Sometimes, with all that’s going on in the world, I ask myself why building a business that’s all about helping people heal their body image and recover from constant cycles of making and breaking diets.
On the surface, this work looks like a departure from what I studied in school: I have three university degrees in political science, the discipline dedicated to the study of power. Throughout my studies, my interest had always been on systems of power, not individual actors. I was always fascinated by how power worked at macro levels, particularly at the level of culture.
So why am I building a business that revolves around just about the most micro relationship there is—healing and restoring peoples’ relationships with their own bodies?
The answer I keep coming back to is that old feminist axiom: because the personal is the political, and the political here is about understanding how systems of oppression have contributed to our own individual beliefs and behaviours around weight, size and health.
Fatphobia, for example, is a system of oppression that accords greater privilege to thin people and attempts to discipline, shame and harm fat people. It is a key part of our cultural panopticon that keeps thin and fat people in a state of constantly monitoring our bodies. It is a system of power that is deployed at intrapersonal, inter-personal, state, economic and cultural levels.
One of the hardest parts of recovering from years of dieting and chaotic eating is reckoning with fatphobia—both the external kind and the internalized kind. In turn, we can’t really understand fatphobia without understanding its intersection with anti-Black racism and colonialism. That’s because the construction of the thin body as a superior cultural ideal (especially for women) was formed in North America in direct contrast to the bodies of the enslaved people who were kidnapped from countries in Africa.
As Sabrina Strings writes in her book Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia:
“The current anti-fat bias in the United States and in much of the West was not born in the medical field. Racial scientific literature since at least the eighteenth century has claimed that fatness was ‘savage’ and ‘black.’ …The phobia about fat ‘always already’ had a racial element. And, because women are typically reduced to their bodies, fat stigma has commonly targeted racial/ethnic Other women.”
So denigrating fatness, Blackness and “coarseness” in favour of slimness was about creating and contributing to a social and racial hierarchy on this continent. It was a key method for those in power to prove their own superiority. Diet and weight, writes Strings, “evolved as evidence of high-class or low-class standing.”
In other words, multiple forms of oppression—along the axes of gender, race, anti-Blackness, and class—are deeply baked in to fatphobia.
Today, we know that both weight stigma and racism produce similar effects on those they are meant to target. There is a wealth of research evidence to show that they both produce stress, which in turn has physical consequences in the body. The fancy term for this is allostatic load, and when it becomes chronic—as it can when one is subjected to racism and/or weight stigma, for example—it can have negative effects on the immune system, blood pressure, brain function, life expectancy, and more. Add to that the gaslighting that comes from a medical establishment that then blames those very health issues on your weight or your race, and shazam: you’re caught in a vicious loop.
If you’re early to recovery or only thinking about it, all of this can seem a little daunting. It can feel like a lot to face when you’re just a gal who wants to learn how to not scarf down a sleeve of graham crackers from the kitchen cupboard when you think nobody’s looking!
Being able to toggle back and forth between identifying one’s own personal experiences and the intersectional web of power in which those experiences take place is a skill that can take time to develop, depending on what levels of privilege one is walking into the recovery process with. It can be a huge leap for some people to make from the “it’s my fault my health/body is like this” paradigm to “I don’t get to exist safely in my body and that has a significant impact on my health” paradigm.
For people who hire me as their diet recovery coach, the work we do goes beyond how we feel about our bodies…but it also has to start with our bodies. The reason why I called my business School of Bitchcraft is because I knew that the micro-level work—helping people re-establish a peaceful relationship with themselves and their own bodies—was ultimately political.
Now, you don’t need to be at all interested in politics to heal from diet-binge cycling or yo-yo dieting or chaotic eating. But the nature of this work is counter-cultural because at some point, it does involve a sobering examination of the fatphobia that drives so many of our behaviours. And the practice of bitchcraft itself is about being able to clock those systems of power that we are all implicated in and decide what we want to resist—or decide to be a real bitch about.