by Karen Secord

Only one percent of women in North America are happy with their body.

I heard the doctor from the Women’s Health Network say the words and then I read the same words projected on the floor-to-ceiling screen in Room 219 at Ottawa U’s Lamoureux building, just to confirm that I had heard correctly.

I remember wishing intensely that time would stop right then and there. I needed a freeze-frame moment. Trust me, the urge to scream QUIET PLEASE! was not easily squelched. But the 70 or so other women — all perched quite uncomfortably on these strange swinging seats — were there to hear more. And on a day brimming with big ideas, time was precious.

I thought I knew what was coming. I thought I knew how I would respond; what feelings such a horrific statement would evoke; the conversation that would ensue; the suggestions and advice and opinions that we would all nod knowingly to.

I was wrong.

Lately, I have been seeing a psychologist, behaviorist and psychiatrist at the Weight Management Clinic. More than ever, my body is the elephant in the room; a room I have spent much of the last two years blaming myself for creating.

There was a reason that I was in that room on that day, I reminded myself. As arrogant as it sounds, in the halls of academia – in a gathering of academics and activists — I am their theories tested.

I can’t begin to describe the range of emotions that I felt from July 3-7. Adulation. Regret. Exhilaration. Amazement. Shame. Power. Fear…and more! In so many ways Women’s Worlds (www.womensworlds.ca) felt like a wake-up call; an eye-opening, life-affirming jolt. Each day I came away from the 11th Global Feminist Congress at the University of Ottawa really believing in something. As planned, I conversed and connected in plenary sessions at Ottawa’s spectacular new conference centre; nearly 2,000 participants from 92 countries joined me. There were 800 presenters of afternoon workshops, and 350 volunteers making it all possible.

When Nora Richards, Carol Scurfield, Shannon Gander and Lisa Naylor challenged a room jammed full of women, of all ages and ethnicities, sizes and shapes, to consider the harm that our preoccupation with weight (mine, yours and theirs) is doing to us, I predicted that I would spend the 90 minutes nodding in agreement. In their workshop, Women, Weight and Power: Weighing Women’s Presence in the World they asked participants the following:

How often do you…

  • Compliment someone on her weight loss.
  • Encourage someone to go on a diet.
  • Tease or admonish someone about her food or eating habits.
  • Criticize your own or someone else’s eating habits or food choices.
  • Admire rigidly controlled eating habits.
  • Make negative comments about your body size or shape. Disapprove of fatness in general.
  • Assume someone is doing well because she has lost weight.
  • Say something that presumes that others around you want to lose weight.
  • Say something that presumes that fat people eat too much.
  • Admire someone who is compulsive and/or rigid about their exercise routines.
  • Talk about your weight.

(**adapted from Working with Groups to Explore Food and Body Connections, Ed. Sandy Stewart Christian)

I had two answers for each question: The real one. And the one I wanted to think was true.

Conflicted once again. Pulled between who I am and who I think I should be.

Above the scale at their Women’s Health Clinic in Winnipeg, Gander, Scurfeild, Richards, and Naylor have posted: This scale simply provides a number that should not be used to determine your self-worth or the kind of day you are going to have. It also cannot be used reliably to determine your physical health and wellness.

These women are waging a war on fat obsession that is slowly killing the spirit of too many women.

To accentuate their presentation each speaker held up sign proudly declaring their individual BMI’s and then trashing the whole concept. “We are all healthy,” they told us. “Your BMI is not necessarily a reliable indicator of good health.”

“Finally my BMI is normal,” I wanted to yell. “Don’t you dare discount it now!”

I hadn’t even owned a scale for the better part of 30 years. Now I do, and I fight with myself not to stand on it. The thought of giving it up freaks me out. It feels like I would be disposing of a friend.

I have gained 10lbs and I feel fat, as if that is something bad. I weighed 272 lbs. 16 months ago and felt okay. I weigh 170lbs today and feel obese.

Then they challenged us to digest this:

20 Tips to Resist the Fat War on Women’s Bodies & Peacefully Inhabit Your Own:

  • Admire and appreciate your own body and all it does for you. Consider the value of your body’s functional role and stop valuing it only for its decorative or ornamental role.
  • Consider throwing out your scales or at the very least remind yourself that the number on the scale is not a measure of your worth or discipline.
  • Take your life off of hold: Whatever you are waiting to do once you have lost weight– do it now. Get that haircut, buy clothes that fit your body right now, pursue that degree, apply for that job, find a size-friendly yoga class and have fun!
  • Stop negative body talk about yourself and other women.
  • Practice self-care. We experience our bodies differently when we take care of ourselves physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
  • De-objectify yourself. Instead of focusing on the body parts you dislike when you look in the mirror -– look into your own eyes at least once a day and say “hello”.
  • Make a point of enjoying your body physically. Try yoga, massage, sex, stretching or cuddling.
  • Believe and act as if your body is your business and do not accept unwelcome evaluations of your body.
  • Think critically about the media/popular culture messages about bodies, weight, and health.
  • Challenge myths about dieting, weight and health.
  • Encourage other women to accept their natural bodies.
  • Approve of spontaneous eating and refuse to participate in diet talk or food shaming of yourself or others.
  • Stop using comparative language such as “good” and “bad” to describe your choices related to food or activity. This kind of evaluation ultimately criticizes others who would make different choices.
  • Compliment others on their creativity, ideas, compassion, skills, achievements and efforts.
  • Openly admire the appearance of women who also happen to be fat.
  • Actively oppose fat-stigmatizing or oppressive comments or jokes.
  • Advocate for policies and programs that address size related discrimination in your schools, workplaces and communities.
  • Refuse to make character judgments based on body size.
  • Check out the podcasts and articles from the Endangered Species Summit held in March 2011,  www.endangeredspecieswomen.org
  • Learn more about health at every size and responding to weight based stigma at the Association for Size Diversity and Health,  www.sizediversityandhealth.org.

I know I’ve jumped around here. Stuffed my thoughts with more thoughts and served them up like a rich Italian feast.

What do I believe in?

Well, ME, of course!

For a taste of Women’s Worlds 2011 go to:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7y-lXxcsojw