Interview with Sarah Harry Co-Creator of Body Positive Australia and Founder Of Fat Yoga
Meet Sarah Harry. Sarah is considered to be one of Australia’s leading experts in body image and disordered eating. The co-creator of Body Positive Australia and the founder of Fat Yoga, Sarah’s job description is varied. She is a business owner, author, clinician, researcher, yoga instructor, retreat facilitator and more.
I admire Sarah for several reasons. First, she is an example of a successful person who has tailor-made a career they love by following their interests and passions. Second, no two days are the same for Sarah and yet every working day is geared toward one overarching mission: to help people overcome issues with body image and disordered eating. Eating disorders and poor self-esteem can have a devastating impact on a person’s quality of life and so I personally see Sarah’s work as incredibly important. Third, as mentioned Sarah has a varied job description. Sarah runs two successful businesses, Body Positive Australia (co-founded with Fiona Sutherland) and Fat Yoga, and has recently published a book called Fat Yoga, Yoga For All Bodies. This is on top of clinical research, lecturing at universities and other endeavours. I’m fascinated and inspired by people who succeed in juggling many balls at once. How do they manage their time? What does their day-to-day look like? How did their career begin? HOW? JUST, HOW?
In this interview Sarah and I discuss her career beginnings (she actually made a career change in her late twenties), the creation of her businesses (she goes by the motto: build it and they will come), the body positivity movement (it’s for everybody) and more.
Before we delve in I’ll provide some background on Sarah’s businesses, if you are familiar with Sarah’s work skip these sections. If not, definitely give it a read, you will get a lot more out of the interview. Promise.
What Is Body Positive Australia?
Body Positive Australia is an organisation that offers support to people suffering from disordered eating and body image issues through a variety of pathways. Founded by Sarah Harry who is a clinician and Fiona Sutherland who is a dietician, the organisation offers services like individual therapy, group therapy, nutrition consultations, an online course called Body Peace, information for parents and schools, and more.
Body Positive Australia adopts a Mindful Eating and NonDiet approach and works in alignment with the Health At Every Size paradigm. Read more about these initiatives here.
Body Positive Australia is part of the wider Body Positive movement, a movement that is actually harder to define than I thought. Wikipedia offers a great description,
“The Body Positive Movement is a movement that encourages people to adopt more forgiving and affirming attitudes towards their bodies, with the goal of improving overall health and well-being. Whether people are nurturing their bodies and maintaining their weight, or finding a place in life where they are comfortable through working out, or changing their lifestyles to find a better attitude, the body positive movement focuses on building self-esteem through improving one’s self-image. The body positive movement targets all body shapes and sizes. The movement is not only about working out and striving to be positive and creating a better lifestyle for oneself, but deals with health as well.”
Imagine slogging through a workout, hating every moment but forcing yourself to continue because you hate your body and you need to make up for the donut you ate earlier in the day. You look at yourself in the mirror with disdain, ergh you look like a sweaty pig.
OK now imagine completing a work out you enjoy and doing so because you like the way it makes you feel and you value your body and thus enjoy engaging in activities that improve your health. You see yourself in the mirror and smile because you are proud you are doing something positive for yourself.
Same situation, completely different experience. This is what the Body Positive Movement is about. Changing mindsets so people can enjoy health at every size without self-hate, or shame or fear. It might sound like hippy la-la nonsense to you and hey, each to their own. But before you write the movement off, think for a moment. Are you holding off being happy and doing things you enjoy (like booking a holiday, dancing in a bar or even, catching up with friends) because you aren’t at your “goal weight”? Do you shy away from certain styles of clothing because you don’t deserve to wear them or because you “won’t be at this weight for long”? Do you view exercise as something hard and akin to repentance? If you answered yes to any of the above then I urge you to more seriously consider learning about the Body Positive mindset.
To learn more about the Body Positive Movement read this fantastic article by BuzzFeed writer Nora Whelan and watch the inspiring TED talks below.
What Is Fat Yoga?
Fat Yoga is a roving yoga studio currently based in Melbourne that caters to plus size bodies. It is Australia’s first plus size yoga program and it derives from a movement that has already taken off overseas and on social media. Click here and here to learn more about fat yoga and here to learn about the fat/curvy yoga movement.
Sarah’s classes and her book, Fat Yoga, Yoga For All Bodies, counteract the idea that yoga is only for thin, flexible, quinoa and kale eating hipsters. You don’t need to fit an ideal to practice or benefit from yoga.
OK now without further ado let’s get to the interview. Please note, Sarah and I conducted this interview over the phone, the below is the edited transcript. All edits are minor and have been made for easier reading. As with my previous interviews, I have highlighted parts I find to be of particular importance in bold.
1. How did you come to have a career as a Body Image and Disordered Eating Specialist?
I started off working in the fashion industry and struggled myself with body image and eating disorder issues. When I came out of it I decided I just really wanted to help people recover. That’s what started the journey, I went back to university and retrained.
2. How old were you at this point?
I was 28. That’s the time, or maybe a bit younger, that you tend to make those [career] decisions. I didn’t have too many responsibilities so I was able to go back to university and make a big change.
3.Were you worried about going back to study at an ‘older’ age?
I had no qualms. I think you approach study the second time quite differently. All the mature age students were much more serious than I had been as an undergraduate. I was more serious about [studying the second time around] and I certainly got better marks. It was a great experience, I was more motivated…I mean I paid a lot of money for it.
4. How did the creation of Body Positive Australia come about?
It came about between myself and Fiona Sutherland, who is a dietitican.
We met about 15 years ago when we were both working at a private eating disorder clinic. We had a conversation about what was lacking in the service system and felt that nobody was really acknowledging or treating binge eating disorder and to some degree, bulimia. So we decided we would start up a very small treatment program for those people and we have done that every weekend for the last 13 years or so. Every Saturday morning we work with people who have binge eating disorder and bulimia. Fiona is an amazing person to work with.
