Retired from HAES/Career Pivot
After over two decades focused on weight science and Health at Every Size*, I have retired from working in these ﬁelds, now concentrating on speaking about healing from trauma and creating a culture of belonging. I want to share my process as to why I left the Health at Every Size movement because I know many others struggle with the same issues that caused me to lose my passion for the movement and may beneﬁt from this insight.
Health at Every Size ideology has matured over the years. The most notable development, in my mind, is in embracing social justice. I’m proud to have contributed to this reframe, co-authoring what may have been the first book explicitly grounding HAES within the social justice movement, Body Respect, and speaking widely on these issues. More recently, I shared my views with the organization that represents HAES in a conference keynote and in a blog post formerly posted on their blog.
Unfortunately, in my mind, the primary organization that represents HAES did not make the transition gracefully, and recently embraced what I refer to as toxic culture. By this I’m referring to a culture characterized by intolerance, policing and punishing others. I was saddened to see these values enter our HAES community and brought attention to it, naively thinking I could generate discussion and help support a more tolerant and open-minded environment. Later, my reaction was even stronger than sadness: I was traumatized by how I was treated. I don’t use that term lightly.
My experience motivated me to explore the scientific literature. There I found that neuroscience shows public humiliation (which I experienced) to be the most intense human emotion. Researchers describe it as “the worst and most traumatic experience that can happen to a human being.” And many people who have been publicly shamed refer to it as the most intense pain they have experienced in their lives, including people who are survivors of rape or incest. The distress can be so severe that it has been frequently cited as a risk factor for death by suicide and even as a motivator for homicide.
The research helped me recognize that trauma was a normal, human reaction to the circumstances. To help you understand what the trauma felt like, let me first provide a bit of context for those who don’t know me. I devoted my 20-plus year career to educating myself about weight and health and how best to frame and deliver a contrarian message that could support folks in appreciating their bodies, sway public opinion, improve the quality of healthcare, and change legislation. I applied what I learned through teaching, writing and public speaking. I’m a strong advocate for body positivity, fat liberation and fighting injustice. I was proud of my reputation and the acknowledgement that my work was not just important but inspirational, community-building, and even lifesaving. My career was precisely where I wanted it to be.
That came crashing down on March 10th, 2022. The professional organization that had been my home for 16 years, where I had been instrumental in helping develop a movement, where I felt well-appreciated and respected by the leadership and members up until the most recent leadership committee, accused me of harming the very people I was intent on supporting. I was exiled from the organization and its community. Their open letter was released simultaneously with a blogger making similar contentions. Both postings were accompanied by private communications they had had with me; the first including email exchanges and the second a telephone call recorded without my knowledge. The interpretations of my words, in my mind, reflect their projections much more than my actual words. (To see my earlier responses to those postings, visit my “accountability page.”) Both posts were made without attempt on the authors’ part to discuss or resolve their concerns privately.
The postings went viral almost immediately, with over a million people witnessing the spectacle. While many posts and videos from people who are strangers to me commented on the disconnect between my words and the interpretations, it was the drama-ridden within-community interpretations that spread most widely. Anyone within-community wishing to even discuss the process, let alone challenge the negativity directed towards me, was shut down and personally attacked.
I also learned from studying the research regarding social media that algorithms reward users for outrage expressions, making outrage the sentiment that travels quickest across the internet. Divisiveness and drama are profitable and the revenue stream and following of many “influencers” and organizations depends on promoting it. It is common for people to amplify the outrage, many of them seeing it as an opportunity to virtue signal (the practice of publicly expressing opinions intended to demonstrate one’s social justice savvy) and increase their status. Some may have good intentions – supporting a marginalized group puts them on high moral ground – which shields them from considering harm it may elicit. Or, they may be aware that their actions are hurtful but believe it to be acceptable collateral damage.
Public humiliations have become so commonplace that I believe many people are numb to considering the toll it takes on others. My pain, which I describe shortly, is just a small part of that toll – witnesses, too, can be traumatized by watching online spectacles. Fear of similar consequences also causes many to limit self-expression or leave the movement, weakening a community’s ability to be self-critical and grow. Many others display conformity in an effort to self-protect and suffer the costs of presenting an inauthentic self. This spectacle also took a toll on HAES’ credibility. Discrediting me made me an easy target for those who want to see HAES fail. Anti-HAES folks seemed to revel in the controversy, using it as an opportunity to scorn the HAES movement.
Can you imagine what it’s like to be taken down in front of my community (and the whole internet!), from those to whom I gave my life’s work? To have spent my career as a target for HAES detractors (which went so far as to include death threats), only to see people within our movement give them material to discredit me with? To consider that there is permanent record for everyone to see, forever marring my reputation?
Reading that first letter was like hearing a thunder blast, not something externally audible but a sudden roar inside me drowning out and overwhelming all other senses. It stopped me from being able to make sense of the words or take anything in.
