Get Real! I Hate My Body. Can Someone Else Love Me?

Heather Corinna

If I feel fat and ugly, and I hate my body, how can I trust that someone else can love me?

This column is published in partnership with Scarleteen.org.

porte asks:

I am 15 years old and about 5’10 and
weigh more than 200lbs. I am currently in a long distance relationship and have
been for almost 11 months. See, the thing is, I know I’m pretty, but I hate my
body. The only thing that I like about it is my boobs. I am very self-conscious
about it and I can’t seem to lose weight.

My boyfriend and I share everything
together. He doesn’t lie to me, he comforts me and he tells me I’m beautiful.
He loves me a lot. He shares everything with me. He really means a lot to me
and would never pressure me to do something I don’t want to do. He wants to see
me. Or rather, see me below my chest. It doesn’t mean like naked or something
(but he probably wouldn’t mind), but he just wants to see what I look like.
Sounds simple enough right? I know what he looks like but…

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I’m ashamed of my body. I’m scared
of showing him. All my life I’ve been made fun of for being ‘fat’ my whole life
basically. I don’t care what people say about me anymore (usually) and I like myself.
Kinda. I don’t think of myself as like…this huge chick who stuffs herself
with mounds of fat.’Cause really I barely eat anything at all. It’s the way I
am. But I am ashamed of my body. Sometimes it hurts so much that I just want to
curl up into a ball and cry for hours. I can’t help but thinking that
everyone’s right about me, I am fat and ugly and I’ll always be that way. I
don’t know what to do anymore. He’s seen maybe the upper half of my body
including my stomach because of a picture my friend took with me on facebook.
He said that I don’t look fat at all, but at the end of the day I’m still
ashamed of myself. I care for and love this guy, a lot. But I don’t know, I
can’t bring myself to show him how fat and ugly I really am. I’m kinda afraid he’ll
stop thinking I’m beautiful or something, or stop loving me.

On top of that I have all these
family issues I can’t handle, which makes me stressed, which makes me gain MORE
weight. Basically the bottom line is that I’m fat and ugly, scared to show my
boyfriend what I look like and can’t seem to lose weight. I want to look sexy
and hot, I want my boyfriend to drool over my body and brag to his friends
about how hot I am, but… I’m ashamed of myself. I’m tired of crying and being
ashamed.

Heather Corinna replies:

Since sometimes a visual comparison
of someone else our same height and weight can help, I want to start with that.
Take a look at some of these images.

The woman in them, Crystal Renn, is
only a little smaller than your height and weight, though your proportions may
be different. She also has recovered from an eating disorder, one she developed
trying to be as thin as she was asked to become in order to model when she was
younger. She has had some great things to say about why she feels better at
the size she is now and about accepting her body as it is:

Recounting this catalogue of
deterioration with little self-pity and a maturity way beyond her years, she
says now that she learned valuable lessons from her brush with anorexia. ‘I
found out a profound thing about myself – that everyone’s got issues with their
weight and their body. I was lucky enough to get it sorted out when I was a
teenager. Now I know what happiness is, and I feel blessed to have that at such
a young age. I’m glad I went through it. I can tell other girls about it and
save them the trip.’

This woman is one of the most
in-demand models of ANY size there is at the moment. In fact, we seem to be
standing at an apex of some serious change when it comes to mainstream beauty
standards and visibility for larger women: it’s a very cool thing, and I’d
encourage you to keep your eyes peeled and your own mind open. Beth Ditto is
about your weight, though far shorter than you (she’s only 5’2): check out how
she carries herself, and see if you can’t get a sense of how she feels about
her shape in this image. Check the images and words here out. Given your height and weight, your body
is likely a lot like the bodies there. By all means, someone like Crystal Renn
or other models meet a lot of other mainstream beauty standards (they all also
look very femme, which may or may not match whatever your gender identity is),
and someone doing well as a model is about looks, not about them as a whole
person. However, I just want you to try and step outside your own self-image
for a second and see if you can’t see someone else about your same size and recognize
that there is nothing wrong with the way that person looks, and their body is
as beautiful as one that is lighter or heavier.

You might find Joy Nash’s Fat
Rant
helps you out, that Kate Harding’s BMI
project does
, too, and that this recent blog entry at Scarleteen is a goodie
for you. I love them all and think they’re spot-on.

I want to make sure you understand
that hardly eating not only is exceptionally bad for your health, especially
when you’re younger, it’s also bad for your metabolism. While it’s likely that
you are already at a healthy weight, especially at your height, your
metabolism may not be operating as well as it could because you’re not eating
properly. In other words, not only does eating too little pose potential short
and long-term health problems, it can also make it so that now and later, your
body has a tougher time staying at a healthy weight. If there’s anything the
screws up metabolism most, it’s dieting, especially fad or starvation diets. If
you want to consider losing weight in a healthy way, talk to your doctor or a
nutritionist, see if they even think that’s something you need to do, and if
so, and get a sound plan from then. Don’t just not eat or do fad diets.

