Mansplaining MMCCLIXXIVV: The Irony

So, the other night, I posted this Tumblr meme to my Facebook page:

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I both like and dislike it. I like it because it uses superheroes many, if not most, people are familiar with as examples of struggle and perseverance. This is something Geek-minded folks, who may not find more common inspirational memes accessible, can relate to. I dislike it because I dislike inspirational memes in general. At their best, they reduce significant struggles to simplistic terms. At their worst, they become “inspiration porn,” a nasty internet phenomenon that hurts all people with disabilities, whether physical or mental. Bearing this in mind, when I shared the meme, I said I couldn’t decide whether I liked it or whether it made me want to shove my fist through a wall. Soon after posting, I went to bed.

When I checked Facebook the next day, a couple of my friends (with one exception all women with a variety of chronic illnesses) had commented. Nothing major, but the general consensus was “Fist through wall.” Several mentioned that the characters were fictional (IMO, not a stumbling block to taking inspiration from them), or that at least two are fabulously wealthy–a reality which, if it doesn’t solve problems, does, in fact, make them infinitely easier to bear. One friend noted that the list doesn’t include any woman superheroes, which made her think that it was geared toward “TEH MENZ.”

Oh, my. Haven’t we learned by now the danger of pointing our sexism and misogyny in Geek culture? Apparently not. Not long after my friend posted this last comment, this happened:

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A male friend came onto the scene. I think it’s relevant to point out that he isn’t a close friend; he’s someone I picked up from one game or another and kept after I stopped playing because I genuinely like him. But I don’t know him beyond Facebook, and he doesn’t know me. On the other hand, I’ve been extremely close to the women involved for years.

So this male friend starts off with how he thinks people on the Internet just take things “way too seriously” sometimes, and the meme was meant to be a positive message against suicide, and that’s all. And then he goes on about every character mentioned, and how the creator probably picked ones that resonated with him, and how comic book characters have always been sources of inspiration and on and on AND ON FOR ALMOST 1000 WORDS.

One of the original woman commenters, who wrote her B.A. thesis on censorship in comic books, replied with a refutation of some of the things the man said and pointed out that the meme addresses movie versions of the characters rather than the comic book versions, which made his examples inapplicable. He replied by saying she was still “missing the point” in that we were “nitpicking whether these heroes were good enough to convey the message.” And on for another 1000 words or so, describing various iterations of the characters in Golden and Silver Age comics.

That’s where I stepped in and said enough. I told him IMO he was the one missing the point, which was that no one was trying to nitpick whether the heroes were “good enough” to convey a positive message, but that we dislike inspirational memes in general, that all of us have various chronic illnesses which are more than a matter of “just suck it up and keep fighting,” and that he took the entire conversation out of context. Plus, where the heck did he get that it’s an anti-suicide meme, because I don’t see that anywhere. I actually may not have stated things as clearly as that. Yesterday the whole incident had me so livid I could hardly bear to read the thread; today as I write this and look at it, it all seems way less loaded. In retrospect, I probably should have mentioned that I have an “Always Keep Fighting” sweatshirt which I love to death (Thank you, Jared Padelecki). Another woman friend got into the fray, mentioning that the meme almost offended her because how the Hell was her experience supposed to be comparable with a superhero’s?

Massive side-eye for this entire incident.
Massive side-eye for this entire incident.

Dude comes back with ANOTHER lengthy, point-by-point essay full of this, that, and the other, by the end of which he’d kind of admitted that he flew off the handle because he’s seen a lot of nastiness around this particular meme, and said he considered it anti-suicide because he got it from a suicide prevention page, and even managed to apologize in words. Kudos to him. But he still thought my one friend was missing the point.

Anyway, that really should have been the end of it, but later my feed barfs up a lengthy status update from him. This guy’s status updates are rarely shorter than 1000 words, and I mostly enjoy them, especially when he takes down inaccurate religious memes. He and my dad would have loved each other. Well, this one started with how he doesn’t generally agree with the Right about political correctness ruining everything, but you can be overly critical of innocuous stuff, and THERE’S THIS ANTI-SUICIDE MEME…. etc, and “more than one person who shared it even stated that they didn’t know if they loved it or hated it.” *clutches pearls*

Okay, enough. I restrained myself all night and most of today. Done now.

evil willow

Dude, first off, do you really not understand the concept of irony, or can you just not apply it to yourself? You come into a thread where people are having a relatively light-hearted discussion about their problems with a meme and proceed to lecture them AT LENGTH about “taking innocuous things too seriously,” to the point where it took me telling you to back the fuck off to get you to disengage, and then you complain about it to the public? Who’s taking things too seriously now?

