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Selling Health At Every Size: How To Market Brave

April 7, 2018

            If you identify as a Health at Every Size (HAES) provider, this one’s for you. This one is also for myself. As with most of my writing, my target audience is often myself. I am writing this article for and to myself. Challenging myself to be better. To remain aware and awake. To explore ego. To pull myself back from the pull of money and toward my deeper purpose. After 15 years of being a counselor, I still see so many ways I can aim to be a better provider. I’m still trying to figure *it* all out. And I hope I continue to strive in that same direction always.

 

Will you join me?

 

           I want us HAES providers to market from a brave, abundant place, instead of from a safe, scarcity-based one. To make business choices from a place of hope rather than fear. In the same way that we ask our clients to be brave in their recovery, I believe we can be brave in our marketing.

            The diet and weight-cycling industry has been very successful by using the following basic marketing 101 strategy:

Step 1: Make people afraid.

Step 2: Convince them you’re the only one selling safety.

Step 3: When the product fails, convince consumer it was their fault

Step 4: Convince consumer to reinvest in product

Step 5: Repeat Steps 1-4

         Fear and scarcity can be great motivators, but I challenge us providers to question whether fear and scarcity are what we want to tap into when attracting customers and providing care, especially when those are the sources of vulnerability that diet culture has utilized to be so successful in oppressing bodies. If you believe in the principles of HAES, then I assume you minimally believe in the social justice principles of body liberation and body autonomy. I assume that you reject the hold that diet culture has had over our bodies and food for so long. I assume that you reject the way in which diet culture has convinced individuals that they should be afraid of their bodies and of food. I assume that you reject the idea that there is not enough space for fat bodies to exist in this world. If these statements are true, then I implore you to consider the wisdom of the civil rights activist and writer, Audre Lorde: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”

            We cannot genuinely help individuals experiencing body oppression escape that oppression by using the same methods that diet culture (and more generally, white supremacy) has used to keep individuals oppressed. There are lots of ways to effectively market and sell products. But not all methods are socially or racially just OR ethical.

            Diet culture reinforces the neverending pursuit of the next shiny, new pill. The magical silver bullet or fountain of youth that promises to somehow evade death and sanitize health and living. While promising these shiny, attractive impossibilities, diet culture uses scarcity-based marketing. Scarcity-based marketing strategies particularly prey on vulnerable, marginalized individuals (especially people of color), pushing the idea that “if you don’t buy it now (!!!), it will never be offered again!” and preying on the idea that one might escape oppression by obtaining what those in power possess ("but only if you act now!!"). One of the (many) ways, POC have been taken advantage of historically has been financially through these kind of strategies, with POC racking up crippling debt that is often insurmountable. Look no further than for-profit universities’ relationship to the tremendous debt that students of color accrue, often without a usable degree to show for it. It is also how fat people have been targeted: “Buy this diet or pursue this weight loss surgery now OR you’ll die!!”           

          As HAES providers, I think it’s important to not use scarcity-based strategies when we are selling HAES products or services. Our clients are individuals who are often still carrying the wounds and trauma of diet culture abuse. Many describe having *bought in* to the seduction and allure of diet culture’s false promises because they were scared of dying or scared of becoming/staying fat (believing that fat = death). Even when they do contact us HAES providers, our clients are often still seeking the next shiny silver bullet. I challenge us to be honest up front that we don’t have a magical cure or perfect recovery elixir. To be honest that recovery may not look the same for everyone. To be honest about what the recovery process may require in terms of time, energy, and commitment (psychologically, emotionally, physically, spiritually, and financially).

           Being transparent about what our services offer does not negate believing in our product or undervaluing our product. And it does not mean an absence of hope. Quite the contrary, marketing brave means leading with Hope instead of Fear. I *get* that folks are doing the best they can in markets where there seems to be increasing competition, but we have plenty of evidence that there is an abundance of clients who need our HAES services. There are alternative marketing strategies that are effective AND congruent with the work we’re doing while not compromising folks that may be vulnerable. Below are some tips to consider. I’d love to hear from you if you have ones you think are important to add.

