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Apr 4

Food Is Not The Enemy: Alishia McCullough Shares Why Fat phobia, And Not Food, Is The Problem We Should Be Addressing – Forbes

Alishia McCullough, founder of Black and Embodied

In todays society, everyone is walking around with different levels of trauma from a culmination of life experiences. Healing from our past pains can create a better world for everyone; where we are all operating from a place of fulfillment and love. For many people of color, the continued traumas experienced as a result of systemic racism have a detrimental effect on health and wellbeing. Alishia McCullough is a North Carolina-based licensed clinical mental health therapist who focuses her work around the healing of emotional and mental distress that Black and brown people commonly experience. Alishia centers her work around folks living with eating disorders and upholds the values of body justice and fat liberation within Queer, Trans, Black, Indigenous, People of Color(QTBIPOC), and runs a successful Instagram page, Black and Embodied, that boasts nearly 250,000 followers. Alishia sat down with Forbes to discuss what healing looks like to her, why food is a beautiful delight that should not be avoided, and how we as a society can push back against anti-black and Eurocentric standards of beauty.

Janice Gassam Asare: Could you just share a little bit about yourself and your background for the Forbes readers who may not be familiar with you?

Alishia McCullough: Absolutely. So, my name is Alishia McCullough. I use she/her pronouns. I'm a licensed mental health therapist, a nationally certified counselor. I'm also the founder of Black and Embodied Counseling and Consulting, as well as the founder of the Holistic Black Healing Collective, the co-founder of Amplify Melanated Voices, and now I'm just starting the Black Body Liberation Collective as well. Also, published author of Blossoming, which is a poetry book that I published about three years ago.

Asare: The first question that I wanted to dive intoyou do a lot of work around diet culture and white supremacy, and how they're interlinked. Do you want to share a little bit more about that, because I don't think enough people are talking about this linkage between diet culture, anti-blackness, and white supremacy?

McCullough: Absolutely. I will go ahead and say upfront as well that I wasn't aware that there was a link at first, but when I got into the field, I was working professionally, leading groups, working with clients individually, as well as exploring my own journey. I got into the work of Sabrina Strings, and so her book is called Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia. Through there is when I made the connection around how fat phobia actually was started here in America when enslaved people were brought over, and those who were enslavers were looking at our bodies and saying, oh, they're in bigger bodies. How do we continue to create distinctions to set ourselves apart from Black folks?

What they did was essentially moralized this slave diet and said, we're not going to eat like them, and so, because they eat the scraps that we give them or the leftovers, we're going to eat this certain way. They also said, thinness is now going to be the ideal, because here we are having all these diverse bodies and not just bigger bodies, but bodies of all shapes and sizes, and we need to be able to distinguish ourselves from those folks. That's what started this whole diet culture. That's what started fat phobia and this idea of escaping fatness, so fat phobia and diet culture are all rooted in anti-blackness, because that was the foundation of how it was started.

Asare: How do you think that people can push back against the white supremacist and anti-black culture that has become diet culture? We saw all of the backlash that Lizzo has been getting, which I find to be really interesting, because I think society says, how dare you be fat, Black, and a woman! We see all of the backlash that she's been receiving, where people are berating her because of her size, are making assumptions about her health because of her size, and then are telling her to love herself in the same regardhow do you think that we can, especially those of us who identify as folks of colorhow do you think that we can push back against the anti-blackness and the white supremacist culture that is telling us we have to lose weight? That is telling us we have to eat a certain way. White doctors that are telling us that we're too fat, or our bodies are too big. Even something recently that I learned is about the BMI, and the person that created it, and how anti-black that whole sort of calculation is. What do you think that people can do to push back against that?

"We have to be able to also just show up in the fullness of who we are, and take up space, and not ... [+] deprive ourselves, even when it comes to pleasure in our relationships, in our communities, we have to be willing to show up fully."

McCullough: I'm currently writing a piece about this now, and so what I talk about is that body image, diet culture, and well, body image, eating disorders, and disordered eating are all things that were injected on to us through that white supremacy culture. Essentially, the way that that has showed up for us is through unaddressed trauma, and so that can look like current trauma that we're facing, racial discrimination, medical discrimination. That can also look like ancestral trauma. Trauma that was not able to be processed through our ancestors bodies, that just got passed down to us biologically, sociologicallybeing passed on as well, but I also think there's a component, especially for those who do come from enslaved ancestors, of just the general biological starvation that was passed on as well. All of these things are affecting our eating and contributing to us having eating disorders, disordered eating, and body image issues.

What I say is that first we have to work on that relationship. In regards to the starvation relationship, there is biological studies that show that even for those who were starved, and then they were given adequate nutrition, that two generations afterward were still showing those symptoms of starvation. I think for us, when we know that we cannot continue to deprive ourselves and our bodies, and so when I look at starvation or deprivation, I look at it in a bigger scope of not just what we're eating, but how we're showing up and taking up space. We have to be able to also just show up in the fullness of who we are, and take up space, and not deprive ourselves, even when it comes to pleasure in our relationships, in our communities, we have to be willing to show up fully.

