"The Body is Trustworthy"
Decolonizing Wellness with Dalia Kinsey
Welcome to Culture Study Takeover Week! I love running this newsletter, but I also periodically need to take a small break from running this newsletter, because everyone is beloved and worthy of rest. Your subscription dollars make it possible for me to pay an excellent rate for someone to curate the newsletter — and give a platform to people with different identities and perspectives than my own.
Read on for more information on this week’s takeover, but I also want to express my thanks for making this work sustainable — I appreciate your support more than words can say.
AHP note: This week’s takeover is hosted by Wendy Robinson. You can read Wendy’s Sunday essay here, and find her Tuesday Thread on Fat Representation (and her intro) here. (I also really appreciated Wendy’s Twitter thread from last night in response to trolls; you can find it (and support her) here).
Content warning: This interview will include discussions of body image, weight loss, diet culture, and racism.
If you happen to be on Instagram and click on a hashtag like #BodyPositivity or #BodyPositive, chances are high that the image you’ll see will be a young, thin, cis-gender, white woman. In fact, according to a recent research, the odds that someone who is queer, transgender, and/or a person of color will see themselves represented in the most common social media hash tags that purport to celebrate all bodies are incredibly low. And while hashtags are only a small part of the larger, messier cultural conversation about weight, bodies, fat stigmas, and body liberation, they point to an on-going problem in the wellness movement: the continued centering of white, cis-gender, heterosexual woman.
Allow me a moment of full disclosure: I am (you guessed it!) a white, cis-gender, heterosexual woman. And while I’ve experienced real moments of cruelty for having the nerve to be a fat woman in a culture that deeply values thinness, I’m also aware that I still benefit from the privileges that come with being white, gender conforming, and not visibly disabled. Part of my personal and professional work around unlearning fat phobia has included research to understand the embedded racism at the heart of toxic diet culture, which led me to the work of Dalia Kinsey.
Dalia Kinsey, author of Decolonizing Wellness: A QTBIPOC-Centered Guide to Escape the Diet Trap, Heal Your Self-Image, and Achieve Body Liberation, is a queer Black registered dietician whose work focuses on the layered ways in which fatphobia, racism, homophobia, and misogny both show up in the wellness movement and cause real, measurable harm to marganilized bodies.
Dalia’s insights add a much needed perspective to our week of content about fatphobia and diet culture — and I encourage anyone who is interested in thinking beyond hashtags to both read this conversation and to check out Dalia’s podcast Body Liberation for All.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
I’d like to first start by grounding ourselves in some shared language. There are so many labels and buzzwords when it comes to the various movements for people trying to reject diet culture, find safety in their own bodies, explore beauty beyond the skinny/white/blond paradigm. Some people use words like body positivity, body neutrality, health at any size (HAES), etc. What language or label do you use to describe your work?
It’s liberation work. It is meant to make people feel more free in their lives and their bodies. My goal is never to tether people to an expert but rather to reconnect them to skills they’ve already got to amplify their sense of freedom.
I’m a weight neutral dietitian. Body positivity feels like too much pressure is put on the individual to totally drop years of conditioning they didn’t opt into but have inevitably been harmed and influenced by. I’m aligned with some of the general concepts that come with body positivity, but it’s overly simplistic to apply some of these concepts to bodies that are actually outside of the cis-white-het mainstream. People who are genuinely being treated like outsiders in healthcare and wellness circles aren’t served by general body positivity, as it generally continues to center white cis-het bodies. This isn’t how the body positivity movement started, but it’s largely become a generic commercialized form of what it was at its start. It’s lost its teeth/ability to trigger radical changes.
I’m curious about your journey as a dietitian, especially as a person of color, given that the field is so overwhelmingly white. I recently read that less than 10% of registered dieticians identify as Black. Did you know going down that path what the demographics of the field looked like?
No, I was totally caught off guard by the lack of diversity in the program and the field in general. Less than 3% of US dietitians are Black. I’m from Georgia originally, and one of the unique things about being a Black person in the South is that you can spend time in diverse pockets of the country and forget how low the Black population is in the US overall. Yes, I’m accustomed to being in majority white spaces, but I’m rarely surrounded by white folks that have little to no experience with living in integrated communities. That totally changed during my time in the dietetic program and it was more exhausting and demoralizing than I ever could have imagined.
