The Practice of Apology

It happens often in the book world–sometimes it seems every other week these days. An author, usually a white woman, releases a book relying on the misguided use of a racial trope. The writing community of color calls her on it. She issues an apology which, knowingly or not, glosses over the real issues, and the community of color responds with more ire. And people look at the apology, and shake their heads, and ask, “How hard can it be to say you’re sorry?”

How hard can it be?

Yesterday I wrote a preface for my book, The Parting Glass:

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(In 2010, when I wrote the first draft of The Parting Glass, I was a good deal less aware of issues of race and cultural appropriation than I am today. Considering myself a fairly decent and enlightened person, I thought drawing on my own experience of life was enough. Consequently, I made some choices for the book that make me cringe when I read it today. The character of John Stonefeather relying heavily on the trope of “alcoholic Indian” is one, as is Timber’s practice of something I refer to as “Native American shamanism,” and even Sage’s role as the sassy Black girlfriend. It isn’t enough to say I didn’t intend to be disrespectful in any way, or that I did draw from and embellish people and situations from my real life. I made bad choices I would not make today, and I’m sorry for that.

I can’t rewrite the book at this late date, and I’m not going to pull it from publication because despite the flaws I’m still proud of it and I like the story of how Caitlin and Timber first met, which is central to the book and unfortunately relies on the more problematic elements. But I have tried to do better since writing this book, and I will continue to do so. It’s important to me that marginalized voices be heard, and that bad stereotypes not be perpetuated.

Thank you for reading this.)

I added it to every edition, and most of them are already available. I did it, not because anyone called me out on the book’s problematic elements–no one has; the book hasn’t a far enough reach to cause a stir of any proportion at all. I did it because as I gained awareness of the issues involved, the fact that I unthinkingly used bad tropes bothered me more and more, until I couldn’t let it go any longer without doing something.

How hard could it be? I’ll tell you: It was hard.

When I wrote the book, from 2010 – 2012, I considered myself fairly enlightened. It was only as I got more involved in social media, and concurrently social justice, that I began to see how very problematic some of the basic premises were. This was after I’d already published the book, and I didn’t want to let it go.

Again, I wasn’t involved in any confrontation; all of the relevant conversations happened in the “what if?” space of my head. What if someone called me out? What if I got attacked? What if? What would I say?

My first instincts were not the best. At least I didn’t dismiss the inner challenge out of hand, but that’s the best I can say of myself. I got defensive. I justified. I told myself, “Yes, but I based this character on a real person and I based this experience on a real experience! I only embellished and made it bigger, so it would be story-worthy.” I told myself since I knew a Native person with substance abuse issues in my past, putting one in my book was okay. Likewise with white people who had studied with Native teachers, likewise with every other problematic thing in the book. I also told myself since the core of the story isn’t about those problematic tropes, it was okay. (Spoiler: It kind of is and it kind of isn’t, and it’s not okay.) I told myself the Native people I know personally assure me I’m a good person, so I couldn’t be doing something really out of line.

After I told myself all these things, I ignored the problem. I said I’d address it if it ever became an issue. And I tried to forget. For four years, I tried to forget. In the meantime, I turned out three more books, each getting a little more aware, and a little more diverse, and a little better regarding the kind of world I want to portray and the kind of world I want to see manifest. It’s been a bit of a challenge, considering the realities of the geographical setting of my book series (rural Colorado, which I know well since I live there). But gradually I’ve added more People of Color, more LGBTQ+ representation, more diverse viewpoints. I hope I haven’t done it too badly.

Currently, I’m rereading my own books to refresh myself on the world and the overall series arc before plunging ahead into book eight. Saturday night, I started The Parting Glass. It’s always been a joy for me to read that particular volume, as it’s one of my favourites. This time, however, I hadn’t got through the first chapter before I started cringing. Could I really have used those tropes in that way? Yes, yes, I did. Wow. I wouldn’t do that now.

A book is a moment in an author’s life; it shows how they thought, what they considered important, and perhaps how they felt at a particular time and place of life. People learn, and grow, and change, and I did all three more than I had thought. I couldn’t bear the idea of someone picking up the book with its problematic elements without my making a public apology. So yesterday I wrote the short preface above.