In the second place, I have no idea if you’ve ever experienced suicidal ideation, but I doubt it, because if you had, you’d know it’s FAR from innocuous. It’s a fucking killer. People lose the fight every single day. I’ve attempted suicide more than once, which is why I have a fucking semicolon tattooed on my wrist–NOT because I love proper punctuation, although I do. So have several of my dear friends, and let me tell you, when you get to that point it takes more than a shitty meme about metahumans to motivate you to keep breathing. Fuck you for dismissing the pain of that. And fuck you twice for taking issue with people who have to find reasons to go on living every day pointing out that your “innocuous” meme is problematic. In case you hadn’t heard, you can like things and STILL critique problematic elements in them.

In your extended status of yesterday evening, you cite a problem in the LGBT+ community of safe spaces designed for that community (the gay male community in particular) being welcoming to others not of that community (straight women in particular), who then complained that the safe space wasn’t designed for them and, in effect, tore it down while while being unwelcoming to those who had sheltered them when they built their own safe spaces. Back to irony, you did the exact same thing on my post: You came into a space that was not yours and insisted it play by your rules. In addition, you took exception to people who have actually attempted suicide not loving your “positive message” against it. I thought you were better than that, honestly. If a marginalized group has issues with a piece of media purporting to address that group, then you need to shut up and listen instead of getting all butthurt when people in the group say “THIS DOESN’T WORK.”

But you know what? I think it boils down to sexism. I think you saw some women discussing something they found problematic, and I think you saw my friend’s reference to TEH MENZ, and you could not help but jump in to mansplain to us that we were the ones taking things too seriously and taking things out of context and whatever-the-hell else you felt we wimminz weren’t “getting” because you couldn’t STAND for us to have opinions that differed from yours. It would have been easy enough not to engage–as I chose not to engage beyond one comment (and okay; I’m lying, it wasn’t easy at all, but hey, KEEP FIGHTING THOSE IMPULSES LIKE BATMAN). It would have been easy enough to let it go, to say, well, these people have a different take, this meme doesn’t work for them. But you didn’t. You had to let us know just HOW WRONG you thought we were, and how much better you know about all things superhero than we do. Because misogyny.

I don’t know what you meant to achieve aside from parading your own knowledge, but I can tell you one thing you did achieve:  I trust you less than I did yesterday morning. As I said above, I enjoy your rants. I enjoy your takedowns of idiotic memes. But having been on the receiving side of one, I now have to wonder how many times, when you’ve complained about people just not understanding, you’ve painted an inaccurate picture putting yourself in a more positive, and them in a more negative, light than objectivity dictated. How many times have people on the Right with whom you’ve interacted been far more civil and more articulate than you let on? Because I’ve learned you’re loath to admit wrong, and you love having the last word.

I’m going to post this on Facebook. I’m going to post it to a restricted list you are no longer part of, because I don’t trust you anymore. Not because I can’t take criticism, but because you can’t. And in the event you stumble across this anyway, through a mutual acquaintance or just through the randomness of the Internet, I leave you with this reward:

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Congratulations.

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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.

 

The Worst Demon

You know the story of Pandora’s Box? I can’t take it for granted that you do.  I grew up on mythology of all kinds, but I know others didn’t, and I have no idea what they teach in schools these days. It’s a Greek myth, Hellene rather than Minoan.

In brief, the titan Prometheus, whose name means foresight, created human beings. When he saw they were naked and cold, he stole fire from the Olympian gods and took it down to them. To punish Prometheus, Zeus chained him to a rock, where an eagle gnawed out his liver every day. Every night, his liver grew back, so the eagle could gnaw it again.

