Body Positivity Has an Outreach Problem

Yesterday morning I was hanging around Twitter, as one does, and I ran into a conversation among some friends about how hard it is to be a woman: How much extra work you have to do, how many expectations you have to live up to, and like that. Most of the participants were women. The few men involved offered rote reassurance: “You’re beautiful as you are.” Often the women replied with denial: “Oh, it’s the filter on my avatar.” The women talked about the need to have flawless skin and makeup and hair, to be a size two in order to have any value. Some mentioned feeling like shit when they admired attractive men, because they knew they “weren’t worthy.”

It broke my heart.

I should have kept my mouth shut, but of course, being me, I didn’t. I acknowledged that the world is rough on women. I said there’s some things that aren’t in our control, but other things that are. Some of the things society says you “have to” do aren’t necessary at all. I said worth isn’t in size or shape or the color of your hair. I said you have the ability to choose not to buy into those messages. To me, all these things are basic, Body Positivity 101. I honestly didn’t expect them to be triggering and hurtful to the women involved. I didn’t expect to get pushback. But I did. I heard that telling women to “just get over it” is like telling a disabled person to get up and walk. I heard that maybe all that is true in theory, but in practice the media portrayal of beauty wins every time. I heard that hearing it’s hard for everyone isn’t helpful.

I heard a lot of stuff that made me think. My contributions, though well intended, were as wrongheaded and ineffectual as the men’s rote reassurances, for much the same reasons. They didn’t validate the pain, and they didn’t address the issue.

In hindsight, as I said, I should have kept out of it. Twitter isn’t the best place, or even a very good place, for deep conversations. What one says can too easily be misconstrued. It’s hard to recognize when someone is venting and when someone is seeking solutions; harder still to offer solutions when they’re sought. The truth is, this is a hard world for women. We are expected to maintain a particular appearance. Photo-heavy social media like Instagram make it all the more difficult to ignore. All social media drives the message home, when non-conforming and non-compliant women are subject to the vilest forms of harassment and physical beauty translates to literal currency. It’s dangerous out there. It’s dangerous for women who do conform; why take the added risk of choosing not to?

And yet. It hurts my heart that for so many of these women the very notion of conformity being a choice is so difficult and painful to grasp, as alien an idea as if it arrived on a space ship from a planet light years away. That they’ve internalized damaging ideas of beauty and worth, and the connection between the two, to the point where challenging them doesn’t enter their reality. It’s just life.

I thought we’d come farther than this. Isn’t that what body positivity is supposed to be about?

I write this from a position of privilege as a married, white women, fat but not “too” fat, and curved in the “right” places, of reasonable attractiveness, who lives in a small town and isn’t subject to the stuff women are subject to in larger cities, especially when they’re single. I don’t worry about attracting or keeping love. I don’t worry about being harassed as I walk down to the post office (actually, I do, but that’s more from my anxiety issues than any sense it will really happen). I’ve never cared about conforming and my personal style can best be described as casual and eccentric. I also have the privilege of not being required to interact with the parts of the world I don’t want to interact with. I don’t watch regular TV. I don’t work in an office. So I can talk a good line about choosing or not choosing what matters. The truth is, I don’t often have to face the consequences of my choices in the matter, and, though when we visit larger places I do worry about it, I’m largely secure and clueless. A lot of my security comes from being the obvious “possession” of a large, intimidating man. I recognize this, and I take every advantage of it. My cluelessness I can’t excuse.

I remember when I was younger and less clueless, though. I didn’t conform then, either, but I heard about it more. I remember being told at one job how much more feminine I’d look if I wore makeup. I remember struggling to fit into even alternative models of beauty, where being a cis het woman definitely put me at a disadvantage as far as finding partnerships was involved. There was always someone thinner, cooler, more punk, more earthy, more whatever was the standard. I remember being afraid of never finding love because I didn’t fit the mold, and, when I did find myself in a relationship, being afraid of being cast aside for someone “better.” I remember being turned down for job after job in California, where it seemed the only qualification I lacked was the right “look.” I remember the hurt of being turned down for roles in plays and dance pieces for not being the right “type.” I should have shown more sympathy and preached less.

Body Positivity has gone mainstream in the last few years, especially through the work of activists like Jes Baker, Virgie Tovar, and others you can read about here (the list skews heavily towards white women, unfortunately). It’s always been a huge part of my personal work and my feminism, mainly because of my history with eating disorders. Mid-treatment or so, my psychiatrist gave me a copy of Fat is a Feminist Issue. I don’t remember much about it except I connected with some of it and not with most, and didn’t find it very useful. Later, as a college student in my 20s just beginning to explore the Women’s Movement, I attended the Sex, Power, and the Media lecture and presentation by former Sports Illustrated swimsuit model, Ann Simonton. The experience blew my mind open by pointing a finger at how media objectification of women not only ropes us into a cycle of buying clothes, beauty products, and diet schemes but also does us direct damage by propelling us into a mindset where hatred for our own bodies is seen as normal. It made me think things I’d never thought and ask questions I’d never voiced. And I swore then not to buy it any longer.

That was over thirty years ago. For me, as far as body image and self love go, they’ve been years of struggle. As much as I’d like to be able to say I rejected the media message once I saw the truth behind it, I haven’t. I have good days and bad days. And the good body days don’t look like thinking I’m cute. They look more like being able not to pay attention to my body every second. Being able not to notice that I’ve put on 70 lbs in the last few years. Being able to accept the way my belly gets compressed when I get up from the sofa, rather than despise myself for it. The bad days, well. The bad days, I sweat, I smell bad, I’m ugly, and I don’t fit in any reasonably attractive clothes. I’m lazy and gluttonous and every single stereotype of the bad fatty you can think of.  And I deserve every sorrow ever visited on me, because I choose not to conform.