Is it safe to assume that the field is also largely dominated by cis-gender and straight folks as well?
Absolutely, and largely controlled by people that aren’t interested in inclusion. Only recently are the allies in the field starting to come to terms with the fact that the lack of diversity and inclusion in the field isn’t coincidental or linked to the expense of education alone. The field is not diverse because a large number of people working in the field want it that way.
How did that show up both in your class work and professional life? Was it more like non-white, cis, het people didn’t exist? Or was there open discussion/learning about the intersections of food/culture/gender/ethnicity?
In the classroom, it showed up as people ignoring the presence of people of color in the classroom — and also as white students and professors insisting that lived experience of people of color was irrelevant and that textbooks are the be-all, end-all resources that should be deferred to even when you have access to someone of color in the room. There were countless occasions where students and professors alike attributed Black American poor health outcomes to ignorance and poverty. Even when I would explain that a lot of the assumptions they were making were not reflective of my experience or that of many of the Black folks in my life, my peers and instructors would ignore my suggestions that maybe some of these outcomes were related to chronic stress or systemic factors rather than simply ignorance.
The implication was that failing to assimilate and adopt more dominant culture food ways was the root cause of poor health outcomes for Black Americans. The general understanding, too, was that Black Americans are a monolithic cultural group. Despite explaining the diversity of the African diaspora to classmates ad nauseam, it seemed impossible to get people to understand that Black food culture is extremely diverse and frequently high in plants and antioxidants — not everyone is eating a low nutrient diet as part of their food culture. Even in our own classroom, there were three people who identified as Black, and none of us had any food culture overlap. One student was Dominican, one Ghanaian, and I am a blend of southern American, Cuban, and Jamaican. Even with those real life examples before them, my white classmates could not understand that the bulk of the studies we reviewed in class exhibited one-sided very white assumptions about Black American food culture and health outcomes.
In your book, you note that “[d]iet culture does not exist without the thin ideal at its foundation. This standard originated from the Eurocentric beauty aesthetics of the seventeenth century…Race science was used to identify traits of inferior and superior humans, leading to the bogus conclusions that Black people were lazy by nature and suffered from poor impulse control in relation to sexual pleasure and food, while morally superior people are able to resist carnal urges and maintain bodies that fit the thin ideal. Popularized in the 1800s, these racist claims continue to be popular signature tenets of anti-Blackness.”
I feel like the conclusion that fat = lazy with poor impulse control continues to be such a dominant cultural message. This feels true even though there is a large (and growing) body of evidence that makes it really clear that intentional weight loss is more likely to cause weight gain than long-term weight loss and that the relationship between weight and health is a lot more complicated than skinny is good, fat is bad. When you work with clients, especially those who come from non-white/het/cis backgrounds, what role does unlearning those cultural messages play? I wonder how much shame people carry with them.
This is such a big part of the work that needs to be done. Learning to question things we’ve accepted as truth simply because their pervasiveness is incredibly important. If we are operating under false assumptions it's impossible to get to the truth of what wellness means for us on an individual level. Some common assumptions that clients have to work through are:
The body can’t be trusted
Pleasure can’t be trusted (decadent food = poison)
Wellness looks the same on all bodies (i.e. thin is always positive, higher body fat is always negative)
Defective genetics are limiting your potential (pathologizing human diversity)
These assumptions are all grounded in puritanical white supremacist assumptions that have wormed their way into healthcare settings. But the body is trustworthy. Its ability to self-regulate is astonishing and continues to impress researchers. Pleasure is a tool that nature uses to encourage the survival of all species. Low body weight can be a sign of failing health, and higher body fat can be protective. The body is adaptive, and body weight alone tells you nothing about health status. You can not look at someone and know anything meaningful about their health status. Our bodies, our genetics, our ancestral wisdom are always working to support us. Hostile environments (environmental toxins, high stress etc) interact with our genetics on an ongoing basis, and the body attempts to adapt and support us as best as it can.
The body is trustworthy. Whew. That is a really powerful statement.
Viewing the body as defective rather than coping and adapting in real time as much as possible is not logical.