Zeus wasn’t content with punishing Prometheus, though. He wanted to punish his creation. To that end, he created a woman. It’s always a woman. Each of the twelve Olympians imbued this woman with a quality: Beauty, cleverness, wisdom, strength, and so on. (We see a similar thing in later fairy tales, like Sleeping Beauty, where twelve good fairies give the princess gifts at her Christening.) They named the woman Pandora, which means “All Gifts.” And they sent her to Epimethius, the brother of Prometheus, whose name means “Hindsight.” When they sent her, they gave her a box, along with strict instructions never to open it.

Well, you can predict how that went. Eventually, Pandora’s curiosity got the better of her, as the gods knew it would, and she opened the box. Out flew every awful thing imaginable, plague and old age, and war, and sorrow, and death. All these the gods had sent to torment Prometheus’ creation, humankind.

As the story goes, when all the demons had flown out and away, one last thing followed. That thing was Hope. Now, most versions of the story I’ve seen interpret this as the redeeming quality of the gods’ “gift,” the thing that would allow human beings to overcome the rest. But the gods do not think the way human beings do, and their motives are not always as we’d wish. I believe Hope is the worst demon of all, and the gods knew it.

Hope is a lump in your gut and a fist clenched on your heart. It’s fingers wrapped around your throat and refusing to let go. Hope is the thing that keeps you fighting for your dreams in spite of all rational evidence you can never achieve them. It lets you be positive where positivity is a lie, and urges you to struggle on when the entire world seems a pit of suffering with no possibility of redemption.

I’m not a Buddhist; anyone who reads this blog will know that. But I think this is what the Buddha was getting at when he preached non-attachment. See the world as it is, not as Hope would have you see it. Only then can you move on, confront what needs to be confronted, change what needs to be changed.

I’ve been stuck in Hope most of my life. When I was young, it made some sense. A teenager in an abusive environment doesn’t need to stay there forever. One can get free, go somewhere else. A dead-end job, or a series of them, doesn’t mean every job will be the same. You don’t need to stay in unsatisfying relationships. You can go elsewhere. There’s new ground to cover.

The older I get, the less sense Hope makes and the less positive it feels. Granted, I come from a long-lived family and I can probably expect to live another 40 to 50 years, barring serious illness or accident or unseen catastrophe. There’s still ground and still time. But there isn’t time for some things. There isn’t time for children of my own. That’s a biological fact; my fertile years ended long ago. Yet Hope has kept me waiting on a miracle. Miracles happen. After the miscarriages, when I thought “I can’t go through that again,” Hope told me I’d still have kids one day. Listening to Hope, I didn’t take the actions that might have been possible then, but now are not. When I fell into a deep depression, Hope encouraged me to wait it out because nothing lasts forever. Of course, there are a dozen other factors that led to my not ever having the family I wanted, but static hope for things to change is the one on my mind right now. Even as I write this, my brain is going through the contortions of telling me “Maybe by letting go of this dream, you’ll trigger the thing that will allow it to happen.” Fucking Hope.

[Aside: PLEASE refrain from coming into my comments and saying “Adoption, fostering, blah, blah, blah,” because it’s beside the point.]

I’ve hoped situations would work out long after it became clear they wouldn’t and hoped people would change long after it became clear I’d do better to cut ties and run. I’ve hoped I wouldn’t have to confront things, that people around me would wise up on their own, because I hope people are capable of getting a clue and I hate being the person always calling others on their shit. I guess that’s just another way of saying I hate setting boundaries and I want others to set them for me, which is definitely an issue that’s caused me significant misery. I’ve kept breathing and hoped tomorrow would be better. Sometimes that hope has been all I’ve had. I wonder if that’s a good thing. Maybe without hope I wouldn’t be alive now. I wonder if that would have been bad.

Hope can mitigate pain, but sometimes mitigating pain isn’t the right thing to do. Sometimes you have to feel it.

I started this post last Monday. It was a very bad day. Today isn’t. It’s not an objectively good day, but it’s okay. So I’m no longer sure where I’m heading with this train of thought, or the point I meant to make. I think at the time I was thinking “Hope is a sucker’s game, and maybe we should all lie down and die.” I don’t believe that now, at least not all of it. I still think Hope is a sucker’s game. But instead of lying down and dying, maybe we should try standing up and punching Hope in the nose. Maybe then we can create the things we want.