I’d also — as would any sound
healthcare provider worth their salt — also encourage you that if you don’t
feel healthy and fit, that getting more active is the better way to go than
dieting. When we’re all as active as we should be, doing activities we also
really enjoy, not only are we likely to be the size and shape that genetically,
we’re supposed to be and are healthiest at, we also tend to easily eat in a
healthy way AND feel a lot better about our bodies. And that’s not so much
because of the changes to how we look that may happen, if they do, but because
when we are doing things with our bodies, we get more in touch with them and we
feel more at home in them; we feel more vital and alive and tend to put much
less stock and energy into nothing but appearances.

More than anything else, what we
look like is about our genetics, something you might consider when unpacking
your own fat-phobia: when you say things like that you’re not "this huge
chick who stuff herself with mounds of fat" you’re suggesting other
fat people, but not you, are fat for that reason, which often just isn’t true.

If you are or start eating in a
generally healthy way (which isn’t just about what you eat or not eating too
much, but is also about eating enough), and you are or become active at
least a half hour a day, in a little while, you’re probably going to look like
what you’re supposed to look like per your genetics and being healthy. That may
be different from how you look now, or it may not be. One reason you may be
unable to lose weight is that the way your body looks is exactly the way it is
supposed to.

Even though it sounds like for your
height, your weight may not be that much above average, let’s just go there.
Let’s go ahead and say you ARE fat (whatever that means, since there isn’t a
sound definition for that word and the way people use it). Okay, so you’re fat.
So what?

There’s nothing wrong with being
fat, just like there’s nothing wrong with being skinny, or being on any place
in the hugely diverse spectrum of shapes and sizes that exist. Fat people are
as cool and beautiful as everyone else, just like disabled people are as cool
and beautiful as everyone else, just like people of one race are as cool and
beautiful as those of another. I don’t know about you, but my cool and
beautiful friends come in a big range of shapes and sizes, and I don’t find any
one more cool or beautiful than the next based on weight. Some of my fat
friends even have better body image than some of my thinner friends: in other
words, them being fat doesn’t mean they (or others) find themselves ugly, nor
are they ashamed of their bodies just because they’re fat.

I know some people in our world, an
alarming number, are fat-bashing or fat-phobic, and you won’t hear me say that
doesn’t suck and isn’t hard to live with: it does suck and it is hard to live
with. It’s freaking awful. But just because we live in a world with bigotry and
bias in it, and with far too many people who judge others based on appearance
(be that about weight or about race, gender identity, disability, what have
you) that doesn’t make messages sent via bigotry and bias true. It also doesn’t
mean you have to keep them for yourself.

Those are false messages that come
from crappy places. They can come from one person or group’s fear of losing
power over another, from someone’s need to cut someone else down so they feel
better about themselves, from learned attitudes from those who didn’t accept
themselves (like from a Mom, aunt or sister who we heard saying how ugly and
fat they were all the time when we were young and impressionable), from poor
overall self-esteem, from companies pushing things like diets and
"slimming" garments and cosmetics not to improve anyone’s life, but
to increase the size of their own wallets with no real care about how it makes
others feel, even if it makes other people sick or less healthy. But what we
know, any of us who have studied bigotry and bias — where it comes from, what
motivates and enables it — is that one place they do NOT come from is a place
of clear feeling, clear seeing and real love for oneself and others.

I also want to pose a suggestion to
you: can you recognize that someone going on about how "hot" a
person’s body is to others can enable exactly the cultural and individual
attitudes that are part of why you feel the way you do about yourself? In other
words, lookism, or focusing mostly or solely on someone’s value based only on
their appearance, is a ot of WHY anyone like yourself feels so lousy about how
they look, puts so much stock in it, and feels they have to try and meet some
kind of standard. Lookism is what drives and holds up people making words like
"fat" a barb, and people poking fun of how other people look.

A partner going on to their friends
about how great ALL of you is — how you look, sure, but also who you are, how
you make them feel, how you, as a whole person of body, heart and mind, enrich
their life — is totally awesome. (It’s also a way higher compliment than
"nice ass.") If you want to do something to make yourself feel better
AND do what you, as one individual, can do to dismantle some of the world’s
stupid ideas about bodies, you can work on changing your own thinking and what
you create when it comes to wanting someone to brag about you being hot based
on only your body. Being made into an object doesn’t ever result in anyone
feeling earnestly better as a person.

As far as your relationship goes, I
do think when a relationship is so serious that you count yourself as being in
it for nearly a year and people are expressing love to each other it’s high
time for folks to meet or at least get a whole picture of each other. In other
words, if you two are going to invest this much in the relationship, it’s
past-time to at least have some sense of at least what each of you looks like.
Ideally, you’d have met each other in-person before you both got so serious,
not just to see what you look lie, but to get to know how you both are
in-person, to feel out your chemistry together, to see how you work (or don’t)
in real life when neither of you can control what the other person sees or
perceives so much. But it’s already serious, clearly, and shoulda-woulda-coulda
isn’t of much use.

If we want to get and stay close and
intimate with people, we have to be willing to show them the stuff we don’t
feel so great about, not just the stuff we do. Relationships that are never and
have never been in-person unfortunately make it easy for people to only show
the good stuff, and if and when that’s what’s going on, you need to recognize
that that’s actually not a very deep relationship yet. (As someone who works
online a lot, for instance, a lot of people have this idea that I am a total
superstar, and oh-so-perfect because they rarely get to see my more annoying
traits, my failings, or the things I may do I’m not so great at the way people
who know me in-person do.) We can’t have something of depth when we’re only
seen by someone else the way we want to be seen, be that about appearance or
our personality. I’d go a step further and say that we don’t give anyone a
chance to really love us until we’re truly vulnerable with them and show
them all of who we really are, not just what we like or think they will.