It took days before I was able to return to see those words, and even then I was so steeped with emotion that comprehension was close to impossible. All the while I was getting demands for “accountability” in social media, my inbox, and even phone calls. I couldn’t avoid retraumatization if I turned on my computer or listened to voicemail.
Watching the drama unfold on social media, I went down a deep and painful shame spiral. Other emotions I experienced: anger, rage, resentment, self-pity, sadness, grief. Some symptoms: inability to stop ruminating, distraction from everything else in my life, insomnia. All classic trauma reactions.
There were other painful outcomes as well. Within days, my HAES career was over. Calls for my writing or speaking stopped dead. Over the ensuing weeks, there was more fallout. The magazine that had accepted an article pending revisions ghosted me. People who had originally solicited a book chapter pleading that their anthology of HAES history wouldn’t be complete without a chapter from me dropped my submission, which they had gratefully accepted. “Why?,” I asked. “To avoid controversy.” I had to decide, jointly with an angel investor, to give up the opportunity they were providing to take a community service project to a higher level, expecting that my name was now too toxic for the project to succeed. Word from my professional colleagues was that turning away from me was not about lack of confidence in me, but a fear that association would damage their reputation. The future I had spent two decades working toward was taken from me.
My past is also being erased, with that professional organization deleting about 15 blog posts I had written, and a few others disappearing my work as well. They are denying my work to others even though several of those outspoken detractors had previously informed me that my work had been transformative for them, both personally and professionally, and led them to the more body-positive path they are on today. People who had previously provided touching testimonials for me asked that they be taken off my website. The experience even took my best friend from me. She was so traumatized observing what was happening to me, both because of her empathy and her fear that it could happen to her too, that she had to cut ties in effort to protect herself.
I am enormously privileged in ways known to contribute to protecting from or minimizing the impact of trauma: I have supportive friends; I’ve been trained academically to understand the physical and emotional components of trauma and pathways to heal; I have been thoughtful about and written extensively on trauma previously; I have a wife and several friends who are therapists, some trauma specialists and others trauma-informed; I have transferable skills that contribute to my employability and the financial stability to take some time for healing, manage a temporary loss of income and obtain supportive resources like therapy.
I wonder, if I experienced this as a crushing trauma, how much more vulnerable are others who are less resourced?
Fortunately, I’m happy to report that I came out on the other side—recognizing that I’m human, flawed and complex, just as other humans. I can own what’s mine from the shame storm and leave what is for others to take responsibility for (or not). I’m able to hold onto the awareness that I didn’t deserve the treatment I received; no human does. I was able to not only heal (healing is an ongoing process and one never heals fully from trauma), but even experience posttraumatic growth. I’ll get back to that towards the end of this letter.
I echo adrienne maree brown’s concern, in her book We Will Not Cancel Us:
Social justice movements, which were originally about freeing marginalized people from oppressive institutions and social structures, have become imbued with their own narrow framework of morality.” “What I fear is mostly that we will be unable to stop turning against each other, that under the pressures of change and of having difference, that we will emulate the practices that capitalism and patriarchy and white supremacy and other kinds of supremacy have trained us to practice, which is to turn against each other, to tear each other down, to publicly shame and humiliate each other. I fear that we will keep doing that until we can’t trust our belonging in any space. And I think belonging is something we need to feel as a species in order to have a reason to continue to feel compelled, to continue.
I’ve come to understand that there’s a single concept that diﬀerentiates a toxic culture from a more humane and eﬀective one and that’s the role of trauma. (Here I am referring to the trauma of those who participate in toxic social justice culture, not those traumatized by the culture.) Many of us come to social justice work because we are wounded (the Greek root word for trauma) and feel injustice deep in our souls. If we don’t channel our rage productively, we end up reproducing the very violence we abhor. It’s all too easy to flip the roles wherein the oppressed becomes the oppressor. (People can also simultaneously inhabit both roles.) Nietzsche said it best, perhaps: “Whoever ﬁghts monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.”
I take Nietzsche’s warning to heart, as I’ve seen that monster in myself. There have been times when I’ve been hurt and anger has clouded my vision and judgment and my first instincts are defensiveness and lashing out at those I believe to be responsible. It’s not surprising to see that same, very human, dynamic appear in our social justice movement and elsewhere. Formerly a participant in this toxic culture, I have been guilty of all that I critique.
Trauma research tells us that unhealed trauma can result in people being hypervigilant, always expecting to be wronged and looking for malice. This creates a distorted lens, making them more likely to project their fears onto others and to interpret situations as threatening or harmful even when they aren’t or to blow incidents out of proportion. They are often distrustful of others and adopt an us vs. them approach, identifying everyone as either allies or enemies. Also common for people with unhealed trauma is a need to protect themselves and their world-view, not allowing for debate, dissension, or even discussion that may threaten their views. They may also try to avoid situations in which they’re not in control, making posting a rant on a blog more comfortable than entering into dialogue. It can also cut people off from their empathy and support an attitude that anything is justified in the righteous quest for justice.
