But Why-y-y-y??

I’m writing this post in mid-October. It’s more suited to late January or early February, for reasons that will become plain. I may hold off and publish it then. More likely, I’ll write it and publish it immediately. That’s my usual MO: I get an idea, spit it out, and release it into the world. Actually, I’m not so sure any of us will be here come February, and I want to go on record with this moment of clarity over a question I’ve wrestled with a long time.

When my husband was still teaching (a career he yet hopes to return to some day), he would sometimes tell his teenage male students, “There are three dates you have to remember when you’re in a relationship: Your girlfriend’s birthday, your anniversary, and Valentine’s Day.” I’m going to leave aside, for the moment, the way this humorously-intentioned advice reinforces the stereotype of men as lovable bumblers incapable of remembering significant details and focus on the teenage males’ inevitable response:

“But why-y-y-y-y?? What makes Valentine’s day so important? It’s just a day!! Why do I have to do special things that day? I mean, she knows I care about her. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be with her!”

My husband has also asked me this question over the years. With us, it’s delved into the social and political implications of a manufactured holiday: Why do women expect men to make such a big deal out of it, even men they’ve been with for years? Don’t we know it’s a marketing ploy? If you want those things, aren’t you falling into the trap of perpetuating patriarchal gender norms? How can you be a feminist and want a romantic Valentine’s Day? And for years, I have been at a loss to answer. I’ve struggled with my wish to be acknowledged in what I believe to be a way that reinforces a lot of societal ills and stereotypes about gender. I’ve been deathly afraid that my desire to be shown special attention, my desire for a celebration of love, has marked me as a Bad Feminist.

Right now, though, all those questions boil down to the same adolescent protest: “But why-y-y-y-y?” And I have an answer:

Because you don’t get to think that the mere fact of your bodily presence is enough because you’re a man. Because women of all ages consistently and constantly go out of their way to make things nice for their partners, whether this looks like listening to them talk about subjects in which they have little interest, or debating about what dress they’re going to wear on a special occasion, or doing more than their share of the work of keeping the environment livable. Because women are required to do more than just show up, and suffer when they stop putting in the extra mile.

Lately–and I mean in the last year or so–I’ve seen more and more women talk about how they do nice things for themselves, not to benefit the male gaze. Usually this comes in conversations about catcalling and other unwanted male attention: Some dude bro says, “If you didn’t want to be noticed, you shouldn’t have worn that pretty dress,” and a woman responds with “I dress for myself, not for you.” My gods, you’d think the men had been robbed. They cannot stand it when women talk about doing things for themselves rather than the men in the world. It’s even worse if you reject cultural beauty standards altogether. How dare you make yourself unattractive? You simply can’t win.

But men still think all they have to do is show up. “She knows I love her. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be here.”

News flash, guys: You are not that special.

I get that the rituals of a different time are confusing and maybe seem irrelevant in a changing world. In my parents’ time, in my in-laws’ time, relationships between middle class cis het couples followed a (relatively) clear course: Courtship, which was mainly led by the man, I believe; proposal, marriage, a couple kids. The man as the breadwinner, the woman as the caregiver. Probably then the ritual of giving your wife a box of chocolates and a dozen roses on Valentine’s Day–or going out to dinner as a couple, or whatever–served as a mark of appreciation and a reaffirmation of the connubial bond. But the late 60s began the process of throwing off the chains of the 50s. My gods, women have careers now. They can ask men out! They have sex without being married and still demand respect as human beings! Geez, isn’t that enough? WHY DO YOU STILL WANT THAT OUTDATED BOX OF CHOCOLATES?

Despite the loud and persistent denial of certain male-identifying people, the women’s movement has never been about just women. Challenging patriarchal norms has benefited men, too. You don’t have to wear the stiff suits and ties all the time, just as we don’t have to wear skirts and heels. (Unfortunately gender-based dress codes have not yet accepted men in skirts.) You can grow long hair, get your ears pierced. You don’t have to be the sole support of a family. You can be a stay-at-home dad if that suits you and your partner. You don’t have to repress your emotions. You can not want to have sex all the time. You do not have to subscribe to the toxic models of masculinity that have made men’s lives so hard.

But, and there’s always a but, you do have to stop being so full of yourselves. You have to show up. You have to participate. You do not get to park your ass in the easy chair and say that’s enough. “Of course I love you, honey! I married you didn’t I?” doesn’t cut it. Don’t pass it off on being unable to articulate your feelings. Exhibit some learning behavior.

Women are fucking tired. And part of the reason we’re tired is that so many men have taken women’s progress and the changes we’ve initiated in society to mean they can be lazy. Yes, you can do something other than go “into business” and still be considered a contributing member of society rather than a deviant (provided you have enough of certain types of privilege, which I’m not even going into here). You do not have to strive toward the house in the suburbs and the 2.5 beautiful children. But there are consequences to whatever you choose, and one of the consequences of wanting to be in a relationship is doing the work. Part of the work is active participation in whatever rituals you and your partner find important. If a romantic Valentine’s day isn’t important to either of you, fine; rituals change. You need at least to discuss it, and it wouldn’t hurt if you were the one to broach the subject. Far too often, women are left with the responsibility of bringing up topics that men would rather ignore.

And please, don’t with the manly-man “emotions are beyond me” shit. I already told you, we’ve worked hard to begin to build a world where men don’t have to suffer such constraints, and we’re sick to death of the “Women Are from Venus/Men Are from Mars” crap. For too long women, and LGBTQ+ people, and People of Color, have borne the burden of speaking the language of (mostly) white, cis, het men and moving through a world geared towards white, cis, het men’s wishes. It’s about damn time white, cis, het men got in the game.

This post is probably making a few people reading it extremely uncomfortable. Good.

In the end, the answer to the question “But why-y-y-y?” is very simple: Because your partner wants it from you. That should be more than enough. We are not things for your amusement, like your X-Box or your flat screen TV. We are humans, and it is perfectly fine and normal for us to ask for what we want. And if you have a problem with that, it’s on you, not on us.

Advertisements

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.

 

Acting My Age

I had a birthday the other day. I turned fifty-three.

I don’t go about announcing my age these days. It’s difficult for me. In fact, for the last several years, I’ve gone out of my way to conceal it, removing my birth year from social media sites or limiting who’s able to view it. On occasion, I’ve even lied on surveys.