There’s another quote from your book that I’d like to highlight: “When you pile on the assumption that all fat people are to blame for being in larger bodies and for any health problems they may experience, tragically ineffective health care is what we get. Fat folks, folks of color, and queer folks are more likely to die from manageable conditions because of unchecked bias and low-quality care from providers.
Another consequence of these unchecked assumptions for trans folks of size seeking gender affirming surgeries is dismissive care and being blocked from lifesaving procedures because of BMI, regardless of other positive indicators of readiness for surgery.” You also note that young trans and gender non-conforming people are especially vulnerable to eating disorders. Is this an area of research that is well explored yet? Or is the image of the eating disorder patient as a young, white, wealthy, very thin teenage girl still the pervasive model?
There is a growing among of research to support that minority stress majorly impacts LGBTQIA+ health outcomes including mental health status and eating disorders but the overwhelming of information and resources available to patients only serve young, white, wealthy, thin cis-women that are severaly underweight.
Fat, wealthy, cis-women are also unlikely to receive lifesaving interventions for disordered eating. Frequently, the same disordered eating behaviors that are cause for concern in the severely underweight are lauded as positive health behaviors in people in larger bodies because fatphobia so effectively stops people from being concerned about red flags like excessive calorie restriction in higher weight individuals.
People, including (or maybe especially) medical providers, seem totally oblivious to the idea that someone can be fat and have an eating disorder. I personally had an eating disorder for years and years but part of my narrative was that I couldn’t possibly be “really bulimic” because I was still over 200 pounds.
Exactly, this is the experience of so many people that fall outside of the generic image that providers have been trained to look for. If you are a cis-male, a person of color, low income, trans etc providers frequently fail to take signs of disordered eating seriously.
In the more recent past, it seems like there has been something of a shift in terms of Western beauty ideals that has created a little more space in terms of what a “good body” looks like, with the recognition that some features like larger butts or more extreme curves can also be desirable. Setting aside the fact that there is just a whole lot to unpack about the gender expression stuff there, maybe it’s good that the ultra thin, tall, waif model look isn’t the only ideal… but then I think about people like the Kardashians who’ve also (in my mind) really commercialized that look and taken it to places of cultural appropriation too.
Do you see the trends toward celebrating the Kardashian, Instagram models, Brazilian butt lift ideal as another form of potentially destructive messaging for people from communities of color trying to engage in liberation work? Or is it helpful? Or am I just annoyed because I think the Kardashians as an entity are actively causing harm?
The trends look more inclusive, but they still are so bogged down with rules that keep the number of people with naturally ‘acceptable’ bodies so low. The Kardashians are a great example, because not even the Kardashians look like the Kardashians — they invest a great deal of time and resources into looking the way they do. The access that they have is way beyond that if the typical working class femme. So many people have risked their health to get the curves and enhancements that those women have access to at a working class price.You might remember reading horror stories of people getting Fixaflat and other toxic concoctions injected into their bodies in street alley BBL procedures. The trends change, but they remain exclusive.
In your book, you note that “bias causes researchers to both ask the wrong questions and misinterpret data.” When it comes to the intersection of weight, health, culture, and oppression, what are the right questions to be asking?
Some questions I think about: Is grouping study subjects by skin color scientifically relevant? What are the interventions that help mitigate the damage of chronic stress related to systemic oppression? If interventions like intentional weight loss are proven to be ineffective and harmful overtime, what interventions have positive outcomes that address the stress of being stigmatized? What existing cultural practices do marginalized folks already have access to that could have positive effects on health outcomes? What messaging or obstacles prevent people from tapping into culturally distinct stress mitigating techniques?
Can you share an example of an existing cultural practice that someone from a marginalized community has that positively influences health outcomes?
Two things come to mind. When Pride is celebrated here in Atlanta, someone always poses the inane question — why isn’t there a straight pride day?! Critizing queer folks for prioritizing their safety and creating queer-centered spaces and events to celebrate their identities in peace and be able to feel safe enough to turn their central nervous system down a notch is working in direct opposition to stress management in queer spaces. The same kind of pushback is commonly experienced when people create affinity groups in professional spaces.