Stop and consider this. Do you see these trauma behaviors within our movement?
It doesn’t have to be this way. That rage people deposit on one other is an artifact of oppression, not a path towards liberation. We can make our movement trauma-informed, rather than trauma-driven. I have learned from my own experience, supported by research, that when trauma is triggered, instead of weaponizing that trauma against others, we can recognize it as an experience of vulnerability. Our vulnerability to being hurt – and our vulnerability to hurting others – is part of our humanity and what we share in common. It shouldn’t be what separates us. The rage we feel when we experience ourselves as victims can become a bridge with other people, rather than enforcing separation. It is only in the recognition of and respect for others’ humanity that we can preserve our own.
Taking time for reflection and healing helped me recognize that there’s a story behind everyone’s participation, including my own. I can accept that those who contributed to the hostility directed towards me, and those who stayed silent, aren’t bad people, just damaged, as we all are. I can reckon with my own history of trauma and how it drives my behavior today. I can pay attention to how my words or actions land and become curious when their impact differs from their intent. Moreover, I can offer compassion to myself and others as we struggle with our humanity. It’s not surprising that being raised in a supremacist society results in us absorbing and mimicking oppressive attitudes and behaviors until we learn better. As Staci Haines writes in her compelling book, The Politics of Trauma:
Our biggest act of resistance is to heal our traumas.
These experiences give me a freedom. No longer beholden to managing others’ perceptions I’m free to be me, without (or rather, with greatly reduced) fear of judgment. It has sparked a wonderful opportunity to see who “me” is absent being defined by my accomplishments and to discover what makes me happy beyond recognition and acceptance from others.
Getting here was a painful and difficult process, but I now see it as an easier life. Belonging isn’t true belonging when it requires self-censorship and intimacy is compromised when we don’t fully show up. It’s a heavy burden when our self-esteem is attached to being valued in the eyes of others. I wasn’t fully conscious of this burden until it was lifted and I came to experience a lightness, a deeper joy than I knew possible, and a deepening of relationships. I am now more confident in my resilience and ability to sit with whatever life has in store for me.
I want that freedom for everybody. I want it for those targeted as I was. I want it for all who are harmed by systemic injustice. I want it for all who are harmed by capitalism and imperialism.
My hope is that more good can come from my pain. I want to support people in finding that freedom – without having to experience a trauma. To be clear: this can’t be an individual journey. Until the toxic culture dissipates, the potential penalty of expressing that freedom is just too high, particularly for those who are disadvantaged. For individuals to thrive, we need to be in this together.
My specialty as a public speaker has always been to create a feeling of belonging in the room. I want to continue to hone that skill as I use my new-found awareness and pivot in a slightly different direction for speaking, to help others heal their traumas and manage their fears, to help build community at conferences, in your organizations, workplaces and schools, and to find our joy. Those of you who follow my writing know that I’ve already delved into those topics in Radical Belonging.
Also to note, I expect that I will soon be providing individual consultation virtually. Send me a note on my contact page if you are interested.
I look forward to seeing how this path continues to unfold. See you on that journey?
I had two papers in process during my “fall from grace” wherein the publishers rescinded their acceptance of my work to avoid controversy. These writings are now available on my website. One paper I am particularly proud of examines the research underlying the practice of denying surgeries to people with high BMI. Not surprisingly, it concludes that denying surgery is bad medical practice. That paper has already been used by two advance readers to change the minds of doctors who had previously denied them knee surgery; both are now post-surgery and almost pain-free. Find that paper on the first of my two HAES contributions web pages, where you can also access hundreds of past articles I’ve written.
The second webpage of HAES contributions is a new blog entitled “The [Missing] HAES Files,” where I have resurrected files recently retired from ASDAH’s “the HAES files” blog, with some revisions to keep the articles relevant. I also included extra bonuses that I hope will be inspiring.
On another note, getting off social media for this last year has also been very freeing, making me realize that my prior participation had become more burden than fun. I intend to keep my channels going to announce new works, but am unlikely to be participating otherwise. Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or LinkedIn if you would like notifications. I don’t know if I’ll be producing future newsletters, but you are welcome to sign up to receive them if I do.
My biggest passion is public speaking and I’m excited to incorporate my newfound perspective. I hope you’ll consider me for your next conference, or to speak at your school, organization, or workplace. You can reach me through the contact page on my website. As one prominent audience member reported, “Lindo invites you to deeper reflection of yourself, your community, and the world you live in, helping us all find our home.“
I hope to see you around…
*Health at Every Size and HAES are registered trademarks of The Association for Size Diversity and Health and used with permission.