“Wear comfortable shoes.”
In April of 2014, I showed up for my first Lobby Day experience with the Eating Disorder Coalition excited, but not knowing quite what to expect. Sure, the Coalition had sent us first-timers a precursory email saying, "Here's what to expect at Lobby Day…make sure you wear comfortable shoes!" but until you're smack in the midst of Lobby Day and you start realizing that the phrase “next building” means something very different on the vastness of Capitol Hill, you don’t appreciate what amazing advice that is.
The last time I was in Washington, DC was during high school when I attended a summer debate camp. I know. I was super cool. While most boys growing up a few blocks from Wrigley Field in Chicago might have dreams of playing baseball, my dreams were about reading memos, writing policy briefs and wearing power suits. So I was definitely predisposed to at least finding lobby day interesting. (Also I had just finished watching both seasons of House of Cards, so was having delusions of political grandeur that led me to determine I was not above a little blackmail or something if it came down to it because, you know, that’s how much I care.)
I’ve had the humbling privilege of working with people suffering from eating disorders for most of my career, including developing programs and providing education to families, professionals, and the community at large. I’m very familiar with the frustration of trying to convey the understanding of eating disorders as disorders of pain, loneliness and shame, which we know they are, and not disorders of vanity or self-obsession, which we know they are not. Even though I know there are a myriad of very complicated factors responsible for the development of eating disorders, I’ve also seen the very real damage to self-esteem that can occur via societally sanctioned messages about weight and size and the way that these messages can be propagated as well as created by the media. These messages may not cause eating disorders per se, but they don’t help and they are harmful in other very real ways. So I was eager to learn about the proposed bill and to experience the process of how lobbying works.
The training day started with meeting my cohort of fellow activists. I cannot convey how moving and humbling it was to hear everyone’s stories and their reasons for being there. From those who have lost someone close to them to this terrible illness, those who have themselves suffered, those who were there because they were passionate about educating others about the issues, to those of us who work with people suffering from eating disorders, it was evident how deeply committed everyone was. Everyone understood the seriousness and impact of eating disorders, but more striking to me was that there was not a sense of hopelessness despite how difficult eating disorders can be to experience and to treat. Everyone was there to DO something, not by using position or access or money, but by the profound and simple virtue of being a constituent and a citizen and taking the time to show up and “make the ask.”
It was this last piece that was a surprise and a revelation to me, namely the reminder that we have the responsibility and the power to use our voices, as individuals and as a group, to let our senators and representatives know the issues about which we care, and to demonstrate that care not by threats, invectives or game-playing, but rather by embodying this care by speaking with integrity and passion. Even if there is a member who might not agree with you or who might not be willing to join you by supporting a particular measure, I have to believe that simply showing up and representing the millions of people affected by eating disorders made a difference. Maybe our efforts help a staffer open her or his eyes to the impact of eating disorders, or someone who has known a friend or family member who struggled who appreciates that someone else cares as much as they do, or even someone who is her- or him-self struggling and hasn’t been able to acknowledge it. Having people who have experienced it and their families, friends, and professionals come talk to them about the importance of these issues can make a sea change in others’ attitudes and understanding about eating disorders.
As someone who often feels like I am spending most of my time vacillating between preaching to the choir or to the proverbial brick wall, I found myself leaving my first Lobby Day with a sense of renewed hope and a reminder of why we all do what we do. And I left reminded that when you’re trying to change a lot of people’s minds by knocking on a lot of people’s doors, you have got to be patient. I was reminded that one voice matters, as does one willing ear. And perhaps most importantly, I was reminded that the efforts of a few impassioned people can have a disproportionate impact, which is why I’m so grateful to be able to join the Eating Disorder Coalition again at their fall Lobby Day. I’ll be the one wearing super comfortable shoes.
Norman H. Kim, Ph.D.
Reasons Eating Disorder Center