So, no. When I say you can choose, I’m not saying “just get over it” and I’m not claiming it’s easy. In some ways, it’s harder. From my standpoint, though, I would rather be able to look those feelings of worthlessness in the eye and tell them “You’re a lie.” I may still feel like crap, but it’s no longer about me. It’s something that was done to me, and still is done to me every time I watch a movie or pick up a magazine.

Trying to bring this post around to some kind of point, the interactions of yesterday made me think that a certain set of people, women in particular, are falling through the cracks when it comes to body positive activism. I came to it through necessity, and it seems to me quite a few of the prominent voices did so as well (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong; I’m no authority). Spaces didn’t exist, so they created them. Clothing didn’t exist, so they invented them. Dance companies didn’t exist, so they founded them. My friend, the late Heather MacAllister, combined her love of dance with queer politics and created Big Burlesque, which led to her becoming a speaker for size activism before her death. The people in the movement I’ve known personally have been, like Heather, already of an activist mindset, and the people they reach are already receptive to the message. On some level, they’ve come to the place of “We’re fat and society’s fucked. Now what?”

This leaves behind a lot of people who haven’t quite accepted either of those premises. Women who feel bad about being fat (whether or not they objectively are), and maybe know on a cognitive level it’s programming, but don’t have the internal or external resources to combat it. Women so beaten down by media representation that they truly believe no conventionally attractive man can ever find them sexy. People, I guess I mean, of all genders who aren’t going to search the Internet for fat positivity because looking at their own bodies is too painful and hard, and standing up to the system of oppression is plain impossible.

How can the body positivity movement reach these people? I don’t think it’s good enough for any movement to wait for those of like minds to find it. It needs to actively make itself available to those in need, and this is where I see body positivity falling down.

I don’t have any good answers, or any answers at all. But maybe if enough of us start asking the question, we’ll discover one.

 

Emotional Labor and Mental Illness

I think it was about a year ago when I first ran across the term “Emotional Labor.” I’m not alone; although the concept has been a staple of sociology for thirty years, it’s only recently I’ve seen it discussed on a wider scale. If you want to read more about it, this is a pretty good article, but in brief, emotional labor is the effort we take to regulate emotions and the expression thereof. It extends to modifying environments to make them more welcoming and comfortable, keeping track of details, and various types of nurturing. In other words, what used to be termed “Women’s Work.” Sociologists often make a distinction between “emotional labor” and “emotional work,” where the former takes place in a job setting while the latter is geared toward home and relationships. I personally find this distinction unnecessary and even a little offensive, so for the purposes of this post I’m using the terms interchangeably.

When I first saw the term (I think it was here), it was like a lightbulb flashed in my brain. “Oh!” I thought. “This is the piece I’m missing!” Here’s some context: I’m married, and have been for twenty years, to a wonderful, feminist man I love dearly, who is my best friend. If any of those pieces had been missing, I wouldn’t have married him. And for the most part, we have a great marriage. However, like any couple, we have our disagreements and rough spots. There’ve been numerous times in our relationship I’ve tried to communicate things to him and felt like I just wasn’t getting through on some level. The idea of emotional labor, the fact that my work to keep our household running smoothly is often taken for granted and sometimes plain invisible, gave me a way to explain in words he understood better.

I don’t know how much the division of labor in our household is due to the way gender socialization works, and how much is our particular characters and aptitudes. While I like to think of myself as a dreamer, the fact is I’m quite a practical person, with an organized mind and an ability to keep track of what goes where and when which thing needs to happen. My husband is the dreamer, and his great memory for detail sometimes leads him to get bogged down in minutiae, while his perfectionism causes him to develop intricate processes to accomplish relatively simple tasks. He’s capable of huge compassion for others, but not so much for himself, a tendency he attributes to the religion he was raised in. I’m very open and outspoken about my emotions and my process; him, not so much. While you could find reasons for all this in the different ways men and women are taught to behave, you might, if you knew us well, see these qualities as part of our individual identities.

But there’s one place where my husband and I definitely differ: I have a mental illness, and have spent more than half my life learning how to manage it. While he experiences intermittent episodes of depression, they’re not the life-threatening kind that leads one to intensive treatment. Consequently, he hasn’t had to do the emotional work I have, and gets along all right without it. He’s a great conversationalist, facilitator, and mediator. People feel safe with him. But he doesn’t have the skill I have at delving into deep matters or my comfort level with addressing extremely uncomfortable personal topics. When your emotions can kill you, when you’ve been held on a locked hallway until you learn (or make a viable pretense of having learned) to deal with them, you become adept at self questioning and self regulation.

Of course, not everyone does. Some people with mental illnesses are ultra resistant, some don’t have the insight and aptitude, some fall back into old patterns when they get into triggering situations, and some are simply too ill. I’m talking about those of us considered “high functioning” in one area or another: by reason of intellect, or ability to appear “normal,” or ability to hold a job. The people you wouldn’t immediately peg as having mental health issues. And some high functioning people don’t learn either, because they can manipulate or coerce others into doing their emotional labor for them. Some use their illness as an excuse not to do their own emotional labor. Our former housemate was one of these. From the outside, she was interesting, intelligent, and capable, a fun person to be around. It was only once you got close that the demands started, and these could take the form of anything from long conversations over coffee trying to “process” some real or imagined slight to waking people up in tears at three in the morning to spend three hours talking her through an event from days earlier. Any attempt to make her do her own work was framed as retraumatizing. Because, face it, emotional labor isn’t usually fun. It’s hard, and it’s often painful, and it feels much better to have someone else do it for you. It feels like being taken care of, and it is. She refused outright to go to therapy because therapists “wouldn’t understand” her, and this necessitated interventions a couple times a week to keep her from blowing like a steamkettle. Living with her was draining and frustrating on a level I’d never experienced before, and haven’t since, although one instance came close.

