Today marked the launch of The Billboard Project, an amazing challenge begun by Fat Activist and Health at Every Size advocate, Ragen Chastain, in conjunction with the larger Stand4EveryBody movement to persuade the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (CHOA) to remove its fat-shaming billboards from the Atlanta area. Since More of Me to Love is Atlanta based, this cause hits particularly close to home.
We’ve gotten involved with this fund-raising project with The More of Me to Love Match. We’re donating $5,000 as a challenge grant. The challenges: the Billboard Project must get at least 1000 other donors to raise at least the other $5,000 needed for a two-month billboard run countering the CHOA campaign. This interview with Ragen will allow us to better understand her motivation for the Billboard Project and her activism in order to find out what we can all do to get involved in this worthy cause.
More of Me to Love: The signature in your email says “Dancer, Choreographer, Speaker, Writer, Fat Person.” Can you please tell us more about that?
Ragen Chastain I have been dancing since I could walk, and I started choreographing in 6th grade. I was in dance, figure skating, cheerleading, musical theater, swing choir - anything with a stage and a spotlight. My career as an activist started in kindergarten when I arranged a sit-in protest on the basis that we spent too much time playing and not enough time learning.
I stopped dancing and slowed my activism work when I entered the business world until, in 2004, I discovered competitive partner dancing. Once I realized what it was going to be like as a fat woman in the dance world I chose to start a blog to talk about my experiences and as a way to get into Size Acceptance activism. I called it DanceswithFat, and for the first few months I had about six readers per post. Then one of my blogs got picked up by Jezebel.com, and DancesWithFat has been growing ever since; now I get between three and four thousand hits per day and I’ve just been asked to blog for NBCs iVillage. From my work on the blog people started asking me to speak, and I’ve had the opportunity to speak at universities like USC, the University of Texas at Austin, and Caltech and corporations like Apple and Google - and my first book is coming out in the next few months.
I consider myself very lucky to be able to do what I love and work with amazing people to make a difference in the world. I’m trying to follow in the footsteps of my heroes and mentors like Marilyn Wann, Dr. Linda Bacon and Dr. Deb Burgard. I include “fat person” in the signature line because, in our society, weight is an identity, and one that is not always afforded respect. Proudly stating that I’m a fat person is my way of telling those who would try to bully me about my weight and size that they simply cannot have my lunch money any more.
MOMTL: What does your work in the realms of Size Acceptance and Health at Every Size generally look like and include (outside of what you mentioned above)?
Ragen: To me Size Acceptance is a civil rights movement and Health at Every Size is a health practice, so I approach them differently. My work as a Size Acceptance activist is about the fact that everybody deserves respect, and that weight is not a barometer by which to judge someone’s health, intelligence, employment worthiness, or anything else. It’s also important to me as a SA activist that we support people with bodies of all sizes and that body snarking and weight bullying, whether it’s saying “She’s too skinny and needs to eat a sandwich” or “She’s too fat and needs to stop eating sandwiches” is never, ever acceptable.
With Health at Every Size my goal is to let as many people as possible know that HAES is an option. I strongly believe that people get to choose how highly to prioritize their health, and what path they want to take to get there. I’m known for saying that we are each the boss of our own underpants and nobody else’s. The problem that I see is that many people have never heard of Health at Every Size so they don’t know that there is a path to health that focuses on health instead of on weight. I’ve heard women say, “I know that dieting almost never works and yo-yo dieting is bad for you, but what other choice is there?” That’s a problem. People are allowed to choose dieting if they want, but they shouldn’t choose it only because they don’t know that there are other options.
MOMTL: You are surely very selective about the particular activities that engage you in the Size Acceptance and Health at Every Size movements. What is it that attracted your attention and made you “Stand up” regarding the CHOA campaign, Strong4Life?
Ragen: When I first saw the billboards I was sickened that anyone would think that a campaign to promote healthy kids should include shaming fat kids. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew I had to do something.
MOMTL: What is it that is so iniquitous about Strong4Life?
Ragen: Shaming, humiliating, and stigmatizing fat kids under the guise of promoting health is horrible in and of itself, but I was shocked when more information came to light.
One of the billboards says, “Fat prevention starts at home. And in the buffet line.” If they are so worried about buffets, why did CHOA take a donation of $25,000 from Golden Corral, a $200 million buffet chain with 485 locations worldwide? And if we are to believe that sugary drinks and fatty foods are to blame, why did CHOA accept over $375,000 in donations from companies like Waffle House, Boardwalk Fresh Burgers and Fries, Dairy Queen, IHOP, Golden State Foods, Kraft Foods, Pepsi, and Coca Cola entities and distributors (who contributed a whopping $145,000). Thanks to Atchka on Fierce, Freethinking Fatties for the research on this.