If this is someone you have every
reason to trust, and who has shown you a lot of care and love, I think you need
to step outside your comfort zone and extend that trust to allow this person
the opportunity to accept (and even like!) the parts of yourself that you don’t
accept or like, including your body. That’s one of the coolest things about
love: often, people who really know us and love us will like and love things
about us that we think suck or feel are substandard.

I want to share with you how
"beauty" is actually defined; what it literally means. Beauty is
whatever any of us sees or experiences that we find to be beautiful; which
delights or pleases our senses in some way, or which elicits feelings of
emotional or intellectual admiration, awe, love, joy or connectivity. Just sit
with that for a minute, okay?

While there are cultural
"standards" of beauty, that’s mostly a self-designed lie, because we
don’t all find delight in our senses from the same things. My mother is wild
about the smell of gasoline: she thinks it smells wicked good, the way some
people think roses, the smell of a lover or a fresh-baked pie smell good. I
experience that same smell as totally gross. Even just with those two opinions
alone, we could not say how gasoline smells to everyone. In other words, were I
to say "Gasoline smells bad," I’d not be telling the truth.
The truthful statement could only be, "Gasoline smells bad to me."

The same holds true with how people
feel about how others look. What looks good to one person doesn’t to another,
and the range of preferences, ideals and experiences people have when it comes
to what they find beautiful or sexy in a person’s appearance is just as vast as
the range with people’s preferences with what tastes good, what smells good and
what feels good. There is no one beautiful just like there is no one
good-smelling. And you may want to bear in mind that your standards of beauty
are narrower and less open-eyed than someone else’s — which may include this
guy — are.

Heck, while we’re at it, let’s talk
about the actual definition of ugly, which is displeasing to the senses OR
inclined to anger or bad feelings with overtones of menace. Your body isn’t
ugly, but for sure, how you’re treating it and yourself sure is.

The idea that there is one standard
or kind of beauty a lie, just like the idea that you are ugly based on what you
see on a scale is a lie. If no one ever gave you the idea that there was one
right shape or size, or one kind of beautiful; if you grew up seeing images of
beauty that all looked like this or this
or this (which, by the way, have all been
representative at some time of a cultural standard of beauty, as those
standards change all the time historically) you’d probably have a very
different perception of yourself. Of course, if you weren’t comparing how you
looked to anyone else at all, you’d likely have a very different perception,
too.

Beauty is far more complex and
diverse than current fashion magazines or one standard at one given time held
by one given person or group. One of the reasons we see more diversity in fine
art is that artists generally aren’t looking to sell you something, like a
fashion mag is, or cut you down to make themselves feel superior, like people
at school may have. Artists try to see more deeply, see what’s really there,
past the surface or ideas the world has given us. We relish in seeing as much
beauty in as many places as possible. We try and see things and people as they
really are, and want to show that to others so ideally everyone can see
themselves, others and the world more deeply, more clearly and with all the
dizzying complexity that is truly there.

Chances are very good that if you’re
unable to see your body as anything but ugly, that’s in part about you having
internalized certain cultural bigotry and bias. It may also be impacted by you
not fully liking and accepting yourself as a whole, great person, beyind how
you look. It’s easier to have crappy body image when we have low overall
self-esteem in the first place. And good self esteem tends to involve making
sure we aren’t hyperfocused on our appearance, or making how we look or what we
weight the be-all-end-all, or see that as a reflection of who we are. As is
also common, you may have gotten into the habit of trying to process difficult
or hard emotions by putting them all on your body. For instance, whatever is
going on with your family and those feelings may be the real deal, you may have
strong worries about being loved and accepted, or be feeling vulnerable because
you’re in a love relationship, and any or all of that may not all be about your
body in the first place, but you’re putting them on your body because it may
seem like something easier to try and manage or control, or because you’re so
used to dumping everything on your body.

Mind, all of this is a process: a
rare few of us come of age with an amazing body image (and this is also true
for women who are thin). Most of us learn that, unlearning the bad stuff and
accepting and embracing ourselves over time, not in one fell swoop. We keep
taking baby steps and we keep feeling better and better as we go. It’s okay
you’re not there yet, but it is time to start really taking those steps. Not
eating, hiding yourself from someone who loves you and telling yourself you’re
ugly are backward steps that keep you stuck: working to accept and embrace
yourself, to dump ignorant or bigoted ideas about size and beauty, to really
take care of your body and your whole self (which can also include counseling)
in smart, healthy and loving ways, to change the things you say to yourself and
to just put yourself out there are the right kinds of steps to take to improve
your image of yourself.