The psycho ex-housemate stuff will become relevant later, trust me.

Anyway, I’ve spent a good portion of my life doing the emotional labor of others. Trying not to trigger my repressed parents. Talking friends through fights and breakups. Reassuring people of their worth and attempting to shine a different light on their problems. As I said, it’s something I’m skilled at, trained in, even, since my degree is in Dance Therapy. It’s not to the advantage of my personal boundaries that I’m highly empathetic, because when I feel something “off,” I’m not content to let it lie. Doing so makes me uncomfortable; I have to get it out in the open. Also, I find trivial conversation tiresome. I’m always looking for a deeper level of interaction.

The problem is, when I exert my energy on the emotional labor of other people, I often drain myself to the point of not being able to practice self care. Before I know it, I’m empty and spiraling down into a depressive cycle. This is why, when this meme popped up on Twitter the other day, it really resonated with me:14040135_10157345413950254_692207246828710712_n

Now, the above doesn’t exactly articulate my experience. It doesn’t take me a huge amount of energy to maintain my high functioning persona, mostly because I don’t bother with doing so; if I have it, I have it, and if I don’t, I don’t. I have an extreme distaste for masks and personas of any kind, and I never had much use for societal expectations (which is no doubt one reason I’ve always had a hard time working a “job” in the commonly understood sense). And when people rely on me for emotional labor, I generally come through. However, as I already said, I often do so at the price of my own mental health. And that’s bad.

Using my marriage as an example, and getting back to the psycho ex-housemate: I was involved with her for one year. My husband was for five, and during that time he did the bulk, if not all, of her emotional labor. He was the one she woke up in the middle of the night when she was upset and needed talking down. He was the one who never had time or space for his own activities, because he always had to be available to her. He was the one who faced The Wrath if he went down to the corner store for a beer to drink during their scheduled TV date and she flipped because she decided his absence meant he was going to blow her off. And, by the way, if you think this sounds abusive, IT ABSOLUTELY WAS. Bear it in mind: Refusing to do your own emotional work inevitably makes you toxic.

The year I spent in the same house with the pair of them, most of my energy was spent trying to get him out. When I succeeded and we moved far, far away, there was a consequence to both of us I hadn’t foreseen. He’d had to do so much emotional labor for psycho ex-housemate that he wanted no part in doing any more for anyone, himself included. I was so afraid of being like, or even appearing to be like, psycho ex-housemate, that I couldn’t bring myself to ask him to. I expected that once we got out of the toxic situation, things would naturally assume a more normal condition. We’d be able to devote more time to each other and our mutual needs, like looking after our home and sharing chores and responsibilities, without the looming threat of psycho ex-housemate coloring every interaction. I hadn’t counted on him being so damaged, and simply worn out, that what I considered “normal” was beyond his ability even to consider. And because I hadn’t yet run across the concept of emotional labor, I had no way of addressing the situation.

On top of that, we got involved with another set of people who didn’t do their own emotional work. Because of my nature, and because I tend to believe doing the emotional work of others is my only value and setting boundaries will cost me friends, I took the bulk of it on. My husband was perfectly willing to listen to me vent about it, and even join in, but didn’t, or wasn’t able to, support me the way I wanted in the moment. I developed some physical health problems, including suffering the two miscarriages I’ve mentioned in other posts. There, too, I didn’t get the support I needed. Neither did my husband. I honestly don’t think we’ve done the emotional work around those losses that we should as of this day. There are a lot of reasons for that, not least that miscarriage carries a certain stigma and isn’t talked about much, but also my deep feeling that children are something more worthy and desirable women get, and I was asking too much by wanting them. Anyway, in the end, I broke.

There’ve been times along the way when I’ve been more functional than not, but I’ve spent basically the last twelve to fourteen years broken from doing too much emotional labor for others and not getting the help I needed doing mine. That’s the better part of my marriage. I have regrets about it I can’t even articulate. I’ve blamed myself for not being strong enough and for not being more demanding, and for not standing up for myself. And I’ve blamed my husband for everything you can imagine and probably more you can’t. But in the end, blame doesn’t do either of us any good and doesn’t matter. It’s how to go on that matters.

If there’s a lesson here, it’s this: As much as possible, do your own emotional labor. Whatever it looks like: caring for your space, finding a place and support to talk through your feelings, taking a long bath, learning how to paint or dance. If there’s scary stuff you need to work through, find a therapist. If you have health issues, get them looked at. Don’t rely on others to do the work, or invite you to discuss things, or prod you into it. Especially don’t do this if you know they have a mental illness, even if they’re really good at it. Being really good at it means they probably have to do more emotional labor in a week than you face in a lifetime. Okay, that’s hyperbole. But seriously, do your own work. Otherwise you risk damaging the people least able to bear it. People you love.

And I guess that’s all I have to say.

 

 

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sad

I’m really sad right now. In fact, I opened up my blog editor to work on a different post, but decided to write this one instead.

I’m sad because my women friends are suffering. They crumple under the crushing weight of expectation society puts on women, to be a certain size, to be a certain shape, a certain color, a certain everything. Definitions so narrow and boxes so small no one can fit within their bounds. Always to smile, to have skin and hair and makeup and bodies so perfect they may as well be masks. They feel if they don’t fit, they have no worth. They feel they don’t deserve to look at attractive men because they feel themselves unlovely and unlovable.