How hard could it be? It was hard. It took me four years of growth before I did it, and even when I sat down to work I wasn’t sure I could say I was sorry and mean it. I think I managed. And one last time, I came to this without people riding me and demanding I grow all in an instant, while supportive friends of color told me I wasn’t a bad person. I like to think if I’d been confronted earlier I would have stepped up to the plate, but I know myself too well for that. Probably I’d have dug in and become even more defensive, reached for more justification.

This isn’t to say people should let authors alone and not challenge problematic elements in books; they absolutely should do so, because if people stay silent, others never learn at all. When I acknowledge how hard it was for me to come to the point of apology, it’s to say to other authors that I get that it’s hard. AND because it’s hard, we have to practice. Practice listening. Practice saying, “I did a wrong thing, and I’m sorry.” Not “I’m sorry if I offended anyone…” or “I’m sorry, but this is what I really meant…” Just, “I’m sorry. I will do better in the future. I will do my best.”

When learning an instrument, you don’t practice scales because you’re ever going to perform scales for the public. You practice scales because they teach your body the way your instrument works and the combinations of notes you’re likely to find in a piece, so when you are performing you can do the right thing without thinking about it. In a similar way, authors need to practice apology. If and when someone confronts you, don’t react at once. Don’t take it personally if and when someone calls you on a problematic element. Take a breath. Refuse the urge to justify and dig in. If you can, ask for clarification, but realize this may not be possible. When you do respond, just say, “I’m sorry.” Ask how you can make it better, and offer to do so, if that’s possible. If you can’t make it better in the moment or in the near future, promise to do better. That’s it. Marginalized people don’t want our justifications; they’ve heard way too many already. If you have privilege in an area–if you’re white, cishet, able-bodied, neurotypical–it’s incumbent upon you to listen and do better.

How hard can it be? Hard, and that’s okay. What’s not okay is refusing to learn.

 

 

 

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Two Weeks Later

Two weeks and two days ago, I woke up, along with the rest of the United States, knowing that Donald Trump had, contrary to all polls and predictions, and an increasing amount of the popular vote, won the election. This is what I’ve witnessed, read, and experienced since then, in no particular order and presented as much as possible without judgment (though there are definitely items on the list I find personally repugnant).

  • People texting or messaging me, to whom I’ve rarely spoken before, to express their dismay and terror. People who, knowing 70% of the county in which we live voted Trump, wonder which of our neighbors did, and whether it’s safe to trust them.
  • Within a day, 200 reports of hate crimes against People of Color, Muslims, and LGBTQ+ folks, even in areas of our state that swing fairly liberal. Within two days, double that number. In almost all cases, the perpetrator referenced Trump’s win as the force empowering them.
  • The report that 53% of white women, most of them middle class and above, voted for Trump. Numerous think pieces attributing this development to women “placing race above gender in importance.”
  • A friend experiencing so much harassment after the election that before two days had passed she and her family decided to move to another state.
  • Intense arguments between the conservative half of my extended family and the liberal half.
  • People of color feeling (justifiably) betrayed and saying they will “never trust a white person again.”
  • Think pieces blaming white women in particular for being too complacent.
  • A rally of the “alt-right,” a white supremacist group, at a hotel near the White House, complete with Nazi salutes and slogans in the original German.
  • Think pieces blaming the election results on third party voters.
  • Think pieces blaming the election results on “identity politics,” and calling on the Left to empathize more with white working class voters.
  • Arguments about what kind of show of solidarity is “right” or “enough” and what kind of action allies need to take, and who gets to define all those things.
  • A definite absence of acknowledgment from the able community of how much danger Trump’s election and Republican control of (potentially) all three branches of government poses to people with disabilities.
  • Lots of people with activated trauma of various kinds lashing out at each other. Calls for solidarity being met with recriminations.
  • Large peaceful protests of the election results in nearly every major city in the country.
  • A friend frightened and in tears because the protest in her city turned violent.
  • Conservative claims that all the protests are “riots.”
  • People conflicted between maintaining the outrage that motivates them and the urge, as well as politicians’ encouragement, to treat this election as “business as usual.”
  • A huge popular movement to audit the vote in three states where the tallies were incredibly close. Jill Stein’s unprecedented campaign to do just that, which raised $2.5 million in under two days.
  • An acquaintance whose cause celèbre is Universal Basic Income insisting it’s not just “white working class;” it’s working class in general.
  • Lots of advice from various quarters on how to be as safe as possible under an authoritarian regime.