I never thought I would do this. For most of my life, I haven’t cared about age. I was who I was and I liked what I liked and the number didn’t matter. It was an arbitrary measurement, an abstraction.  Now, however, as I begin the climb through my sixth decade, the ageism I have internalized along the way is surfacing in a serious way. I tell myself I’m in good physical health for my age. I look pretty good for my age. I worry about acting and dressing too young, as if there’s some real delineation between what’s appropriate for person (a woman) of twenty-five and one of fifty-three. I agonize over doing things I’d like to do, like coloring my hair purple, because I’m not sure it’s suitable. I agonize over continuing to cover the grey at all. I’m getting on for being an official senior citizen now. Maybe I should accept the outward signs with some form of gravitas.

A lot of women I know experience increasing freedom with advancing age. They’re better able to ignore societal constructs and expectations of what the performance of “womanhood” looks like. They’ve done their bit for King and Country: Followed the diets, had the kids, worn the clothes. They embrace the bodily changes and settle into new roles as grandmothers, advisors. Age gives them relief; they can finally attend to themselves.

With a few brief exceptions, I stopped the diets years and years ago. I always despised the clothes. I never had the kids. Age gives me no relief and no guidance. Sometimes, most of the time, I feel stuck in some eternal thirty-five, as if the last years since the turn of the millennium have passed over me without leaving a mark. Besides being on a medication that alleviates my depressive episodes, my mind and internal reality aren’t any different. Besides having put on weight in places I never carried weight before, my body isn’t much different, either. I have no clue whether menopause is in my reality. My periods stopped all of a sudden nearly ten years ago, probably due to medication. I did try to address this with various doctors, but no one listened and I didn’t have the ability, then to force the issue. I was fighting to stay alive; anything besides that was beyond the scope of thought, much less action. But other than the lack of blood, I haven’t ever experienced the symptoms women talk about. Here, too, my experience falls outside the norm.

I have no model of how to be an older me. In movies, when older women appear–if they appear–they’re either grandmothers or spitfires, like Maude and Auntie Mame. Sometimes they’re a combination. On rare occasions, you can spot an older professional woman, like Judy Dench’s M in the recent Bond films.

When I was a kid, people over fifty were OLD. This isn’t just a matter of perspective. Michael and I talk about it often, how his grandparents, how my parents, had a particular attitude about life that set them apart. How the uniform of age has changed. “Mom jeans” didn’t exist back then, because moms didn’t wear jeans. Pantyhose barely existed. My mom sometimes wore them on her days off, under polyester slacks, but on working days she crammed herself into a girdle and garters and wore nylons. I remember her being scandalized at a pattern for a pair of “ladies” slacks with a front fly. When I was cast in character roles of older women in the school plays (as I invariably was), my costumes came from my mother’s closet. Tweed skirt suits, plain blouses, sensible shoes.

In college in my twenties, I hung out with the Punk and incipient Goth scenes. One of the women in our circle was a petite blonde of thirty-five. Thirty-five, with teased hair, white powder, heavy black eye makeup, tall boots, leather corsets. We talked about her behind her back: “What’s she doing hanging out with us at her age?” Later, at a different college, several of the women in my dance program were in their late thirties. I already felt ancient at twenty-six, too old to be working still on my BA, certainly too old to be a dancer. What were they about? They’d left families, left careers. I didn’t understand, and part of me still doesn’t.

I know at least part of my internalized ageism comes from trauma, lessons that were forced down my throat under threat of ostracism and other punishments. Even when I was a child of five, when my mom was displeased with me, she demanded that I “grow up.” “Oh, Kele, grow up!” she’d exclaim with a sigh. Act your age. Be a little adult. Put aside childish things that are inconvenient for me. During my hospitalizations as a teenager, one of my psychiatrists decried my love of collecting stuffed animals. He wrote in my chart that I evinced inappropriate object attachment for my age, that I refused to grow up. He told me that having stuffed animals was indicative of mental disturbance, not to mention non-compliance with the program, and if I didn’t get rid of them he’d be forced to put me on suicide watch. I got rid of them because suicide watch sucks, but I never understood what separated my collection of stuffed animals from his collection of tie pins.

These are the voices I hear when I browse Hot Topic, when I pin cool hair colors, when I read comic books and watch superhero television and buy sweatshirts with pop culture references on the front. When I think about going to conventions and doing cosplay. “Grow up! Act your age!” I’m pretty sure there are other like me, people who are no longer “young,” who enjoy the same things I do. I tell myself this on a daily basis. And yet, when the sweatshirt arrives in the mail, when I put on a cool outfit, I feel uncomfortable. All too often, I pass up buying clothes I like because deep inside I feel they’re inappropriate. Or if I do buy them, I wear them once or twice and then they end up hanging in the back of the closet. I go back to my T-shirts and sweatpants, unable to bring that side of my inner self into the light for long. Unable to bear the scrutiny.

I wonder sometimes if this is a reason I have experienced so much poverty in my life. If I don’t have the money for things I like, if I don’t have any option but the rack at Walmart, I don’t have to face this challenge. I don’t have to figure out how to be myself. I’m sure it’s more complicated than that; after all, I doubt suddenly being okay with myself after all these years is unlikely to result in immediate riches for several reasons. But it is something I wonder.

I had a birthday the other day. I turned fifty-three.

I ask myself who I am and how to cope with this number. I don’t have any answer.

We Need to Talk about Thin Privilege

The other day, I stumbled into a volatile conversation on Twitter. I know: BIG SHOCK, right? I should have seen it coming. Well, maybe. But I didn’t. What happened was this: A friend of mine questioned whether thin privilege exists. Without knowing the context or the incident that had provoked the question (my bad, I own this), I assured her it did. Then someone I don’t know–I presume my friend does–came into the conversation to tell me my examples were bullshit. It got a bit harsh. I got upset at having my experience disregarded and disengaged.

Later, I had a private conversation with my friend in which she told me what bothers her about the concept. She had some good and valid points. I understand where she’s coming from, as much as I can. But I can’t agree with her that thin privilege doesn’t exist, or that it’s inordinately divisive to talk about it when women should be supporting each other. Unfortunately, those are things people with privilege always tend to say to avoid confronting their privilege.

For those new to the concept, “privilege” in feminist and social justice circles is the accumulated unearned advantages that a person might enjoy due to race, class, caste, or membership in any other arbitrarily elevated social group, e.g. particular body size or education level.  It’s not a new concept, but it came more into the public consciousness with Peggy McIntosh’s 1990 essay, “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Privilege might be as simple and seemingly inane a thing as a white person being able to buy “flesh” colored Band-Aids that match their skin tone, or it might be as significant and difficult to address as the lack of woman and PoC leads in Hollywood movies. It’s insidious and hard to confront, because rather than obviously elevating a class or population ABOVE another, it adjusts the default value to match that of the privileged. To those in a privileged class, the arbitrary elevation becomes normal, so there’s no need to question it. However, it sends a message to those outside the privileged class that they are NOT normal, and therefore have less worth.