And what can I say? Acknowledging those boxes is a necessity; accepting them is a choice. But the choice not to comply, to raise a middle finger at societal expectations, comes at a cost. It doesn’t mean you just get over it and now everything is fine. In some ways, it makes matters worse, because now you see it everywhere and it makes you angry. And sad. And choosing is the beginning of fighting, not the end.

I can’t say anything soothing. I can give no comfort. I chose for myself long ago, before some of these women were born, and I struggle every day. Am I allowed to make this choice? Am I allowed to have boundaries? Am I allowed to determine for myself what matters to me? And if I do, what does that make me? Does it make me ugly? Does it make me unworthy? Does it make me wrong? Does it mean I’ll be punished in some way I can’t foresee, over which I have no control?

I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.

We’re raised in a culture in which compliance with expectation is rewarded and non compliance is punished. Fit in, and you’re granted a shred of humanity. Not, you know, actual humanity, but enough to be getting on with. Don’t fit in, and you’re unprotected; you become fair game for whatever shit people want to throw at you. From insult, to rape, to murder. Some people will support you, and others will certainly tell you you had it coming.

I encourage the women around me to choose which burdens they bear as far as it’s in their power. They tell me they wish it were that easy. It’s not easy. It’s not easy at all.

I can’t choose for them, or force them to choose what I did. I can’t even get them to understand the choice exists and they have power. Yet it still makes me sad to see so much pain.

Fuck this society and what it does to women. Burn it all down. To the ground.

A Brief Post About Nothing in Particular, Or Many Things in General

It’s past one in the morning. I should go to bed. My head is heavy and my eyes are tired. I can’t make myself go. I played a game I like obsessively until I ran out of lives, and now I’m here.

I’ve been cranky and irritable much of the day. This morning (or yesterday morning) I woke up suddenly at about six, terrified and on edge for no reason I could name. I had a pee and went back to bed, afraid I wouldn’t sleep. But I did sleep, and woke, and slept some more. I never seem to sleep enough, not matter how many hours I get.

I’ve been thinking about my closet, about how many items of clothing I possess that I never wear because I’ve grown too large for them. About my drawer full of T-shirts, some of which are old, and some too small, that I don’t wear, either. All the common wisdom says one should get rid of these things, that keeping them–for that far away and impossible day when you lose weight, for the day they interest you again–prevents you from moving on and discovering the person you are now. I love many of those clothes. I love the pretty dresses, the velvet coats, the T-shirts from concerts I attended long ago when life was different. They’re more than garments. They’re symbols, of prosperity, of beauty, of a life I find unattainable. Letting go of them seems like renouncing possibility. It seems like an act of despair rather than freedom.

I’ve been thinking about an article I read about what depression feels like. It stressed how important it is to practice self care even when you don’t feel like it, to get out of bed, to bathe and get dressed, to clean your house. To practice the actions of normality. It talked about how depression lies, and how, even though you might feel no one cares, that’s just your bad brain chemistry talking. I think that depression does lie, but it also tells the truth. There are people who don’t care, who don’t treat you as you’d like and deserve to be treated. Who say, “I haven’t seen you around” when a series or a week of bad days has kept your off social media, but never once have checked in to tell you they’re concerned when you’re absent. Who are willing to take what you do for them, and seldom if ever do anything in return. I think, “If I don’t care whether my house is clean and no one else does, isn’t cleaning it the lie?”

I peel away layers of myself like an onion, trying to find what’s at my center, but nothing is there.

A Twisted Relationship Part III: Discipline

My dad was a big man who suffered from various kinds of chronic pain most of his life. When he was a teen, he was bedridden almost a year with some genetic disorder that appears from time to time in adolescent males. I don’t know how to spell it, so I haven’t been able to look it up. Otto Shleggerer’s Disease? Auto-Schlegerer Disease? That’s phonetic, but neither have turned up any Google results, so I remain in the dark. He had bad knees, and arthritis, and from what I know now I suspect he also had sciatica. At least, he had some kind of pinched nerve in his back that caused incredible pain. He complained a lot about his “damned left leg.” I may have inherited a little of this. I have a weird numb place in my left leg that seems attributable to a pinched nerve. So far, it hasn’t caused me pain, thank the gods.

Anyway. Every time he consulted a doctor, the doctor told him to lose weight, because if he weren’t so big he wouldn’t be in pain. So my dad would go on one diet or another. Sometimes he lost a few pounds. Inevitably, he’d give up. I’d come upon him in the kitchen at odd hours, “evening off” the pan of brownies or picking at the leftover Thanksgiving turkey. And because I didn’t know what I know now, I despised him for what I saw as a lack of mental discipline. I thought, “Geez, dad, the doctor told you what to do if you don’t want to be in pain; why don’t you just buckle down and do it?” And I hated it all the more when he complained about his physical ailments, because I thought suffering them or not was under his control.

Now, as I struggle with my own metabolic problems, which sometimes cause me to feel like I’m starving to death an hour after eating a full meal, I wonder if he was just hungry.

I vowed not to be like my dad. When I wanted to lose weight, I’d do it, come hell or high water. Never mind physical discomfort, or lack of interest in exercise, or anything else standing in my way. I’d put my will to it, and I’d do it. I wouldn’t give anyone an excuse to despise my lack of discipline. I wouldn’t claim to want a thing and do the opposite of everything necessary to achieving it.

