By Dr. Angela Grace (BFA/BEd ‘96, MEd ‘03), 2020 Alumni Honour Society inductee

Have you ever sat back and asked yourself, “How did I get here?”, “What am I doing?”, “Why is this so hard?”, and more importantly, “What is my purpose?”

It is my honour to been named to the University of Lethbridge 2020 Alumni Honour Society and share with you some critical reflections that have shaped me both personally and professionally throughout my career.  I hope this will inspire you to deeply reflect on your journey.

My path to obtaining a Ph.D. in Educational Studies in Psychology was not linear.  I initially trained as a high school Drama and English teacher with a combined B.F.A./B.Ed. at the University of Lethbridge.  I loved my classes there!  Being in the Education department was my dream.  I even recall Dr. Jane O’Dea telling me she thought I would get a Ph.D. some day!  I brushed it off, thinking that was too lofty of a goal for me.  I just wanted to be a drama teacher.

I laugh now that I got to be a high school Drama/English teacher one day my entire career as a substitute teacher.  Instead, the universe lead me to my first full time teaching position as a Grade One teacher in Small Town Rural Alberta.  There is a lot of drama in Grade One, so all my training was put to good use.  We did fun things like turn our classroom into a fairy tale haven, write and produce our own plays, and walk to the grocery store for ice cream for a cross-curricular study in physical education (walking), math (measuring distance and identifying money), science (examining the properties of solids that turn into liquids), and language (writing descriptive stories and poetry about ice cream).  It was an opportunity to be creative and play like a child every day!  I loved those little people.

However, after a few years, an incident occurred that changed the course of my career.  There was something off with my little Grade One girls and I couldn’t figure it out.  After a couple weeks, I caught one of them throwing out her lunch.  When I asked her about it, she replied, “We started a diet club to be like our moms.”  They were throwing their lunches out behind my back and running laps around the playground at recess to try to lose weight!  I was stunned.  There was NOTHING in my teacher training that helped me to address this issue.

This was my first experience of the personal becoming professional.  Along with witnessing these little girls trying to lose weight, I knew the pain of dieting and over-exercising, as I developed anorexia in my teens and college years.  I deeply knew the obsession with weight, calorie counting, and never feeling good enough from a young age.  I remember bravely going for help when I was 18.  The doctor chided, “You can’t have anorexia, you’re not thin enough.  Here’s some Prozac.”  That was my first experience of misdiagnosis, misunderstanding, and lack of appropriate treatment for a serious mental health issue.

From those experiences, I knew I truly wanted to prevent others, especially young girls, from experiencing the unnecessary pain of eating disorders and body image issues.  However, I also knew I needed to be more than a bleeding heart who wanted to help people, so I sought to obtain my Master’s degree in Counselling, also at the University of Lethbridge.

My Master’s degree was an exciting overview of counselling theory and practices, and after a few years of private practice dipping my toe into different areas of mental health and wellness, I still wasn’t grounded in the field of eating disorder prevention.  I knew I needed to specialize even further by pursuing a Ph.D.  I was accepted to the University of Calgary, was honoured with a SSHRC doctoral scholarship, and eventually the Killam Award for doctoral studies.

My dedication to becoming an eating disorder prevention specialist was not always well met.  People told me that eating disorders among teenage girls were old news and over-done, so I focused my Master’s research on male body image.  Supervisors dismissed my aspirations, with one telling me I should go back to being a teacher, and that I would be a psychologist when pigs fly.  Family dismissed my aspirations, with statements like, “Why would you want to sit around listening to people’s sob stories?”  My favourite was, “Why would you get a PhD?  You might as well write books about magic like JK Rowling.  She made a million and no one is going to read what you write.”