5. Did you both experience any significant hurdles or set backs when you started Body Positive Australia? Was it daunting to start your own enterprise, especially in an area that wasn’t covered by other health professionals?
Well this was easy because it wasn’t covered. We had this motto (which is not a new motto): Build it and they will come. We had no patients, we had no clients, we had no real way to get those people and we just thought we would start this venture and see if anyone comes. More than a decade later and we are still here. People did come and they continue to come, which is sad in a way but great since we are able to offer help to so many people.
6. Did you have the same motto when you started Fat Yoga? Were there any hurdles to overcome?
Yeah it was the same [motto]. [The inception of] Fat Yoga was a little bit different as when it started I called it, Body Positive Yoga. I wanted the class to be for all my patients and clients who were struggling with body image and eating disorders. I tried to do too much and speak to too many people. I was also (well I am still doing this) using studio times that nobody else wanted. The combination of unappealing times, no marketing budget, no publicity…it left the class kicking along with a few people and I was really worried that I was going to have to close.
Then I changed the name to Fat Yoga and the mission changed to yoga just for fat people. Fat is a word I am very comfortable with as a fat activist. This changed everything for Fat Yoga. That was about a year ago, and we now have six classes or seven classes running across Melbourne. The times are still not ideal but the classes are still running nonetheless.
The creation of Fat Yoga has been an amazing journey. Out of the classes came a book and I just found out my publisher’s sold the book to Korea! It’s been an incredible 12 months of work.
7.Ok so you changed the name about a year ago, did the book deal come about after rebranding or was it already in the works?
It came about after I rebranded to Fat Yoga. I worked really hard for the book deal and I say this because people sometimes think thing fall into your lap and they don’t, you actually have to work extremely hard.
For Fat Yoga to be where it is, it is great but was the process was very difficult. I had to pitch for the book Fat Yoga, Yoga for All Bodies and I pitched really, really hard for that book. I pitched for a number of different books and that was the book they wanted.
8. When did you start practicing yoga?
I started practicing when I was about 27 or something like that. I’ve been practicing for nearly 20 years.
9. What course did you study to become a yoga teacher?
It’s really interesting because I get a lot of emails asking to train as a Fat Yoga teacher and what they don’t understand is that you have to be a yoga teacher first and then you can do specialised training. In Australia there are many options when it comes to yoga courses. I completed my course at a non-profit yoga school that I really liked it’s called, the International Yoga Teachers Association (IYTA). It was very inclusive and wonderful.
10. If there was a giant billboard the whole world could see message what would you put on it (thanks Tim Ferriss for this question inspo)?
11. You are succeeding in creating your own career path and being your own boss. What advice do you have for others who aspire for the same?
I have two organisations Body Positive Australia and Fat Yoga Australia, they are two different companies and they just keep evolving. We keep adding things, we run professional training, we run retreats and more. It just keeps evolving in terms of what we offer and I think it just keeps changing with the market place. I think that is what you have to do if you are going to succeed in being self-employed, continue to evolve.
I think people think being self-employed is a lot easier or better than it is. You can see the flexibility but you don’t see that fact that I might be working very late or on a Friday night. I love it, it works with my lifestyle and I hope not to clock-in and out ever again but it’s certainly not an easier option. It’s not the less-work version that some people might think it is.
12. Do you have any practical tips for anyone wanting to start their own organisation? Any technical road blocks you didn’t see coming?
Ensuring you have practical things in place is very helpful. Make sure your business has a URL, make sure there is an Instagram account that reflects your brand, make sure you trademark your brand, make sure you’ve registered your company.
You can actually do all those jobs from your living room. That’s what I do. I work from home when I am not at my office.
One mistake I wish I avoided was that I used to have just one bank account and manually separate everything by hand. I did this for years until I realised could get a business bank account and software to help with my accounts. That’s a practical thing I’d advise you to do. It’s all very cheap and easy to have accounting software and a separate account for your business. I had been doing it all by hand for ten years before I realised it could be a lot easier! These days you can streamline everything.
13. How do you respond to people who have misconceptions about the Body Positive movement? Particularly those who might view it as translating to body complacency [not needing to improve health, or make positive changes]?
Look there is absolutely no complacency involved in the Body Positive movement. It’s for all body sizes. It is not just for bigger people, it is for everybody. It’s an understanding of health that is inclusive. What it means is just because we don’t focus on the numbers or the BMI that is well proven to be very unhelpful and useless. This doesn’t mean there is a sense of complacency because part of the pillars Body Positivity are nourishing yourself well and moving your body. It’s about taking the emphasis OFF an inanimate object like the scales, it doesn’t mean that you take any emphasis off health in any way. It’s [a movement and mindset] for everybody.
14. I guess people’s perceptions of the movement depend on how they view health….
It depends on how the person defines health and whether they have ever experienced ill health. Are we talking about people who have chronic illness or people that have ability issues? Sometimes when people ask those questions they are coming from a place of privilege that they don’t really understand. If you have a lot of health privilege and you’re white and you have access to education and you are able bodied and all those things then you might not have encountered much [negativity] in that way. You might not realise how much privilege you have, or understand the nuances of why we need these kinds of movements to help all bodies. Including bodies that aren’t able bodied or bodies that deal with chronic health issues and pain. It comes from a lot of different angles.
15. Where do you recommend people start looking to learn about Body Positivity and the Non Diet Approach?
Sarah actually send me a PDF guide chock full of Body Positive online resources. If you are interested send me an email at email@example.com and I will send it over. As always thanks for reading blog fam, till next time.