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The Importance of Representation

Alabama-based dietitian Andrea Mathis, MA, RDN, LD, shares her journey toward becoming an RDN and explains why we must check our own biases and replace stereotypical thinking with openness and a willingness to learn from others who may look different from us.

"I spent years shyly giving nutrition interventions to my clients, hiding the fact that I was a dietitian to prevent the stares and questions."

Andrea Mathis

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By Andrea Mathis, MA, RDN, LD

I absolutely love being a registered dietitian nutritionist, but I have to be completely honest and tell you that my journey toward becoming an RDN was not easy. When I started my undergraduate studies at the University of Montevallo, I was so excited. I was eager and ready to learn everything about the world of nutrition and dietetics.

I was thrilled that my dietetics class consisted of a diverse group of people. There were people of different races, ethnicities, genders, shapes and sizes. Because my class was diverse, I was convinced this was how it was going to be when I entered the “real world” — but sadly, I was wrong.

When I graduated from college, I applied to my dietetic internship of choice. There were only two internships available in Alabama and because I’d just graduated from college with a stack of student loans and no job, I could not afford to apply to an internship out of state.

When match day came, I did not get matched to an internship and was completely crushed because I did not have a backup plan. I knew that I had to get a job, so I applied for a dietary manager position at a nearby hospital. The following year, I applied for a distance dietetic internship and was accepted. I was thrilled but a little disappointed because the internship required full-time hours, which meant I had to quit my job. I didn’t know how I was going to pay for my internship or my bills.

I swallowed my pride, quit my job and moved back in with my mom to complete my internship program. Then I started studying for the RDN exam with a few used books I purchased online. When I checked in with my peers from my internship program, I noticed that my study materials were not nearly as sophisticated as those of my colleagues. They had access to expensive study courses, flashcards, fancy books and seminars. I tried not to let that discourage me and eventually mustered up the courage to take the credentialing exam. Guess what? I failed!

At that point, I started to question if dietetics was the right career path for me. After a few months of throwing myself a pity party, I finally tried again and passed my exam! Yay! I was finally initiated into the world of registered dietitian nutritionists and couldn’t wait to get involved. I was so excited to become an integral part of the dietetics world. More importantly, I was finally accepted by my fellow dietitians and the rest of the world as a credible source of nutrition — but that was not exactly the case.

A harsh slap of reality hit me in the face when I entered the workforce. I realized there were no dietitians that looked like me — I was a Black, size 14 dietitian who stuck out like a sore thumb. When I worked at a hospital, the doctors, nurses and patients would mistake me for the dietary aide and ask me to give a message to the RDN or page the RDN. Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being a dietary aide, but my badge clearly said “Registered Dietitian.”

When I went to RDN meetings and conferences, I would typically be the only Black dietitian in the group that was heavier than a size 6, so I received plenty of stares. On some occasions, I would receive a few unfriendly welcomes, followed by an obvious attempt to avoid eye-contact with me. I would also get asked several times, “Are you a registered dietitian?”  Keep in mind that I received this question at a dietitian-only meeting or conference! And you know what? This continues to happen today.

I spent years shyly giving nutrition interventions to my clients, hiding the fact that I was a dietitian to prevent the stares and questions. I also wore a lot of black to try to hide my size and look as skinny as possible. I thought, if only there was a dietitian who looked like me and understood how it felt to be the only orange in a pile of apples. If only there was someone I could’ve talked to who knew how it felt to have their educational status judged solely by their race and physical appearance before they even had a chance to speak.

You may not realize this, but representation is so important. To continue to encourage diversity in this field, it is imperative that we embrace dietitians of all shapes, sizes, colors, ethnicities, sexual orientations, religious beliefs and those with disabilities.

We must remember to take a hard look at ourselves to check our own biases and replace all assumptions and stereotypical thinking with openness and a willingness to learn from others who may look different from us. We also must remember to take what we have learned and use that information to develop fair and non-discriminatory policies, procedures, curricula and other important programs.

Remember: We may not look the same, but we all share one common goal, which is to educate the world with credible health and nutrition information.

This content originally appeared in Food & Nutrition Magazine®.

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