The election stressed me out more than any before, but the two weeks since have aged me in a way I never imagined possible. I’ve always looked and acted (by societal standards) younger than my age, and I haven’t felt much different in my body from the person I was twenty years ago. But lately I’ve wondered if the various passing aches I’ve attributed to other causes aren’t really a sign of my age. If the lapses in memory, which are more frequent, are a sign of encroaching senility. If I’m just as fat old woman sitting on a couch, cursing the kids and dreaming of better times. I have become my father, though still stronger than he was, I think. My husband says if my father were still around, this election would have killed him. He’s right, too.

Except for checking in on particular groups, I’ve stayed off social media. Especially Twitter, which can be a pit of adders if you don’t tread carefully. People of all persuasions are willing to speak in harsher terms there than they might elsewhere, I’ve noticed. Snark is rampant. So are claims of tone policing and “marginalized people can’t be bullies,” which is patently untrue. Anyone can be a bully. People who carry grave hurt are often particularly good ones.

I cried for a week after the election, and I’ve cried many days since. So have most of the women I know. (Yesterday my husband said he wanted to curl up in a fetal position and cry. I told him that was okay, he should cry if he needed to. He said he couldn’t remember how.) On social media, my tears of often dismissed, either indirectly or when the speaker refers to a group of which I’m part in general terms: “The fact that this outcome shocks you proves how privileged you are. My marginalized group knew all along how bad it is; you just didn’t listen.”

It’s not shock that moves me to tears. I have my own marginalizations: sexual assault survivor, disabled, mentally ill, unemployed, financially insecure. Living in a rural, white area where the main two employers closed their doors in the last year and the message boards are full of screeds about “Obummer’s war on coal,” and the persecution of Christians, and the liberal elites with their need to control everything, I never took it for granted Hillary Clinton would sweep to victory. To me the election boiled down to an obvious truth: If Hillary Clinton won, though she might not be perfect, we’d be okay for the next four years. To quote Rebecca Solnit, “Voting is a chess move, not a valentine.” If Donald Trump won we definitely would NOT be okay. None of us. Not women, white or otherwise. Not my family and friends of color. Not the disabled, or the LGBTQ+ community. Not even the people who voted for him. And yes, I ran across more than a handful who voted him because they’d rather the world burn to ash than try to fix it. I always had to wonder if these people saw themselves burn, or if they imagined watching from the top of the heap, unaffected by what they’d put into motion. I suspect the latter. A certain kind of white male never bears the brunt of what they put into motion. It’s the rest of us who do.

The high potential for failure is what stressed me out so much in the weeks and days before the election. It’s what caused me to dip into my husband’s Valium prescription at times and turn to the Scotch bottle at others. It’s why I cracked dark jokes about the Apocalypse, which I was terrified would come to pass. And when they did come to pass, it wasn’t shock that I felt. It was despair. I had hoped so hard that we were better than this. Smarter than this. More compassionate. I had prayed to whatever gods happened to be around that the crowds at the Trump rallies represented a small minority. The election results dashed that hope to pieces, and I take little comfort in Hillary Clinton winning the popular vote. A 51%-49% split is far too narrow to suit me. With such deep differences, how will we ever find a place to meet?

My conservative brother-in-law asked my husband the same question the other day. He voted for Trump. He said it was the hardest decision he’s ever had to make, but he knew only two candidates stood a chance of winning and, in the end, Hillary Clinton represented “everything he was against.” He wondered why people who disagree with liberals as to policy are now being characterized as racists and bigots. If I still spoke to him (I blocked him on social media during the 2012 election cycle), I’d like to scream at him that policy has nothing to do with it; that Donald Trump never made any coherent statement of policy at all, but riled his supporters up against immigrants and people of color and demonized his main rival. How is this policy? But Clinton reached out to marginalized people and supported women’s bodily autonomy. That, my brother-in-law says, was his main sticking point; he’s against abortion in any form. He has three daughters. I keep wondering, if one of them were expecting a much wanted child and found out in the twenty-sixth week of pregnancy that her child wouldn’t live, would probably not survive gestation, wouldn’t he want her to have a choice of what to do? Or would he doom her to walk around for sixteen weeks, a whole four months, knowing her child was dead inside her? Having lost both my children early, I can say for a certainty such a situation would have driven me out of my mind with grief.

