In This Body Episode #5 – A Conversation with SJ Thompson
Hosted by Ashley Bullock, In This Body is a podcast that serves as a wake-up call for greater representation and celebration of body diversity. In each episode, Ashley and her guest speakers shine a light on social inequities, discuss how to address the underlying “isms”, like racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, capitalism and discuss what we can do to radically reform them. In this episode, Ashley’s guest is SJ Thompson.
SJ Thompson is a writer, Certified Body Trust Provider, consultant and trainer for healthcare and wellness professionals, and a medical advocate for fat people seeking equitable treatment from their providers. SJ’s work is informed by many philosophies, including: Body Trust, Health at Every Size, Intuitive Eating, Fat Liberation, eating disorder recovery harm-reduction, and more.
In this show Ashley and SJ explore:
- How up until very recently, SJ hasn’t seen themselves represented in the mainstream
- What empowered SJ to seek out treatment and to get diagnosed
- How systemic oppression has impacted SJ personally and how important community and support has been in their journey
- SJ’s insights and experiences with whiteness in the eating disorder community
SJ: What happens when we don’t express our anger and when we don’t address our shame, it just gets stored in our body. There’s such a huge connection between trauma and how the body remembers everything. So, I was just like, let me see what this does. I’m gonna try this. I did it. And it was the most amazing thing. I was amazed at how it got the anger out of my body.
Ashley: Hello, and welcome to In This Body, a show that serves as a wake up call for greater representation and celebration of body diversity. I’m your host, Ashley Bullock. And together we’re shining light on social inequities and discovering how to address the underlying isms – like racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, capitalism, and what we can do to radically reform them. Today, I’ll be speaking with SJ Thompson. SJ is a writer, certified body trust provider, consultant, and trainer for healthcare and wellness professionals, and a medical advocate for people seeking equitable treatment from their providers. SJ’s work is informed by many philosophies including body trust, Health at Every Size, intuitive eating fat liberation, eating disorder, recovery, harm reduction, and more. In this show, SJ explains how up until very recently, they haven’t seen themselves represented in the mainstream. We’ll also be discussing what empowered SJ to seek out treatment and to get diagnosed, how systemic oppression has impacted them personally, and how important community and support has been in their journey. Let’s dive into the interview.
Ashley: What are your takes on labels? How do you label yourself? I know that’s something that can always be changing, right?
SJ: It’s true. It’s a great question. I identify as a white, queer, super fat, trans, non-binary, disabled neurodivergent person with chronic pain. I also often will throw in coming from a poor working class background, which has also pretty much continued. In my whole adulthood, I’ve probably only ever had a couple years where I’ve not been under earning. I’ve just recently probably in the last month been identifying as disabled. That’s pretty new for me.
Ashley: If you don’t mind talking about it, how did that come up?
SJ: I got to participate in the Crip Camp virtual experience, which happened, obviously online, over the summer for, I want to say, three or four months in total. Have you heard of the movie Crip Camp?
Ashley: No, I haven’t. I’m writing it down, though.
SJ: It’s a documentary that the Obama’s funded. And it’s on Netflix. The Obama’s decided to fund it. I think it was one of their first movies. This was the anniversary year for the Americans with Disabilities Act. The movie is about this camp, I’m pretty sure, in upstate New York, that happened in the 70s. It was like disabled people’s Woodstock. A lot of the camp counselors had disabilities. All the people that attended had disabilities. And they just lived their lives at this camp. Everybody did everything, and helped each other figure out how to make things accessible. They would talk about how it was one of the only times where their family members didn’t take care of them and have to do things for them. It’s a great movie. So, they created this virtual camp experience. And it was 90-minutes every Sunday for at least three months in a row. They had all of these amazing black, indigenous, disabled speakers. There were people of color doing sign interpreting. It was just such a cool way to learn and it was all free. So, it really helped me to unravel and recognize my internalized ableism and what it meant to be disabled. And I realized I would keep hitting this wall of the idea that I feel like I was raised with about disability being something where you’re only disabled if you can’t work full time, or you’re only disabled if the government tells you that you’re disabled and are worthy of receiving disability benefits, which is a really horrible, harmful process that takes people years to get approved, for decades sometimes. I would also be learning from people that had their PhDs and were disabled. And I’m like, what a, like capitalistic white supremacist view of disability? And when I was able to really break down, no, disability doesn’t have anything to do with how productive you are. So, the combination of my neuro-divergence with having pretty severe ADHD, and chronic pain that comes and goes every day is different. And it just, yeah, it’s okay. I get to say that I’m disabled. That’s not for anybody else to decide. There’s so much stigma around it, which I think is one of the biggest reasons why I think I have avoided using the term because I feel like I already faced so much with being super fat, trans and queer, and the eating disorder community that it’s like, are people gonna want to hire me? Are people gonna think that I’m charging too much for consulting? Am I still gonna get work if I say that I’m disabled? Like? Yeah. Am I disabled enough?