Despite the lack of support, deep down inside I knew I needed to persist.  This was a new field with relatively few experts, and something inside me told me to carry on.  I began to immerse myself in the history of the (mis)treatment of eating disorders, body image, weight bias, and began to ponder how eating disorders and weight bias are social justice issues.  I focused my research on feminist-informed participatory action approaches to eating disorder and obesity prevention in schools.  It was really hard to convince people that these are serious issues when the society around us is immersed in the thin ideal and fat prejudice.  Sometimes I felt very alone.

During my educational journey, there were some adverse experiences around food and weight shaming that confirmed my belief that eating disorder prevention was a burgeoning field that needed further exploration.  First, imagine my surprise on my way to speak about body image at a national conference, when a homeless man pointed at my bag of outrageously expensive organic trail mix and declared, “Junk food is bad for you.”  I was food shamed by a man with no food.  Second, imagine how stunned I was one night after my husband rushed me to the Emergency room in the middle of the night with extreme abdominal pain when a nurse callously stated to her younger colleague, “Female, fat, & forty, it’s probably her gallbladder.”  I had just experienced weight bias in a healthcare setting.   I began to think, “If this is happening to me, who else was it happening to?  If I don’t speak up, who will?” Trust me, AHS got an earful from me about the need to address weight bias and stigma in health care settings.

All of these experiences had a tremendous impact on me.  The weight of all these issues of weight bias, stigma, fat shaming, food shaming, and lack of support for my passions took a toll.  I had gone down a deep and dark rabbit hole.  During grad school I experienced severe burnout and a dark night of the soul.  I had no idea what my purpose was anymore.  Why was I pursuing this path when there was so much opposition?  I felt as if I was carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders, and it was too heavy for one person to bear.  The burnout I experienced gave me an in-depth knowing of compassion fatigue, adrenal fatigue, imposter syndrome, vicarious trauma, and the complete exhaustion of being a passionate woman who was doing too much, with zero fulfullment.  It lead to exploring other realms of healing that I had never considered.  I had to return to the basic questions and re-align who I was as a human being and psychologist – What are my passions?  Why am I doing this?  What is the purpose?

Throughout these experiences, I have the lived experience of deeply knowing there is only so much one person can do, but it is still worth doing.  You have to know what both your passions and your limits are. You do not need to set yourself on fire to keep other people warm.

I learned the critical importance of facing yourself and healing your own sacred wounds so that you can truly help to heal others.  One of my provisional psychologists recently asked me, “How do you know when you have healed enough personally so that triggers don’t impact you or your clients?”  First, I learned that you can’t heal trauma while you are experiencing it.  You have to survive it, then you can make meaning of it and heal.  You know you are healed enough to be of service to others when your personal experiences become stories without the emotion attached.  When a story becomes interesting or even funny, you know you are healed enough.  Now when I have adverse experiences, I take a picture of it, because I know someday it is going to become an interesting story to share!

This philosophy of healing the personal to enhance the professional came to the forefront in the past few years.  For the past five years, I have coordinated events for Eating Disorders Awareness Week in Calgary.  Part of that work is media activism.  After one media interview, when my husband sent me the newsclip, I was livid!  Here I was, advocating for the prevention of eating disorders and promotion of Health at Every Size, and unbeknownst to me, they were showing weight-biased images that highlighted the very things I was advocating against.  Pictures of people with large bodies with no heads eating burgers, fries, and pizza, and a very thin woman looking wistfully out the window, peeling an orange.  In the spirit of advocacy and awareness, I contacted the producer and explained the inappropriateness of the images, educating them about the importance of using media images to promote size diversity and reduce stigma.  I was beginning to find small but important ways to be a social justice advocate.

One year for Eating Disorders Awareness Week, I needed to move away from the seriousness of advocacy and into joy.  I was inspired to combine my theatre training with my academic training to produce Evening of Hope, a show of hope and healing. Part TedTalk, part theatre, I invited artists, dancers, singers, & spoken word artists to share their stories of recovery through art.  There was still opposition, with people saying, “I don’t want to sit around and listen to sob stories” and “You’ll have to hire a REAL director and producer.”  Yet it truly was like Field of Dreams – build it and they will come.  The evening was magical and touching to have a stage full of marginalized voices share their stories of hope and healing.  Advocacy isn’t always serious.  We need to focus on the joy!

