One lesson we’ve learned during the pandemic is that it’s hard to feel disconnected from other humans. Even the most ardent introvert has discovered that too much isolation isn’t a good thing. Current events have highlighted a universal truth: Human connection is important because it’s a critical part of belonging.
Unfortunately, many of us move through life with a sense of unbelonging. This may be because of subtle or overt discrimination due to race, skin tone, socioeconomic status, physical ability, sexual orientation, body size or gender identification. Or, we may look like we fit in but feel like we’re valued only for our achievements and status — for what we’ve done rather than who we are.
Why does this matter? Because discrimination and disconnection do more than make us feel bad — they can be bad for our health. It’s easy to believe that our health is largely the result of our behaviors and habits, but marginalization and isolation are serious public health problems that also affect personal health. Ironic, given that many public health messages focus on individual behaviors such as moving more and eating our vegetables.
The impact disconnection is the subject of the new book by Lindo Bacon, “Radical Belonging: How to Survive and Thrive in an Unjust World (While Transforming It for the Better).” Bacon (who uses they/them pronouns) previously authored the book “Health at Every Size” and co-authored “Body Respect” under the name Linda Bacon. That detail is deeply relevant to their new book, which didn’t start out as a book at all — it started as a personal journal.
“When I started writing the book it wasn’t for anyone else. It was primarily for me. I was writing my history of unbelonging,” said Bacon, who identifies as genderqueer, neither male nor female. “Then when I looked back on it, it didn’t feel right to me, because if I only write from my pain, it ignores a lot of things. I have a lot of resilience, and I have a lot of joy and happiness in my life. This gendered identity I have is what some people love in me. I feel like it’s not a liability for me anymore, now it’s just part of my essence that gives me different perspectives than other people.”
Bacon, who has a doctorate in physiology and master’s degrees in exercise science and psychotherapy, has studied the physiological impact of trauma on the body, as well as what people do to help ground themselves and figure out how to connect with others. Bacon had previously examined trauma and unbelonging through the separate lenses of psychology, physiology and social justice. “I had a lifetime of interest and exploration of ideas and they were all coming together,” Bacon said, adding that they realized the journal wasn’t just about them — they had some material here that could help other people navigate their feelings of unbelonging. “We all have ways in which we’ve been told that we don’t belong or fit in.”
The resulting book — with a foreword by Seattle writer Ijeoma Oluo, author of “So You Want To Talk About Race” — combined Bacon’s personal stories with their professional experience and observations of other people. It explores the effects of trauma, stress and fear and why they often lead to coping strategies — such as turning to food, drugs, alcohol, perfectionism and working too much — that don’t serve long-term health and well-being, but do help people survive feelings of disconnection. The solution, Bacon writes, isn’t self-help or expanding “wellness culture.” It’s becoming known, accepted and loved for who we truly are — to belong — which also includes the difficult work of dismantling oppression.
Does this mean that things like nutrition and physical activity don’t matter for health? They do, but as Bacon points out in the book, if you have class privilege, it’s easier for you to both adopt and benefit from personal lifestyle changes. “For people who are very privileged, diet is one of the ways that they can have an influence on their health,” Bacon said. “If they improve their eating habits it is more likely to improve their risk for heart disease than someone who’s marginalized.”
Bacon said it’s difficult for people who do have privilege to look at what health really means when the impact is so different for them than for other people. “As a culture, we need to recognize what our responsibility is. If we only look at health in terms of what’s beneficial for wealthier people, then are we really improving health? If we don’t increase minimum wage, it will feed back indirectly on the health of more privileged people. Privileged people are only looking at the direct impacts of health.”
While Bacon offers readers tools for building resilience — including compassion and acceptance for ourselves and for others — these aren’t just individual pursuits. They’re part of the bigger picture of connection, community and social justice. “What the pandemic has made clear is that if we don’t take care of everybody, then everybody is at risk,” Bacon said. “I would love to see wellness movements put more energy into taking care of the lives of more marginalized people.” For example, when we improve health for marginalized people through better wages, we improve health for everyone.
“If our end goal is creating a better world, we need to start with kindness and getting to know people. At core, I think a lot of the bad things people do come from fear rather than maliciousness,” Bacon said. “Radical belonging is when we allow people in our lives in all of their glorious uniqueness, where we don’t have these ideas that they need to be a certain way in order to meet up with our approval, where we can recognize that humans also are quite fragile in the world.”