1.     Truth in Advertising

Avoid advertising “weight loss” if that is not what you offer. Ahem, and if you DO provide weight loss as part of your services, DO NOT CALL YOURSELF A HAES PROVIDER. Stop reading this article and order copies of Health at Every Size & Body Respect and check out the HAES Curriclum FREE narrated powerpoints. Then, once you’re clearer on what it means to be a HAES provider, lead with what you DO offer: body liberation, body autonomy, healing of one’s relationship to food and body, fat positivity, respect and affirmation of ALL bodies.

2.     Customer-First/Customers Above Sales

This header may be misleading by suggesting that sales and profits are not important. Placing customers above sales does not mean sacrificing your business. A great example of this is from the movie “Miracle on 34th Street,” where the Santa character (ahem, I mean the real Santa Claus) begins telling customers where they can find products at other stores if they’re not available there at Macy’s. I try to do this with my practice. Not seeing others in my area as competitors but as allies in providing care and services. One of the first things I say when someone calls is “Tell me a little about what you’re looking for and I’ll tell you about what we offer. If we’re not a good fit for your needs, I’m happy to tell you some names of other folks in the area who do similar work.” It catches people off guard at first, but I’ve found they respond positively and it has been helpful to business. It builds trust in them that I’m not *just* trying to sell them something, that I’ll be honest with them, and it helps build relationships with other providers. And it helps me not get caught up in feeling scarcity or competition with other eating disorder providers. Even when folks call to ask about groups my practice offers, I tell them about other similar groups in the area that could be seen as “competition” if I was coming from a place of scarcity. Clarification: No, I will not refer people to weight loss providers. Why? Because we have no evidence of weight-loss methods that *work* and much evidence on how harmful intentional weight loss efforts can be to one’s health. I can’t refer someone to an effective weight-loss provider if they don’t exist, right?

3.     Full consent

This one relates to Truth in Advertising. In order for a client to provide true consent, they must be made fully aware of what it is they are consenting to. If you’re using online marketing strategies, make sure your consent requests are unbundled, use active opt-ins, your business or organization is clearly named, the service or product is clearly named, and that individuals are able to withdraw their consent at any time.

4.     Fewer emails

Once someone has opted in to an electronic consent request, use a minimal amount of emails sent to (coerce, convince, attract---ughh) INVITE (better intent) them to buy your product or service. The mere quantity of emails that are sent out by some marketing campaigns can serve to pressure and condition individuals to purchase. You want clients to decide to purchase your service or product because it is the *right* one for them, not because they feared missing out on an opportunity (i.e., don’t prey on individuals’ FOMO). Just as diet culture and eating disorders interfere with an individual’s ability to trust their internal cues about hunger, fullness, satisfaction, need, and desire, we do not want to interfere with our clients’ ability to listen to their internal wisdom. Beginning with our marketing, let’s teach trust of their internal cues, not distrust. When (and if) they’re ready, they’ll come…unless you’re not the right provider for them (see next bullet).

5.     Avoid the White Savior Complex

As we work with clients and see successes, it’s easy to begin to believe that we have *the answer* for every potential client. Not only is it impossible for us to serve every individual out there, we are not going to be the right provider for every client. This is particularly important when considering the vast diversity of individuals out there. Expanding our ability to work with many different individuals is important, but so is being aware of when we might not be the right or best fit for a client. This also relates to avoiding the belief that we always (or ever) know better than our clients. 

6.     Expand Your Diverse Referral Sources

If we only include White, small-bodied, able-bodied, cis-heteronormative, Christian, young providers as referral sources (whether providers we refer clients to for services OR authors/activists/social media platforms we refer clients to learn from), then we contribute to the false idea that people of marginalized identities are not experts and cannot be trusted (or trust themselves). The explanation of “We don’t know any. They must not be out there” is not sufficient. While it is true there are less providers of marginalized identities (in large part due to oppression), one of the ways that we can fix that is by centering the stories and narratives and voices of those on the periphery. This is especially important in increasing access to care to clients of marginalized identities. I encourage of all us (including myself) to continue seeking out mentors, authors, supervisors, trainers, “experts,” employees, collaborators, students, etc. who represent a variety of identities and who can challenge us to think in more dialectic ways. Not sure where to start? Follow and learn about the providers on this list: Diversity Is A Good Thing: 80+ Eating Disorder & Body Image Providers & Activists.