Unfortunately, this attitude, combined with certain other factors, led directly to my becoming anorexic. When losing weight didn’t lead to, for example, a reduction in the amount of bullying I suffered or being able to attract a boyfriend, I decided I wasn’t disciplined enough and hadn’t lost enough weight. So I restricted my food intake and increased my exercise level more and more. And before long, I reached a point where I literally wasn’t in control, though not in the way I feared. I knew my obsessions were killing me (probably long before anyone else did), and I could not stop. When I became bulimic, I couldn’t stop that, either. I kept telling myself, “Just put your mind to it!” But my mind had no influence. Eating disorders are funny like that; I expect all compulsions are. I experienced something similar when I engaged in self harm through cutting. There’s a period before an episode when you’re trying to resist. But the longer you resist, the more anxious you become and the stronger the compulsion gets. It builds to a point where you can’t think of anything else; you just want to get it over with so you can go back to some semblance of normality. So you give in, eat the bag of cookies or vomit or whatever, and then there’s this kind of relief, almost like you’ve had an orgasm. Until the compulsion hits again.

As I wrote that, it struck me how similar this sounds to the classic cycle of violence: A period of tension-building, followed by a violent episode, followed by relaxation of tension and remorse. I think they’re the same, only in relationship violence the compulsion is focused on the other partner and in eating disorders you’re driven to be violent toward yourself. I wonder if anyone else has thought of it this way, and if not looking at it this way is a reason perpetrators of domestic violence have such a high rate of recidivism.

Given my history, I have a complicated relationship with the concept of discipline, which often translates in my head to “forcing yourself to do something you really don’t want to do because ‘not wanting to’ isn’t a valid excuse.” Some of this my mother instilled in me. Inevitably when I expressed a lack of interest in doing one thing or another, she responded with, “Well, you could if you wanted to.” Which is problematic in and of itself; it dismisses lack of desire as a reason not to participate in an activity and at the same time implies that lacking interest is itself a flaw, while also promoting the completely irrational idea that the only obstacle to accomplishing anything at all is not wanting to badly enough. By that reasoning, people living in poverty have no excuse because surely if they really wanted to they could be rich, and making accommodations for the disabled is wrong-headed because if they really wanted to they’d succeed on the terms of the able-bodied.

A lot of cultures seem to place an inordinate value on the ideas of discipline and self-control. We admire asceticism. In a benign form, discipline counsels moderation; “Nothing in Excess” (Greek, μηδὲν ἄγαν) was inscribed over Apollo’s temple at Delphi, and the advice was repeated by philosophers like Socrates and Plato. Personally, I think a little excess at times is healthy, but for the most part (and leaving aside questions of “who gets to define excess?”) I don’t have a problem with the idea. However, taken to extremes, discipline can be harmful, as well as easily exploited. We’ve all heard stories of abused children whose parents claim they were “just trying to instill discipline.” Some religious sects encourage mortification of the flesh, even to self-flagellation (and in groups where this is the norm, the tool for administering blows is often known as “the discipline.”)

Speaking as a Pagan, I do see some of the reason behind these practices. On a purely practical level, if you mean to embark on a long period of meditation, a vision quest, or other observance, it’s good to be able to ignore hunger and other bodily discomforts. Another truth is, asceticism promotes an out of the ordinary state of consciousness, wherein one can better access wisdom and information not apparent from or on the physical plane. Self-inflicted (or other-inflicted) pain can act as a catalyst to a shamanic experience. Pagans often share food after a Circle not only to be social, but to aid in returning from magical consciousness. Eating and drinking is one of the best ways to ground and recenter.

The problem lies not in the practice itself, but in the fact that discipline is seen as morally superior to the lack of it. I could write an entire different essay on why this came to be the case. It would include things like religions and philosophies of transcendence, which favor the upper classes, superseding religions of immanence, which tend to spread power more evenly, and the way religions of transcendence privilege things of the spirit over those of the flesh as a way to reinforce oppressive systems. But, as I said, that’s another post. *winks* The result is that the ability to endure unpleasantness has become a good in and of itself, rather than a temporary means to a particular end.

So what does this have to do with my eating disorder, my relationship to my body, and fat phobia in general? Short answer particular to me: It makes it really easy for me to beat myself up and get stuck in a loop of bad thoughts. Although I have, at various points in my life, been highly capable of doing things I find personally unpleasant to achieve an end, I still see myself as lacking in discipline, especially as regards my body. It goes back to the prevalent mythology that some body sizes are bad, even harmful, and altering the shape of one’s body into one better and less harmful is a matter of simple math, calories in vs. calories out. This is a view that people cling to despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Even medical professionals, who should know that multiple factors affect body size, promote it. When combined with the idea that self-control is morally superior to lack thereof, it perpetuates stigma. After all, people think, much as I thought of my father, if you know the equation, what stands in the way of working it? Nothing but your determination and will. And the idea that those of us who don’t fall into a narrow definition of physical acceptability–and worse, don’t or won’t work to get there–are in total control of factors like how our metabolisms process food and how much activity our bodies require to effect change excuses all kinds of stigma, from public fat shaming to financial penalty.

In our culture, fat symbolizes laziness and excess. Any student of history should know this was not always the case; fat once signified prosperity and the ability to withstand periods of famine. In a country where most people have enough to eat and a significant portion of wealth is inherited, prosperity is tied less to hard work and more to the concept of leisure (much in the same way middle class people like to have lawns surrounding their houses, because a large area of uncultivated ground shows you don’t have to grow your own food). For those to whom it doesn’t come naturally, maintaining a small body size implies you have both the time and resource to devote to it: Joining a gym, hiring a personal trainer, shopping for and preparing the appropriate food or having it delivered. Where celebrities, whose jobs may depend on their looks and who are actually paid to maintain an image, are the equivalent of royalty, it’s easy to dismiss the difficulties of the poor, the overworked, those living in food deserts, and those who simply aren’t interested in spending every moment of spare time in an effort to make their bodies comply with and idealized concept of health and normality. Far easier to condemn them for lack of discipline than challenge the prevailing wisdom.