Two of his daughters, by the way, are married to Black men and have mixed race sons. And he voted for a man who wants to institute racial profiling and stop and frisk laws. How could he do that? How would he feel if it were one of his sons-in-law, one of his grandsons, who got pulled over by a cop for “fitting the profile,” and shot for no cause? Is he so secure in the notion that bad things don’t happen to good people? If the cop claimed later he “felt threatened,” would my brother-in-law think that was enough?

A lot of our differences are of religious origin; BIL is an Evangelical Christian and we are farthest thing from it. 83% of white Evangelicals voted for Trump. I cannot fathom why, and neither can most other Christians of my acquaintance, Evangelicals among them. How can people who claim to honor Jesus Christ choose a man who lies, who preaches hatred, who sows division, who admits to being a serial rapist? It seems to boil down to the belief that Christians are being persecuted under the current administration. Even though I know the reasoning, it boggles my mind. It seems obvious to me that if you want to teach your children that the Earth was literally created in seven days and is only 4,000 years old, that dinosaurs were on the ark with Noah and co-existed with humankind, you are free to do that. But not on the public dime because it’s faith, not science. It’s clear to me that if you run a business that’s open to the public, you are required by law to serve all the public whether or not your religion agrees with the way they live their lives. Nowhere in the Bible does it say “Thou shalt not bake wedding cakes for, or rent your venue to, or arrange flowers for, or photograph gay people, nay, not at their weddings or celebrations, or in any other place, for such is an abomination in the eyes of the Lord.” Kosher delis aren’t allowed to refuse service to goyim because we don’t wear yarmulkes. If you don’t believe in abortion, don’t get one. If you don’t believe in birth control, don’t use it. Evangelicals seem unable to see that “freedom of religion” does not mean “freedom to force your religious views on others,” and when you point it out they cry persecution. It’s baffling to me, as much as the claims that “America was founded as a Christian nation” when one can cite document after document disproving such a statement, and Freedom of Religion was written into our Constitution. And it really doesn’t matter that at the time of the founding, Christianity of one form or another was the religion of most of the West, and it was probably inconceivable to many that other religions would become so prominent. At the time of the founding, only white, male land owners were allowed to vote or hold citizenship. Do we want to return to those strictures as well? At times, I think some do. Or they conveniently forget the parts of the original Constitution that don’t fit into their world view.

But to return to the original question: With a population roughly divided in half as to the way to proceed, and those halves near as makes no difference to polar opposites in stance, how do we ever find a meeting place? Some say it’s incumbent on the Left to reach out to and persuade those on the Right, which has quite a lot of the Left justifiably angry. It always seems to fall to the Left to be reasonable, though I know those on the Right would disagree with me there. Compromising with mule-headed Conservatives has dragged the Left more and more toward the center, until most of our politicians are on a level with Nixon and Reagan. Some would disagree with that, too (my BIL says the Republican party has swayed too far Left for him; what he means by this, I have no idea whatsoever), but you can look up and compare the policies. How loud does the Left have yell that we’re all humans and all deserve the same civil rights before the Right agrees? I’m sure many individuals agree–even my BIL claims to be against mass deportation and instituting a Muslim registry. There seems, however, to be a cosmic disconnect between the individuals and the philosophy, between claiming an idea and putting it into practice.

Many classify the divide as between Urban and Rural, and if you look at a county-by-county map of votes cast, this seems to bear out. It reminds me of Robert Silverberg’s Hugo-nominated book, The World Inside. I read it long ago, but essentially America’s population is divided between City dwellers who lead rather decadent lives in skyscrapers, and the farmland communities in between, where the inhabitants practice rather bizarre rituals. I hate to think this prophetic, although I, along with many of my circle, don’t see a way we can bring such disparate views of the country into a unified whole. We’ve begun to voice the once-unthinkable: Maybe this country doesn’t work. Maybe it’s time to acknowledge there need to be two, or many. I don’t see how this could be possible. Given the lack of clear geographic lines along which to form borders any division would force people out of their homes. And Urban and Rural areas have a symbiotic relationship; one can’t survive without the goods and services of the other. Negotiating trade agreements would be a nightmare.