Of course, as with any concept or theory, there are instances which contradict it. My husband and I, both white, have both been randomly stopped by police and required to show ID when walking in suburbs where we didn’t live–a thing that doesn’t commonly happen to white people. There are wealthy, educated People of Color, and poor, uneducated white folks. Some people try to use these instances to prove that privilege doesn’t exist. Really, they happen because of another thing called “Intersectionality.” Privilege runs along a huge number–maybe an infinite number–of different axes, and a person may have privilege on one or more while not having privilege on various others. For example, a person may be white, male, and Christian (privilege) and also gay, poor, and disabled (not privilege). Discussions of privilege need to take into account the intersections and their ramifications if they’re to do any good.

In working towards equality, the main idea is to include marginalized populations in the default, i.e., to redefine “normal.” This requires a certain amount of tearing down social structures which support unearned privilege, mainly through education and activism. People in privileged populations can find this difficult for a number of reasons. Confronting privilege can have the effect of taking you out of the center of your own world, which is something most people are reluctant to do. It’s difficult to swallow the truth that a reality you have always taken for granted actively hurts others. We all want to be good people, and confronting privilege makes you question that. It’s tiring and frustrating always to question yourself when you just want to wear a certain hairstyle because you like it, without thinking about cultural appropriation. As well, there is often backlash against the privileged class. For example, one popular meme, “Real women have curves,” came out of frustration at a particular body type being presented as valuable while others were devalued. But it elevates women with curves at the expense of those without. Any of these things can contribute to a person denying the existence of privilege. When various axes intersect, which is almost always, denial can easily become entrenched. An annoying thing about privilege is that the lack of it is generally more keenly felt than its presence.

Thin privilege addresses the tendency of (especially Western) society to set the default value for a “normal” body rather smaller than that a significant segment of the population inhabits. You can find some examples of how this plays out here. For examples of backlash against the concept (content warning: Fat Shaming) look here.

Since my body has been on the large side of average most of my life, the existence of thin privilege seems like a no-brainer to me. Some of my earliest memories are of being bullied for being fat. In the last few years, a medication-related weight gain has made me bigger than ever before, and it’s rubbed my face in the small definition of “normal” more than ever before. When I was of smaller proportions than I am now, I fit in our lawn chairs. Now the arms of those same chairs press against my butt. I used to climb our household ladder to get to things higher than I can reach. But that ladder is rated at 200 lbs, and now I’m not sure it’s safe. I used to enjoy taking a bath from time to time. Now I’m almost as wide as the tub.

The tub came with our house, but we bought those other things. It never occurred to me to sit in the chairs or question the ladder’s safety rating before buying them, because why would I? Even as a large woman, I fit the “normal” parameters. I never anticipated a 60-lb weight gain, never thought something beyond my control would thrust me outside those parameters. But it did. I’ve a hard time because of my weight all my life. How much harder is it, every day, for people whose bodies never fit into the “normal” range at all? Fat people hear all the time that we have no right to complain, because we “just” have to control ourselves to conform. Leaving aside the whole question of why the hell should we be required to conform in the first place, the truth is, it’s not so simple. Any number of factors can contribute to being fat, and losing weight is not, as many would have it, merely a matter of “stepping away from the cupcakes for a change.”

You know what? I don’t want to reinvent the wheel. If you want to learn more about Size Acceptance as a civil rights issue and the reality of body size and health, please go read some articles here. I’ll wait for you.

Right. Back at it.

It’s an unfortunate truth that some thin people have similar experiences to fat people in several arenas. I know thin people whose doctors focus on their body size to the exclusion of every other issue, and thin people who have been bullied and called names, and thin people whose food choices are constantly remarked upon, and thin people who can’t walk into a department store and find clothes on the rack to fit them. I know thin people who have suffered all these things and more. I’ve been guilty of perpetuating some nastiness toward thin people, myself; mea culpa. The first time I heard my dance teacher say, “Nobody wants a bone but a dog, and he buries it,” I was delighted. I found it empowering. It wasn’t until much later that I realised that attitude is just as hurtful toward thin people as “Nobody will ever love a fat cow like you” is to people like me.

All those things are real things that cause pain. It’s never okay to shame someone about their body, no matter what it looks like. But the fact that it happens doesn’t negate the existence of thin privilege. Nor does a statistic that I see bandied about, “69% of the population is obese or overweight.” I’m sorry to break it to you, but a majority population can still be marginalized. Roughly 52% of the population is female, and male privilege still exists, too.

I think a lot of the situations in which fat and thin experience is similar, especially for women, can be attributed to the intersection of body size and sexism. Women are taught from an early age that our value lies in our sexual attraction, and being sexually attractive means fitting into an extremely narrow range or body types: not too fat, not too thin, neither too brawny nor too much lacking in muscle tone. To make matters worse, standards of attractiveness for women are changing all the time. In the 50s, we had Marilyn Monroe. In the 90s, we had Kate Moss, and now we have Kim Kardashian. The impossibility of perfection is enough to give any woman body issues, and it does. Women who are naturally very thin fall outside the narrow range of acceptable body size the same way women who are fat do. But I don’t notice anyone talking about the “Slenderness Epidemic.”

Another thing people use to dismiss thin privilege as a reality is the existence of eating disorders, especially anorexia nervosa.  According to this school of thought, since people with eating disorders have troubled relationships with their bodies and endure similar meal- and body-policing to fat people, thin privilege doesn’t exist and saying that it does is “disgusting.”

This is the hill upon which my conversation the other day died, by the way. I tried to explain my point of view about this, having had an eating disorder which kept me mostly hospitalized for three years and affects my life to this day. I got called a hypocrite. That’s when I made my exit, muted the stranger who had inserted herself into my mentions, and had a good cry.