I suffer a good deal of guilt over my lack of discipline. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I wish my body were different. I wish I didn’t get hungry as much as I do, or that someone could at least explain to me why this is the case. I wish it didn’t seem to take me three times the physical activity to achieve half the results others seem to. I wish my lower arms didn’t flap in the breeze and my belly weren’t so large and my back didn’t have obvious rolls. And, of course, I always have that little voice in the back of my head asking, “If you really care about those things, why don’t you get up off your fat ass and do something about it?” It’s a question I have a hard time answering, but I think a lot of it has to do with the role of discipline as a measure of worth.

When my friend offered me a free gym membership, I thought a long time before taking her up on it. I decided, from a completely rational place (or so I thought at the time), that I could try it without attaching some weird agenda to it. I thought, “Twice a week is okay. I can do that. It isn’t unreasonable.” I set goals unrelated to weight and body size; the first was, “I want to be able to walk to the gym, do a circuit, and walk home without wanting to die.” I kept the commitment for two or three weeks, and then I got sick, and I got triggered. I started telling myself, “There, that’s over, and you don’t have to do it again for three days.” Which begged the question, “If I have to console myself with the idea of not going to the gym, why am I going to the gym at all?” I didn’t have an answer. I slept badly one night before a scheduled gym session, and decided to postpone it, just one day. I castigated myself for weakness, and lack of dedication. I fell into a spiral of guilt and justification: “You know sometimes you have to do things you find unpleasant to achieve goals,” to “But I really don’t fell well! Besides, I don’t get any immediate reward for doing it, and I have no guarantee it’ll change anything.” to “Well, then, stop complaining about your body because you obviously aren’t willing to do the work.” Over and over. It’s a cycle I’m all too familiar with from my anorexic days, and I don’t want any part of it now.

On social media, a day doesn’t go by when I don’t see one friend or another engaged in this same kind of self torture. “OMG, look how gross my body has become, I can’t believe I’m in such bad shape, I need to stop being lazy and get back to…” The treadmill, the gym, the Zumba class. Whatever. And I have no problem with a true desire to get into better physical condition (although the definition of this eludes me; it seems ever-changing). I don’t have a problem with people who really like to exercise, who’ve been ill and unable, or gotten out of their routine for one reason or another. Some people find it uplifting. For some people, the daily walk is their favorite personal time. I am not one of those people; if I ever was, I can’t remember it. My relationship with exercise is too loaded, with gym class bullying, with the toxicity of my eating disorder, with the politics of the dance world. I don’t like that all forms of movement are overwhelmingly emotionally painful, but there it is.

I just wish people would stop with the self hate in the name of discipline. Shaming yourself into doing something never is good, no matter what the result. But as long as society promotes self-discipline as a moral imperative, I fear that wish will go ungranted.

Part One Here

Part Two Here

 

 

A Twisted Relationship, Part II: Desire

When I saw my therapist last, we talked, among other things, about forms of movement I might engage in given my lack of motivation and poor health and stamina. She suggested T’ai Chi. I admitted I’d considered it, and had thought about getting a DVD. She said, “I bet the library has some.” I said I hadn’t thought of that–which was true; I always forget the library has DVDs. I said I’d look into it.

That part wasn’t true. I knew it wasn’t true when I said it. I have no intention of looking into it.

For those following along at home, yes; I intend to bring this up next session. My twisted relationship to diet and exercise is an ongoing theme, something I very much want to explore. Or, I want it as much as I’m capable of wanting anything. But therapy is tricky. It isn’t linear. Things come up in the moment, and things may have happened since you last met that take a while to process. And I have a lot of thoughts I need to put down, and I meant to write this post anyway. So.

It’s hard to describe my experience of desire. Except at rare intervals, it’s not something I really feel. The closest I get is a kind of vague interest, followed by a shrug. Or the idea that I should be concerned about this thing, except, in my heart, I’m not. I barely remember what desire feels like. I remember that I have experienced it in the past. I remember wanting my husband, enough to proposition him in a Wendy’s even though I was seeing someone else. I remember, long before I met my husband, when I was trying to get over a break-up, asking myself, “What’s something you’ve always wanted for yourself but have never done?”–the question that led me to enroll in dance classes at the community college. But I don’t remember the sensation of wanting. Instead of desire, I feel pain and fear.

There are a lot of reasons for this. When I was a kid, my personal desires were coded as selfish, for example. When I expressed a desire for something, I was often told, “Oh, you don’t want that,” along with a list of all the reasons I couldn’t possibly. Or I was told not to want what I wanted because someone else didn’t want it, or someone else would have to take trouble over it. Desire was reserved for the adults in my life: Go to church because your father wants it; excel at school because it’s what we want for you; go to THIS school because our fears are more important than your desire to get away from a toxic environment. Desires about my own body were dismissed or ridiculed. “You’re too young to care about that; you look stupid that way; why should you care about having the kind of sweater the other girls have?”

But I think, most of all, I’ve just experienced too much disappointment and I’m worn out. I’ve never actually fulfilled a desire, not the way I envisioned, at least. Or maybe, the ones I’ve managed to fulfill haven’t changed anything. The path doesn’t lead where I think it’s going to. And some of this is normal. You marry a man, it’s never what you think, but the marriage still has value. Or it doesn’t, and you fix it or compromise or move on. But some of it isn’t what I think is the regular course of life. Shouldn’t you be able to map out a path and follow it somewhere you intend to go without random weirdos putting up irrelevant roadblocks? Some people seem to manage this. I never can. I plan out my course for the New World, make sure all my navigation instruments are working, plunge ahead, and next thing I’m not even sailing; my boat has vanished and I’m fighting Martians or something. Like applying to a Master’s program in Dance Therapy, being interviewed by two people from a completely different department, who asked about my spirituality (since I mentioned its importance in my personal essay), then derailed all my attempts to answer my questions with “We’re not interested in that,” and ultimately told me I wasn’t mature enough for grad school and I should go away and get more “life experience.”