I asked my gorgeous pal Corinna Tomrley, who is a fat activist, for some
words for you, because I knew she’d have great input. (And because I don’t just
like her because she shares part of my name: I like her because she’s a
badass.) Here’s what she has to add:

At 5’10 and +200lbs, you sound like
an absolute goddess. But we’ve all been there – it is really hard to accept how
you look, especially if you’ve been told you don’t look good – but, honestly,
it isn’t impossible. It is also really scary to show how you look to someone
who you’ve got to know online and so far have been selectively revealing only
parts of yourself. We all do it to some extent. But at the end of the day, if
people can’t take the whole you and the real you, they aren’t worth your time
and effort. Though it’s cliché it’s true: you have to love and accept yourself
first and not rely on someone else’s idea of what you should look like. If he’s
a good guy he’ll be glad he’s got a whole person to keep in his mind’s eye
until you meet IRL. Self confidence, acceptance of your gorgeousness (and I
imagine you are gorgeous and in no way ‘ugly’), that is totally hot, sexy and
adorable. It’s a long and hard journey to accept yourself when you are big, but
it is certainly not impossible. Start today and you may find that this was the
best thing you could do for your body, your confidence and your future. Instead
of feeling bad that a diet didn’t ‘work’, that you can’t lose weight or gained
some, put that energy into doing something nice and rewarding for yourself. Get
a new outfit and see how awesome you can look with the amazing body you have.
Take a picture exuding sassy attitude and you’ll look stunning. Send it to him.
Whatever happens, you will have a great picture of yourself to put up online to
show the world just how beautiful you are.

Hear all that? I hope so.

Ultimately, I think it’s your
image of you you need to worry most about, not how other people do or may
perceive you. Even if your boyfriend thinks you are the most fabulous-looking
thing ever to happen to fabulousness, while that will be a relief, and will
make you feel good, someone else’s opinion isn’t an instant fix to body image
problems. Someone else thinking you’re lovely won’t usually change how you
think about you much. It doesn’t for anyone else, so I doubt you’d be the lone
exception. It’s you who are in your own head 24/7, and it’s you who are going
to live your whole life in this body: the person I am most concerned about accepting
and loving your body is you. Once you’ve really got that, it actually
stops mattering much what other people think. If you never get that, what other
people think will only be a band-aid, at best.

Here’s what I suggest to start: take
that photo. Even if you just take it for yourself. Take it the way Corinna
suggested, or, you could take it while thinking a big, powerful internal
"Screw you" to anyone, even the voices in your own head, that say you
and your body aren’t beautiful. Then, I want you, all by yourself, to take a
good look at it.

Would you diss that girl in the
street if you saw her? Would you truly be unable to find anything of beauty in
her if she wasn’t you? Would you try to make her feel bad about herself? Would
you call her ugly? Would you starve her? Would you shame her? Would you make
her cry? Would you be as harsh to her as you’re being to yourself?

If not (and criminy, I sure hope
not), please let that be a big ding-ding-ding to you that you need to STOP
treating yourself this way. You can’t control what other people said to you or
how others have treated you, but you can control what you say to you and how
you treat you, and you’ve been treating you very badly. Your body isn’t your
enemy. Your body isn’t making you feel bad right now: your mind is. Changing
our minds is actually something that’s a whole lot easier to do, and usually
more healthy to do, than changing, or trying to change, our bodies.

Now, send your guy that photo.

I’m going to leave you with a few
more links I think you could use, in addition to my best bod-lovin’,
self-accepting, get-out-there-and-take-life-by-the-horns sentiments:

Commentary Economic Justice

The Gender Wage Gap Is Not Women’s Fault, and Here’s the Report That Proves It

Kathleen Geier

The fact is, in every occupation and at every level, women earn less than men doing exactly the same work.

A new report confirms what millions of women already know: that women’s choices are not to blame for the gender wage gap. Instead, researchers at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the progressive think tank that issued the report, say that women’s unequal pay is driven by “discrimination, social norms, and other factors beyond women’s control.”

This finding—that the gender pay gap is caused by structural factors rather than women’s occupational choices—is surprisingly controversial. Indeed, in my years as a journalist covering women’s economic issues, the subject that has been most frustrating for me to write about has been the gender gap. (Full disclosure: I’ve worked as a consultant for EPI, though not on this particular report.) No other economic topic I’ve covered has been more widely misunderstood, or has been so outrageously distorted by misrepresentations, half-truths, and lies.

That’s because, for decades, conservatives have energetically promoted the myth that the gender pay gap does not exist. They’ve done such a bang-up job of it that denying the reality of the gap, like denying the reality of global warming, has become an article of faith on the right. Conservative think tanks like the Independent Women’s Forum and the American Enterprise Institute and right-wing writers at outlets like the Wall Street Journal, Breitbart, and the Daily Caller have denounced the gender pay gap as “a lie,” “not the real story,” “a fairy tale,” “a statistical delusion,” and “the myth that won’t die.” Sadly, it is not only right-wing propagandists who are gender wage gap denialists. Far more moderate types like Slate’s Hanna Rosin and the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson have also claimed that the gender wage gap statistic is misleading and exaggerates disparities in earnings.

