Monday, March 21, 2011

Endangered Species Women Reflection

This weekend I attended the Endangered Species Women summit in New York City. The summit, organized by Courtney Martin, author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, aimed to address the toxic body culture that encourages women to hate their bodies.

I gotta say, I had been looking forward to the conference for a while. I'd read Martin's book, and it's amazing, and I knew that Jean Kilbourne of the "Killing Us Softly" documentary series would be there as well, so it seemed like such a perfect way to spend the weekend. But of course, I had no sleep between getting off my overnight shift and boarding the bus to NYC, where I got very little sleep, so staying awake for the opening ceremonies and keynote was difficult. However, one presentation that night did resonate with me, and it was one of the best topics of the summit. A middle aged woman got up and told the story of how her doctor voiced concerns that her daughter had put on too much weight. The woman went on to explain that heavy women often face discrimination from doctors, who hardly ever support the Health At Every Size (HAES) approach to weight, and that this needs to change through education of healthcare professionals.

This struck a chord with me because my personal weight obsession has similar roots. When I was 14, and a mere size 5 (7 on a good day), my doctor told me I was gaining weight too fast and needed to cut back on the junk food. I remember crying after the appointment, and my parents trying to assure me that there was nothing wrong with my body. They stopped taking me to that doctor, but the damage had already been done. Ever since then, it was in the back of my mind, and even in college I've had the occasional fear of gaining too much weight. Sometimes it's an aesthetic issue, sometimes I believe WebMD's hips to waist calculator that tells me I carry too much fat in my hips and I'm probably going to develop diabetes. It also made me think about how every healthcare professional I've dealt with since age 13 has tried to throw some sort of acne medication at me, whether or not I wanted one, and despite any protests I might have had, but more about that in another post.

Later in the summit, in the last panel, someone mentioned that weight-related statistics are often manipulated in order for an organization to get funding, or for a company to sell weight loss products. It was also said that there isn't that much comprehensive research proving that being overweight is always unhealthy.

Aside from discussing how the healthcare industry exacerbates toxic body culture, another thought that resonated with me was the idea that women don't trust their bodies to work properly. People refuse to undergo home births and natural childbirths because they don't think their bodies will do what they're supposed to. Not surprising in a world where we're constantly told that our bodies need to be controlled through diets, unnecessary exercise, superfluous medication and supplements, etc. The message was clear, we need a world where women can trust their bodies AND can be trusted with them.

There was also a good bit of focus on the media's role in toxic body culture, but that wasn't much people hadn't heard before. Labiaplasty was also mentioned. But the inclusion of the medical field's influence was the most significant part for me, since that's hardly ever mentioned in the body image issue, and when it is, it's used to counteract the "love your body message" with a loud, hysterical "But what about obesity?! Diabetes?! Cancer?! Childhood diabetes?!?!? OBESITY?!?!" This conference's inclusion of the topic shattered that counter argument with a rather radical notion that the medical field shouldn't push dieting on all women who are overweight, but instead work with women, listen to them if they decide to practice the HAES approach.

I did enjoy the summit and I do believe it was a great step in the right direction. With all due respect, one thing I think summits like this in general need to fix is the fact that they have people sitting in one spot for long periods of time, all day. I can't pay attention for that long, I get distracted, fidgety, and sometimes start to fall asleep. Not fun for me, and I'm certainly not proud of it. If these conferences want to appeal to more people, especially younger crowds, they need shorter panels and speeches, and more chances to get up and move around. Just sayin'.

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