So then I try to reconcile telling myself things like, “Well, maybe it was better I didn’t pursue that anyway” for this, that, and the other reasons, and try to find a new path. But the same thing always happens. Maybe I’m a shlemazel by nature, or maybe it’s just life, or, I don’t know. What I know is, pursuing any kind of goal is difficult when you have no real hope of achieving it.

Anyway, my inability to feel true desire or passion for anything is problematic, both personally and in relating to others. When I don’t feel things, they become unreal to me. They exist in a theoretical realm, so far removed from primary stimuli and comfort they may as well be mythical. So I want and don’t want. This, as I kind of said above, makes self-motivation almost a moot point. Also, talking about desire with others is difficult, because they understand it to mean something other than what I understand it to mean. I assume that to others “wanting” something has some kind of feeling attached to it, which it doesn’t have for me. So I often have to answer questions like, “If you want to be in better shape, why don’t you do what you need to get in better shape?” And any response I make is interpreted as an excuse to be lazy, or recalcitrance, or something of the kind.

My last psychiatrist was especially bad about this. Actually, the entire psychiatric profession is pretty bad about this. For all that they’re allegedly treating mental illness, practitioners have a serious disconnect when it comes to what that means. So they say things like “You know what it takes to lose weight; if you want to lose weight just do it!”I have a HUGE problem with “just do it” rhetoric in general. I mean, we all know how “Just Say No” to drugs, to sex, worked out. “Just Do It” erases real obstacles like mental state, physical ability, marginalization. It presupposes that we have control over all those things, and failure to “Just Do” is due to a lack of will. Or of true desire. If you don’t get what you want, you must not really want it. It’s an attitude that allows people to shame those in poverty for not working hard enough to get out. For not wanting to change badly enough. It excuses the cruelty of not offering people the help and empathy they need with the idea that if you don’t jump through the proper hoops, you’re too comfortable. It requires people always to sink lower to prove they need help, and however low you go, it’s never low enough. I despise it.

(Related: Another thing that’s happened a lot in my interactions with mental health practitioners–and I wish I could think of a specific example, but I only remember my reaction to it–is, they’ll make some off-the-wall suggestion, like, “Have you thought about such-and-so?” And when I tell them I don’t really care about that, they say, “Well, if you don’t care, you might as well try it as not!” Like they’re trying to prove some weird point. And it makes me want to strangle them while banging their heads against the wall, screaming, “Not being able to care about something does not equate to being okay with it one way or the other!”)

There’s a mindset among adherents of certain types of spirituality that passion is an obstacle to be overcome. Passion leads to action, which leads to an accumulation of karmic points, which prevents one from attaining enlightenment (those are layman’s terms). This is based on an understanding that enlightenment is a dissolution of self into the All, and your passions, with their resulting actions, anchor one in the Wheel of Samsara, so one has to incarnate over and over until one achieves the proper level of detachment. It follows very handily upon the first “Noble Truth” that All Life is Suffering, from which one might understandably want to avoid.

I don’t buy it. I don’t believe all life is suffering (unless you use the archaic definition of “suffering” as “allowing,” in which case life would be allowing things to happen as they happen while maintaining some amount of detachment). I don’t believe passion and desire are bad things, and I think they have as much place in the human experience as any emotion. I think without passion there’s no motivation and no cause to challenge oppressive systems. I think without desire, there’s no impulse to change one’s self. That being said, I do understand how culture and society can instill one with desires that don’t benefit anyone but those in power, and it’s hard to separate those from the true desires of the heart.

11755516_491618064334370_5643494184422161174_nThe Tumblr screencap above popped up in my Facebook feed recently. It resonated not only because I’ve struggled with depression since I was seven or so, but also because I’ve fought just as long to be allowed to want what I want, to like what I like. The two are inextricably bound for me, because if you don’t know what you want, how can you know who you are? And the depression itself occludes all the sense of wanting things, and diminishes the ability to imagine joyful outcomes. Everything turns into a wasted landscape of pointless drudgery for little or no reward.

As I try to confront the lasting damage having an eating disorder has done to me, I’m recognizing more and more how few of my actions over the course of my life have sprung from a true desire to do them, and how many from a need to be “right” in other people’s eyes. Be thinner, be more conventionally attractive, be active, be involved. It all boils down to trying to gain approval by being something I’m not instead of learning to be okay with the person I am. Even when I went back to college to finish my BA, my choice of major was less about me than about appearances. Yes, I loved dancing when I studied it. And I thought at the time earning my degree would improve my life–though now I wonder how much of that was due to societal expectation and the idea that a person of my class background and intelligence should have a college degree. But I also thought, “Given the state of professional dance, I am not the ‘right’ type to be just a dancer, and going into Dance Therapy will keep me active (because we’re all supposed to be active, and especially large people are supposed to be active).” I wasn’t happy in California, but I did have a pretty good life with a decent job. I wonder sometimes if maybe I should have just stayed and taken dance classes at the community college and worked in the shoe store. Maybe that would have been more honest.

When I started writing this post, I felt genuinely bad about the fact that I don’t like exercise. I don’t like moving much, not anymore. Over the past few weeks, I’ve gone through a significant depressive episode. It started with this guilt, but recently I’ve thought maybe the trigger was that I once again pushed myself to do something I did not want to do–in this case, going to the local gym. It sets me into a downward spiral, for I genuinely would like the body of someone who goes to the gym, but engaging in movement is too loaded and upsets me. And that causes me to beat myself up for a lot of different reasons.

