Carmen Cool MA, LPC, and Kathy discuss youth activism, and eating disorder prevention. Two very important topics as we know that preventing these illnesses is one key to minimizing the effects eating disorders have on society.
Learn more about Carmen and her work at www.carmencool.com
Full transcript –
Kathy Cortese: Hello, and welcome to ED Matters. This is Kathy Cortese, your host. And my guest today is Carmen Cool. Carmen Cool is a psychotherapist in Boulder Colorado, specializing in Binge Eating Disorder, having worked for over 15 years in the field of eating disorders, disordered eating, both in private practice and in treatment centers. She’s been moving more into advocacy work. She has ran youth programs since 2004, championing them to raise their voice and create new cultural norms around body image, and as a frequent presenter, locally and nationally on health at every size. She was named most inspiring individual in Boulder County, was the recipient of the excellence and eating disorder advocacy award in Washington DC, and as the board president for the association for Size Diversity and Health. Welcome Carmen.
Carmen Cool: Thanks so much for having me.
Kathy: Such a pleasure to have you here. And our topic today is youth activism and eating disorder prevention. And I know you are someone who passionately believe in social justice.
Kathy: Can you please talk about what led you to activism in the world of eating disorders and body image?
Carmen: Sure. I think there are few things that led me into activism and one is that I — I’m a feminist therapist and I was realizing that working one on one in my office with clients while super important felt incomplete to me like there was a part of me that felt like I needed to be out in the community doing something around the conditions that were bringing people into my office in the first place. And so, prevention always felt really important to me. I also had an eating disorder in early 20s as did my sister and my sister died from Hers. And both of us kind of grew up in larger body since kid. And so, I also found myself really interested in this intersection of weight stigma, fat phobia and eating disorders. And then, I also — in terms of how or where I wanted to place my activism, love working with teenagers. I love the rebellious energy they bring. I love the fresh and visionary ideas that they have and so, I started some peer education programs where I can stay in shoulder to shoulder with them. And together, we could come up with our own activism projects. I could support them in how they could bring a message of liberation into their communities.
Kathy: Now, one phrase strikes me, and that is you standing shoulder to shoulder with them which tells me in terms of the image I have in my head, is that we are together. We are equal. I’m not here as your leader. You know, it’s a way. Can you talk about what that spirit is like?
Carmen: Yeah, absolutely. In terms of social justice, right? I didn’t want to come at it from a top down model and I wanted to watch out for adultism, right? The idea that adults have the better ideas, that they have all of the power and society actually, and that most programs are done two or four young people and I wanted to do programs that were by and with them. So really important that we weren’t — there was no hierarchy, like I brought perhaps more experience certainly and more resources and had access to more information, but in terms of ideas, we co-created everything that happened. I brought them into every aspect of the program from what our mission was going to be to the development of the program, to evaluation and assessment. They were part of it, all along the way.
Kathy: There is such an underpinning of solid respect in every way. You’ve worked with youth and at this particular area of activism, eating disorders, weight stigma, health at every size. I’m curious how that got started and you know, how you helped the youth get involved?
Carmen: Boulder County where I lived, has a strong history of using peer education as a model in the school district and I wasn’t associated with the school district but I was working loosely kind of associated with it. And so, kids are looking for leadership opportunities, actually, it goes well on the college applications. They’re looking for ways to get involved. And most of them have been touched in some way by negative body image certainly or by eating disorders and I found that a lot of them wanted a vehicle to move from passive recipients of these toxic cultural message to act of advocates for change. And they wanted to be able to do something. So, they didn’t wanted to set around and talk about body image, they wanted to go out and create change and do something. And, when I put the call out, maybe 11 years ago for the first time, that was the hook, like to be a change agent. And I was surprised by the number of kids actually that immediately raised their hands and said, “Get me, get me involved and sign up.” “How do I make change and be a change agent?”
Kathy: And the goal at that time? What was the mission? What were the youth involved such that they were going to make a change?
Carmen: At that point, we centered at mostly around peer education. So, they learned how to be role models in the school, you know, they look deeply at their own history and relationship with their bodies, the ways that it showed up personally and then among their peers and then at the school level, you know, the institutional level itself, but it was a peer education program. So they would work on their own stuff, right? To be credible role models, and then, they would go present because they would present in high schools, they would present in middle schools. And then, we would sit down together and come up with activism projects that they want to do out in the larger community.
Kathy: And can you give us some examples of what they brought to the larger community?