According to the most recent figures available from the Census Bureau, for every dollar a man makes, a woman makes only 79 cents, a statistic that has barely budged in a decade. And that’s just the gap for women overall; for most women of color, it’s considerably larger. Black women earn only 61 percent of what non-Hispanic white men make, and Latinas earn only 55 percent as much. In a recent survey, U.S. women identified the pay gap as their biggest workplace concern. Yet gender wage gap denialists of a variety of political stripes contend that gender gap statistic—which measures the difference in median annual earnings between men and women who work full-time, year-round—is inaccurate because it does not compare the pay of men and women doing the same work. They argue that when researchers control for traits like experience, type of work, education, and the like, the gender gap evaporates like breath on a window. In short, the denialists frame the gender pay gap as the product not of sexist discrimination, but of women’s freely made choices.

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The EPI study’s co-author, economist Elise Gould, said in an interview with Rewire that she and her colleagues realized the need for the new report when an earlier paper generated controversy on social media. That study had uncovered an “unadjusted”—meaning that it did not control for differences in workplace and personal characteristics—$4 an hour gender wage gap among recent college graduates. Gould said she found this pay disparity “astounding”: “You’re looking at two groups of people, men and women, with virtually the same amount of experience, and yet their wages are so different.” But critics on Twitter, she said, claimed that the wage gap simply reflected the fact that women were choosing lower-paid jobs. “So we wanted to take out this one idea of occupational choice and look at that,” Gould said.

Gould and her co-author Jessica Schieder highlight two important findings in their EPI report. One is that, even within occupations, and even after controlling for observable factors such as education and work experience, the gender wage gap remains stubbornly persistent. As Gould told me, “If you take a man and a woman sitting side by side in a cubicle, doing the same exact job with the same amount of experience and the same amount of education, on average, the man is still going to be paid more than the woman.”

The EPI report cites the work of Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, who looked at the relative weight in the overall wage gap of gender-based pay differences within occupations versus those between occupations. She found that while gender pay disparities between different occupations explain 32 percent of the gap, pay differences within the same occupation account for far more—68 percent, or more than twice as much. In other words, even if we saw equal numbers of men and women in every profession, two-thirds of the gender wage gap would still remain.

And yes, female-dominated professions pay less, but the reasons why are difficult to untangle. It’s a chicken-and-egg phenomenon, the EPI report explains, raising the question: Are women disproportionately nudged into low-status, low-wage occupations, or do these occupations pay low wages simply because it is women who are doing the work?

Historically, “women’s work” has always paid poorly. As scholars such as Paula England have shown, occupations that involve care work, for example, are associated with a wage penalty, even after controlling for other factors. But it’s not only care work that is systematically devalued. So, too, is work in other fields where women workers are a majority—even professions that were not initially dominated by women. The EPI study notes that when more women became park rangers, for example, overall pay in that occupation declined. Conversely, as computer programming became increasingly male-dominated, wages in that sector began to soar.

The second major point that Gould and Schieder emphasize is that a woman’s occupational choice does not occur in a vacuum. It is powerfully shaped by forces like discrimination and social norms. “By the time a woman earns her first dollar, her occupational choice is the culmination of years of education, guidance by mentors, parental expectations, hiring practices, and widespread norms and expectations about work/family balance,” Gould told Rewire. One study cited by Gould and Schieder found that in states where traditional attitudes about gender are more prevalent, girls tend to score higher in reading and lower in math, relative to boys. It’s one of many findings demonstrating that cultural attitudes wield a potent influence on women’s achievement. (Unfortunately, the EPI study does not address racism, xenophobia, or other types of bias that, like sexism, shape individuals’ work choices.)

Parental expectations also play a key role in shaping women’s occupational choices. Research reflected in the EPI study shows that parents are more likely to expect their sons to enter male-dominated science, technology, engineering, and math (often called STEM) fields, as opposed to their daughters. This expectation holds even when their daughters score just as well in math.

Another factor is the culture in male-dominated industries, which can be a huge turn-off to women, especially women of color. In one study of women working in science and technology, Latinas and Black women reported that they were often mistaken for janitors—something that none of the white women in the study had experienced. Another found that 52 percent of highly qualified women working in science and technology ended up leaving those fields, driven out by “hostile work environments and extreme job pressures.”

Among those pressures are excessively long hours, which make it difficult to balance careers with unpaid care work, for which women are disproportionately responsible. Goldin’s research, Gould said, shows that “in jobs that have more temporal flexibility instead of inflexibility and long hours, you do see a smaller gender wage gap.” Women pharmacists, for example, enjoy relatively high pay and a narrow wage gap, which Goldin has linked to flexible work schedules and a professional culture that enables work/life balance. By contrast, the gender pay gap is widest in highest-paying fields such as finance, which disproportionately reward those able to work brutally long hours and be on call 24/7.

Fortunately, remedies for the gender wage gap are at hand. Gould said that strong enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, greater wage transparency (which can be achieved through unions and collective bargaining), and more flexible workplace policies would all help to alleviate gender-based pay inequities. Additional solutions include raising the minimum wage, which would significantly boost the pay of the millions of women disproportionately concentrated in the low-wage sector, and enacting paid family leave, a policy that would be a boon for women struggling to combine work and family. All of these issues are looming increasingly large in our national politics.

But in order to advance these policies, it’s vital to debunk the right’s shameless, decades-long disinformation campaign about the gender gap. The fact is, in every occupation and at every level, women earn less than men doing exactly the same work. The right alleges that the official gender pay gap figure exaggerates the role of discrimination. But even statistics that adjust for occupation and other factors can, in the words of the EPI study, “radically understate the potential for gender discrimination to suppress women’s earnings.”

