For Paula D. Atkinson, a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker, helping people to heal has always been a point of personal passion.
But supporting those struggling with disordered eating was never the path she expected to take until personal experience and happenstance showed her an opportunity to make a real difference.
Today, she acts as a Body Justice Activist, helping people to overcome societal stigmas surrounding body shape and to live happier, healthier lives.
Can you tell us a bit about what it means to be a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker and Body Justice Activist?
I’m a psychotherapist working with people who struggle with food and body issues such as body obsession and disordered eating.
I primarily work with queer, female-identifying people and those in the LGBTQIA+ community and I approach this work from the perspective of body justice.
In our culture, small-bodied people are seen as superior whereas people who live in large bodies are often viewed as inferior. And when you add to that how pervasive the pressure is to diet and harm one’s body for validation, it can create a situation that’s challenging to overcome alone.
How did you come to specialize in the field you’re in today?
I’m originally from California and I started out as a yoga teacher, Reiki practitioner, and energy healer.
Then, a little over a decade ago, I wanted to go back to school and learn the clinical side as well. I ended up getting my Master’s degree.
To be totally honest, it was never my intention to focus my work on eating disorders because they’re extremely complicated, and I’m in recovery from disordered eating myself.
But at the time, I was working at a drug and alcohol clinic and, whenever someone also had food or body issues, we would all come to our staff meetings and discuss the approaches that had been taken to support that person.
In general, I totally disagreed with the way it was handled and I felt the need to step up to help those people.
Ultimately, it wasn’t because I wanted to take them on, it was because I knew from first-hand experience how to help them and I had the context and perspective that people would lack if they hadn’t been through it themselves.
As I continued down that road, I made the decision to focus on female-identifying people and the LGBTQIA+ community for a few reasons.
I’m a queer woman so it felt like I could understand the intersection of queer identity and body issues.
Beyond that, it’s not that women suffer more, but research has shown that female-identifying people are diagnosed more often with eating disorders and proactively seek help more often than male-identifying people do.
So, I really wanted to create a space where queer and gender-fluid people could feel comfortable in finding the support they were searching for.
It’s incredibly personal for me.
What are the most rewarding aspects of your work? The most challenging?
By far the most rewarding part is when I can truly help somebody reach a place of peace and freedom and sanity in their relationship with food and their body.
It’s also incredibly fulfilling to help people release the feeling that their body shape has something to do with their value.
On the other hand, the part that’s truly challenging is that our culture is so obsessed with seeing small-bodied people as superior or more healthy. So, it’s a huge task and responsibility for me to help get my clients to find a place of freedom while still living in this culture.
What advice would you offer to anyone trying to pursue an extremely personal and passion-driven career?
I’d tell them it’s hard but incredibly rewarding.
On one hand, finding something I feel so passionate about and getting to talk about things that are so personal to me makes it feel like work.
And on the other hand, it’s not always easy.
But the work I do is so congruent with who I am and what I believe so strongly in. And that makes it far less exhausting for me personally than, say, doing spreadsheets would.
It’s also not a static process.
To be honest, the real reason I wanted to do my Master’s was that I was teaching 30 yoga classes a week and needed a more sedentary job for the sake of my body.
But now, as I get older, I’m moving back into the Reiki and energy healing, which really shows how the pendulum swings–and how this careers gives me so many ways to heal people.
How did you come to work at Launch? How has your experience been?
I originally had an office and gave it up during the pandemic. Then, eventually, I needed space just to get out of my apartment.
I was looking around, found Launch Glover Park, and loved the neighborhood it was in. It’s a beautiful place where I don’t spend much time so it was great for variety. I reached out and spoke with Colby. She was so delightful. The experience has been really very lovely. It’s such a warm, visually pleasing space to go to a few times a week.
What would you tell someone who’s facing these kinds of challenges and is trying to start navigating the healing process?
The main thing I would say is to realize that it’s so normalized these days to have a relationship with food and body that’s fraught with shame and pain and suffering.
So if you’re suffering at all with your relationship with food and your body, seek help.
It’s not natural for us to feel shame about what we eat. This is completely induced by capitalism.
All too often people don’t seek help because they’re not starving, for example. But if you’re suffering at all, you don’t have to. There are people who can help.
And if you’re not sure where to start, get in touch with me.
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If you’re looking for a flexible office space where you support your clients in a welcoming environment, book a tour of one of our Launch Workplaces locations, contact us today. Our team is here to help and answer any questions you might have.