That’s all.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Judgment Call

Right now, a fair number of my friends are dealing with judgmental people in their lives. I posted a Twitter rant on the topic last night, but because of Twitter’s limitations and because I had a migraine and that constrains my thinking and ability to be coherent, I didn’t say everything I wanted to say. Hence this post. It’s dedicated to anyone who needs it, but my friends most of all. You know who you are.

*Clears throat.*

Anyway, judgment. At one time or another, all of us encounter it. It’s a word that gets bandied around a lot. “Trust your judgment.” “You’re the only judge of what’s right for you.” If you aren’t paying attention, it can seem pretty innocuous. Making a judgment is no different from having a choice or stating an opinion, right? So what’s the problem?

The problem is, making a judgment IS different from making a choice or stating an opinion. You can disagree with someone’s choices or opinions, and, generally speaking, it’s no big deal. You like Rap music and I don’t. I like the color orange and you don’t. Individual choices and personal preferences are fine. They differentiate us from each other, and that’s a good thing. Exploring them can be interesting, even exciting.

If you’ve ever faced judgment, however, you know it’s neither interesting nor exciting. It’s painful. It makes you feel small. It makes you question your heart, your decisions, your worth. It can evoke guilt, defensiveness, and rage, to name a few of the unpleasant possibilities. If you’re one kind of person, it might provoke you into a fight. If you’re another kind of person–and I’m going to go out on a limb here, and say that this second type is more likely to take judgments to heart–it can make you feel like crawling into a hole and never coming out. And it might tempt you to do anything in your power to make those miserable feelings go away.

scary judge
You feel about two inches high just looking at this picture, don’t you?

This is what judgment is designed to do. Because a judgment isn’t just an opinion or choice. It’s a tool people and institutions use to enforce conformity.

Think about the word for a minute: Judge. What do judges do? In a legal sense, judges hear cases and sentence criminals. The guilty. A judge of a contest weighs the participants, be they human beauty queens or sheepdogs, against a set of standards and decides who wins, who places, and who loses. In other words, in both cases judges decide who fits into a particular segment of society–law-abiding citizens, exceptional athletes, well-trained animals–according to their interpretation of the standards. They’ve been given the authority to do so, usually by a group of their peers or others who participate in that segment of society. And when a judge hands down their decision, ideally those on the short end of the stick will be motivated to conform. To meet the standard. Sometimes the motivation comes in the form of a prison sentence, and sometimes it comes in the form of not having a trophy to display. But whatever it is, there’s an assumption that it’s not something you want to repeat. So next time you make the decision NOT to steal that car or to work even harder on that triple axel. Because next time, you want to win. You want to gain the judge’s approval.

The authority accorded a judge infers not just rightness, but righteousness, which means correct not only in a factual sense, but in a moral one. A judgment is a decision that cannot be questioned, at least not if the person on the receiving end wants to continue participating in the culture that hands it out. By its very nature, it implies guilt, not living up to expectations. It elevates the judge (and by association, the conforming culture), while making the object of judgment lesser.

Of course, there are problems with this system, because no one, not even a judge, is entirely objective. We’ve all seen the Olympic contests where that one guy from that one country gives a “3” to the spectacular performance everyone else rated “9,” and a “10” to the competitor from his homeland no matter what. And there’s a whole sub-genre of movies and fiction about people who have been judged guilty of crimes they didn’t commit. It happens in real life all too often. Because a judgment depends on a personal interpretation of the standards, and that means a personal agenda can get in the way.

Outside the courtroom or competitive arena, the personal agenda is almost always behind the judgmental people you encounter. You know the ones. That relative who gets off on being the arbiter of what is and isn’t fashionable, who sneers at your shoes every holiday. Or that co-worker who counts the number of paperclips everyone uses, so he can bring up the misappropriation of office supplies at the next staff meeting. Or the parent who initiates a power struggle over a haircut. The list goes on and on.

Your cousin, Fred, waxing politic about marriage equality.
Your cousin, Fred, waxing politic about marriage equality.

