At the beginning of the year a trio of activists spearheaded a movement against the discriminatory campaign based in Georgia called Strong4Life. This controversial campaign features toxic messages with the intent of combatting childhood obesity primarily through shame. Hundreds of people were inspired to write Strong4Life about the abusive nature of their advertisements. One of these activists was Ragen Chastain, who decided to put up billboards with a message counteracting the negative ones that Strong4Life was running. Within a little more than a week Chastain raised enough money to run her own anti-body shaming billboard in Georgia!
Chastain has been one of the strongest and most prolific voices in the size acceptance movement. A National Dance Champion three times over, she decided it was time to get the message out to stop shaming children (as well as adults) about their bodies, and held a contest looking for a positive billboard image to run in Georgia. Now a little over a month since this contest started, the billboards were released yesterday, March 26th, to Georgia and the world. It is my greatest honor to present my interview with Ms. Chastain a self-described Dancer, Choreographer, Writer, Speaker & Fat Person.
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JJ: Tell us some background about how the billboards came into being and why.
RC: When I first saw the Strong4Life Billboards, I immediately flashed to the fat kids who would have to drive by these billboards day after day and it made me physically ill. I knew that I had to do something. Well Rounded Mamma commented on my blog and said that she wished we had some billboards of our own. That was the spark that started the billboard project.
We wanted this project to truly come from the community so we put out a request for billboard designs and got a number of great designs back. Then we had the community vote for their favorite, which was designed by Sabrina Wilson from www.thoughtboxmarketing.com. At that point we pulled together a creative team who worked to make the design as impactful as possible. Sabrina was the designer on that team and she created the final product.
JJ: When did you become an activist and why?
RC: I’ve been a critical thinker and an activist as long as I can remember. My first activism started in kindergarten when I got my class to protest the fact that we weren’t learning enough (Did I mention I’m also a nerd from way back?). The teacher sent home a report card that said “Ragen is a good student but she leads small revolts.” I explained to my mom that I couldn’t have led a larger revolt since the afternoon kindergarten didn’t get there until after I left, and my long suffering mother had to explain to me that the teacher’s issue wasn’t that the revolt was small, but that it existed at all. Since then I’ve always been the person to stand up for the underdog, and the Size Acceptance movement spoke to both my belief in social justice, and HAES spoke to my critical mind since the evidence doesn’t support the way that we currently deal with weight and health.
JJ: For those people who aren’t familiar with HAES, how would you describe it?
RC: Health at Every Size is a paradigm that is different from our current weight-centered paradigm because in HAES we separate weight and health. So if someone is interested in having better health, HAES suggests that they focus on healthy behaviors and let their body size end up where it may, rather than trying to make their body smaller in a attempt to be healthier. In another example, let’s assume someone goes to the doctor and is diagnosed with high blood sugar. In the current weight-centered paradigm if that person is thin they will be given a series of specific interventions proven to lower blood sugar, if they are fat they will be told to lose weight. In a HAES paradigm, both of those people would be given the same evidence-based health interventions rather than diagnosing someone with a health problem and then prescribing a body-size solution.
JJ: Who are some of your inspirations?
RC: Harvey Milk, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Marilyn Wann, Linda Bacon, Deb Burgard, Donyelle Jones, and readers who e-mail me that they overcame their fears and tried a dance class or a karate class or something that they were too scared to do before.
JJ: What words do you use to describe your body?
RC: Athletic, Forgiving, Miraculous, Partner in Crime, Amazing, Beautiful, Strong.
JJ: In addition to being an activist, you are also a dancer. Tell us a bit about your dancing career.
RC: I danced all my life – I moved a lot, all small towns, and so I did whatever was available in the town I was in – dance, cheerleading, drill team, musical theater, even figure skating. Years later as an adult I started taking dance lessons at a local bar and then found out that I could compete in partner dancing. Three months later my partner and I won every dance in our first competition, and three years later I was a three-time National Champion. I founded a non-profit called Body Positive Dance; we were an adult dance team who competed successfully internationally, and I choreographed a Fat Cabaret Company here in Austin, where we danced for a packed crowd at SXSW in 2011. Now I teach dance workshops around the country to give people of all sizes the opportunity to have fun and shake their groove thing, as well as teaching workshops to dance studios and their staff to help them work with dancers in a way that helps them develop a lifelong love of dance and avoid the downsides, like negative self-esteem and body image. In a couple of months my classes will be available on a DVD and for download as well.
JC: What would you tell a child struggling with body image?
RC: The world is messed up when it comes to judging people by how we look. There are other societies where fat people are considered beautiful and thin people are thought to be unattractive, but they’ve got it wrong too. The truth is that every body is beautiful, but in our society we don’t realize that. It’s not your fault but it can become your problem. You get to decide what to do about that – whether you want to fight to make that better, or try to make yourself look more like society wants you to.
To help you appreciate your body, try making a list of all the things that your body does for you all the time (breathing, blinking, blood flow, moving around, hugging etc.), and remember to be grateful to your body for all of those things. When you have negative thoughts about your body, try to replace them with things from your list.
JJ: Do you ever have times when you struggle with body image, and if so, what do you do to counter balance that?
RC: I used to, but in the past couple of years I’ve really internalized the fact that there is absolutely nothing wrong with me, and a great many things wrong with society and that society is where I need to direct my constructive criticism. Whenever I did have issues, I would go back to my list of things that my body does for me, and get back to a place of really appreciating my body.
JJ: Is there anything else you would like our readers to know?
RC: Huge thanks to Marilyn Wann, Atchka Fatty, Sabrina Wilson and www.thoughtboxmarketing.com (who did the billboard graphic design), Elizabeth Tamny (who did the bus shelter design), and Allan at Adout Inc for all of their amazing work on the project. Massive thanks to everyone who donated money, and everyone who helped get the word out. When I first started people told me that it was crazy and that we wouldn’t be able to raise even $3,000. We raised over $20K in eight days! I think that we need to keep putting our money where our politics are and support HAES interventions and outreach.