7.     Offer alternatives (Santa strategy)

Revisiting this again because it’s important. Through offering options, like in the Santa strategy above, we counter diet culture rhetoric of: “This is the only way for you to be healthy.” “You must buy my product/service or continue to suffer.” “There’s no other way for you to be healthy than to lose weight.” There are many pathways to healing and we must consider what else may provide healing to those in need. We certainly cannot heal all, who need healing, ourselves. 

8.     Be honest about who you’re really marketing to

Is your office wheel-chair accessible? Are your office chairs armless? Are all of your web images thin, White women? Are all of your employees/providers thin, White women?

9.     Diversify Your Business

When hiring employees, independent contractors, staff, consider providers and staff of marginalized identities. Check out this article for tips on doing this in an intentional way so as not to *use* them as a token member of the business but instead to work *with* and *center* their voice, insight, suggestions, needs, strengths, career goals. Consider how to include providers and staff as "members versus guests" (Dianne Bondy's idea) so they do not have to question whether they are th"valued for your work, talent, and ability or if you are being used as a token for mass marketing" (words of Ivy Felicia). 

10.     Don't claim safety

"Safety" is a word that has been used against vulnerable individuals, with those in power trying to convince those who may be experiencing abuse or marginalization that they are "safe" when that is not congruent with their experience. If you are a thin, White, able-bodied, cisgender provider, you don't get to claim a space is *safe* for every body, especially if you are in a position of power or leadership. Consider this in your practice and in private social media groups you may admin. White people (me included) need to defer to marginalized individuals for how "safety" gets defined or claimed. If the leaders of a group are individuals with much privilege, then the group is likely to not be a “safe” place for the needs/thoughts/ideas of marginalized individuals to be centered, understood, and valued. This does not mean you cannot lead an effective, useful group or be in a leadership position, but it means you should aim to create "brave" spaces rather than "safe" spaces. Do this by recognizing AND acknowledging your privileges and biases, by recognizing social and personal change occur in uncomfortable, brave spaces (not safe spaces), and by looking to your clients or group members for when a space can be claimed as "safe." Read Bell Hooks' work on the idea of "brave" versus "safe" spaces and check out this article on tone-policing

11.     De-center yourself

Those of us who identify as allies must challenge ourselves to seek out and lift up the voices of those at the margins, in as many ways as possible, including being willing to step back when we might be taking the place of someone’s voice who isn’t typically represented. One example I experienced recently was being invited, along with another thin, white, cisgender, able-bodied individual to serve on a focus group for an ED center on how they could integrate HAES. In my response to the invitation, I offered to suggest names of HAES providers of marginalized identities who could take my place on the focus group, who would have more lived experience as someone who has been more negatively impacted by the lack of HAES-integrated care. Allies should center those who are marginalized, stepping back from the *spotlight* to allow others’ voices to be heard. And acknowledging the privilege we embody when speaking out. It's a lot easier to wear a shirt that says "Diets suck" or "Eff their beauty standards" if we are smaller-bodied and/or conventionally attractive. Naming this privilege recognizes and validates the disparity in power. 

12.     Create a good product

Do the work to create a good product, whether that product is a workshop, webinar, or counseling service. If your product is good and effective (and fairly priced), individuals who are ready to do the work will invest. If you’re selling a crappy product to a vulnerable population, WTF is wrong with you? (Sorry, had to say it…)

           Finally, I want to add a reminder that social justice is not a fad or a marketing tool or a means to sell products or services. Throwing words around like “intersectionality” like it’s the latest *hot topic* without doing the work to really understand the concept (or the work to understand your own privileges) vanillas it down and distracts from the lived experience of individuals impacted by social inequality, marginalization, and violence. We (I’m talking to us White, able-bodied, cisgender, smaller-bodied, English-As-Our First-Language, providers with privilege) must do better. Yes, I’m talking to ME too. There’s always more work to be done. Always new levels of awareness to be had. The *work* is not an event but a ever-evolving process. I certainly have a lot more *work* still to do. What about you?

Will you join me?

 

 

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