I still have layers upon layers of shit to deal with. I hope, at the bottom, I’ll find the passions I’ve lost. I’m afraid there’s nothing but emptiness.

Part One Here

 

 

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Ode to my Therapist

After almost forty years of mental health treatment, I’ve finally found a therapist who “gets” me.

You’d think it wouldn’t have taken so long, or been so hard. It shouldn’t take so long or be so hard. The fact that it is, is, in my opinion, criminal. I’ve touched on this in previous blogs. The last thing a suffering person needs is to have to ascertain whether or not their care provider knows what they’re talking about, or whether they’ll be treated as a human being with an individual identity. This is especially important for people with mental illness, who often aren’t in any position to challenge providers or stand up for themselves.

To be fair, my last therapist wasn’t bad, and I stayed with her a long time. She did a lot for me, including actively involving herself in my disability case and taking me as a pro bono client when I didn’t have the means to pay her. Several of my therapists haven’t been bad, precisely. But they’ve been limited in their ability to understand me, because of the nature of their training, because of misapprehensions about mental illness that some theories of mental health actively encourage, because psychology and psychiatry are, in fact, fairly new disciplines and deal with matters that are hard to pin down. All the definitions change as knowledge increases. So, for about forty years, I’ve been in and out, grasping the rope when I needed it most and swimming on my own when the rope couldn’t help anymore.

The thing is, psychologists and psychiatrists tend to cling to whatever was the current model when they were in school. They were given a hammer, so everything looks like a nail. And a lot of them seem both incapable of recognizing evidence showing that some things are not nails, and reluctant to put down the hammer in favor of an impact driver or framing saw when necessary.

Aside: Some years ago, I considered going into Clinical Psychology. The program I was considering required GRE scores, so I registered for the test and picked up a GRE example test book in Psychology. Literally 75% of the questions were Psych 101 stuff–like, “Who is considered the founder of child behavioral psychology?”–and statistics. And I thought, “There is nothing here about helping people. It’s all about fitting people into boxes.” So I didn’t take the GRE, even though I’d already paid for it, and I never got an MA in Clinical Psych.

What makes my therapist so unusual? She listens, and she believes me. You might think that’s only to be expected from someone you hire to do those very things. I certainly did, forty years ago. I learned pretty quick it’s not at all the case. A lot of therapists don’t listen well. They’re too busy trying to remember how to show they’re listening–“It sounds like you’re saying you’re angry. Is that right?”–to actually do it. And even the ones who listen pretty well are not very good at believing what they hear unless it fits into their preconceived notions about you. If and when the two contradict each other, they decide you must be wrong about your experience and try to convince you they know better. They are so afraid of believing a lie or confabulation–things which happen seldom–that they’re prone to cast shade on the truth. If you come in with a diagnosis, anorexia nervosa, for example, they check what you say against the current theory about the diagnosis and disregard what doesn’t fit. People with anorexia are obsessed with control, they don’t want to mature, they’re afraid of female bodies, they lie and manipulate. Check. Don’t try to tell them otherwise. They know.

Sometimes, too, therapists are so uncomfortable with what you’re saying, or so unable to relate, that instead of focusing on your needs as a client they try to steer the conversation to a place where they feel more secure. This is why I stopped seeing my last therapist. In one of my last sessions with her, I said I was trying to come to terms with the fact that I’d probably never have children of my own. She asked me why I thought that was true. I said I was forty-six and not getting any younger, my menstrual cycle had simply stopped and no one would look into it despite my strong feelings that it wasn’t normal, that I was depressed and poor and my sex life was practically nonexistent. She said, “Well, those are all valid reasons. So, how are you doing on the financial front?” It felt like a slap in the face. And I knew without a doubt that she, a super fertile mother of four kids, had no idea what I was going through and could no more relate than walk on the moon. I’d been dissatisfied with our meetings for a while. That was the last straw.

I’ve been seeing my current therapist for almost a year, and she’s been there all the way. In setting up my treatment plan (which, by the way, is something I never had before, or at least something no practitioner ever shared with me), I mentioned my trouble with childlessness. She said, “Sounds like you have grief over that.” Nailed it in one go. One of our first sessions, I was trying to describe my eating disorder being about a need for something I had a hard time articulating. She suggested, “Control?” I said, “No, not that,” and she said okay, and that was the end of it. She waited for me to find it instead of putting words into my mouth or slapping on a convenient label. She lets me lead, and lends a shoulder when I need one. She believes I’m intelligent and articulate. She doesn’t talk down to me, or tell me my experience is impossible. When she suggests something I know doesn’t work and I tell her so, she doesn’t say I haven’t done it right or need to do it more. She respects my right to say, “Not now,” or flat out “No.” She’s been there all the way, and I feel safer with her than I’ve ever felt with a mental health practitioner. I can be real. I don’t have to evaluate every topic to determine whether that’s somewhere she can go. I can do my own work, because I’m not additionally saddled with doing hers.

Some of this may be possible because of my own personal growth. Last year, in this post, I said,

In over thirty years of trying to get support and help for my condition, I have been smarter and more knowledgeable about my experience than 100% of the mental health professionals to whom I’ve turned.

Once I owned that as fact, I vowed I would be up front about it if I ever went back into treatment, and when I did my intake at Mental Health this time around, I looked the social worker straight and the eye and said, “I am smarter than you. It’s likely I’m smarter than everyone in this building.” This is not something I would have been able to do before a few years ago.

That social worker said, “Okay. I believe you.” And now she’s my therapist.

When I went back to Mental Health, I didn’t intend to do therapy at all. I just wanted my medication managed. I’m glad, that one time, she talked me into changing my mind.