I haven’t written a lot on this blog about my struggles with anorexia, just a word here and there. I don’t really want to relive that time now. But I think in this instance I need to prove my street cred. In one form or another, it dominated my life for ten years, from the time I was fourteen until the time I was twenty-four. It’s a terrible thing to go through. Maybe it starts as a way of controlling certain aspects of life, but in the end, it controls you. I’ve read that anorexia and bulimia have some things in common with obsessive-compulsive disorder, or maybe come from the same place. I think that’s true. It became much less about weight loss and body image for me than it was about the ritualistic behaviors necessary to preserving my feeling of control. Many of those behaviors started as weight loss facilitators–excessive exercise, restricted diet, rules about how and when and what I was allowed to eat. I had a page-long list of things I had to do every day, without fail. If I didn’t do them all, I was garbage. Later, when I became bulimic rather than anorexic, I had fewer rituals to fulfill, but bingeing and purging were both compulsive. Eating a single cookie rather than an entire package at a sitting was literally impossible; trying to do so filled me with indescribable fear and horror. I had to follow the whole process to the bitter end in order to get any relief.

I saw absolute control of my eating as a way to be successful when success in other areas seemed beyond me. This thought actually crossed my mind when a school mate came back to class after a hospitalization: “I bet I could do anorexia even better than her.” In a real way, I decided to be anorexic. I don’t know if others experience this or not; in the late 70s and early 80s, when my eating disorder was at its peak, they had just come into the public consciousness and weren’t at all common. I was the only person on my psych ward being treated for an eating disorder. I’m not sure special hospitals for eating disorders even existed.

And no, having an eating disorder is not a privileged existence. I experienced some thin privilege in the early stages. I could buy fashionable clothes, for example. I got a pair of riding boots I loved. I’d never been able to wear tall boots before, because the maximum standard calf circumference for women’s boots is fifteen to sixteen inches, and my calves were too big, even when I was at a “normal” weight for my height. People stopped making barfing noises when I passed them in the halls (later, they whispered, but that’s something else). Someone considered me beautiful for the first time. I had a boyfriend. For a while.

Once, when I was in college, a high school friend and I were at the dorm store. I was in my bulimic period then, and weighed around 145 lbs. My friend had one of my senior yearbook pictures in her wallet, taken when I was under 100 lbs. The clerk at the store saw it and said, “She’s gorgeous! Who is she?” While I was standing right there.

Anyway. Having an eating disorder is not a privileged existence. You lose all right to privacy. Everything you do around food is examined and questioned. Your freedom of movement is restricted. Your integrity is called into daily question. Doctors looked at nothing about me except my eating patterns. They told me constantly that my lived experience was meaningless. They threatened me with tube feeding when I didn’t meet their expectations. When I didn’t gain weight according to schedule, they accused me of purging in secret, long before I had any notion of doing so. When I denied that I did so, they accused me of lying. They did not see me as a person, but as a collection of symptoms, and when my symptoms didn’t fit the model they assumed I was untruthful, not that the symptoms didn’t apply.

I was excessively thin, and I was not privileged. And yet, I still believe in thin privilege. The perspective of years not only makes this possible, it insists that I do.

There are a couple reasons for this. The first goes back to intersectionality. The thinness of eating disorders is the bodily manifestation of a mental illness. Having a mental illness diminishes privilege, and having a severe, life-threatening mental illness diminishes it exponentially. The lack of privilege that comes with an eating disorder doesn’t fall along the body size axis; it falls along the ability/disability axis. When I was excessively thin, strangers unaware of my illness still admired me, my “willpower,” my visible collarbones, my adherence to an exercise regimen. I fit in the bathtub and in chairs with arms. I could have climbed that ladder rated at 200 lbs, had I been strong enough to climb. No, I couldn’t buy clothes that fit, not until I gained weight. But that was because I was sick.

The other major reason I believe in thin privilege despite having had an eating disorder is this: Eating disorders are the result of thin privilege in the much same way that violence toward women is the result of male privilege. Much of men’s socialization revolves around gaining and maintaining their privilege. Some men believe they have every right to subject women who threaten that privilege to harassment, beatings, rape, and even death. You can see the evidence of this on any men’s rights forum, if you can stomach it. In the same way, much of women’s socialization centers on attaining and maintaining an idealized form. Models of a specific size–thin, and these days with a fair amount of muscle tone–are on the cover of almost every magazine and feature in almost every television advertisement. Women’s magazines are full of diet plans and ways to “get your body back” after having children. Ignoring the message that thin is the appropriate way to present is all but impossible. So it’s little wonder that an increasing number of women take the pursuit of thinness to the extreme. Of course, there’s a great deal more to most eating disorders than trying to achieve thinness, and most people don’t develop them any more than most men, in these times, are violent toward women. But obsession with body size is generally how they start, and preoccupation with being thin is the most notorious symptom.

Thin privilege is real. It hurts everyone, and, like many forms of privilege taken to extreme, it can kill. That’s vastly more important to me than the idea that focusing on it is divisive. No one likes to confront privilege, but until people stop ignoring and dismissing it, nothing will change. Personally, I’d rather confront my own privilege than practice endless damage control.

 

 

 

Writing About Witches: Ten Tired Tropes

I get sad sometimes when I follow the #WeNeedDiverseBooks tag or see a discussion on the Internet about the need for diversity in fiction. Please don’t get me wrong: I altogether agree with the sentiment. The voices of People of Color, people with disabilities, Indigenous Peoples, minority religions, and LGBTQ+ people, among others, are underrepresented in fiction. WOMEN are still underrepresented in the book world. No question about it, the movement towards more diversity is necessary.

So why are people still writing the same old stories and using the same tired tropes about Witches and Magic?

Pagan religions are a minority, with about a million practitioners in the United States and about 3 million worldwide, although numbers are hard to determine; many Pagans remain closeted due to misconceptions perpetuated in the media and ongoing discrimination. As well, even among ourselves Pagans disagree about terminology. Some include Indigenous religions and their offshoots, and some don’t. Some claim the term “Pagan” but not the term “Witch,” and vice versa. For an outsider interested in writing an engaging story, wading through all the differences may seem like more trouble than it’s worth. But the fact remains that we are a real minority religion, and very few authors who are not some manner of Pagan themselves give attention to that, or do in depth research into Pagan practices that they would for any other minority religion. When Witches and Magic appear in fiction, they almost always succumb to clichés . And this perpetuates harmful stereotypes, the same way it does when you resort to stock depictions of other marginalized groups.

