3rd Weight Stigma Conference Review: Youth Culture ≠ Youth-Generated Culture

As promised, in this edition of my review of the 3rd Weight Stigma Conference I want to relay some observations I had attending the breakout session held by Carmen Cool.

Inside the Harpa, Reykjavik Iceland 2015
Inside the Harpa, Reykjavik Iceland 2015

In addition to having the best last name ever, Carmen Cool has an utterly infectious enthusiasm for her work. She is a psychotherapist, advocate, educator and founder of the Boulder Youth Body Alliance.

The Boulder Youth Body Alliance was founded in 2004 and was active to 2013. Carmen developed the concept and funded this grass roots project for its initial two years in startup as well. The goal was to have a youth-driven program to address weight stigma and increase body acceptance for that demographic.

Carmen focused most of her presentation on how she enacted a youth-driven program— the attitudes and approaches that she fostered to ensure that the involved youth directed the effort.

There was much to take away from the presentation, and many participants had questions on the specifics of how she involved school administrations, parents etc. But what smacked me across the face like a wet fish was the revelation that young people are profoundly powerless.

Carmen carefully curated an approach with the involved youth that would nullify the power differential between her and them, while ensuring that necessary guidance was at hand when needed as well.

It had never occurred to me until sitting through her presentation that our envy-filled focus on youth culture renders everyone a victim, including the young themselves.

Young people don’t create youth culture or youth-obsessed culture; they consume it like the rest of us.

Consumerism is our culture. How we dress, talk, behave and treat others is all framed within a marketing construct where the status we wish to achieve is almost exclusively defined through the products and services we consume.

The power of a youthful brain (between the ages of 15 to 25 or so) is that if they are given the opportunity, they will turn their rebellious eyes towards unquestioning consumption in favor of generating not merely a culture that is truly theirs, but a culture that becomes ours as a whole. However, while as adults we micromanage all facets of our young peoples’ lives these days, we fail to guide them towards critical thought and assessments of the world they will inherit.

Carmen referenced the anti-smoking campaign that I reference in the blog post Obesity Basic Facts I. As a refresher, here is the excerpt from that blog post:

“In 1997, then Governor of the State of Florida, Lawton Chiles, decided to apply some settlement monies towards an effort to try to stem the ever-increasing smoking rates found amongst youth in that state.

The linchpin of the project was the Florida Youth Tobacco Survey with a representative sample of over 22,000 middle and high school students across the state. 

With feedback and input from the Students Working Against Tobacco (SWAT) chapters that were set up across the state, the marketing director of that program (then 18-year-old Jared Perez) determined that the $25 million advertising budget would focus on how teens were being lied to by the tobacco industry, rather than spelling out the usual health consequences of taking up smoking. It was called the “truth” campaign and the annual survey monitored its success.

“By the end of the first year, each measure of tobacco use behavior was significantly lower in Florida than the nation.” 1

After just one year, tobacco use dropped by 19% for middle school students and 8% for high school students in Florida. 2

But in 1998, a $206 billion annual settlement with major tobacco companies occurred. This was the master settlement between Philip Morris, RJ Reynolds, Brown & Williamson and Lorillard and 46 states, allowing for the tobacco industry to avoid a state-by state litigation and settlement process. However, that settlement requires that the companies not be “vilified” in any anti-smoking advertisements. 3, 4

Needless to say the Florida “truth” campaign was neutralized as its entire focus had been to let teens know they were being lied to by the tobacco industry. That emphasis most certainly “vilified” the industry and was therefore going to risk counter-litigation by the tobacco industry to force “anti-vilification” compliance.”

And as Carmen said, once the involved Boulder Youth Alliance participants were made aware of the facts about dieting, BMI and health, “they were pissed”. When it becomes evident that they are marketing targets and not agents of change, they are less than enamored with the status quo.

They wanted policies changed. And they successfully fought to have their school district include weight in its existing anti-discrimination rules. The safe zone signs had size and body shape added to them. They wanted to be given a chance to be activists and they wanted to know that adults had their backs.

Carmen clearly had their backs and took a similar path to Dr. Dan Goldberg— not an ally, but rather someone who would conscientiously stay quiet so that her innate privilege and power as the adult would not obliterate their developing voices and power.

Her presentation had profound personal impact on me. I have essentially removed myself from interactions with any underage patients with eating disorders over the past two years. It was a conscious decision on my part because I was profoundly uncomfortable with the fact that these individuals were almost always suffering in complete secrecy. Their parents did not know of the problem and they had no in-person adult adviser to help either. While it is far from ideal, I am relegated to encouraging them to speak with their parents or a trusted adult to get the help that they need— an online setting is not going to help anyone with an eating disorder if they don’t also have in-person professional involvement.

But instead, they tend to continue to depend upon online peer-interactions only, and they can randomly receive anything from helpful to dangerous advice as a result. This tendency to seek peer-only online input applies to young adults as well.

When Tumblr decided it would no longer allow for “thinspo” and “pro-ana” subscriber sites (meaning subscribers who were promoting pro-anorexia and pursuing extreme thinness), overnight there were suddenly hundreds of “recovery” subscriber sites in their place. Not surprisingly, many recovery subscriber sites continue to revere thinness and excoriate fatness— recover, but not too much.

As for the young adults attempting to support fact-based approaches to reaching remission from an eating disorder in these online spaces, they are there and doing their best. I may not agree with everything they put out there, but I realize now that I need to have their backs.

Of course I cannot be a Carmen Cool not the least of which because my name is much more elvish sci-fi than it is, well, alliterative and cool. Yet we desperately need many more Carmen Cools in the world to steward a process whereby youth culture is not consumed, but is created from scratch by the young themselves.

1. iSly, D. F., Heald, G. R., & Ray, S. (2001). The Florida “truth” anti-tobacco media evaluation: design, first year results, and implications for planning future state media evaluations. Tobacco Control, 10(1), 9-15.

2. http://www.leg.state.vt.us/tobacco/finalrep.pdf

3. http://publichealthlawcenter.org/topics/tobacco-control/tobacco-control-litigation/master-settlement-agreement

4. Ibrahim, J. K., & Glantz, S. A. (2006). Tobacco industry litigation strategies to oppose tobacco control media campaigns. Tobacco control, 15(1), 50-58.