Here’s a personal story, since I like to include personal stories in my blog.  A dozen years ago, in my Celtic band, we once scheduled back-to-back gigs a hundred and fifty miles apart from each other, which required driving over several nasty mountain passes, playing for four hours, sleeping two hours, driving back over the same mountain passes, and playing another two hours as soon as we unloaded the car. This was NOT something I enjoyed. But when I mentioned this fact to the person who had scheduled the gigs, she said:

“You know, Kel, if you want to be a REAL band, you have to do these things. Professional musicians play back to back gigs ALL THE TIME.”

Oh, slap! The judgment, it burns! See, I had been under the impression that we WERE a “real” band because we played music at a variety of venues on a regular basis, and that we were at least semi-professional because most of the time people paid us money to do so. I had also been under the impression that since we weren’t under any kind of management contract, we could make our own terms for what we were or weren’t willing to do. But this other person had different ideas and made herself the sole authority on what constituted real and professional. Or she just disagreed with me, but instead of saying so, she had to concoct some pseudo-objective standard which I failed to meet.

Now, at  this point, the band was already in the middle stages of disintegration, so I didn’t feel bad for long. Mostly, I felt frustrated, invalidated, and angry that she would pull that shit. Still, I did suffer a fair amount of guilt and self-doubt. I thought things like, “Maybe she’s right,” and “Maybe I don’t take this seriously enough,” and “Maybe I’m lazy,” and “No one else had a problem with this, so maybe I’m just being selfish for putting my limits above what the rest of the band wants.” I got into the spiral of self-judgment. And even though it was twelve years ago, those thoughts cross my mind when I write about the incident now.

Because I’ve gained some perspective, I can see where the judgment came from. My band-mate had a lot of insecurities, both about her personal identity and about herself as a musician. Not to put too fine a point on it, those insecurities–at least the ones about her musicianship–were justified. She was a terrible musician, with an awful ear and no sense of rhythm or phrasing. She wanted badly to be awesome, but instead of working on her skill set, she built a wall of denial and attacked anyone who challenged her. Since I am (or was; I’m out of practice) a good musician who learned new material easily and didn’t struggle with basic control of my instrument, I threatened her. And so, I became the prime target for her judgment. If she could put me down, she could feel like she had worth. She could even feel superior. And all this came out of the fact that she already judged herself. When she made a mistake, it wasn’t just a mistake; she was a talentless hack. When she had trouble keeping up in rehearsal or learning new material, she was absolutely worthless, would never achieve what she wanted, and probably failed as a human being. Self-judgment takes trivial problems that you could remedy with a little effort and turns them into insurmountable moral failings. And it’s self-fulfilling, because I would have been happy to help her become a better musician if she’d been able to face the difficulty and accept the help. But since she’d internalized her self-judgment and made it part of her identity, the only way she could have value to herself was by sitting judgment on others. And I was not up to meeting that challenge, particularly since she had no intention of owning up to it.

I’ve learned over the course of my life that most people who practice being judgmental of others have similar difficulties with self-worth. You can tell these people because everything they say is an accusation: “You’re selfish!” or “You’re too fat!” or “You’re lazy!” or whatever. They’re always eager to point out what’s wrong with you and never ready to talk about their own emotions. If they did, you might hear something more along the lines of, “I’m hurt because you seem to be pulling away,” or “I don’t find your body attractive,” or “I’m frustrated because I asked you five times to take out the trash and you haven’t.” Which at least makes room for discussion in a way that judgment doesn’t. Sometimes judgmental people honestly don’t know how to contact and express their true feelings. And sometimes, like my band-mate, they don’t care to. Because it’s easier to blame and make it all about someone else.

Other people’s judgment can be a bitch to throw off, especially if they’re people you care about. Here’s a few ideas for getting out from under the hammer:

First, listen for the “charges,” those statements that sound accusatory and/or start with “you” (like the ones I mentioned above. Obviously there are an infinite number.). Be aware that some really practiced judges can make “you-statements” sound like “I-statements.” E.G., “I’m concerned that you’re getting too worldly” can be condensed into “You’re too worldly.” It implies that only an unspecified change on your part can alleviate their concern. A true “I-statement” is an expression of feeling (“I’m angry”) sometimes followed by a concrete reason for that feeling (“because you didn’t take out the trash”). Beware of nebulous terms like “selfish,” “real,” “ungrateful,” etcetera. If you have to ask what actual behavior that you have any control over changing is meant, or make assumptions about what is meant, the person you’re talking to is likely making a value judgment. As well, once you start making assumptions about what Cousin Fred means by “immoral,” you’re in danger of sliding down the self-judgment spiral.