When many people spoke out about the fact that shaming is bad for kid’s health, CHOA said that these billboards were meant for parents, glossing over the fact that kids can see them and will be attracted to them because it’s someone their own age on the billboard. CHOA claimed that “75% of Georgia parents with overweight kids don’t recognize the problem.” When pressed to substantiate that claim with evidence they changed the statement to say “75% of parents of overweight kids ignore the problem,” another claim that they have not substantiated with evidence.
Then I found out the kids in the ads who claimed to have health and confidence problems due to their weight had neither. That is disingenuous at best - how would people feel if the ads contained a disclaimer that the fat kids in the ads were happy, healthy and confident?
MOMTL: We’ve seen support come out of the woodwork for protesting CHOA. Why this and not something else? Do you think there’s a particular significance to this event and the reaction to it that should cause us to stop and take note?
Ragen: I think it’s a combination of factors. The first is that so many people can remember being teased and bullied as kids, and a campaign that seems designed to make that even worse for today’s kids gets people’s attention. The second is that more and more people of size, and our allies, are starting to realize that our weight doesn’t make us any less worthy of respect, that the way that people of size are treated in this culture is completely unacceptable, and that it’s time to stand up and fight back.
MOMTL: There’s talk of a coalition to work against CHOA’s Strong4Life campaign. Can you speak to that? What is the coalition called? Where can we learn more?
Ragen: This arose out of discussions among Atchka of Fierce Fatties, Marilyn Wann and me. There were a lot of projects coordinated by different people around this issue. There are fine organization working in the field of Fat Acceptace and Health at Every Size including ASDAH and NAAFA. Since this is so time sensitive and most of the projects were already underway, rather than slowing things down with politics and trying to form a new organization where one might not be needed, it was decided that the best thing would be to form a coalition.
MOMTL: What is your project contribution for the coalition?
Ragen: I’m spearheading a project to put up billboards in Atlanta with a positive, Health at Every Size® message to directly counter the negative message of the Strong4Life campaign.
MOMTL: What are the fundraising efforts and goals of the coalition and your billboard project in particular?
Ragen: Currently the billboard project is the only one in the coalition that is doing fundraising, although of course that may change. Each billboard costs $10,000. Our goal is to put up the first billboard as quickly as possible and earn a lot of media around that, as well as to raise additional money for a print media campaign including ads in newspapers, signs at bus stops and additional billboards. Thanks to a very generous matching donation by you all at More of Me to Love we are already half way to putting up our first billboard. Thursday 2/2/12 is our Big Fat Money Bomb. A money bomb is a political tool used to raise as much money as possible on the first day of a campaign for momentum and media.
MOMTL: I’ve used a lot of negative words in my questions, speaking “against” CHOA. What are the positive effects you hope the coalition will have?
Ragen: I believe that it will grow the community of people who consider themselves Size Acceptance activists, both in terms of our numbers and our connections to each other. The thing that attracted me to coordinating the billboard project was the opportunity to do something really big. People of size are told so often that we are unworthy and unable to accomplish our dreams and sometimes I think we can take that to heart. I wanted to use this opportunity to support kids, speak out against weight bullying and stigma, and accomplish a big project as a community. This isn’t the last fight that we’ll be in for respect, and we’ll be more ready for the next fight having taken on this one.
MOMTL: What would you ask of everyone reading this interview regarding what each person can do to help.
Ragen: First, I would ask that you consider that whatever your size, or health status, you are worthy of being treated with respect. Find a way to get involved. Send in a picture and an “I Stand” statement and become part of Marilyn Wann’s amazing project. Send in a video about your childhood bullying experience for Atchka’s project, sign the petition against this, and of course it would be great if you could support the billboard with a donation in any amount.
MOMTL: Concerning weight, size and health, what does the “perfect public attitude” look like?
Ragen: I believe that the perfect public attitude realizes that bodies come in a variety of sizes (just like feet and hands and noses). Everyone understands that weight and health are two separate things, and neither weight nor health is ever used as a barometer for worthiness of respect. Our discussion of public health focuses on health, not weight; and we work to change policy, not people. We give our time, attention, and money to make sure that everyone has access to true information, the foods that they choose to eat, safe movement options that they enjoy, and appropriate evidence-based healthcare. Then we make choices for ourselves and respect the choices of others.
This all sounds incredible and we’re honored to be a part of it. We hope that all of our readers will click HERE to make a donation in any amount to help raise money for the Billboard Project and stand up for the health of all kids and people in all shapes and sizes.
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