Living in a Rural area, I can sympathize with some of the sentiment. We don’t have many of the advantages of an Urban environment. Jobs are low-paying and hard to come by even if you have a good education, which many lack. If the main employer of blue-collar labor shuts down, everyone suffers. I don’t blame scared people for wishing for a return to the “good old days;” however, I know that those good old days, when a person could make a good living and support a family with a high school education, were only attainable for a brief period in the middle of the twentieth century. I think when people rally to the cry of “Make America Great Again,” that’s what they want: The dream they’ve been denied. Giving up on a dream is hard. It’s easier to cast blame on one group or another and reach for simple (though not easy) solutions than it is to change an ingrained system of thought. Though Horatio Alger “rags to riches” stories are part of the American mythos, most of the populace are not innovators or entrepreneurs. They’re more secure in the assurance that everyone knows their place. Now everything is topsy-turvy, and it frightens them.

A little while ago, my husband came back from a gig with his Blues band and told me about a conversation he’d had with his buddy, the guitarist. His friend had mentioned reading of a college professor who said “Any white person living in this society is racist,” and how it had put him off. My husband took the opportunity to clarify, explaining how when a certain group of people has power, they tend to construct their society around themselves, paying attention only to the things that matter to them, which pushes people who don’t fit the model further and further to the margins. So, in this case, whether or not a white person actively holds racist views, they benefit from a racist society in ways people of other races don’t. And that, my husband went on, is what’s meant by privilege. He managed to get intersectionality in there, too. His friend understood; in fact, he said it was the first time any of that stuff made sense.

We need more conversations like that and fewer recriminations. But as long as people hold fear and pain close to their hearts and come to the table with minds unwilling to stretch and ears unwilling to hear, I doubt they’ll ever take place.

 

Dysphoria

I didn’t plan to write this post on National Coming Out Day. I didn’t plan to write it at all. But I have thoughts, and you know where that leads me.

After I published the post “Ugly,” a dear friend–one I’ve known a long time, who may know me better than anyone–mentioned that the feelings I expressed are similar to those experienced by many LGBTQ+ and trans folk before coming out and/or transitioning, and that coming out and/or transitioning sometimes helps (although not always). Thinking about that, it seemed to me I’ve been attempting to come out for a while; I just don’t know what as. I’m not gay. I’m not trans. I don’t know what I am. My friend suggested Otherkin, but I have my qualms about that term for various reasons. My husband sometimes says, “You’re not human; you’re Fae.” I don’t know how serious he is, or how I feel about that, either.

Once, many years ago, when discussing social problems with a friend, I pointed out that as a white male he can expect certain things from the world. He replied, “I’m not white.” I pointed to his very pale skin and mentioned his European ancestry. He said, “I’m not white. I grew up poor in a ghetto in Detroit. All my friends were Black. I listened to Black music. That’s my culture.” We argued back and forth for a time, and eventually I conceded: he doesn’t consider himself white. I don’t think that means that he never got any of the privileges that come with white skin in our world, but I understand the internal experience. I know it’s taboo and people of color really, really object to the idea for an overwhelming number of valid reasons, but most of the time I don’t feel white, either. It doesn’t mean I don’t benefit from my whiteness in myriad ways, but it’s another thing that makes it hard to find a place to be.

The idea of my experiencing a similar dysphoria to LGBTQ+ folk interests me, though. It shines a light on many of my body issues. One thing I’ve returned to over and over again in the last years as I’ve put on so much weight is this: I don’t dislike my body because it’s fat. I dislike it because it doesn’t feel like it’s mine. I started out hating myself for being fat, and that continued until very recently. But it’s no longer the case, except tangentially. The more of my body there is, the more I feel it’s not the one I’m supposed to have. I think this is one of the things that makes it so hard for me to find any love for my body or practice any form of body positivity.

Trouble is, I haven’t a clue what body I am supposed to have. My therapist asked me about this several sessions ago. I stammered, at a loss for words–a highly unusual state for me. Finally I pulled out my phone and showed her a meme I’d saved. “This is what I look like inside my head.”

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She asked why, what struck me about this picture. Again, I couldn’t answer, except to say, “She looks strong.” I don’t know what this means, either.