Ashley: Actually, that’s a perfect segue into my next question I was gonna ask you about. I saw on your Instagram your hashtag about that self-diagnosis. Oh, man, I love that. I love that I interviewed Annie two weeks ago, and she was kind of talking about that. But can you talk to me about that?
SJ: Oh man, there’s so many ways to talk about this. So, there is a ton of gatekeeping when it comes to treatment for anything, whether it’s eating disorders, or ADHD, or autism, or depression. You have to have access to be able to get a diagnosis. And there’s benefit to having labels, right? Because it gives us language to talk about things and conceptualize things and a way to search for resources. And then it’s also really pathologizing. I’m pretty sure it’s, like, 98% white people that created all of the terms in the DSM. There’s just so much with that. A way that I and a lot of my friends have been diagnosed is by talking to each other about our experience. My friend told me more and more what she learned about ADD and ADHD, and her getting diagnosed, and trying medication, and finding something that worked. I’m like, oh, it doesn’t have to just be like this all the time. That made me feel more empowered to like, go seek out treatment and get diagnosed and try medication. The more that I’ve spoken about my experience, and the different ways that ADHD shows up for people, especially people socialized as girls, because a lot of the ways that autism and ADHD are both diagnosed are criteria that are predominantly things that people socialized as boys present. Since we’re socialized so differently, of course, it’s going to show up differently. So, we have whole generations of people that never got diagnosed, and people that are just now getting diagnosed as autistic and having ADHD, and they’re in their 40s and 50s. I got diagnosed when I was 34 and I didn’t try medication until I was 36. Because I was a part of a huge, like, natural medicine community, and, you know, medication, especially stimulant medication was like, so frowned upon, and so stigmatize and because I also had had substance use issues, when I was in my early 20s. So, I had this like, oh my God, if I try a stimulant, I’m gonna like relapse and it’s just gonna be bad. Yeah. And then how that interacts with my eating disorder, recovery, and all of that, there’s just so many layers. Yeah, I think self-diagnosis is really important, and can help us lead to getting resources and help. It still can be difficult because, you know, my black friends don’t have the same interactions at a psychiatrist that I do. They don’t have the same interactions with their medical providers that I do. And so, there’s just a lot there.
Ashley: Sure, no, you’re absolutely right. How has systemic oppression impacted you personally?
SJ: Systems of oppression, so you know, fat phobia, from a very young age of homophobia, I didn’t come out in high school because I didn’t think it would be safe. Nor was it safe for me to explore my sexuality as a teenager. Lots of people had their first kiss or first relationship in high school or college. That didn’t happen for me until I was 24. That’s a direct result of homophobia and transphobia. So there are many ways that sexism and transphobia have interacted for me over the years, because I wanted so badly to not conform. But then I was in this super Christian family. And I didn’t feel like I had any other option than to conform. And what else – ableism, combined with sizeism. I’ve had conversations with clients and friends, because I do coaching work around body image and food and reclaiming your body. So, I’ll talk to clients and friends about how if I’m out of breath, I feel like I have to hide the fact that I’m out of breath because I don’t want anybody to think that I’m out of breath because I’m fat. And then, being worried that people think that I’m disabled because I’m fat. Or, I’m in the process right now of seeking out top surgery, and I don’t know if I’m going to get it, because the surgeon that I want to go to has a BMI limit. And I won’t know until I meet with her if she’s willing to change her mind about the BMI limit. Even though she used to do them and not have a BMI limit. And then never getting diagnosed with ADHD and ever having that access in school has made such a huge difference in my career path, and the things that I’ve been able to do, and my ability to make money. Yeah, it definitely contributed to my eating disorder, my substance use issues. It took a long time before I ever felt like I could actually be in my body and not hate it and not blame myself for all the ways that society is not made for me.