Contrary to conservatives’ claims, women did not choose to be paid consistently less than men for work that is every bit as valuable to society. But with the right set of policies, we can reverse the tide and bring about some measure of economic justice to the hard-working women of the United States.

Analysis Law and Policy

Do Counselors-in-Training Have the Right to Discriminate Against LGBTQ People?

Greg Lipper

Doctors can't treat their patients with leeches; counselors can't impose their beliefs on patients or harm them using discredited methods. Whatever their views, medical professionals have to treat their clients competently.

Whether they’re bakers, florists, or government clerks, those claiming the right to discriminate against LGBTQ people have repeatedly sought to transform professional services into constitutionally protected religious speech. They have grabbed headlines for refusing, for example, to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples or to make cakes for same-sex couples’ weddings-all in the name of “religious freedom.”

A bit more quietly, however, a handful of counseling students at public universities have challenged their schools’ nondiscrimination and treatment requirements governing clinical placements. In some cases, they have sought a constitutional right to withhold treatment from LGBTQ clients; in others, they have argued for the right to directly impose their religious and anti-gay views on their clients.

There has been some state legislative maneuvering on this front: Tennessee, for instance, recently enacted a thinly veiled anti-LGBTQ measure that would allow counselors to deny service on account of their “sincerely held principles.” But when it comes to the federal Constitution, providing medical treatment—whether bypass surgery, root canal, or mental-health counseling—isn’t advocacy (religious or otherwise) protected by the First Amendment. Counselors are medical professionals; they are hired to help their clients, no matter their race, religion, or sexual orientation, and no matter the counselors’ beliefs. The government, moreover, may lawfully prevent counselors from harming their clients, and universities in particular have an interest, recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court, in preventing discrimination in school activities and in training their students to work with diverse populations.

The plaintiffs in these cases have nonetheless argued that their schools are unfairly and unconstitutionally targeting them for their religious beliefs. But these students are not being targeted, any more than are business owners who must comply with civil rights laws. Instead, their universities, informed by the rules of the American Counseling Association (ACA)—the leading organization of American professional counselors—merely ask that all students learn to treat diverse populations and to do so in accordance with the standard of care. These plaintiffs, as a result, have yet to win a constitutional right to discriminate against or impose anti-LGBTQ views on actual or prospective clients. But cases persist, and the possibility of conflicting court decisions looms.

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Keeton v. Anderson-Wiley

The first major challenge to university counseling requirements came from Jennifer Keeton, who hoped to receive a master’s degree in school counseling from Augusta State University. As detailed in the 2011 11th Circuit Court of Appeals decision considering her case, Keeton entered her professional training believing that (1) “sexual behavior is the result of personal choice for which individuals are accountable, not inevitable deterministic forces”; (2) “gender is fixed and binary (i.e., male or female), not a social construct or personal choice subject to individual change”; and “homosexuality is a ‘lifestyle,’ not a ‘state of being.'”

It wasn’t those views alone, however, that sunk her educational plans. The problem, rather, was that Keeton wanted to impose her views on her patients. Keeton had told both her classmates and professors about her clinical approach at a university-run clinic, and it wasn’t pretty:

  • She would try to change the sexual orientation of gay clients;
  • If she were counseling a sophomore student in crisis questioning his sexual orientation, she would respond by telling the student that it was not OK to be gay.
  • If a client disclosed that he was gay, she would tell him that his behavior was wrong and try to change it; if she were unsuccessful, she would refer the client to someone who practices “conversion therapy.”

Unsurprisingly, Keeton also told school officials that it would be difficult for her to work with LGBTQ clients.

Keeton’s approach to counseling not only would have flouted the university’s curricular guidelines, but also would have violated the ACA’s Code of Ethics.

Her conduct would have harmed her patients as well. As a school counselor, Keeton would inevitably have to counsel LGBTQ clients: 57 percent of LGBTQ students have sought help from a school professional and 42 percent have sought help from a school counselor. Suicide is the leading cause of death for LGBTQ adolescents; that’s twice or three times the suicide rate afflicting their heterosexual counterparts. And Keeton’s preferred approach to counseling LGBTQ students would harm them: LGBTQ students rejected by trusted authority figures are even more likely to attempt suicide, and anti-gay “conversion therapy” at best doesn’t work and at worst harms patients too.

Seeking to protect the university’s clinical patients and train her to be a licensed mental health professional, university officials asked Keeton to complete a remediation plan before she counseled students in her required clinical practicum. She refused; the university expelled her. In response, the Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom sued on her behalf, claiming that the university violated her First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion.

The courts disagreed. The trial court ruled against Keeton, and a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit unanimously upheld the trial court’s ruling. The 11th Circuit explained that Keeton was expelled not because of her religious beliefs, but rather because of her “own statements that she intended to impose her personal religious beliefs on clients and refer clients to conversion therapy, and her own admissions that it would be difficult for her to work with the GLBTQ population and separate her own views from those of the client.” It was Keeton, not the university, who could not separate her personal beliefs from the professional counseling that she provided: “[F]ar from compelling Keeton to profess a belief or change her own beliefs about the morality of homosexuality, [the university] instructs her not to express her personal beliefs regarding the client’s moral values.”

