank Photo Collection}

Amanda Marcotte, a writer over at Slate, recently 2013 the “Year of the Trigger Warning.” She points out that trigger warnings have proliferated across the blogosphere in the past year, expanding their reach in the type of sites on which they appear and content from which they attempt to protect readers. Marcotte highlights the outrage that was met by Shonda Rhimes when the show she created, Scandal, failed to provide a warning to viewers of a rape that was depicted on the show. Rhimes eventually acknowledged the purported mistake and tweeted, “I agree that a trigger warning would have been a very good and responsible thing.”

So what’s a trigger warning? While they’ve been used widely in the feminist blogosphere, trigger warnings aren’t particularly common in more mainstream media. They refer to the act of alerting a reader or viewer of material that could be potentially evocative and create distress. They often appear briefly but boldly at the start of a post or other media and list the specific content that might be disturbing to some individuals. Example: [Trigger Warning: Suicide, Rape]

Some suggest that trigger warnings are more common among feminist writers and artists because there is an increased attunement in these communities to the pervasive effects of trauma. The idea, it seems, is that these warnings allow individuals to make more informed and conscious decisions about what they are prepared to ingest. If someone has recently gotten clean from drugs, for instance, they may choose not to read an article with detailed descriptions of substance abuse.

Trigger warnings are all too common in the eating disorder community as well, at least in the community that is recovery-focused. There seems to be an expectation of curtesy among individuals with eating disorders and those who write about them to alert readers if the content could be disturbing or “triggering” to others.

But there remain a couple fundamental issues when it comes to trigger warnings that, to me, feel unresolved.

First, what does the term “trigger” even mean? Is it a noun or verb or both? It strikes me as an interesting word choice that has evolved to have so much meaning. The first definition listed by Merriam Webster for the word “trigger” refers to the lever that one finds on a gun to fire it. I think there’s a bit of irony there in using a word that refers to force and violence when talking about something evoking difficult or unwanted feelings.

The second definition reads, “something that causes something else to happen.” And this is where I struggle with the concept of triggers. From my vantage point, I see the idea of “triggers” referring to things that evoke strong emotions in the “triggered” person. Perhaps other uncomfortable experiences like re-enactments or flashbacks could occur to.

But I often hear the idea of triggers being used to refer to something that, like the definition says, “caused something else to happen.” But the truth is, it takes a multitude of factors for any given behavior or event to happen. Specifically, something that “triggers” one person to engage in self-harm may have no impact on someone else.

The chain events is more complicated than the idea of “triggers” allows. Take eating disorders, for examples. We sometimes use the analogy of eating disorders being like a gun. Genetics shape and mold the gun, the environment loads the gun, and certain events (e.g. bullying, dieting) pull the trigger. But if there was no gun to start with, or if it hadn’t been loaded, pulling the trigger would be impossible or non-eventful.

I personally feel that there may be an over-reliance on this concept. I think it over-simplifies the situation and externalizes the root of the feelings (e.g. “Seeing her eat that pizza triggered me to binge,” rather than considering what you were feeling prior to seeing her eat that, how hungry you were, the availability of binge food, etc.).

Back on the issue of trigger warnings in media, the other issue that is yet unresolved is the very basic question of whether these warnings are actually helpful or effective. For one, I think many people who may be most vulnerable to content (and who could potentially benefit from avoiding reading the post) are often the same people who will read it. This is part because there’s the fact that we are all a little rebellious (who doesn’t at least want to press that button that says not to press it…).

This is also because these are individuals who are emotionally struggling and often in need of support and relating. Personally, whenever I’ve struggled with something difficult, I’ve found myself seeking out stories of others going through the same thing. It made me feel less alone. Misery loves company, after all… So when they come across an article about something they personally have experienced (e.g. death of a friend, physical abuse, miscarriage), they may be more inclined to read it, even if they may be too emotionally vulnerable to do so.

Spending so much time recently turning this idea over and over in my head, I did a review of the research. I figured that that would help me better assess the utility of trigger warning. But it turns out that there’s really nothing out there that I could find addressing this issue. Basically, we don’t know if and how trigger warnings impact readers or viewers. I’d actually love to start doing some research on this, as it’s fascinating to me.

So we are left to rely on our own intuition. It could be that trigger warnings become a slippery slope of individualized censorship, or they could be protective of individuals who are too vulnerable in the moment for exposure to certain things.

I don’t have a firm answer, as I think this issue isn’t black and white and I like to consider what the data tells us before being more decisive on an issue (and there’s none! at least not that I’ve found — if you can, please let me know!).

I will say that I fear trigger warnings might be an example of falsely satisfying our own sense of altruism but not actually helping people. One writer had some interesting questions that he asked about trigger warnings, but summed up that he supposed they couldn’t harm anyone. I think it’s possible that they could (even while helping others). Perhaps perpetuating the idea of “triggers” could be harmful in and of itself, as it takes away from the complexity of given issues. Perhaps it gives us a false sense of security, or even keeps people in a pattern of avoiding things that would ultimately be helpful to have exposure to and work through (with a trained therapist, in many cases, of course).

But what do you think? Should writers include trigger warnings? Have they been helpful for you? 

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