I think that's one aspect of it, and then when it comes to that complex trauma, ancestral trauma, I think that is going to take more of that mental and emotional work. That could look like going to therapy, that could look like getting involved in a spiritual group, or talking to somebody in a spiritual community to be able to commune with those ancestors and work through those intergenerational wounds. I think those are the things that our community can do, and then also to get more embodied within ourselves. I've been talking to a lot of dance instructors and people that do a lot of more sematic work, and they're saying that Black women and femmes are further behind in being embodied than other communities. We don't have that connection of being with ourselves in the present. I think that also taking that intentional moment of presence, being mindful, sitting in the here and now, those are also ways that we can get more into our bodies and access what we have either been trying to escape, or that hasn't become...maybe we've been numbing it out, or we just don't have access to that, because we've just been so far removed from our bodies over time, because of that white supremacy, and because of that violence that was done to our bodies.

Asare: I love the tie in, because you run a really informative Instagram page called Black and Embodied. Is that part of the reason why you decided to start the page and call it Black and Embodied? Was that part of the reason why you decided to focus some of the content on your page around this topic?

McCullough: Absolutely. As a therapist, I specialize within treating eating disorders and disordered eating, and so within that work, what I was finding is that I would lead groups, or I'd work with individuals and they'd all be white folks. I never see people like us in treatment, and if they were, they didn't have a diagnosis already of anorexia or any type of other eating disorder, binge eating, anything like that, but they exhibit the same patterns and symptoms that I would see in the white clients, but it just wouldn't be talked about. It would be either overlooked or misdiagnosed. I got intentional with the people that I would see, that looked like usmaking sure that we were having those conversations, exploring the complexities and not just like, what is your eating like, and what is your body image? but like, what's your relationship to your hair, and your skin tone, and your features? Because all of that ties in with body image as well.

It became more layered and complex. I was like, with us having these eating disorders and with statistics showing, even though they haven't done the research so far, but it's estimated that Black and brown folks actually struggle with eating disorders at higher rates than those in white communities, but still not getting the same adequate treatment. I said, this is an area with a gap, and I want to be the person that helps support, stands in that gap, and also provides resources so that we are getting the help that we need. I also find that a lot of times when Black or brown folks get eating disorders [it is] because of financial inaccessibility and other systematic barriers [and] we're not able to get the treatment that we need. Oftentimes we suffer in silence, or the eating disorders get worse and worse and worse, and we don't get the help that we need because of all of those barriersthat's why I'm doing the work that I'm doing with Black and Embodied. That's why I started a page, so that I could give voice and be a person talking about these things, so that people could get on and say, hey, there's someone who looks like me saying these things and knows my experience.

Asare: How do you grapple with the fact that food is supposed to be healing, and brings you joy, but also at the same time, you're being told that you have to be mindful of the way that you eat, so that you can look a certain way? All of that plays into white supremacy, but do you feel like food can be used as a form of healing the traumas that people are experiencing, especially the racial trauma that people are experiencing?

McCullough: I think thatour relationship with food can be healing if we bring back in that spiritual and emotional piece, but I think that being in this white supremacist society, everything is about how do we separate each piece from it? How do we just make it about this? How does it not become emotional? There's so much demonization around even emotional eating, and it's like, there's nothing wrong with being emotional when you're eating. That's just the way that we are. I think that if we kind of divest and dismantle this idea that everything has to be mechanical, or that we have to strive for certain eating habits that are mostly rooted in rules, and good and bad, and these dualities and binaries, and get more towards food just being a part of our life, and who we are, and our spirit, then I think that's where we start to cultivate that better relationship with food. I know that's a process, because there's just been so much injected oppression put on us over centuries, and so it will take a while to dismantle and unpack all of those messages that have been given to us.

Asare: Alishia, what does healing look like to you, and what does liberation look like for you?

McCullough: Yes. Okay. Healing for me looks like being able to fully be who I am, and know that I am fulfilling the purpose that I was put here to do. For me, the purpose that I feel like I was put here to do is heal myself, and my community, and my family lineage. In that, I know that it requires for me to be able to...go to therapy myself. It requires for me to be able to be in healing community. It requires for me to be able to heal parts of myself that I didn't even have access to, because some of these traumas and wounds came before I was even here. Healing for me looks like being able to do that work while also practicing that compassion and grace towards myself in the process, and feeling fully whole within myself throughout the journey.

I will say, I don't feel like healing has a destination, because I think we're always, as humans, adapting, and changing, and growing, and evolving, but it's the process of healing that...it's just like the beauty in the process of healing, if I can say that? Then in regards to liberation, I think that, and I learned this actually from a mentor of mine, Shawna Murray-Brown, who told me that freedom is more individual. It's like, I'm free so we're good essentially, but liberation is more like our community collective is free, and so, for me, I feel liberated when other folks are liberated as well. That's why I do the work that I do, because while I have access to this information, there's someone out there, and lots of people out there that might not know about this as well. I truly won't feel liberated until other people have access to this knowledge as well, and can also feel that same feeling too.

To learn more about Alishia and her work, click here.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Continued here:
Food Is Not The Enemy: Alishia McCullough Shares Why Fat phobia, And Not Food, Is The Problem We Should Be Addressing - Forbes

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