Keeton, in other words, crossed the line between beliefs and conduct. She may believe whatever she likes, but she may not ignore academic and professional requirements designed to protect her clients—especially when serving clients at a university-run clinic.

As the court explained, the First Amendment would not prohibit a medical school from requiring students to perform blood transfusions in their clinical placements, nor would it prohibit a law school from requiring extra ethics training for a student who “expressed an intent to indiscriminately disclose her client’s secrets or violate another of the state bar’s rules.” Doctors can’t treat their patients with leeches; counselors can’t impose their beliefs on patients or harm them using discredited methods. Whatever their views, medical professionals have to treat their clients competently.

Ward v. Polite

The Alliance Defending Freedom’s follow-up case, Ward v. Polite, sought to give counseling students the right to withhold service from LGBTQ patients and also to practice anti-gay “conversion therapy” on those patients. The case’s facts were a bit murkier, and this led the appeals court to send it to trial; as a result, the student ultimately extracted only a modest settlement from the university. But as in Keeton’s case, the court rejected in a 2012 decision the attempt to give counseling students the right to impose their religious views on their clients.

Julea Ward studied counseling at Eastern Michigan University; like Keeton, she was training to be a school counselor. When she reviewed the file for her third client in the required clinical practicum, she realized that he was seeking counseling about a romantic relationship with someone of the same sex. As the Court of Appeals recounted, Ward did not want to counsel the client about this topic, and asked her faculty supervisor “(1) whether she should meet with the client and refer him [to a different counselor] only if it became necessary—only if the counseling session required Ward to affirm the client’s same-sex relationship—or (2) whether the school should reassign the client from the outset.” Although her supervisor reassigned the client, it was the first time in 20 years that one of her students had made such a request. So Ward’s supervisor scheduled a meeting with her.

Then things went off the rails. Ward, explained the court, “reiterated her religious objection to affirming same-sex relationships.” She told university officials that while she had “no problem counseling gay and lesbian clients,” she would counsel them only if “the university did not require her to affirm their sexual orientation.” She also refused to counsel “heterosexual clients about extra-marital sex and adultery in a values-affirming way.” As for the professional rules governing counselors, Ward said, “who’s the [American Counseling Association] to tell me what to do. I answer to a higher power and I’m not selling out God.”

All this led the university to expel Ward, and she sued. She claimed that the university violated her free speech and free exercise rights, and that she had a constitutional right to withhold affirming therapy relating to any same-sex relationships or different-sex relationships outside of marriage. Like Keeton, Ward also argued that the First Amendment prohibited the university from requiring “gay-affirmative therapy” while prohibiting “reparative therapy.” After factual discovery, the trial court dismissed her case.

On appeal before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, Ward eked out a narrow and temporary win: The court held that the case should go to a jury. Because the university did not have a written policy prohibiting referrals, and based on a few troubling faculty statements during Ward’s review, the court ruled that a reasonable jury could potentially find that the university invoked a no-referrals policy “as a pretext for punishing Ward’s religious views and speech.” At the same time, the court recognized that a jury could view the facts less favorably to Ward and rule for the university.

And although the decision appeared to sympathize with Ward’s desire to withhold service from certain types of clients, the court flatly rejected Ward’s sweeping arguments that she had the right to stray from the school curriculum, refuse to counsel LGBTQ clients, or practice anti-gay “conversion therapy.” For one, it said, “Curriculum choices are a form of school speech, giving schools considerable flexibility in designing courses and policies and in enforcing them so long as they amount to reasonable means of furthering legitimate educational ends.” Thus, the problem was “not the adoption of this anti-discrimination policy, the existence of the practicum class or even the values-affirming message the school wants students to understand and practice.” On the contrary, the court emphasized “the [legal] latitude educational institutions—at any level—must have to further legitimate curricular objectives.”

Indeed, the university had good reason to require counseling students—especially those studying to be school counselors—to treat diverse populations. A school counselor who refuses to counsel anyone with regard to nonmarital, nonheterosexual relationships will struggle to find clients: Nearly four in five Americans have had sex by age 21; more than half have done so by the time they turn 18, while only 6 percent of women and 2 percent of men are married by that age.

In any event, withholding service from entire classes of people violates professional ethical rules even for nonschool counselors. Although the ACA permits client referrals in certain circumstances, the agency’s brief in Ward’s case emphasized that counselors may not refuse to treat entire groups. Ward, in sum, “violated the ACA Code of Ethics by refusing to counsel clients who may wish to discuss homosexual relationships, as well as others who fail to comport with her religious teachings, e.g., persons who engage in ‘fornication.'”

But Ward’s approach would have been unethical even if, in theory, she were permitted to withhold service from each and every client seeking counseling related to nonmarital sex (or even marital sex by same-sex couples). Because in many cases, the need for referral would arise well into the counseling relationship. And as the trial court explained, “a client may seek counseling for depression, or issues with their parents, and end up discussing a homosexual relationship.” No matter what the reason, mid-counseling referrals harm clients, and such referrals are even more harmful if they happen because the counselor disapproves of the client.