I think a lot of this is due to the fact that the Pagan world view is so different from that of other dominant religions at this point in history. Even if you don’t subscribe to one of the dominant religions, their ethos, myth, and outlook have shaped the world, particularly Western culture, for the last two thousand years. They influence the way people think and the stories we tell, and those thoughts and stories show up in the art we produce unless we challenge them. The problem is, most people coming from a majority viewpoint don’t even understand that their views don’t apply to everyone. It’s “just the way the world works.” When you operate under that assumption, you have no reason to ask the questions that will lead you deeper. Anybody can do an Internet search and learn enough in an hour to give a fictional Witch a veneer of reality. You can find out the basic belief structure and the basic shape of ritual. But this isn’t enough to instill a real understanding of what it means to be a Pagan: how we look at the world, how we interact with the forces we know as divine, and how we relate to those around us.

Can you write a witchy character without bringing religion into it? I want to tell you, “Sure, go ahead!” Witches are powerful archetypes and they’re prominent in fairy tales and folklore for a reason! Unfortunately, a lot of the reasons the witch archetype is powerful are innately linked to systems of oppression society has deployed against non-conforming individuals for hundreds of years. This includes the rationalist belief that witches and magic aren’t real. I can’t see a much better way to erase a minority than to claim they don’t exist. You can see a similar thing in the way some still claim that sexual orientation and non-conforming gender identity are “disorders” that need to be fixed. There are no doubt people who identify as witches without claiming any religion, just as there are cultures (usually Indigenous ones) where the word that translates most closely to “witch” refers to a person who is categorically harmful and evil. In my opinion, however, we have enough stories where this is the case and religious witches deserve to see ourselves accurately represented as much as anyone else. To that end, I’m compiling this list of ten tropes I’m tired of seeing in the hopes that someone might find it educational and useful.

#10: You Can Tell A Witch By Looking

laurie cabot quote

The irony of the Laurie Cabot quote aside, Witches DO look like everyone else. You can no more tell a Witch by looking than you can a Catholic, or a Presbyterian, or a Jew. Still, most of the time when Witches appear in books, they look strange. Whether as Goths or Hippies, we’re presented as outsiders in dress as well as belief. And often our tastes are outré even for the subculture. Sure, there are Goth Witches and Hippie Witches. There are also Preppy Witches and Witches in the Military and Witches like me, who mainly wear T-shirts and sweat pants (or jeans for special occasions). The reasons most Witches look “normal” are 1. we’re human beings and 2. in a lot of places in the USA (I don’t really know about other countries) you get shit for looking different. You especially get shit for having an appearance people might associate with stereotypes of scary black magic. And by “getting shit,” I mean anything from catcalls and literal mudslinging to being murdered in the name of Jesus. So it’s no wonder many actual Witches and Pagans would want to dress as unobtrusively as possible. The pictures you see of people like Laurie Cabot and Druids in robes at the local park are most often people who have made a special dedication to the religious life and/or in a position of enough social and financial privilege that they are safe being obvious.

#9: Witches Are Hyper Sexual
How 'bout that cauldron of red-hot love?
How ’bout that cauldron of red-hot love?

How many times have we seen the plain girl discover her occult power and turn into a glamorous bombshell? Way too many. This trope comes from common understanding of many types of Paganism as fertility religions and quotes like “All acts of love and pleasure are my rituals” (From “The Charge of the Goddess,” written by Gerald Gardner and stolen from Aleister Crowley), as well as a prurient focus on “The Great Rite” as popularized by Raymond Buckland, among others. Please note that all of these were white men of privilege who had certain views about the roles of women, even if they tried to oversome them. It leads to random guys showing up at rituals expecting to get laid because “Witches are easy” and lobbing shit around like, “If you’re serious about honoring the Goddess, you need to sleep with me.”

Most Witches and Pagans believe that things of the earth and the body, including sex, are just as sacred (if not more so) as things of the spirit. This is true. It’s also true that most of us see it as important to all, and women especially, to reclaim sex and beauty as the powerful expressions of self that they are for many and dispense with messages we may have absorbed that sex is wrong, dirty, or otherwise a bad thing. In this way, a character’s transformation from mousy to mouthwatering can be an appropriate metaphor. Unfortunately, most places where it appears fail to put the change into any kind of context.  If I see another drawing of a teen witch in a mini skirt flipped up to reveal her panties, my head is going to explode. Our religious beliefs don’t exist to titillate you. Please stop.

#8: All Witches Are Women

No explanation necessary. It’s not true. Yes, in most Pagan sects women hold equal power to men and in many women hold greater power. There are quiet a few sects that are woman only. That doesn’t diminish the fact that men can also be Witches. Please show some. And by the way, male Witches are Witches, not Warlocks.

#7: The Mysterious Spellbook

book of shadows

The character inherits it, or finds it in an attic or used book store. Maybe they read it out loud on a lark or to make fun of it, or maybe they want it to work because their life sucks. And WHAMMO! It does work! Shit, what now?

There are so many problems with this that I actually have to unpack them in separate tropes. In the main, despite the fact that words are magical, reading a spell–even out loud–does not guarantee the spell works. Also, Witches often keep Books of Shadows (I’m sure you’ve heard of the practice). They are a sacred object, and it’s demeaning to see them treated as a joke or a plot device in this way. It’s analogous to having a character read The Bible aloud and cause Jesus to manifest. Don’t.

#6: The Magical Destiny

Often appears in company with the mysterious spellbook. The 90s TV show, Charmed, is a prime example. Character or characters inherit or find spellbook and discover they’re Witches. The next thing you know, they’re tossing fireballs around and fighting demons. As much as we might like it to, Magic doesn’t work like that. You might be born with an aptitude for it, but you’re about as likely to accomplish amazing feats on the first try as a person with a talent for playing the flute is to perform Bach’s First Flute Sonata they first time they pick up the instrument. They simply won’t have developed the necessary skills and coordination. Finding out you have a destiny doesn’t change that.

#5: Magic Is Inherently Dangerous/Inevitably Will Cause Harm/Go Wrong

I see this trope in a lot of Epic Fantasy as well as Supernatural and Paranormal fiction. In a way, it also is a standard of fairy tales featuring Witches. The Witch always loses in the end, whether she gets pushed into an oven or whether the hero steals the required magical objects, murders her family, and abandons her on a glacier. The message is the same: Look what happens to people who mess around with these things. This is a problem because cautionary tales of this nature are often used by people in positions of power to prevent others from gaining the ability to challenge them, or simply becoming empowered in their own right. (You can see this working in so-called “abstinence only sex education,” with its focus on all the terrible stuff that will happen to you if you have sex.) And it encompasses another idea I’ve run across more than once, that “An untrained magic user is a danger to themselves and everyone around them.” Usually this leads to the magic user in question being given the particular training sanctioned by the relevant government. Which I find interesting, to say the least. (Disclaimer: I have read a few books of this type where the magic user later falls in with “outsiders” and learns about the gaps in the government-sanctioned training.)