I am not physically strong. Once I could claim a great deal of physical endurance, if not muscle strength. Now, I can’t even claim that. And of course, there are many deceptively simple answers to building endurance and muscle strength. But in our culture, they all play into modes of thought I don’t want in my life. I don’t like many physical activities for their own sake. Forcing myself to do them is more harmful than helpful. Going to the gym and trying to engage in circuit lifting for two weeks triggered a month of PTSD flashbacks. How do I make myself do something I hate without hating myself? How do I make a change in my body without saying the body I have is wrong? How can a person be present in the moment and still believe in a future where things are different? It doesn’t help that I have no models. As in the meme above, every time I see a picture that “looks like me,” it doesn’t really look like me, because I’m fat and my body isn’t built along the lines currently considered photo-worthy.

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, and I don’t know what to do with these thoughts. I just had to write them down, because for a moment something seemed clear.

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.

Before You Bemoan Trigger Warnings and Coddled Youth…

Today, I got triggered because my jeans were too tight.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” you may be thinking. “That’s ridiculous. Aren’t you taking this whole concept a bit too far?”

Well, yes and no. Yes, it’s ridiculous. Even I think it’s ridiculous. And no, I’m not taking it too far.

See, I have profound issues with my body (if you’ve read any of my blog posts, you already know this, or at least suspect it). When I was 17, I almost died of anorexia nervosa. I struggled with a severe eating disorder for years after, and have never felt entirely comfortable in my body. I’ve put on a large amount of weight in the past five years or so, and everything that makes me notice it brings all those issues to the surface. Clothes that no longer fit right. The sense of being compressed into too small a space, a space I once inhabited with (relative) ease.

This is what it feels like: I can’t breathe, and I don’t know whether it’s from the tightness of my clothes or something in my head, a stress response. My heart races. My body starts to shake. All the horrible things I’ve ever thought about my body, all the horrible things anyone has ever said about my body, fill my mind, pushing out everything else. I’m terrified to move. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that something is happening over which I have no control. The idea of control in itself is vague and illusory. I feel helpless. I want to run and hide, or fight, but I’m incapable of neither. There’s no safety wherever I turn.

All from squeezing myself into a pair of too-small jeans.

Breathe.

I have a lot of triggers like that: triggers other people might consider “stupid” or trivial. I haven’t actually been through a lot of things that were life-threatening in the moment, and the ones I have experienced pale beside earlier sustained trauma. Yes, it was terrifying in the moment being raped. But in all honestly, it didn’t mark me the way it marks other people. I got over it fairly quickly. I can read graphic descriptions of rape and other physical violence. I can even see them on TV or in movies, though I don’t like them. It’s the little stuff that gets to me, because my trauma was day-to-day over a long period of time. Everyday things other people don’t notice are loaded in ways that are hard to explain. Tight clothes. The idea of exercise. I have a hard time with the mere word, “exercise.” Playing music. Trying to make conversation. Leaving my house, which is mostly safe. People not being honest about what they’re feeling–I guess that may be more common than I suppose. Hunger, which I experience several times a day. Imagine having a fight or flight response every time you get hungry. 

My point is, no one can know what’s going to trigger another person. You can’t say, “Oh, that. I don’t have any trouble with that, so you shouldn’t either.” You can’t say, “Your desire to be safe and informed in this area is a symptom you need to pull up your panties and grow up. The world has bad stuff in it; get over it.” Triggers don’t work that way. Instead of judging by your own experience, maybe try showing some compassion and trying to understand.

I think most people want things to be easy and to fall into neat categories: THIS is something that could be triggering and THIS isn’t. THIS is normal human experience; THIS is beyond the pale. But mental health issues don’t work that way at all. Definitions change all the time as understanding changes. In my lifetime alone, homosexuality was removed from the DSM; I was hospitalized with men whose only “illness” was “being gay,” and mental health professionals didn’t begin to address the results of the ways they were treated because of it. In my lifetime, Manic Depressive Psychosis has become Bipolar Disorder, has become Bipolar Spectrum Disorder. Most people still view PTSD through a single lens. The idea of CPTSD is catching on, but it’s still not an “official” diagnosis.

So, you know, shut up about other people’s triggers. I know it’s difficult to build a standard policy on shifting sand, but that’s not our problem.

That’s all.

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.

Save

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.