The second thing that comes to mind is African drumming. Drumming and dancing are potent embodiment/stress management tools, but whenever I spend time with large groups of Black folks dancing, making noise and de-stressing, the Karens come out to rain on our stress management parade. Even if you are bothering absolutely no one, most people have been trained to be overly concerned about what POC are up to. I can’t even explain how second nature monitoring POC is to some people. It’s exhausting, and if people are spending time with folks of color trying to destress, you have to have an entire strategy set up in advance for how to avoid harassment from random white folks that get itchy the minute it looks like you are having a moment's peace.
It might sound melodramatic but it's draining and hella annoying. There is a full blown Tik Tok trend recording white folks just staring at POC as they live their lives. It is legit nonstop and weird but probably a lot like a fat person trying to eat anything in peace.. For some reason everyone thinks it’s okay to stare, probably because fatphobia is so deeply ingrained everyone feels entitled to dictate the behavior of ‘bad fats’/a fat person who decides to eat something.
I was once eating a salad at the airport and some random guy walked by and said “Hey, good job! Way to get those veggies!” and I was so annoyed. Like, dude, can I just eat my salad and not feel like you feel entitled to give me a head pat that is super patronizing?
It is SO FREAKING WEIRD! People who haven’t experienced it wouldn’t believe the frequency. I’ve always loved walking for exercise, and before I was plus sized, I could walk without people stopping me, which is what I want because I’m an introvert that goes walking to NOT talk to people. The minute I got fat, every asshole at the track wants to say good job. My weight fluctuates a lot because of a chronic autoimmune condition that affects my energy levels and mobility, but in reality people have little direct control over their weight unless they go into dangerous restrictive territory. I have always kept walking because I enjoy it. Exercise isn’t inextricably linked to weight management. Movement in itself is pleasurable just like eating vegetables is delicious. Being fatphobic is not a requirement for enjoying these behaviors.
I feel like as a fat woman, I bounce back and forth between feeling invisible and feeling super hyper visible when I’m just being a fat person eating or exercising in public. I have to believe that maddening polarity is so much worse for people from marginalized communities.
Yesss! That is exactly the feeling I think is the marginalized experience. People praise you when they think you are trying to assimilate to whatever the standard of the day is and they ignore you when you seem like you have the ability to exist without trying to hate yourself into getting as assimilated as possible.
What is your hope or wish for the clients you serve, especially those who are coming from marginalized communities?
My hope is that my work with clients will trigger introspection and free thinking. It’s taken us years to get to where we are now. It’s natural that it will take time to detangle ourselves from internalized oppression. My goal is for clients to be able to offer themselves the compassion and patience that it takes to recover from a lifetime of being told that our bodies and true natures can’t be trusted.
You can buy Decolonizing Wellness here, and follow Dalia on Twitter here.
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Thank you, Dalia, for your very thoughtful answers!
As a white cis woman with celiac disease, lactose intolerance, and insulin resistance, I am confused at the idea of my body being trustworthy, The cold hard reality is that I cannot trust it to digest certain foods properly, and that there is a very real genetic component to this. Celiac disease and lactose intolerance runs on my dad's side of the family and type 2 diabetes on my mom's side. I found freedom in accepting that this is just the way it is - that my body and genes suck and that I can't eat like everyone else without serious health consequences.
I wanted to add another comment thanking you, particularly for the line "Low body weight can be a sign of failing health, and higher body fat can be protective."
I got covid 12 days ago and literally had a neighbor (who knew that I had covid) ask me a couple of days ago if I had lost more weight (facepalm)...my response was "um, probably because of covid..." it's so awkward because I know she meant well, but her question was so inappropriate!
I mentioned in another comment that type 2 diabetes runs in my family. My mom is 5'5" and 138 lbs and on insulin and her doctor is concerned that she has lost weight due to muscle atrophy. Sure, she's in the healthy BMI bracket but has way less muscle than she should, which is frightening. My pre-diabetes has been in remission since 2018 through dietary measures - at the time it went into remission I was 5'5" and 195 pounds (BMI obese). When I got pregnant later that year, my doctors were shocked at how low my fasting blood sugar and A1C were - "the lowest I've seen in a long while". Yet if you put me and my mom next to each other and had to guess which one was the diabetic, I bet almost everyone would guess me and not her.