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I came across this article a few days ago, and I’ve been dying to respond to it! Should Gyms Intervene If Someone Has an Eating Disorder?

Though the author debates both sides of the question and does not explicitly stated his opinion one way or another, in my reading, it seemed that he was leaning toward the position that the gym should intervene in some way.

I think there are a number of things to be considered here. First, what would intervening do? And the author, to his credit, does consider this. Personally, speaking, if I was working out out a gym and a random employee confronted me (even if sensitively) about my weight loss, I don’t know what it would accomplish. Mostly likely, it would succeed in making me feel embarrassed enough to switch gyms, where my “secret” was not known. We need to remember that eating disorders still carry a stigma. They shouldn’t – there is nothing shameful or “wrong” about having an eating disorder – but they do. To approach someone that you don’t know well and confront them about an eating disorder, while sometimes necessary and beneficial, also has a high risk of backfiring because it is likely that the person will feel embarrassed or shameful. The thing about eating disorders is that yes, in some cases, they are a very visible disease. For me, that is one of the hardest things – people assume that they can tell how well I’m doing (or not doing) by my weight. And it often means that I’m “confronted” with concern or questions if I lose a lot. When that has happened – especially when it has involved someone whom I don’t know all that well – it has felt sort of like that dream where you end up at school or work and find that you’re naked.

I think that if a gym were to decide a member needs to be checked in with, that should ideally come from someone who has an established relationship with the member – a personal trainer, a nutritionist who might work at the gym, etc. I think that it puts an e.d. person in a difficult position to approach them about having an e.d. without having the proper sort of relationship with them to really offer personal support (i.e. a gym manager who doesn’t work closely with members).

The author of the article writes, “when gyms fail to intervene with members who are below a healthy body weight, they risk becoming complicit in the delusions held by these individuals, strengthening the perception that more exercise and weight loss is needed. Not only does this harm the person with the eating disorder, it has the potential to harm other members of the gym who may begin to see the person’s behaviour as normal or even exemplary.”

The thing is, with an eating disorder, the “delusions” are already in place, though they may vary by type/severity of eating disorder, as well as by individuals. Gyms may foster a competitive atmosphere, and atmosphere that can be triggering based on the “perfection” of bodies, etc., etc. But, the “delusions” are going to be there whether or not the gym steps in. And the author needs to remember that “I’m worried about you working out so much because of your weight and eating habits” can sound like a compliment if the eating disorder gets a hold of it!

He makes an interesting point about potential harm to other members of the gym. Certainly, an eating disordered person can be triggering to other people. In my experience, however, the people who get triggered are the people who already having an eating disorder and/or serious body image concerns. In my discussions with people, it seems that most healthy people (by which I mean they are e.d.-free) feel sad and/or scared for an obviously eating disordered person, rather than envious. I also think that the problem is not having an eating disordered person present, but rather, a lack of knowledge and education about how severe and deadly eating disorders are. We live in a climate that glamorizes eating disorders and fosters envy of them. In my view, that is the problem, rather than the presence of an eating disordered person.

Perhaps my biggest critique of the article is that it bolsters the assumption that we can tell if someone has an eating disorder simply by the way she or he looks. And, yes, in some cases, we can make an educated guess based on a person’s appearance. But eating disorders are not always visible. In fact, as most people with eating disorders maintain a weight in the “health” range, they more often than not invisible. In fact, one of the most dangerous things to pair with exercise is purging, and though some anorexics do purge, most bulimics are at a “normal” weight, or are even a bit “overweight.” My guess is that the issue of eating disorders and gym memberships runs much deeper and is much more complex than the author realizes (and he does mention this).

So, should a gym intervene if they suspect someone has an eating disorder? I’m not sure. I think that if there is someone at the gym who has a long-lasting, one-one relationship with an at-risk member and can offer support, then it might be helpful if that person approached the member non-conversationally and appropriately. Should a gym employee who does not know the member well approach them? I don’t know.  I worry that that would only encourage further isolation and alienation.

I am totally supportive, however, of gyms having info available on eating disorders and treatment resources. I also think it would be incredibly progressive if gyms had e.d. and body image educational programs as well as nutrition education/counseling, etc. I think it’s important for people working in health and fitness to help promote an environment of holistic prevention.

This post was sparked by this discussion.

I have a lot of thoughts about privilege. I will try to be concise, though I may not succeed. I am perhaps, well, privileged when it comes to thinking about privilege. Both my B.A. and M.A. are in Women’s Studies, and I’m now working toward a Ph.D. in WS. This means that I have read A LOT about privilege. It means that I am talking about privilege on an almost daily basis. I teach about privilege. I think (and worry) about privilege and my own privilege pretty much incessantly.

I was first introduced to the theoretical concept of privilege as an undergrad WS student. The article, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh was my first encounter. If interested, you can find it here.

Privilege is not an easy thing to come to terms with. I struggled with it, for sure. My initial reaction to the concept of white privilege was, “But, I’m not racist! I don’t want this privilege! I didn’t ask for it, and I don’t condone it!” And, all of those things are still true. I’m not racist. I don’t want this privilege. I didn’t ask for it. I don’t condone it. AND I still have it. It’s not my choice. Whether I approve or not, our society treats people differently based on the color of their skin. My skin color, being white, affords me certain privileges as I move through my day to day. Some privileges I can perhaps acknowledge and work to change – I can, for example, choose to study and learn the history of groups other than white (male) Americans. I can then work to combat privilege further by sharing what I’ve learned, whether that is in the class I teach, with a child, or with a peer. I also think that acknowledging, interrogating, and being willing to discuss systems of privilege – and this includes owning up to our own privilege – is a way to combat it.

