Fat leadership is courageous leadership.

Last week, I was fortunate enough to attend a 2-day training on the Dare to Lead process based on decades of research by Dr. Brene Brown. Her theories around vulnerability have changed many, many lives, including my own. Her theory, simply put, is that vulnerability is what causes horrible things like shame, scarcity, fear, anxiety, and uncertainty – so we avoid it at all costs because those things are awful to experience, and shrink our lives down to a very tiny place to protect ourselves. However, it also seems that being vulnerable is also the source or birthplace of love, creativity, joy, trust, resilience, adaptability, problem-solving, innovation, and connection.

So to get to all those beautiful things, you have be vulnerable, and that can be extremely difficult for a lot of reasons. Rarely are any of us brought up to believe that being vulnerable is a good thing. Still, if you think about any loving or courageous or moment of joy, you will find that there was a moment of vulnerability present to let those experiences in.

Now, let’s talk about one of the harmful results of vulnerability and what I am interested in diving deeper into as it relates to the damage that has been done to millions of fat people…shame.

The definition of shame is the feeling of being unworthy of connection. Humans are neurobiologically hardwired for connection, so the threat of disconnection creates trauma.

 There are two main messages that shame gives us:

  1. You’re not good enough; and
  2. Who do you think you are?

It’s also important to understand that shame is also different than guilt. Shame is focused on the self, while guilt is focused on behavior. 

Guilt = I did something horrible Shame = I AM horrible.

Trauma, as it defined by the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, “results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening with lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”

There is a mountain of evidence that shows the damaging effects of trauma on your physical and mental health, here’s a good one.

So, let’s put the pieces together, shall we?

Fat people are shamed by our culture daily. They are ridiculed by media, their family, their peers, denied jobs, humiliated by their medical providers, and denied necessary medical help. They experience shame when traveling, going to restaurants, exercising at the gym, and shopping for clothes. This ongoing, insidious shaming is internalized as trauma in tiny and sometimes big increments every single day of their lives.

This amount of trauma and stress on one’s body and health is horrible and causes ailments like high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, heart disease, stroke, and other diseases that weight is typically blamed for.

So, fat people do what they are told to do to be accepted, and to gain respect, health, and dignity, they take the advice of practically everybody that says… GO ON A DIET.

Well, guess what – that prescribed solution doesn’t work. So now what? Well, more ridicule, more judgment, more blame, and you got it…more trauma. And the cycle goes on and on and on. 

So here’s an alternative solution to dieting.

What if we STOP the shaming that is traumatizing people who are larger? And if someone is experiencing health issues due to their size, why don’t we try treating the trauma instead of piling on more? Which is obviously just exacerbating the issue.

I’m working my way through Dr. Linda Bacon’s transformative work on the Health at Every Size (HAES) approach, and it is staggering to learn the amount of misinformation we are given about our bodies, food, weight, and how diet culture is keeping us sick.

As I see it, there are two ways we can help each other in a quest for good health:

  1. Stop traumatizing larger people: Check your bias, stop shaming people for being larger, and work to dismantle the oppressive practices of fat-shaming in our culture.
  2. Help those that are already traumatized: instead of continuing to prescribe dieting, let’s invest in other ways to help people that do not cause them more damage. Trauma-informed care, therapy, intuitive eating, and health at every size approaches that help people work through the shame that holds them back from living a full, active, and healthy life.

Finally, and I will continue to talk about this until it sinks in:

Someone’s health status is not up for debate by you. Everybody deserves human rights, and to live without shame and trauma, regardless of their health or their size.

And DON’T FORGET – someone’s size IS NOT AN INDICATOR OF ONE’S HEALTH STATUS. PERIOD.

Ok, back to shame and vulnerability.

During my two day training, I began thinking about the things that have held me back in my career. Things like imposter syndrome or the constant feeling that you don’t belong or are not smart enough or experienced enough, and at any moment, you are going to be exposed for the fraud you are.

Then I started thinking about the fact that being vulnerable, for most people, is a choice. But for people who are fat and are shamed every day, they are forced to be vulnerable.

So what does that mean? It means that forced vulnerability does NOT lead to the good parts of experiencing vulnerability, it only leads to the bad = shame, fear, depression, anxiety, etc.

Think about it. It’s like walking outside naked every day. Exposed, with no way to hide. And at any moment, someone could cover you in shame. 

I also believe that this phenomenon is also the reason that fat people are naturally daring and courageous leaders. Like a finely tuned instrument that is worn over time, our courage is carved from the shame we experience every day.

Hello, epiphany! Hello, ah-ha moment! Based on the Dare to Lead framework and Dr. Brown’s four skills sets of courageous leadership, I will attempt to explain why:

  1. Rumble with vulnerability or as Brene says, “embrace the suck”: Fat people are masters of vulnerability and experts on things like resilience and empathy.
  2. Living into our values: We have spent our lives working on, and improving ourselves by reading, learning, getting certified, practicing, training, listening. All to build up our self-esteem and feel worthy of being seen and heard. Most of us have no choice BUT to live our values. It is sometimes the only thing we can do to cut through the noise.  
    • Brene mentions the quote by Dr. Harriet Lerner that says, “we must listen with the same passion that we feel about wanting to be heard.” Fat people are seldom heard and have hustled their whole lives to be heard, so we excel at listening.
  3. Learning to rise: If we don’t have the skills to get back up, we may not risk falling. Being fat is a daily walk into the arena and daily face down in the dirt moments. We do have the choice to stay down there, but most people I know, rise back up, and live to fight another day. This takes incredible bravery and courage to do, and like any other thing that you practice daily, you become really good at it.
  4. Braving Trust: Here is where I think fat leaders need a little development. Brene talks about armoring up before heading into the arena, and that to be vulnerable is to take off your armor and be seen. Fat people armor up because if we don’t, we experience trauma, which immediately hijacks our limbic system, and we go right into emotional survival mode, which means – trust no one and shut down. While we ourselves are very much trustworthy, we do not perceive others as such (for a good reason).

So what you have here is an army of highly skilled, talented, educated, resilient, brave, and courageous leaders that because of their appearance are left on the sidelines most of the time.

This is what I mean when I say that Brene Brown’s work changed my life. Her work not only pointed out all of this to me, but when I discovered the areas where I needed development, it was much easier for me to draw upon my lifetime of courageous leadership skills and begin applying them.

The last thing I’ll say is that I am by no means cured of shame. I still live in our thin-obsessed culture, and I am shamed on the daily, but this work has given me a shield – tools that help to deflect the trauma so that I can work on the things that matter to me. 

This is my life’s work. And it only took 45 years to get here.

You can read more about Dr. Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead work and her research on vulnerability through her books and website, https://brenebrown.com/


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