Magic as modern Witches and Pagans know it doesn’t work that way. As I said above, it’s HIGHLY unlikely that a person without training would be able to move enough energy to level a city or cause some other kind of disaster. People have defined magic in a lot of different ways: as the ability to effect change in accordance with the will (Crowley), as a talent for seeing things sideways and responding appropriately, as “the art of changing consciousness at will.” (Dion Fortune) I see it as a process of bringing the known self into line with the potential self and with the forces, both seen and unseen, that underlie events. It’s a discipline much like yoga or meditation, with the difference that it’s often geared towards material change rather than only a change in consciousness. In that respect, it makes about as much sense to assume an untrained magic user is a danger as it does to assume an untrained yoga practitioner is. A beginner who attempts something beyond their ability might pull a muscle, rarely more.

Magic requires focused intent to work. The ability to focus on a specific intent, without the intrusion of hopes, fears, unconscious desires, and the like, does not come easily. If intent falters, the energy dissipates. It doesn’t get out of control or go on to wreak havoc.

This trope encompasses those instances of the power-hungry coven leader being led astray by some supernatural entity (I’m looking at you, True Blood), becoming deluded, and otherwise succumbing to evil that the (morally pure) protagonist has to avert somehow. Notice how these coven leaders are almost always women? There’s a reason for that.

#4: Love Spells

love spell

I’m giving this one a section of its own because love spells have a nasty habit of working, often in ways the one casting it doesn’t foresee or like. I think this is because everyone on some level wants love, so you don’t have to reach too far for the intent. A love spell going wrong is a common trope all by itself.

In some traditions love spells are not seen as problematic. You can buy ready made ones from the Internet: Burn the candle at the appropriate phase of the moon, recite the charm, add these herbs to your bath, and Bob’s your uncle. Feminist Witches, however, tend to see them as unethical because you’re using your intent to affect another person WITHOUT THEIR CONSENT. It’s the magical equivalent of drugging someone’s drink, and as such should not be played for laughs. In fact, no magic that affects another person should be performed without their knowledge or consent, no matter WHAT your intent is. Even healing. Ask first. In writing, please refrain from having your character(s) do this unless they are the villain. It’s the spiritual and magical equivalent of rape.

#3: Summoning Demons/The Devil/Angels/Etcetera

This is one where the opposing world view problem really comes to the fore. You may have heard that Witches don’t believe in the Devil, and the orgiastic sabbat where we all lined up to kiss his infernal arse was an invention of the Inquisition. Yes and no. It may or may not be true about the sabbats; there are a variety of explanations, including mass hysteria, ergot poisoning, and Morris Dancing gone wrong. The question of “belief” is a little harder to answer, but the pertinent information is that “The Devil” as defined by the Christian Church is not part of our cosmology. Do I believe there IS such an entity? Actually, yeah, I do. People have fed way too much energy into that thought form for it not to exist. But it’s part of the Christian cosmology, not ours. Same with demons and angels. Sure, they exist. We don’t run in the same circles.

So when I read about some witches summoning any of these entities, my first question is always, “Why?” Because they’re ignorant and happened on a spell? I already explained why that’s unlikely to work. For kicks? Honey, if you’re stupid enough to place a prank call to Lucifer and you get through, you deserve what you get. It all boils down, once again, to intent. Now, it may be that a Witch would have a really good reason to contact an entity from this cosmology, and there are traditions that mix and match pantheons. There are indigenous traditions with their own demons and guardian spirits, as well. So this is my take. The main thing to remember is, you don’t do this on a lark. For gods’ sake, do your research.

While I’m on the subject of summoning, I ran across a “spell for summoning the ancestors” the other day. I had an issue with this. In traditions that practice ancestor worship, you might get in touch with them, honor them, or otherwise approach your ancestors, but you wouldn’t “summon” them. They’re already there. This is another world view conflict. The major religions, especially the Abrahamic ones, but also Buddhism, believe in a transcendent spirituality. That is, the gods, other supernatural entities, and heaven lie OUTSIDE the material and’/or outside mortal ken, and are most often seen as superior to it. There is a stated goal to escape the world and its suffering. Paganism and many Indigenous traditions are religions of immanence. That means everything is present right here, seen and unseen. We talk about the World-That-Is, and it encompasses gods, monsters, mortals, ghosts, rocks, animals, death, life, and the spaces between. It all IS. This is a difficult thing for many outsiders to grasp.

Another thing that often occurs with this trope is that the (female) Witches call up a (male) entity that takes over their lives and leads them to destruction or otherwise causes them to experience BAD THINGS. This is what incensed me about The Witches of Eastwick. In the first place, it perpetuates the stale notion that women doing magic < men doing magic; in fact, a whole group of women doing magic often doesn’t measure up to a single man doing magic. It taps into the idea that women are easily misled and manipulated. And it encompasses the trope I’ve mentioned above, about magic always being dangerous. So please don’t so this one, either.

#2: Tarot Cards

So many stories of a Supernatural or Paranormal bent that I’ve read feel obligated to insert the obligatory, gratuitous card-reading scene. When I was hanging out more on writing forums a few years ago, I saw a question about this every week. Most often they appeared in this form: “I want my protagonist to have a card reading done that predicts such-and-so. What cards mean that?”

Stop. Don’t do that. Don’t ever do that. I’ve read Tarot for forty years, professionally for thirty. Tarot doesn’t work that way. Divination doesn’t work that way. Don’t buy a deck and take your meanings from the included booklet. It looks ridiculous. Tarot and other divinatory tools help people gain insight into themselves and their circumstances. They don’t predict the future, and the meanings of a reading are seldom straightforward. There can be many interpretations. If you MUST, take a class from a reputable reader or read a decent book on the subject, buy a deck, and spend a couple months learning how it works. Really, I’d prefer it if you left out that card scene altogether.

#1: Blood Magic

Blood is old. Blood is powerful. Some traditions practice blood sacrifice. It is always performed by someone trained to do it, for specific reasons. In the Pagan community, it’s a divisive subject.

