There are a number of taboo areas in any large culture such as those of Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand. A taboo is defined as: ‘a custom prohibiting or restricting a particular practice’. There are specific taboos in more local cultures such as those of the capital cities and rural townships, as well as in professional cultures such as AANZPA. And these various cultures will have overlapping and reinforcing taboos. For example, a taboo in Australia might overlap with one in Aotearoa New Zealand, as well as in our psychodrama association. I thought that openly discussing the subject of ‘fat’ might well be a valuable thing, as I had often noticed that it is very difficult to discuss the area without becoming mired in an array of ideas and popular issues such as: gender and identity politics, health fads and needs, feminism and anti-feminism, original social atom practices, poor self and body image, shame, various systems that promote or denigrate ‘fat’, will power, self-development, exercise, cultural norms, and so on. This makes ‘fat’ a prime candidate for exploration using sociodrama and a group of friendly-intentioned action ready and practiced explorers. With such a group we might be better able to think about ‘fat’ without being narrowed down to only one or two perspectives or some mindless dichotomy such as, ‘it’s ok’ or ‘its not-ok’. In this group, we might develop our own capacity for spontaneity and playfulness and contribute to removing the taboo around discussing ‘fat’ in AANZPA. Removing a taboo makes it possible to approach an area of life with love, care, wisdom, and relational support rather than shame, denigration, exclusion, or punishment.
So, I sat with 24 intrepid explorers in a room, arranged in the usual form, and noted various degrees of edginess present in the group. Edginess is often present when a taboo is being messed about with or is being broken. Edginess is a type of fear/anxiety/worry/excitement, and breaking taboos means stopping doing something or doing something that is generally prohibited by custom. Edginess about breaking customs can be expected. I asked for a readout using hands as to how edgy people felt being in the room with this subject. It ranged from very little edginess (close to the floor) to moderate edginess (waist height) to high edginess (above the head). Naming edginess as alive in the group helped provide a warm-up to ourselves, one another, and the group. It also alerted us that others were having different experiences from the ones we might be having.
Knowing that many people have tried diets as part of living in our culture, I invited participants to tally up how many diets they may have been on so far in their lives. Laying out a spectrogram from none to many, the group managed to form well with many participants at the ‘none’ end and quite a few at the ‘too many to remember end’. I have tried around 20 diets. The next step was hearing from each person beginning with the ‘too many to mention’ end. Many people in the group experienced deep warm-ups, bringing in areas of their lives such as, health, family, longevity, diabetes, repression, humour, disability, pain, exclusion, rejection, as well as themselves and their interest in the area of fat, diet, and their bodies. I realised after the session that many folks may have related to specific and named types of diet such as Jenny Craig, or Herbalife rather than simply trying to not eat certain foods and not other foods: no sugar, no carbs, no combinations, less meat, more meat, more fruit, more veggies, skipping meals, or other self-adjusted forms of eating that, nevertheless, constitute a self-imposed diet. Folks joined into small groups and engaged further. If I’d stayed with this intervention, I might have chosen one or more participants to enact a vignette or two to deepen what individuals had brought forth. I did not do this as the exploration had only just begun and we only had a little more than a couple of hours for the workshop.
Next, I invited folks to consider how, on the one hand they might feel vulnerable discussing these matters and how, on the other hand they might have a wish, need, or habit of getting on with ‘business as usual’ and not allowing themselves to settle into the subject under investigation. These two ways of functioning – remaining vulnerable or moving away, needed to be allowed and welcomed as both old friends and well-worn paths of protection.
I used a kind of sociometric experimental model for examining binary notions in a group setting. This is to set up a large triangle and have one side being a market for a ‘yes’ for whatever is under discussion, another side as a ‘no’, and a third side as an ‘indifferent’ response. I asked for those that would promote ‘everything as OK’ and people are good enough as they are to take up one sire, another side where those people would promote that ‘you are not OK’ and need to change, and the third side as a group that are ‘indifferent’ on the issue. Participants hop into the triangle and take up one of the arguments – like hawkers in a noisy market, they all get going at the same time competing for the customers to whom they are selling their wares/ideas. The rest of the participants wander around the outside and visit the three market stalls and do their best not to appear too susceptible to the various sales pitches. At times I would pause the group and invite reflections and also invite people to try a different position in the system. People in the group generally loved being accepted as they were, hated being told to change even though finding it shockingly familiar, and found indifference tantalisingly peaceful. I invited subsequent small group sharings, and then we had coffee. This process is a great way to get a wide variety of community and cultural memes, tropes, themes, stereotypes out into the group space without the need to immediately focus on only one theme or one person’s response to them. The process can be quite confronting. It also allows participants the opportunity to reverse roles with people who have very different worldviews from their own. If we’d stayed with this intervention I might have encouraged participants to go past the stereotypes that were being enacted and feel into doing it from their own life and worldview either as themselves or someone they knew well who had this perspective. But this would have taken a lot more time than we had.
After the coffee break, I invited the group to consider the area of shame as it pertained to fat, and then had the participants to set out a sociogram of the various groups that contribute to this shame around fat. We gently explored the media, school system, families, the exercise industry, celebrity shapes, and other areas. These were potent concretisations – each one capturing large parts of the group’s consciousness from a particular group like ‘media’, and responses to that group. At one point we encountered school peer groups and here we entered a deeper phase as participants enacted some of the very painful and vicious cultural groups that have grown and developed in school settings. Vulnerability emerged strongly as participants warmed up authentically to their roles. After a number of concretisations and some heated heart interchanges I invited folks to get into groups of 4 ,5, or 6 because time did not allow for me to continue this intervention. We had further work if we were to conclude a satisfactory exploration within the time we had. Continuing this intervention would have led to some very protagonist centred sociodramas and maybe a psychodrama or two.
In their small groups I invited participants to share their experiences of how they felt personally impacted by their own responses in themselves, and their responses to other’s enactments so far in this workshop. I invited them to craft some titles for psychodrama or sociodrama workshops they might find value in creating or participating in to further explore ‘fat’. This produced a forward looking, mostly integrative response to the work we had undertaken, where participants were able to warm-up to imagining working with the area themselves and what energies, themes, dangers, and delights might be unleashed. Themes about working with the personal, the communal, the socious, the cultural; ways to strengthen or resist negative cultural impacts, bind people together, share the pain and the pleasure of life, acknowledging and doubling, mirroring and holding, exploring and being brave and courageous, exploring and allowing weakness and pain and isolation to be lived with, acceptance of self and others, acknowledging the desire for control through will power, acknowledging the delight of surrender to passion, how food works as comfort food and how much we need comforting, and so on. I have been unspecific as we could have dreamed even greater dreams and perhaps we should have, but already there had been enough ‘shoulds’ presented and more were not required.
Sharing in the large group was quite brief and involved some participants presenting their own learning about themselves, some about the area of fat and the larger range of responses to it, some to the cultural impact of this group in their lives and hopefully a wider impact as well.
Afterwards, I worked out that the processes used here could have each been used on their own and the whole thing could have been a long weekend workshop, or even a series of evening events.
Next year might be time for The Fatness Chronicles Part II. When something begins to open up I imagine that mostly it is good to give it enough juice to thrive on its own, but in this case fat is such a charged no-go area it might need more effort with the jack-hammer of sociodrama and group process or perhaps; even better, some of the participants might trial some of their workshop titles at the next conference!
Thanks to all who participated and allowed me to lead and got on with exploring themselves and one another. Thanks to for the camaraderie and friendship displayed between folks when things got tough. When the going gets tough the tough begin to double and move towards one another, thoughtfully.