Second, remember what judgment is designed to do. It’s designed to make “backsliders” conform to cultural expectations, whether that culture is religion, or gender identity, or the Rainbow Family. Or any combination thereof. It’s also designed to elevate the culture in question to a position of superior morality. Cultural identity is fluid. People grow and change, and that’s okay. But acknowledging this fluidity challenges oppressive power structures, especially ones not given to introspection. I mean, if you can just decide to, oh, worship another god, then why in the world should you conform to a religion that requires complicated expressions of devotion? Well, there are a lot of reasons you might, which I won’t get into here (maybe a different blog post). But rather than look at those, most people would rather make others feel bad about their choices.

Third, decide whether or not you care. This is easier said than done, especially if your vegan friends are still important to you after you realize you’d rather eat meat or something like that. If you can, talk to the person sitting in judgment about your concerns. Caveat: this is seldom possible because the threat factor often causes them to get more judgmental than ever. You might have to entirely detach yourself from the culture in question and find another that suits your needs. This does not mean anything about you personally. It does not make you bad or wrong. It does not indicate an irredeemable flaw in your soul. It just means you’ve moved on.

And fourth, be compassionate. Bear in mind that judgmental people are usually unhappy and afraid. And you’re about to do one of the worst things you can do to a judgmental person: Ignore them.

It’s difficult to get out from under judgment, and old judgments can stick for a long time. Be compassionate with yourself as well, and make sure you get what you need, whether that be more sleep, an alcoholic beverage, a walk in the woods, or whatever it is that supports your soul. People’s judgments might always sting. But you don’t have to carry that weight. Let it go.

 

 

White Girl Confessions

I try. I try really hard to listen and believe and recognize my own privilege and not take liberties. I try not to tone police. I try not to practice colonialism.

But you know, sometimes it’s really, really hard. Sometimes when I see WoC ranting about “White Feminism” and “White Feminists” on my Twitter stream, it upsets me. Because it gives me the feeling that every white woman is being tarred with the same brush. Now, maybe some PoC would say that’s just Karma, and maybe it is. It seems pretty unfair to me, though, that the people at whom this legitimate anger is directed are so rarely the ones to take it to heart, or even pay it any attention. One time, a Feminist of Colour tweeted, “It doesn’t need to be said, but there’s a difference between White Feminism(TM) and plain White Feminism.” I thanked her for pointing that out. I think it does need to be said, and said more often.

I don’t like the attitude of “We’re screwder than you” that I see so much. It reminds me of junior high. I don’t like being ignored when I ask honest questions trying to get information. Sure, of course, the voices of PoC have been routinely ignored. And one justification I hear is, “It’s not our job to educate you because the information is out there and if you really cared you’d find it.” It’s a justification Feminists use too, and I have to say I don’t agree with it there, either. It’s one thing to respond that way to a troll, and another to hand it out to all and sundry. I do really want to hear individual people’s voices. I don’t want to rely on questionable internet sources for answers to important questions like, “How, in your personal opinion, can we find common ground? Is there even any common ground?” Because those answers can’t be found through a search engine.

Sometimes I want to scream. I want to say, “The word ‘shaman” derives from Tungusic and was originally used by Russians interacting with the Indigenous Peoples of Siberia. Native America people don’t have a monopoly on it, or on Spirit Journeys, or on Totem Animals.” My ancestors were also driven out of their homes and off their lands, and starved, and raped. Their languages were taken from them. Their children were forced into conquerors’ schools. Maybe not in recent history and maybe it’s not still going on. But maybe it is, and it’s wrong to dismiss all that history because my people were (mostly) white.

I have no intent to dismiss the anger of People of Colour. I am aware that I am unlikely to be arrested because a cop thought I was a prostitute when I kissed my husband in public. I am aware that my words are more likely to be listened to. I am aware that (mental health issues and poverty aside) I have more opportunities than Indigenous People and People of Colour. But it gets really hard for me to listen and remain silent when it seems no matter what I do or what I say someone is going to attack me.

I just needed to say these things and it was too long to post anywhere else.