I am privileged in many ways, and I am disadvantaged in others. In the US, I am privileged because of my race, my class, and my physical and mental abilities. I am very privileged in regard to education. I have conflicted privilege in regard to sexuality – I am bisexual (not privileged), yet my partner is male (heterosexual privilege). I am disadvantaged in regard to gender. Globally speaking, I am among the most privileged.

And there is still another way in which I am privileged. I’m thin. I have thin privilege. For example, when getting on a crowded bus this morning, I did not have to worry about getting dirty looks because my body took up “too much” room. 700 Stories did a great job of outlining some concrete examples of thin privilege in her blog post on the subject.

I can add some more. Because of my thin privilege:

A) I can walk down the street without fear of being harrassed about my weight. (I might be harassed for other reasons, but that has  to do w/ the fact that I don’t have male privilege).

B) I don’t have to worry about being fired from a job due to my weight. I don’t have to worry about not being hired due to my weight.

C) I don’t have to worry that a desk at school, a seat on the bus, a seat in the movie theater, a seat on an airplane, a seat on an amusement park ride, etc., will be too small.

D) I don’t have to worry about people eyeing what is in my grocery cart.

E) I don’t have to worry that – when being introduced to new people – they will make judgements about me or my lifestyle based on my size.

F) I’m not stared at, snickered at, or self-conscoius when I work out.

G) People don’t assume that I’m not physically fit or that I’m lazy because of my weight. In fact, people might assume that I am fit, or at least active.

H) I can wear a bathing suit in public w/out the fear of being scrutinized.

I) If I (hypothetically) had a child and treated her to ice cream or sweets, my parenting skills would not be judged.

I could go on. But you get the point.

Personally, for me, my thin privilege is in some ways the hardest to come to terms with. This is true on a number of levels. I was a chubby young child, and an overweight pre-teen, early teen. Since the age of 16, I have ranged from underweight to obese, and everywhere in between. My body’s set point is somewhere around a bmi of 24/25. So, on the high end of normal, low end of overweight. I am not at my set point now. I am not underweight, but I am certainly “thin” by pretty much any definition. And I know how much  privilege it affords. I can walk into any store (unless it is a “specialty  store” for “plus-sized” women), and know without a doubt that they will have my size. I also know that – more often than not – the employees at that store will be helpful, will approach me with a smile, and will not rush me out because I do not fit their store’s “image.” I know that – on a day to day basis – people are MUCH nicer to me when I am thin. I wish it wasn’t true. But, it is. I wish that I wasn’t bolstering the system by maintaining a lower weight than my body wants. But, I am. I wish that thin privilege didn’t make my recovery more difficult. But, it does. It’s not fun to admit.

What we need to keep in mind is that, privilege (thin or otherwise) is NOT about placing blame. It is not about faulting the individual. It’s not really about the individual, actually. Yes, of course oppression and privilege have very concrete ramifications for individuals, don’t get me wrong. But privilege really operates at a much larger level. Privilege and oppression are rooted in societal ideologies, values, structures, and institutions; they are systematic. In many ways, oppression and privilege are two sides of the same societal coin. They are beyond the level of the individual, though individuals, often through no fault or intention of their own, are implicated.

Also keep in mind that the acknowledgment of thin privilege – or oppression generally – does not negate individual suffering. OF COURSE thin people can internalize messages of self-doubt or self-hatred. OF COURSE thin people can be victims of abuse. OF COURSE thin people may feel self-conscious sometimes. OF COURSE a thin person with an e.d. is genuinely in pain. Every person is going to have some suffering, some pain, some hardship – and hopefully lots of joy – in her or his lifetime. Acknowledging and interrogating privilege does not deny or undo that.

And, also keep mind, these systems are not isolated. They weave an incredibly complex web. Like I stated above, I may not be harrassed walking down the street because of my weight, but I may very well be cat-called because we still live in a patriarchal society that normalizes the sexualization and objectification of women. I may even been judged because I am thin – and this can connect to thin privilege too. This judgement may come from others who notice my thin privilege and are (rightfully) hurt that they do not share it. This judgement might be out of concern if someone knows about my eating disorder (which ties into society/oppression/privilege in a number of ways). Or, this judgement might be outside of the realm of privilege/oppression. Not *everything* fits; there are always exceptions. Or, something may seem like it doesn’t fit, and upon further inspection we realize that it is the result of an different and/or interlocking system of disadvantage/privilege. Thin privilege doesn’t operate in a vacuum. No privilege does. These societal structures, systems, and ideologies are always mediated by each other, by individuals, by subject positions, by material realities, and by the fact that they are constantly in flux.

As far as I’m concerned, denying privilege – whether that is thin privilege, white privilege, heterosexual privilege, male privilege, beauty privilege, ableist privilege, Christian privilege, class privilege, etc., etc. – is not helpful. If we do not interrogate these systems and acknowledge our own position in them (even if that position is difficult to reconcile with), we allow them to continue unquestioned, unchallenged, and unseen.