I gave this the number one spot on the list because blood sacrifice is the without a doubt the most sensational thing non-conforming religions do. Practitioners of Santeria and Vodoun have fought legal battles to be allowed to continue the custom. It strikes a dissonant chord with outsiders for all kinds of reasons: Because of the association with death, because you shouldn’t do that to the poor animals, because Jesus died to make blood sacrifice unnecessary, whatever. Books and movies and TV shows present it in the most sensational way possible. This actively harms practitioners of minority religions. Every time you show a character you call a witch draining the blood from a rat and using it to write a spell, you are reinforcing the dangerous stereotype that we commit gratuitous and unthinking acts of violence and that we have no respect for life. Stay away from it. I know it’s great shock value. That’s precisely why you should NOT indulge in it. Real people practice Pagan religions, and these real people will be the ones hurt if the neighbors take against them. In fact, history has shown that witchcraft hysteria sweeps up innocents who simply don’t look right or who act in ways that communities find threatening. This is not the past. It’s still going on. Don’t add fuel to the fire. Especially don’t add it because the ones who suffer most are People of Color, the mentally ill, and others who push the comfort level of privileged society. (I’ve heard anecdotes of Caucasian witches being harassed out of their homes, but I couldn’t find any documentation.)

This is my list of tropes I’d like to see vanish from fiction about witches. Paganism being what it is, others will no doubt have their own, and many will disagree with what I’ve said. That’s fine with me. I just want our voices to be heard and our lives to be represented, same as anyone.

 

The Problem with Critique of “Ableist” Language

Trigger Warning: Bound to make some people mad.

I follow a page on Facebook, Chronic Illness Cat. It’s essentially an on line support group for people with chronic illnesses, mainly physical ones like Fibromyalgia and other auto-immune disorders, but I find their content relevant to mental health issues as well. People can post questions about medications and talk about their struggles, and there’s always someone who can say, “You’re not alone.” In my opinion, this is one of the main reasons support groups exist: to validate people’s experience.

One of the most popular features of Chronic Illness Cat is member-created memes. These feature the eponymous Siamese cat along with pithy, usually humorous, comments about living with a chronic illness. The humor is generally the dark, frustrated variety you use when you’re reaching to find some light in a miserable situation. It pokes fun at the illness and illustrates the common experience of people who are doing their best on a daily basis to cope with the hand they’ve been dealt. Critique of well-meaning healthy people, the medical establishment, and the illnesses themselves bear witness to the lives of those with chronic illnesses and provide an avenue for bonding and commiseration. It’s the kind of thing you can look at while shaking your head and laughing quietly: “Oh, gods, I know that one. Me, too. Doesn’t life suck sometimes?”

suffering meme
an example

Last week, one of these memes caused an ugly incident on the page, which involved accusations of promoting “ableist” language, insensitivity, “throwing the neurodivergent under the bus,” and the like. In fact, the moderator of the page, who herself copes with chronic illness, received death threats and suggestions that she should kill herself. All because one of the memes she posted contained the word “stupid.”

Leaving aside, for the moment, the fact that SENDING DEATH THREATS TO A PERSON IS NEVER AN ACCEPTABLE RESPONSE TO SOMETHING THAT UPSETS YOU, the incident pretty much exemplifies the problems I have with critiques of “ableist” language, and language policing in general, not to mention a tendency I’ve seen all over the Internet to take offense at every little thing and smear trigger warnings on shit that is pretty much part of life, and can you just please get a grip?

the meme in question
the meme in question

Look, I’m a writer. I understand the power of words and terminology. I understand that changing the way we use language is an integral part of changing the way we think. I understand that learning new language actually makes our brain able to access new concepts. I believe in language as a political tool that can be used both to oppress and to overcome oppression. I’ve even touched briefly on my irritation with people’s tendency to co-opt mental health terms to refer to everything from the weather to nail polish, here.

I’m also “disabled,” which is a word I personally hate, but it makes a convenient shortcut into a particular concept (and more about that later). I dislike feeling as if I have to offer credentials for my disability, but for the information of anyone who doesn’t know and who might be reading this blog, I have Bipolar Disorder, PTSD, Social Anxiety and other “mental illnesses,” as well as chronic migraines, all of which are severe enough that I managed to convince the United States Government that they actually do prevent me from running out and getting a job at the Stop and Save on the corner of the highway–no easy feat, let me assure you.

I know a thing or two about language, and I know a thing or two about disability, and I am confident that I can make a judgment in this area. And my judgment is that most people who complain about “ableist” language have no idea what they’re talking about. And when you get reactive without knowing what you’re talking about, you run the risk of undermining your entire point.

anxiety memeI’ve found discussions of “ableist” language irritating for some time now–perhaps ever since I first became aware of it as an issue. But I never could quite articulate why or how they irritated me. Plus, I am a strong proponent of the right of any marginalized group to define itself–i.e., if a disabled person says something is a problem, then we need to accept that it’s a problem, the same way we have to accept it if an Indigenous person says something non-Indigenous people do is a problem, whether we like it or not. However, there is a difference between misuse or oppressive use of language that is a problem to everyone in a marginalized group and that which is a specific trigger to an individual. This is where I see critique of “ableist” language falling down.

I try to keep an open mind and educate myself in all aspects of intersectionality, or at least as many as I am aware of and can keep track of. In the wake of the Chronic Illness Cat fracas, I stumbled across this article about “ableist” language, which I read in an attempt to make some sense of the entire thing. And what I found was, instead of shining a light on the issue, it  in many ways exemplified my personal problem with the whole subject. It starts out with some common disability metaphors: “The economy is crippled by debt;” “He’s blind to his privilege:” etc,. and points out that these metaphors are common in our language and culture and that they are “almost always pejorative.” Okay, right here I have a problem. I don’t think the word pejorative was used appropriately, in the first place. The definition of the word I could find that makes the most sense is “disparaging.” Myself, I don’t see either of those uses (or any in the other examples) as disparaging as much as pointing out an actual thing that is happening. For example, a person who is blind, for one reason or another, actually can’t see. Yet “seeing” can take many shapes aside from processing visual stimuli. Sure, there are lots of other ways you might say “blind to his privilege” that don’t use the word “blind.” You might say he “can’t perceive” it, or “can’t see” it, or any number of other things. And this begs the question: How would those be less “ableist?” How is”can’t see” better than “blind?” The answer is, it’s not. A person could just as easily object to one as the other. You could just as easily object to “can’t perceive,” or “is unaware” or anything else on down the line, because words don’t have just one meaning. Even a lot of words that have been used in bad ways. I’m sorry for the state of the language, but it’s simply the truth. Once you start eliminating the words you don’t like because they may have at once time been used to oppress, there is no clear stopping place.