Ashley: How did you find ways to fight against it? Because I mean, you do and you’re such an advocate. Where did that come from?
SJ: When you ask me that, I think back to before I ever got sober and how I was just such a typical young white person who tried to never rock the boat, and didn’t use my voice, and wanted everyone to like me, and thought that was possible. That’s not possible. Asking me that question just makes me think about how different I am than 18 years ago. So, what have I done? I think that I’ve tried to learn as much as I can, and then learn how to use my voice. I had a therapist early on in my sobriety that shared the Audrey Lorde quote with me, “Your silence does not protect you.” That definitely gave me a push to feel like, okay, I’m not protected anyways, like, why am I not speaking up? Over time, things have just pushed me to go further and further. Social media has been a really great outlet for me to be able to say the things and not be quiet. In my day-to-day life, really understanding how important relationship is in community and using that as a form of rebellion, surrounding myself, with people that believe that systemic oppression exists, believe that liberation, and equity and inclusion are important, and the way out. Also, other people that speak up, because it’s really hard to do that consistently without support. Community is a huge part of that for me, because I need to be able to recharge, and not burn myself out, because it’s a marathon and not a sprint.
Ashley: Amen. How did you find community content, primarily social media?
SJ: Some by social media, because social media, for me has been like a connection for fat community. It’s pretty hard to find the people that you click with, and then are interested in similar things as you in person. But, like, pursuing the things that are important to me. So, a lot of my community, I’ve met through the body trust community here in Portland. I go to body positive events, find other people in the eating disorder community that are into breaking down systems of oppression within the eating disorder community, and find the people that I can have those conversations with, and volunteer. So, I’ve met some friends through being involved with action here in Portland, in relationship to various things, and different black-led organizations here. I also feel like I’m the person in a lot of ways that is the person that’s going to create community if I can’t find it. And so, I really like connecting people. I really like connecting people that don’t know anyone else that have a similar experience as them. I do a lot of peer support groups online since the pandemic has started and I’ve been furloughed, because before the pandemic, I was a group therapist at the eating disorder center of Portland, in Portland. And so, I did groups for adolescents and adults in the PHP and IOP programs.
Ashley: Yeah, that’s awesome. Speaking of the eating disorder community makes me think of our first email exchange a couple of weeks ago now. I was like, yes. Let’s talk about that. How do you experience the eating disorder community? You had mentioned that a lot of interactions that you’ve had in the eating disorder world are not always so positive, and that their vested interest is in upholding white supremacist culture. So, just wondering if you could just talk a little bit more about your experiences, your personal qualms with whiteness in the eating disorder world? Sorry, we didn’t prep you for that question. But we have to talk about it.
SJ: It’s just a big topic, with lots of feelings. I mean, if you want to get a glimpse of what it’s like to not be protected by your whiteness, start speaking up about systems of oppression and in your community, because it will show you that people are more interested in upholding the way things have always been and making money, than to try to shift the culture of an organization to be inclusive and to challenge the ways that their program or staff just perpetuate the harmful characteristics of white supremacy. So, experiences that I’ve had, I’ve gone to eating disorder conferences, where people treat me differently because I’m in a much larger body. And most eating disorder professionals are cis, white women. Yeah. Oddly, so much that stereotype that even I’ve had dieticians comment to me that, yeah, we all look alike. And I’m like, Oh, so you all know. And all you have to do is go and look at most eating disorders center staff websites, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. They all look alike.
Ashley: Yeah, what needs to change? I mean, how do you envision the eating disorder field looking in the next like, 5-10 years?
SJ: It kind of blows my mind to think about what needs to happen, because it just wouldn’t need to be. So for me, you know, I just think it needs to be drastic, because one person and a system of 300, or 200, across U.S. doesn’t make a difference to the person, the clients that person interacts with. But really, for change to happen systemically, it has to be in the top two, it can’t just be the employees. What I would love to see happen is that the people in positions of power hire people to do a review of their organization, and be committed to implementing the change that is suggested, which is going to end up meaning that you’re going to have to leave your position somewhere down the road. And you need to be hiring all of the people that are speaking out and have been in the eating disorder field for those positions, the black people, the brown people, the fat and queer people, but also the people that have those identities that are committed to that change. Yes. And then every person that gets hired, if you are not on board with that, you are not getting hired. Because that’s the other thing that I see happening is that organizations are trying to train their employees and hiring people. But then, what part of the hiring process? What are you doing to evaluate whether or not somebody is about examining their internalized fatphobia or not? And their internalized white supremacy or not? Because then you’re just adding in people, you’re spending money on employees that you’re just gonna have to train more. I think that we are seeing how white people in power don’t want to give up their power. And I don’t like that, it’s maddening. And it’s also like, have the big picture of now this is out in the open more, this isn’t just some hidden thing that is just resting on the shoulders of everyone that has experienced the systemic marginalization and oppression. And I think that’s a good thing.
Ashley: Totally. Thank you. I didn’t mean to put you on the spot, but I’m like, oh, I love a big opportunity. I love these questions. I’ve just imagined a bunch of people just turning off the podcast. Like, I’m done. I don’t want to hear this. But hopefully not though. You guys our intention here is just to inspire and educate. Okay. So, that leads me into my next, maybe my last question, we’ll see. How do you manage anger and shame?
SJ: I used to be incredibly afraid of being angry. What I was comfortable with was shame. Like, I knew how to be ashamed. But anger. Nobody wants an angry person. And a big part of that is, the only kind of anger that I ever saw was explosive anger. And not anger that somebody had learned how to be with and not use destructively or meanly. So, a huge part of my eating disorder recovery has been to figure out how to be angry, and how to not freak out when I get angry, and how to not explode. Or be mean. So, how I deal with it is I don’t try to suppress it anymore. Learning how to not only operate on shame was a huge part of my recovery. I have learned beneficial things from Brene Brown about shame. That’s all I’m gonna say about that. So, the way that I deal with those things are connection, not ignoring it, not suppressing it. And art. Art has become a huge, I mean, art has kind of always existed in my life. But now I think I’m recognizing it more as a stress reliever, and a way for me to also use my voice, and accept that art can be radical. Mm hmm. And so, those are big things. And using my voice because silence adds to shame. And silence doesn’t help you express your anger. I had this one experience with a friend where it was probably one of the times that I’ve been most angry in my life, about this experience that I had. I don’t feel like I can say more than that. She offered to have me come over to her house and use a hatchet that she had to chop up this really huge branch that had fallen in the front of her yard like, and it was in the space in between the sidewalk and the road. And it was very weird. I was like, I don’t need to do that. That’s weird, to go chop up this branch. And then the more I thought about it, I was like, you know what, I’m gonna try this and see what happens. Because what happens when we don’t express our anger, and when we don’t address our shame, it just gets stored in our body. There’s such a huge connection between trauma and how the body remembers everything. So, I was just like, let me see what this does. I’m gonna try this. I did it. And it was the most amazing thing. I was amazed at how it got the anger out of my body. I was tired after I did it. And I was amazing. I haven’t done anything like that since. I found out that there’s this like destruction room place in Eugene, Oregon, that you can rent this padded room. They give you goggles, whatever else, and you get to go smash sh*t. I love it. The other thing that I have often thought about, and I should probably just do it, so they’re on hand. But it’s to go to a thrift store and purchase plates for real cheap, then go find someplace and just smash some plates.
Ashley: One day? Oh, yeah. Yeah, you might have just given me my weekend. Thank you so much for your time. This is really, really awesome. I enjoyed it so much. Where can our listeners find you and stay in touch with you?
SJ: My website is https://resilientfatgoddex.com/. And Instagram is probably where I’m the most active on social media. And I also have Facebook, I also have Twitter and I also have a Tik Tok now.
Ashley: Oh my gosh, I think I’m the only person in the world without that. Is it fun? Is it as great as everybody says it is?
SJ: Yes. Okay. I mean, I’ve also heard from my friends who don’t have Tik Tok accounts that you can go look at Tik Tok videos without even having an account.
Ashley: I’ll start there. Oh, thank you so much. Thank you. It was so great to talk with you.
Ashley: Thank you for listening to In This Body and being a part of these important conversations. If you want to be on the side of positive change where all bodies and identities are represented empowered, keep doing your part to speak up against systems of oppression and injustice and stand up for diversity. As the late great Audrey Lord said, “Your silence will not protect you.” Your voice matters. Peace and Love, y’all.