Recently, with the 2021 Alberta Curriculum draft under fire, I stepped up to the plate (pun intended) to provide a preliminary review of the Wellness Curriculum.  I identified that the “knowledge based” focus of this curriculum is detrimental to children’s well-being.  For example, we cannot promote mass as a measurement of growth in Grade One without the risk of children becoming afraid of developmentally appropriate weight gain over time.  We cannot promote the identification of “healthy and unhealthy foods” without the risk of food shaming.  We cannot promote “creating fitness goals” in Grade Two without the risk of school-based fitness testing.  We cannot have children in Grade Four reading food labels without the risk of developing an obsession with calorie counting and further food shaming.  Even further, there was a distinct lack of a holistic approach to wellness education using Comprehensive School Health, the Seven Dimensions of Health (physical, intellectual, emotional, social, spiritual, occupational, and environmental), and First Nations, Metis, and Inuit inclusion.  All of these issues fly in the face of my last 20 years of researching evidence-based best practices from a holistic health promotion and eating disorder prevention perspective.  I simply cannot sit back and witness future generations of children become obsessed with appearance, fitness, food issues, and judging their own and each other’s bodies.  Rather, youth need educational experiences to focus on attunement with their bodies, enjoying physical activity, practicing emotional intelligence, and learning to relate to each other and their communities in a healthy way.  This moment in time feels like the very moment I have been preparing for!

As a result of my preliminary review of the Wellness curriculum, I am honoured to have been invited to be a part of the Steering Committee for academics and experts writing reviews about the curriculum.  This non-partisan and altruistic group of academics seeks to advocate for evidence-based best practices to form the foundation of the new curriculum across all grades and in all subject areas.  We truly want the best for future generations.

In reflection, what these experiences taught me is that the personal can become professional (and sometimes political) through following your passions, healing your own sacred wounds, maintaining a strong focus on your goals, seeking best practices in training and research, knowing your limits, and being courageous enough to try new things and speak out.  I could have given up at any step of the way, and honestly, almost did, if it weren’t for a deep belief and perhaps stubbornness that I was embarking on an important, rarely travelled path.

These personal experiences have taught me to dig deep, be authentic, be a critical thinker, and to utilize my strengths and personal beliefs to create a mission statement and voice that is true to who I am as a human being.   It has also taught me to engage in acts of resistance and to acknowledge that not everyone is going to like what I have to say.  However, opposition does not stop me from my destiny.  As a psychologist, I am in a privileged position of having the education and ethics to speak out against injustices by engaging in leading edge best practices.

I continue to pursue best practices in training to enhance my skills and have created a counselling practice focused on holistic approaches to healing for girls and women, instructing Iyengar yoga, coaching women on nutritional approaches to well-being, supervising a group of provisional psychologists with a focus on helping them develop their professional identity, and ongoing social advocacy work (especially on weight bias in health care and advocating for the new Alberta curriculum).  I have come full circle with the gap in my own teacher training by helping to design and teach a course about Comprehensive School Health, which focuses on teaching pre-service teachers about integrating wellness into their daily teaching practices.  I engage in as many First Nations teachings and ceremonies as I can in my aspiration to be an ally.

As for writing books like J.K. Rowling, I recently came across her describing her own experience with weight bias, where after an awards ceremony someone commented on her weight loss.  So, I am writing a book about another type of magic – the magic that happens when a woman re-members her soul.

It is my honour to share these experiences with you and invite you to reflect on how your personal experiences have shaped your philosophy and can enhance your own leadership capacity, in whatever direction your career takes you.

Dr. Angela Grace is a registered psychologist based in Calgary. Learn more about Angela's work and passions here, and watch for her upcoming book, "Butterfly Exile: Memoir of a Sacred Rebel."