Carmen: Yeah, absolutely. There were a few things that standout when I think back of my time with them. And one is that they were really concerned about weight bullying, and the bullying that happened in the school around the physical appearance. And in our school district, that form of bullying was three times higher than bullying that was happening because of race ethnicity or sexual orientation. And so, they noticed that physical appearance or weight in shape wasn’t in the school district’s anti-discrimination policy, and that was one of the things that they thought should change. They thought that we should do that. And so, over the course of the couple years, we would present to the school board. And then they did actually add it into their anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies. So, that was one thing that we you know, that we were able to do together. The other was Boulder County has a safe-zone poster that businesses or organizations can place that lets people know that it’s a safe space, right? That it respects people regardless of age, race, ethnicity, gender expression, all those things and body shaping size wasn’t added to that either. And so, we got that added to the safe zone poster. And then, the biggest thing that I think we did over the years was go to the Washington DC lobby for — what then was the Freed Act, the Federal responds to eliminate eating disorders act. So, twice a year, I would take a group of kids to Washington DC and let them use their voice on Capitol Hill to pass that legislation.
Kathy: What were some of the things that the students you know, told the politicians when you were there in Washington? I’m curious because I want people to learn A, about what they know, just you know, the young people know, and also, B, about what they were hoping, they would achieve.
Carmen: They did a lot of sharing of personal experience, so whether that was their own experience of having an eating disorder and having trouble getting treatment or whether it was you know, close friend of theirs that they saw straggle. They talked about the pain that they felt, seeing this issue all around them in the schools. They would also share specific examples of teachers that didn’t know how to respond when a student disclose that they had an eating disorder, and those who’re really powerful to be able to say, “Here is what we’re hearing at the school level.” Because of part of the Freed Act, did have a provision for training that would happen for school, teachers and nurses. They would share that. A lot of personal experience and heartfelt please to the congressman and in our senators to be able to take a stand into something.
Kathy: How did you feel the students who received when they offered their concerns?
Carmen: You know, it’s a great question because what I ended up saying was if we want to affect change in Washington, we should bring the teenagers, like they were very well-received. There’s a way that the people that we spoke to really wanted to hear from them and to hear their voice about what mattered. And our congressman in Boulder county did sign his name under the Freed Act based on what the kids brought him. So, it was a powerful moment for them to realized that their voice matters and that they can affect to change even at the government level and that what they say has impact. And I love knowing that they’re going to carried out forward is they get involved. And whatever form of public life that they want to get involved in.
Kathy: You know, there’s something so wonderfully and challengingly unfiltered about the voice of youth, but it’s so real and it’s so true, and it sounds like that’s what rang when they spoke to their representatives.
Carmen: Yeah, absolutely, they just told it like it is. And the unfiltered part was both a blessing a curse in moments on Capitol Hill but for the most part, just hearing it as it is out of their you know, and their voice was really impactful.
Kathy: I’m curious what the impact had on some of the individuals and also what impact the individuals had on the community when it came to you know, bringing, eating disorder awareness, eating disorder prevention to the floor.
Carmen: I think the impact on them was the biggest thing that I witness. And when they have to go talk about this or when they did go talk about this over and over again, what happened was they constantly were reinforcing this message to themselves, right? That they don’t have to make their bodies be smaller in order to find love or to be comfortable or to find power, and what happened was we shifted the focus from raising their self-esteem to increasing their power. There’s a social justice teacher that says that to be effective adult allies, that’s what we need to do. It’s not about helping them raise their self-esteem. It’s really about helping them find their power. And then, what they can center into that, that’s global, right? Like that impacts all aspects of their life. So, I think they were able to raise awareness in the school that eating disorders are real issue to be able to help kids find support that they needed too. And raise awareness in the community also about eating disorders but also about weight stigma, right? That even people that don’t suffer from clinical or sub-clinical eating disorder still have an awful lot of suffering around food and body.
Kathy: I’m curious what your students said to the township committee, etcetera, etcetera to — in schools to get them to incorporate you know, that piece about no weight bullying.
Carmen: To add it to the anti-discrimination policy?
Kathy: Yes, yeah.
Carmen: So first, what we did together is I asked them to do some research. So they looked up other school districts in the country to find out who else did have it included. And they compiled a list of examples and other school districts that had it and we found that no other school district in Colorado did. So, what they said when they went in front of the school board, and we thought about it a lot, right? How to be the most effective. They shared personal stories about the ways that they saw it in the schools. Maybe some of them, the ways they personally had felt to used and made fun of. So those were the most impactful thing, them sharing their own actual lived experience of this.
Kathy: Similar to their Washington experience.