Fortunately, Ward did not win the sweeping right to harm her clients or otherwise upend professional counseling standards. Rather, the court explained that “the even-handed enforcement of a neutral policy”—such as the ACA’s ethical rules—”is likely to steer clear of the First Amendment’s free-speech and free-exercise protections.” (Full disclosure: I worked on an amicus brief in support of the university when at Americans United.)

Ward’s lawyers pretended that she won the case, but she ended up settling it for relatively little. She received only $75,000; and although the expulsion was removed from her record, she was not reinstated. Without a graduate counseling degree, she cannot become a licensed counselor.

Cash v. Hofherr

The latest anti-gay counseling salvo comes from Andrew Cash, whose April 2016 lawsuit against Missouri State University attempts to rely on yet murkier facts and could wind up, on appeal, in front of the more conservative U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. In addition to his range of constitutional claims (freedom of speech, free exercise of religion, equal protection of law), he has added a claim under the Missouri Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The complaint describes Cash as “a Christian with sincerely-held beliefs”—as opposed to insincere ones, apparently—”on issues of morality.” Cash started his graduate counseling program at Missouri State University in September 2007. The program requires a clinical internship, which includes 240 hours of in-person client contact. Cash decided to do his clinical internship at Springfield Marriage and Family Institute, which appeared on the counseling department’s list of approved sites. Far from holding anti-Christian bias, Cash’s instructor agreed that his proposed class presentation on “Christian counseling and its unique approach and value to the Counseling profession” was an “excellent” idea.

But the presentation itself revealed that Cash intended to discriminate against LGBTQ patients. In response to a question during the presentation, the head of the Marriage and Family Institute stated that “he would counsel gay persons as individuals, but not as couples, because of his religious beliefs,” and that he would “refer the couple for counseling to other counselors he knew who did not share his religious views.” Because discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation violates ACA guidelines, the university determined that Cash should not continue counseling at the Marriage and Family Institute and that it would be removed from the approved list of placements. Cash suggested, however, that he should be able to withhold treatment from same-sex couples.

All this took place in 2011. The complaint (both the original and amended versions) evades precisely what happened between 2012 and 2014, when Cash was finally expelled. You get the sense that Cash’s lawyers at the Thomas More Society are trying to yadda-yadda-yadda the most important facts of the case.

In any event, the complaint does acknowledge that when Cash applied for a new internship, he both ignored the university’s instructions that the previous hours were not supposed to count toward his requirement, and appeared to be “still very much defend[ing] his previous internship stating that there was nothing wrong with it”—thus suggesting that he would continue to refuse to counsel same-sex couples. He continued to defend his position in later meetings with school officials; by November 2014, the university removed him from the program.

Yet in challenging this expulsion, Cash’s complaint says that he was merely “expressing his Christian worldview regarding a hypothetical situation concerning whether he would provide counseling services to a gay/homosexual couple.”

That’s more than just a worldview, though. It also reflects his intent to discriminate against a class of people—in a manner that violates his program’s requirements and the ACA guidelines. Whether hypothetically or otherwise, Cash stated and reiterated that he would withhold treatment from same-sex couples. A law student who stated, as part of his clinic, that he would refuse to represent Christian clients would be announcing his intent to violate the rules of professional responsibility, and the law school could and would remove him from the school’s legal clinic. And they could and would do so even if a Christian client had yet to walk in the door.

But maybe this was just a big misunderstanding, and Cash would, in practice, be willing and able to counsel same-sex couples? Not so, said Cash’s lawyer from the Thomas More Society, speaking about the case to Christian news outlet WORLD: “I think Christians have to go on the offensive, or it’s going to be a situation like Sodom and Gomorrah in the Bible, where you aren’t safe to have a guest in your home, with the demands of the gay mob.” Yikes.

Although Cash seems to want a maximalist decision allowing counselors and counseling students to withhold service from LGBTQ couples, it remains to be seen how the case will turn out. The complaint appears to elide two years’ worth of key facts in order to present Cash’s claims as sympathetically as possible; even if the trial court were to rule in favor of the university after more factual development, Cash would have the opportunity to appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, one of the country’s most conservative federal appeals courts.

More generally, we’re still early in the legal battles over attempts to use religious freedom rights as grounds to discriminate; only a few courts across the country have weighed in. So no matter how extreme Cash or his lawyers may seem, it’s too early to count them out.

* * *

The cases brought by Keeton, Ward, and Cash not only attempt to undermine anti-discrimination policies. They also seek to change the nature of the counselor-client relationship. Current norms provide that a counselor is a professional who provides a service to a client. But the plaintiffs in these cases seem to think that counseling a patient is no different than lecturing a passerby in the town square, in that counseling a patient necessarily involves expressing the counselor’s personal and religious beliefs. Courts have thus far rejected these attempts to redefine the counselor-patient relationship, just as they have turned away attempts to challenge bans on “reparative therapy.”

The principles underlying the courts’ decisions protect more than just LGBTQ clients. As the 11th Circuit explained in Keeton, the university trains students to “be competent to work with all populations, and that all students not impose their personal religious values on their clients, whether, for instance, they believe that persons ought to be Christians rather than Muslims, Jews or atheists, or that homosexuality is moral or immoral.” Licensed professionals are supposed to help their clients, not treat them as prospective converts.