One of the first things the article in question says is,  ableist words, “perpetuate negative and disempowering views of disabled people, and these views wind their ways into all of the things that most people feel are more important.” I have to say, “Well, yes and no.” Some do. Simply using the word, though–this is something I have to question. Going back to my first example, does “blind” say something negative about  people who can’t see, aside from giving the information that they can’t perceive and/or process visual information? I’d have to say no. The word itself implies no value judgment. If you want to argue that disability is, in itself, seen as negative, that’s something different. I’d have to take the stance that since we talk about DISability, that in itself implies that there’s something negative about it (which is one reason I dislike the term). So maybe let’s look at that, instead. But I’d bear in mind that many, if not all, people with disabilities would probably trade them for good health and able bodies, were it in their power to do so. To me, that says that we, the disabled, ourselves see disability in a negative light. And I believe this is something that needs to be addressed before you go around policing other people’s language.

At another point, the article has this to say:

“Think about it this way: Consider that you’re a woman walking down the street, and someone makes an unwanted commentary on your body. Suppose that the person looks at you in your favorite dress, with your hair all done up, and tells you that you are “as fat as a pig.”

Is your body public property to be commented upon at will? Are others allowed to make use of it — in their language, in your hearing, without your permission?

Or is that a form of objectification and disrespect?

In the same way that a stranger should not appropriate your body for his commentary, you should not appropriate my disabled body — which is, after all, mine and not yours — for your political writing or social commentary.”

Here’s my problem with this example: In the first instance, that of a stranger making an unwanted commentary on a woman’s body, the event is personal. Someone has addressed another person to their face and made a judgment: “You’re as fat as a pig.” But using words like “blind,” “crippled,” “paralyzed,” and what have you in the context of social commentary is not personal. The two incidents are not the same. And if it hits you on a personal level every time you see the word, whether or not it’s directed at you, that’s your problem, not that of society at large. That’s your trigger. You can look at why such and such a thing triggers you, you can make people aware of it; you can ask for accommodation. But it is not always possible to make triggers disappear–and, in my opinion, it shouldn’t be. I get triggered by graphic depictions, in word or film, of emotional abuse. When I come across them, I can skip a few pages, or cover my head with a blanket until the scene is over, or leave the room, or eat chocolate, or any number of other things. I don’t start a movement to  abolish depictions of emotional abuse from all forms of media, because not everyone has the same triggers. Some people may even find the things that trigger me to be of immense benefit. And when you try to demand that everyone just stop doing shit that triggers you, you both undermine the whole purpose of trigger warnings and give ample ammunition to a segment of society that believes the whole concept is a sign of weakness and laziness.

As far as the Chronic Illness Cat meme goes, I saw a few comments from people who don’t like the word “stupid,” because that particular word has been used to bully them. And that’s valid. People with learning disabilities, in particular, often are demeaned as “stupid” and “hopeless” (are we going to censor that word, too?), among other things. But, at the risk of repeating myself, personal triggers are not necessarily ableist language. I, myself, am triggered by the word “ugly.” For me, that word is incredibly loaded. I cannot conceive of demanding that we remove the word from common usage because it perpetuates a negative stereotype of those with non-normative appearance. No more can I imagine demanding we cease using the word “fat” because it’s been used to vilify people of size.

There are words that only have one meaning, and that meaning is meant to degrade. “Cunt,” “Nigger,” “Redskin,” “Moron,” “Retard,” “Chink,” “Spic,” and any number of other racist, sexist, homophobic and ableist slurs. By all means let’s challenge them where they appear. Let’s work to excise them from our vocabularies. But let’s make a distinction between language that really is hateful and harmful and stuff we just don’t like. Otherwise we make it harder for others to take us seriously, and we actively sabotage the very battles we’re trying to fight.

I’m fully expecting that some people will not take kindly to my point of view in this area, and I reserve my right to be proactive about my mental health. Comments are closed.

I Will Not Be Silent

I will not be silent because people dislike the truth I speak. I will be respectful and open to discussion. I will do my best to be considerate. But I will not pussyfoot around, and I will not worry about treading on sensibilities of which I have never been informed.

I will speak up and speak openly about my issues and feelings, without giving in to fear. I expect those with whom I engage in discussion to do the same. But I will feel no contrition about pushing boundaries I don’t know exist.

I will listen with an open mind to reasoned discourse. I might even change my mind about my own position. But I will not be derailed, or swayed by nothing more than consistent and ever more strident denial and refusal to consider my views. If necessary, I will cite sources to support my position.

I will speak my truth with the awareness that my truth is my own and may not be anyone else’s. But I will not be responsible for unspoken personal truth. It is not my job to probe for the hidden thing, lest I cause offense to closely-held beliefs and apprehensions that remain unshared.

I will address behaviour. I will not condemn identity, feelings, or experience. But I can’t promise never to brush up against issues of identity, feelings, or experience that I have no clue exist in a manner which might be painful.

I will back off if asked, in the full realization that backing off does not imply backing down. I will agree to disagree. I expect the same treatment from others.

I will own my shit and I expect others to do the same. People who consistently refuse to own their shit are not worth my time and energy.

I will speak about my experience. I will say, “This happened.” I may or may not name the parties involved in my experiences, at my own discretion and not out of fear of reprisal. It is neither slanderous nor abusive to speak of my lived experience, or to stand up for myself and my gender. In speaking of my lived experience, I will not make judgments as to character, worth, morality, or other intangibles. But I will call bullshit when I see it and I will point out flawed arguments and definitions.

I will not assign blame. Neither will I accept it where blamemongering is a personal attack or diversionary tactic. I will take responsibility for my behaviour, but I will not accept personal attacks.

I will not refrain from pointing out problematic behaviour, even, or perhaps especially, when it comes from people in my personal circle or those who consider themselves allies. The bonds of friendship do not excuse a person from being sexist, racist, homo- and/or transphobic, or a general, all around douche. A person may be an ally to one group while still holding bigoted ideas of another. A person who seems to be an ally may still act out of unearned privilege toward the group with which they claim alliance. Making people aware of this is not a fault. It is not malicious gossip when I speak from my own lived experience. It is an effort to facilitate safety in interactions.

Personal work is never-ending. Neither I, nor anyone, gets a free pass because we did a portion of it, or once questioned ourselves, our beliefs, our actions, our issues, or our privilege.

Silence is violence. Silence allows privilege to go unquestioned, power structures to remain as they are, and abuses to continue. Silence supports the status quo.

I will not be silent, nor will I be silenced.

This is my declaration to myself, above and below, by the goddesses and gods of my house and my personal Patron. By earth, air, fire, and water I so declare.

So mote it be.