Carmen: Absolutely, absolutely. And that got people’s attention. At that time, there were stories in the news of young people who have hurt themselves or attempted suicide and physical appearance related teasing was a part of that story. So, it was up in the news at that time also. And then, to be honest, what they did is the Boulder prides itself on being very progressive. And the kids used that to their advantage and basically said, you know, Boulder Valley has an opportunity here to be the first district in the state to have this kind of legislation and that actually worked.
Kathy: Yeah. And that takes me to my comment that you know, I’ve worked with many young people and find them wonderfully gifted, remarkably resourceful but also unfortunately they — I think they are overlooked resource. What have you learned about some of the breath of their abilities?
Carmen: I think as adults, we underestimate them all the time. I think it’s easy to want their fresh faces and energy but we don’t stop often enough and think about the authentic power that can come when we engaged them fully. They are brilliant. They are wise. They know the stuff. They just need opportunities to get their voice out there, but they come up with things I never would’ve thought off. They’re progressive. They’re connected. They desperately want to make a change. And they’re rebellious. And so, that energy is also really fun and meaningful and impactful to harvest and use in service of social change.
Kathy: Right, right, right, and that energy is so crucial to so many movements into this type of activism. When it comes to the power of their voice, what would you like young people to know? What are some of the things you’d like them if you know, maybe they think oh, I could never or that’s too hard to do or you’ve got to be kidding. An idea of Washington DC? You know, so, what would you like young people to know is possible and you know, some of the steps they might want to take?
Carmen: I want them to know that their voice matters, and that they’re deeply wise and brilliant and their voice needs to be heard that I don’t think any of the issues that were face with right now can really be solve without the engagement of young people. So, I want them to know you’re needed. We need you. We need your voice at the table. We need your ideas. We need your energy and your heart and that anything is possible. So now, it’s about connecting with adult who wants to champion the youth voice and can be an actual real adult ally and stand like I said shoulder to shoulder with you and help you figure out what the best ways to make your voice heard could be.
Kathy: As you look back on you know, progress over time in Boulder, Boulder county, what would you say your observations are about people in general, their thoughts on eating disorders, weight stigma, etcetera?
Carmen: I think people are slowly realizing for me anyway. I want this to be happening much faster of course but I think people are slowly realizing that weight stigma is a thing, right? And that it’s a form of oppression and then it relates to eating disorders. And that we have to — if we want to prevent eating disorders, it’s my belief that we have to stop the way stigma as well because I think it’s hard to recover when kind of the war on obesity or the war on fatness, you know, that makes it kind of a hostile recovery environment, right? That we can’t do one without the other. At least that’s what I believe.
Kathy: You know, I actually like you to spend more time in — because I think that this is such a really neat concept. Weight stigma is a thing, and that means it’s like an entity with its own energy. And you know, just a view. There’s something maybe outside of ourselves and recognize and be fully aware that it’s a thing and it’s not a good thing. Can you talk to that concept?
Carmen: Yeah. It’s a thing and it’s a form of oppression, right? It intersects with other forms of oppression too, but it’s absolutely a force that affects every body no matter where they fall on the weight spectrum. And it needs to change. It does so much damage. I believe it’s also important for those of us who maybe our clinicians or providers working with people with eating disorders to understand that people recover in the all sizes of bodies. And that we have to be really careful that we say you know, you need to gain weight but not too much weight, but that’s not helpful, right? Or that weight loss isn’t a sign of recovery in somebody that might be in a higher weight body that we actually separate out with — from people’s actual live experience in signs and symptoms.
Kathy: And that it’s not the marker of something, yeah.
Carmen: It’s not the marker of anything actually.
Carmen: That we don’t know anything by looking at somebody, what their relationship with food is like or what their relationship with movement is like of how healthy they are. We don’t know any of that actually. And that people in the higher weight bodies can be suffering from anorexia or under eating, right?
Kathy: Yes, or lesser known factor.
Kathy: Yes. Concluding, what would some of your you know, takeaways be for perhaps the hopefully wide audience that listens whether they be youth, parents, educators, professionals, you know, older people?
Carmen: I think my biggest takeaways is about the power of connection actually, whether that’s our connection to our own bodies, our connections with each other, our connections with young people, their connections with adults, that it’s really about relationships. And I think having connected a tuned relationships is one of the best ways that we can also achieve the health that we want.
Kathy: I think that that perspective ties things together beautifully. And I think it helps us understand activism. And I think it leads to just help the connection with one’s self and also the greater, you know, world out there. Carmen Cool. Thank you so much for joining us today. I think we’ve addressed the number of things and I think I’m very grateful for having you here as a guest today.
Carmen: Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure —