Hoops

The other day I was lurking in a comment thread on an article examining how one solution to homelessness is to give people houses, much along the same idea as one way to alleviate poverty is to give people money. The thread went in a number of different directions. One was the difference between private charity (e.g., church-run) and public (i.e., government sponsored) charity. The consensus being that private charity often  involves certain stipulations to ascertain whether the impoverished person is “deserving” of help (do you go to the right church, life your life the right way, etc.) whereas public charity tries to distribute resources more equitably.

Whoa, hold on there, hoss. As a poor person, I disagree. Okay, the government may try to distribute resources more equitably, but US culture is so steeped in ideas of the virtues of capitalism and the idleness of the poor that the people making laws can’t help but spout nonsense every time they open their mouths. How would they? They literally have no idea what being poor is. As a result, ideas about deserving show up in all the ways meant to help people in need. They take the form of hoops you have to jump through to get that help, and while they may be different hoops than, say, being required to recite the Lord’s Prayer before supper or having to sleep in a separate shelter than your life partner due to ideas about morality (or, for that matter, not being acceptable to a shelter at all if you’re gay), they do more to hinder and demoralize us poors than to give us a hand.

We’re currently in the process of seeking some assistance, and here are some of the hoops I’ve noticed.

The Childless Hoop

Virtually every form of public assistance I’ve looked at prefers, and in the case of being eligible for immediate aid requires, that there be minor children present in the house. Now I happen to think it’s great the government wants to feeds children despite some politicians’ best efforts to the contrary. And I don’t believe that people would elect to have children solely to get those cushy benefits, as I’m sure some do. However, as a childless poor woman I feel even more of a second-class citizen every time I fill out a form asking if there are minor children in the house and know my chances of getting help would be better if there were. (In fact, back in the dim and distant past, the first time I applied for assistance [unemployment], the case worker told me to my face I might as well give up trying since I didn’t have children. And this was before Clinton’s Welfare Reform, mind.) Moreover, as a childless woman who desperately wanted children but couldn’t have them, I feel slapped in the face every time I have to answer that same question. Not pleasant, or easy.

The Distance Hoop

The other day, my husband had to drive some forms over to the county social services extension in the next town, a distance of ten miles. When he got home, he told me, “I was watching the gas gauge the entire way, and I’m going to have to come up with some money to put in the tank by the end of the week or I won’t be able to get to work.”

Every time we have to turn in a piece of paperwork or attend an in-person interview, at least one of us has to travel those ten miles at minimum. If we can’t do what we need to do at the extension office and have to go all the way to the main social services building, that’s thirty miles. One way. There’s no public transportation in the rural area where we live. If we didn’t have a working vehicle, we’d have to borrow one or beg a ride, or we’d be stuck. It’s asking a bit much, I think, of poor people to require they have a car–and the gas for it–to be able to apply for assistance. And it plays directly into the next hoop we have to jump through, which is

The Time Hoop

Applying for assistance takes time. No matter what some people believe, you can’t just walk into an office and claim you need help, and walk away with a fat cheque. There are myriad forms to fill out, and interviews to attend, and more paperwork to file after the first lot has been processed. We’ve been working on this process for six weeks now, and we have no word whether we even qualify.

Government agencies don’t care about your time, and that’s dehumanizing. And it’s even worse in rural areas. Sure, some things can be done through the post, but the post isn’t reliable. Here the post has to go from Delta, where the main social services office is located, all the way to Grand Junction to be processed, and only then back to our small town. This can take days. Back last summer when my husband had his work accident and we were trying to see if we could get it covered on his insurance, we got a notification that we needed to file certain paperwork after the date it was due. Consequently, his whole claim was denied. More recently, we received notification of a phone interview the evening before it was to take place (at 8:30 the next morning). This doesn’t leave much time to make arrangements–in our case, with my husband’s job, in other cases, for childcare or anything else necessary to make sure you have a chunk of time available. And we were lucky; our interview could be conducted over the phone. If you have to go in, in our area that’s 30 miles to cover to get to the main office, then another chunk of time waiting–there’s always waiting–and then up to another hour for the interview itself. If you have to travel and you lack a car, you can easily blow an entire day getting to and from one interview. In that long ago time when I filed for unemployment, I had to ride a local bus from Ann Arbor to Ypsilanti several times. It’s a distance of ten miles; it took 45 minutes there and back, plus the time at the social services office every time. That didn’t leave much during the day for other things like, say, looking for other work.

The Proof Hoop

I’m convinced that the reason for all these hoops is that the social safety net–for what it’s worth–in the US isn’t designed benefit people at all. It’s designed to keep out those whom the system decides don’t qualify, for whatever seemingly arbitrary reason. And nowhere is this more evident than in the mountains of proof required to convince social service workers that you actually need and qualify for help (the accumulation of which takes time which you may not have, mind).

Take my disability claim. I have had a serious mental illness my entire life. Numerous doctors have treated me for it. Many of those have told me and those around me that I would never be able to work a full time job. (My parents were told “she’ll never be able to take care of herself” when I was eighteen.) Despite this, it took me until ten years ago to think that maybe I might qualify for disability, So I filled out the forms and was denied off the bat.

This is not unusual. Generally disability claims are denied the first time you apply, unless there’s reason to believe you won’t live another six months. If you appeal, you have a chance of your claim being granted, but you have to supply ample proof of your disability and, in many states (mine included), attend a court hearing.

I wasn’t up to the task, so I enlisted a lawyer who would take for his fee a portion of the award if my claim was granted. What I would do if it weren’t, I had no idea, but I was in bad shape so I went for it.

It took two years. The court demanded all my medical records for the ten years previous, as well as statements from all the doctors I had seen in that time and any I was seeing currently. In addition, I had to fill out another ream of paperwork: all about my treatment, and the meds I was taking, and what steps I had taken not to be disabled. I was deep in a major depressive episode at that time, and I could barely face doing the work. My lawyer called me up and yelled at me for not reviewing my files.

Well, anyway. I guess I presented as crazy enough at my hearing because my claim was granted. But even though I have a lifelong illness, the powers that be see fit to review my case every three to five years to see if I still have Bipolar Disorder. This puts me in a Catch-22, because if I improve too much I’ll lose the disability medical insurance that pays for the medications that helped me improve in the first place, and I’ll be right back where I started.

As a contrast, at the same time as I was going through all this rigmarole, a friend in England with troubles and a depressive episode of her own needed a reprieve from work. She saw her primary care doctor and told him what was going on. He wrote her a slip of paper “signing her off work” for six months, which she took to the nearest benefits office and that was that. Of course, things being what they are in the UK right now, this system may be on the way out.

More recently, as we’ve filed for assistance, we’ve been asked for proof of disability, proof of work, proof of wages earned, proof we no longer had a bank account that’s been closed for ten years, proof that an insurance policy was canceled, proof of debt…and the list goes on and on. All of which serves to solidify my belief that the social service system in the US exists in mortal fear of dispensing benefits to someone who doesn’t “deserve” them.

The poor would be better served, and bureaucracy much reduced, with less judgment and less concern about who deserves what and more compassion and trust. But until more politicians take their heads out of their asses and stop listening only to those with clout and money, attitudes of judgment will continue to infect the very systems claiming to provide relief.

 

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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What I Can’t Forgive

CW: Infertility, discussion of weight loss and eating disorders

If you’ve been around the fat activist or body positivity communities, you may have heard the axiom “What gets diagnosed in thin people gets prescribed for fat people.” What this means is the medical establishment often encourages fat people to engage in behaviors that would be seen as warning signs in thin people, or overlooks symptoms in fat people that would have them sending thin people to specialists, because ANYTHING is better than being fat, amirite?

For a person born female or assigned female at birth–by this I mean a person in possession of a uterus and ovaries and all those childbearing parts–a BIG warning sign is the cessation of menstrual periods before the age of normal menopause, which, in the United States, is 48-54 years. It often occurs in women with eating disorders, both because of weight loss and the tendency to engage in excessive exercise. Generally speaking, it takes a loss of 10% of body weight to cause amenorrhea.

Let’s look at those numbers. Say a woman who weighs 125 lbs loses 10% of her body weight, or 12.5 lbs. This leaves her weighing 112.5 lbs. If she’s 5’6″, which is an average height in the US, her BMI would be 18. (Personally I despise the BMI as a rating of anything, but it’s what the medical establishment uses, so.) Hey, that’s underweight! Better address that.

Now let’s apply the same reasoning to another 5’6″ tall woman who weighs 200 lbs. She loses 10% of her body weight, or 20 lbs, bringing her weight to 180. Her BMI is now 29. Guess what? She’s still overweight. It doesn’t matter how she lost the weight, or whether she engages in ritualistic eating patterns, or if her periods have stopped. No one will even ask about that. She has to lose over 60 more lbs (achieve a weight of 115 or less) before she hits underweight. I personally know people who started out average, who’ve been hospitalized for an eating disorder at that weight. But if you start out fat, you’ll be congratulated. If you live.

I started menstruating at twelve, and I stopped at fourteen. For five and a half years. My eating disorder hadn’t yet kicked into full force when it happened; I think I’d dropped from 145 lbs to 130. Perfectly within the normal range for a 5’7″ adolescent, despite the way my pediatrician “tsked” over my being “tubby.” No one commented on it. I was just as glad, frankly. Issues of sex and reproduction and sticky fluids disgusted my mother, who left it to the sixth grade film strip to explain matters. When I needed sanitary supplies, I took them from her box of Kotex in the hall closet without mentioning it to anyone. She didn’t hit menopause until after my cycles stopped, so that was convenient. I doubt my dad ever thought about it, despite being the one who did all the shopping for our family. Maybe he believed I got my own supplies somehow. How he thought I achieved this, having no money of my own, I have no idea. My pediatrician complimented me on “slimming down;” later, when I got a bit too thin for his liking, he sent me home with cases of liquid nutritional supplements. They piled up in the pantry, untouched.

Common wisdom is that your cycles are supposed to start again once you gain weight. Mine didn’t. It took a therapist’s intervention and several courses of Provera before that happened.

The reason I rehearse all this old, old information is this: the exact same thing happened the last time I turned my will toward losing a bunch of weight. I was bigger than I’d ever been (though not as big as I am now), and I hated it. More, I hated myself for it. I tried to talk to my then-psychiatrist; I wanted him to understand why it was so difficult and loaded a topic. Despite knowing I’d almost died of anorexia, he just said, “Well, you know how to lose weight. Eat less and be more active. If you really care about your weight, you need to do what’s necessary, not whine about it.”

Deep breath. Can I just take a moment to say how despicable it is for anyone in mental health to use the words “If you really care…?”

Anyway. It took a while, but I decided he probably knew best–he was the doctor, after all. Maybe I was just whining because I was lazy. So, I joined Weight Watchers and boosted my activity. A lot. It worked for a long while. I lost so much weight in the first few weeks that clothes I had just bought fell off of me. And my periods stopped. Again.

That was almost exactly ten years ago; I was forty-four. And while that’s not an unreasonable age to hit menopause, it isn’t quite normal, nor is it normal for women in my genetic line. My mom had cycles well into her fifties, and one of my sisters had her last child at forty-one. I asked my psychiatrist if one of my medications could have caused it; he said no. I asked my primary; she said it was probably perimenopause and my periods would probably be irregular for a number of years, blah, blah, blah, the usual stuff. Which didn’t make any sense to me; they didn’t get irregular, they simply stopped. But no one related it to my weight loss, which, incidentally, they praised. I didn’t bring it up because I was proud of it, and I didn’t want to hear that for some inexplicable reason my body reacts to the slightest weight loss by becoming infertile, which I suspected, and had since I was a teenager. There was still the matter of believing I’d have children some day, despite my age and my mental health issues.

Much later, an acupuncturist told me it probably was the weight loss rather than my age that caused my cycles to stop just then. She may have been saying that to make me feel better, I don’t know. I do know the main reason I stopped “watching my weight” and “let myself” get fat again was that I hoped desperately that, by some magic, it would restore my fertility. It didn’t. The lack of ANY other menopausal symptoms let me hope for a long time, but I’m coming to the place where I think I have to accept that I blew it; I missed my chance for children of my own. It’s hard. I’ve swallowed a lot of bad stuff in my life, but this one…I just can’t seem to get it down. And people suggest adoption (too expensive) or fostering (no space for a person older than three, and I have doubts that we’d pass muster as a foster family), or working with Partners or some other volunteer group, and none of that is what I want. Humility aside, my husband and I are intelligent and educated and self-aware, and I wanted to keep that genetic code in the pool. Too many stupid people breed. I really think that, so sue me.

I can’t forgive my doctors of ten years past for blowing me off. For giving me the easy answers, whether or not they were true (I found out later that Depakote, the mood stabilizer I took at the time and that I’m taking now, has been known to cause PCOS and infertility. I stopped taking it for a long time because of that). For not saying, “Hey, you have a history of anorexia and you’ve lost over 10% of your body weight. Maybe there’s something in that.” I can’t forgive the medical establishment for privileging a specific body size and type over actual health, to the point where the health concerns of those outside that type are routinely ignored. Even at my lowest weight recently, I was still “overweight” by a few points. So obviously there could have been no connection between my early amenorrhea and my weight loss.

But most of all, I can’t forgive myself. As much as I repeat to myself I was in a bad state and in no condition to challenge those with perceived power over me, I can’t forgive myself for not doing it. I can’t forgive myself for not pointing out the correlation between my weight loss and the cessation of my cycles, for not bringing up the similarity to my previous experience. Maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference. At least I would have tried. The thought haunts me, the same way it haunts me how readily I crumpled after two miscarriages when I know women who’ve had three, five, ten, and gone on to have healthy children. Even women in their late forties. As I would have been, had I spoken up.

And sure, there would have been obstacles. Maybe a lot of them. There still would have been my mental health and the financial burden to address, the need to talk my husband around; I might not have been capable of those things. Some people think it’s “selfish” for older parents to have children; there would have been that judgment to face, along with all the judgments parents face. That’s if I even managed to carry a pregnancy to term, no telling what more failures would have done to me. I thought at the time I couldn’t face another miscarriage. Now I see that as cowardice.

Aslan, the godlike Lion in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books, always tells the human characters, “You can never know what might have been.” My imagination amply provides me with “might have beens” every day, and none of them seem worse than where I am right now. I’d give everything I have for one more chance.

I think this grief and blame and regret will follow me the rest of my days.

 

 

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.

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Writing the Female Gaze

ThePartingMirror_ front_smallI’ve written seven novels in my Caitlin Ross series now, and unless the coming release of The Well Below the Valley changes things, the one that has prompted the most divisive opinions among readers is The Parting Glass. There are a lot of reasons I’d expect this to be the case–my PoC characters rely too much on tired tropes, for example. But that’s not what I hear. Simply put, reader response falls into two camps: Those who like Romance novels love it, and those who don’t, don’t. They see the entire second act, which focuses on Caitlin and Timber’s developing relationship, as a distraction from the main story. If they’ve started at the beginning of the series, which most have, they’ve read three books of magic and action by this point. They want more magic and action, not this icky love stuff, thank you.

This interests me.

When I started the series, I didn’t set out to write Romance. In fact, I set out NOT to write Romance. (I didn’t set out to write a series, either, but that’s beside the point, I guess.) I did, however, have two specific agenda. First of all, I wanted to portray a true-to-life Witch rather than a sensationalized one. As you’ll know if you’ve read the books, I did end up giving Caitlin some extraordinary powers because doing without them became far too complicated and adding them kept things interesting. For the most part, though, I stick to the thought process, actions, and world view one would expect from a long time practicing Pagan. I also wanted to present exceptional Tarot readings, because at the point where I began I was sick to death of every Urban Fantasy author inserting an obligatory Tarot scene when they obviously knew nothing whatsoever of the subject beyond reading the little pamphlet that comes with the deck.

Second, I wanted to show a realistic relationship between a stable, long-term couple who, though they disagree and even argue from time to time, actually communicate pretty well. That’s why I started the series with Caitlin and Timber several years into their marriage. I wanted to avoid the inevitable “sorting out” period every relationship goes through. In fact, I didn’t want the book to be about their relationship at all. I wanted the relationship to be part of the setting, like the house or the town: an interesting backdrop for events, rather than an event in and of itself.

I had numerous reasons for wanting to do this. I enjoy the occasional Romance, especially those that are well-written and/or have an interesting premise. However, stand-alone Romance novels tend to rely on certain tropes I’m not fond of. Even those with “strong” heroines often fall back on traditional gender roles. The hero may start out as kind of an asshole, at least on the surface, and it’s up to the heroine to pierce his soft center and get him to recognize her equal standing. Disagreements can usually be traced to lack of effective communication. I find this frustrating. I don’t mind when characters have secrets like “Honey, I’m from the future,” or “I conned my way into this social position.” Major revelations require a level of trust not usually present at the start of a relationship. But refusing to share pertinent information because the author needs to sustain the conflict is a sure turn off for me.

I created Timber MacDuff as a man who specifically does not balk at communicating. He has his share of flaws and secrets, sure. But when it comes to his relationship with Caitlin, he talks openly and honestly. He has to, because Caitlin is more than normally sensitive to nuance and hidden subtext. If she fails to call him on obfuscation, it’s because she has her own issues clouding the matter. More, they’re both self-aware enough that they don’t need the constant release of fighting over trivial matters to prop up avoidance of underlying conflict. If Caitlin reminds Timber to please rinse the sink after trimming his beard, he doesn’t take it as a personal affront and need to escalate to the point of a power struggle. He just rinses the sink. On the other hand, if Timber recommends against a course of action, Caitlin may not like it, and she may do it anyway, but she doesn’t question his motives. She trusts he has her best interests at heart, and isn’t trying to exert dominance by controlling her. I made their partnership as equal as I possibly could while grounding it in reality. Caitlin’s forthrightness and practicality balances Timber’s occasional emotional outbursts, and Timber’s wisdom tempers her tendency to take risks.

So what does all this have to do with the topic of this post, writing the female gaze?

With the exception of Demon Lover, which alternates between Caitlin’s point of view and Timber’s, I write the series from the Caitlin’s first person perspective. Being inside her brain, as it were, it doesn’t take long to see that she’s Timber’s equal sexually as well as intellectually. Getting back to The Parting Glass, the first time she lays eyes on him she goes weak in the knees. She thinks he’s hot. She wants him. We see this in other books as well. When the series begins, they’ve been together almost eight years, and the fire hasn’t burned out. She likes looking at him. She makes no bones about it. He has a fantastic ass; it turns her on. It’s not a huge part of any of the books except for The Parting Glass, but it’s there. And I’ve received more than a handful of reader comments leading me to believe that people find this uncomfortable. Things like “Caitlin objectifies Timber too much” and “Timber only exists in this book as a sex object.” None of this feedback, by the way, came from male readers, of which I have several. They all came from women.

Now, I’ve read a great many books where the male protagonist thinks or voices similar opinions of the female protagonist, and unless it’s taken to extremes, very few people comment on this behavior when it’s coming from a man. From a man, it’s flattering, expected, even admirable. I’ve never been criticized for Timber expressing his desire for Caitlin. He can throw her over his shoulder and carry her to bed or say outright that he wants her and means to “have” her, and no one raises an eyebrow. This leads me to wonder if the underlying reason for people’s discomfort is not the expression of desire and attraction in itself, but the fact that it’s coming from a woman.

We all know–or at this point we should know–that most entertainment media caters to the male gaze, the cisgender, heterosexual male gaze in particular. Female characters possess a specific kind of beauty, the big-boobed, small-waisted variety, with or without a shapely booty, depending on preference. Most leading women are under the age of thirty. Even those marooned on mysterious islands without modern amenities or stuck in the middle of the Zombie Apocalypse have mysteriously smooth legs and armpits. Male writers of “strong female characters (TM)” dwell on details like the sensation of moving breasts and the slide of silk over newly-washed skin in a way real life women seldom do. Men can be loud, dirty, and combative without much personal consequence, but women can’t. Not and remain “attractive.” A dirty, loud woman is presented as flawed. A woman stepping outside the role of peacemaker is ridiculed; a woman reaching for power falls; a woman acting upon her sexual desires is punished.

But women have sexual desires and urges. Women look at men they find attractive (Disclaimer: I’m speaking specifically of het women). They like butts, and abs, and shoulders. They like bellies and beards and feet. Anyone who’s spent any amount of time around a group of women knows this. Anyone even peripherally aware of the many, many fandoms revolving around shows with gorgeous male stars–Outlander, Supernatural, and Arrow, to name a few of the current ones–should know this. Men can be beautiful. Their beauty takes infinite forms, just as women’s beauty does. People in sexual relationships are attracted to one another. Isn’t it about time to admit it goes both ways?

Caitlin thinks Timber is beautiful. Sure: It’s the first thing she notices about him. Haven’t you ever seen a stranger and thought, “Wow, what a hottie!” I know I have. It’s Caitlin’s first impression, and it’s all she knows. As they come to know each other better, however, she adds to that first impression. He’s smart, talented, a craftsman, a shaman. Caitlin’s attraction doesn’t cause her to discount those things, as it would if she saw him as no more than a sexual object. And familiarity, if anything, deepens her attraction rather than diminishes it. After years of marriage, she still thinks he’s hot. It’s as much a part of their relationship as the magic.

It may be that women critique Caitlin’s sexuality and the way she views Timber because women are more overtly aware of sexual objectification, being more subject to it. I think, though, that there’s an aspect of internalized sexism in the act. All too often we still cram women into the virgin/whore dichotomy. We expect our female characters to behave certain ways around sex, to be the one acted upon rather than the actor. A woman who’s up front about her sexuality, who picks and chooses and directs instead of going along, is a challenge to our self concepts and our own relationships with carnality. In claims that Caitlin treats Timber as a sex object, I hear the echo of a patriarchal standard warning us that if we own our bodies and our desires, we must necessarily treat the men in our lives the way women have been treated: as lesser beings, unfit to be equal partners.

When you release a book into the world, you lose control over it. People interpret stories differently than you intended. They project their own issues onto your characters and read deep meaning in the most innocent actions (One reviewer had a real problem with Caitlin not wearing makeup on a regular basis because it was “obviously meant to show she’s superior to other women” and decided that despite Caitlin’s relative insouciance about her appearance “the reader is supposed to know she’s always the hottest girl in the room.”). I know this, and yet the claims of Timber being objectified because his wife likes the way he looks and enjoys having sex still bother me. They show we have a long way to go before women’s points of view become normal and women’s sexuality, in all its many forms, becomes as acceptable as men’s.

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Illness Isn’t A Performance

I’m tired of performing my illness.

If you have a chronic illness or a disability (physical or mental) you may be nodding right now. If you’re able bodied and neurotypical, you may be puzzled. What the hell does it mean to “Perform an Illness?”

Maybe I should have led with, “I’m tired of the need to perform illness.” Because it’s not just me. It seems like this past week I’ve seen an unusual number of articles, blog posts, and tweets about performing illness, from this discussion of what constitutes a “real” migraine to my friend being told she doesn’t “Look Sick” (a classic), to a couple of people writing about how tired they are of curating media presence in order to appear to be “doing” their illness “right.”

I’m not the first person to write on this topic. I have no doubt I will not be the last. If you’re here, you probably have some interest in what I have to say, or are at least curious. So here’s my 2 p.

First off, for latecomers to the discussion:  What does it mean to “perform” an illness?

Simply put, performing an illness is aligning the way you present as a chronically ill person with the expectations of somebody who is not yourself. It can also be aligning your presentation to conform to the expectations of a group you’re part of. (I’ll be addressing this eventually, probably in a different blog post.) What your performance looks like depends on context, and it may be affected by things like the identity of the individual or group as well as your own reasons for performing. It might look like moaning a little when you’re enduring a migraine so your partner understands they can’t expect you to cook dinner. Even people whose illnesses aren’t chronic may do it, exaggerating hoarseness and sniffles over the phone so the boss believes it when they call in sick.

The need to perform illness always stems from ableism, whether internal or external. Part of any privilege is the tendency of people with more power to define people with less. Thus, you get white people defining what it means to be Black, thin people defining what it means to be fat, and able people defining what it means to be sick and/or disabled. These definitions are invariably rooted in stereotypes, because they’re created by people who are outside the communities they presume to address.

Applying stereotypes to living, breathing human beings is always damaging, but a unique aspect of the stereotypes about illness is that ill and disabled people can sometimes find benefit in “playing to” them. The stereotype of, for example, fat people as lazy, overindulgent, ignorant of the benefits of “healthy” food, and a drain on resources is overwhelmingly negative. A fat person can alleviate some of the negativity of the stereotype by “playing to” a slightly different one, the “Good Fatty,” i.e., a fat person actively engaged in not being fat through exercise, adopting “healthy” eating habits, undergoing surgery, or a combination. In the case of the ill or disabled person, performing illness to suit preconceived notions of what it looks like usually has results that appear positive. You can gain sympathy, for example, or simply get a rest from having the validity of your illness questioned. The flip side is that failing to perform your illness in a way that fits the stereotype can result in negative consequences. A person who lays aside a needed mobility aid for a short period of time may encounter hateful judgments about whether or not they’re pretending to be ill. Likewise, a person needing accommodation in the workplace may be deprived of it if they don’t need it every single time, or a person with a mental illness may be accused of faking it unless they consistently act irrational, depressed, or whatever other way is considered normative for the illness.

To make matters worse, even people who should know better, like doctors and advocates, can practice ableism when they adhere dogmatically to diagnostic criteria. “Official” designations in the DSM and other resources might be helpful in determining what code will persuade an insurance company to approve treatment (and the need to gain approval from people whose main concern is cost rather than health comes with its own set of problems). However, when dealing with real people, it’s important to remember the experience of illness rarely goes by the book. Some symptoms may be common; others less so. Some diseases manifest differently in different people, or have different forms. We don’t know everything there is to know about illness, whether physical or mental. New syndromes are being identified all the time. The best way to determine whether a person is sick and/or disabled is to listen to that person. Of course, this often doesn’t happen. The Western world has an almost pathological fear of being taken advantage of, of people getting things they “don’t deserve,” and this plays out in its treatment of sick and disabled people.

Here’s an example from my personal experience: A number of years back, during a major depressive episode, it occurred to me that I suffered a real mental illness that prevented me from engaging in the world in a lot of ways, and I might qualify for disability support.

I need to pause here to say that writing the last sentence triggered a LOT of anger in me, for a LOT of reasons. I started experiencing symptoms of depression and bipolar disorder in early adolescence. I developed an eating disorder so severe I almost died from it, and doctors told my parents at least once that I know of that I had a mental illness so severe I “would never be able to take care of” myself [whatever that meant]. Yet the reality of my illness didn’t sink in until I was past forty. I don’t think this is due to the illness, itself. I knew at a young age that something odd was going on in my brain and I begged for treatment. But Western culture is so ableist that it actively encourages sick people to ignore their experience when it prevents them from conforming to expectations. You can see this in every television commercial for cold medicine where a miserable, coughing, sneezing, feverish person downs a magic elixir or pops a couple pills and goes right back to the grind, symptoms relieved. I cannot understand why this is promoted as positive behavior. It doesn’t serve people; it serves employers who can’t be bothered to treat workers as human beings. There may be times when it’s absolutely vital to attend a meeting or intervene in a crisis despite illness, but in all honesty, those times are few and far between.

Anyway. I decided to apply for disability. The process of doing this in the US is horrendous. It’s based on that pathological fear of people getting something for “nothing,” and the powers that be require sick people to jump through a lot of hoops to prove they’re really sick (unless you’re on your death bed; I have a few friends who were granted disability pretty fast when they were not expected to live more than a few months).

I filled out the on line application and it was denied. I learned later that applications are pretty much routinely denied, as a way to sort out those who are “really serious” about pursuing the matter from those who apply on a whim. Since the application is long and difficult to complete in the first place, that seems excessive, but that’s the way it works. I appealed. The appeals process stretched out over two years. It involved gathering documentation from every conceivable source, going back for ten years. Every doctor I’d seen in that time had to provide a statement. My therapist recommended a good lawyer. Without him, I never would have gotten through the appeal. Even with his help, I was tempted to give up more than once.

Because of ableist attitudes, my doctors disagreed as to whether or not my illness constituted a disability. Those who knew me best asserted that it did. Others, who’d seen me rarely or only on good days, said it didn’t. My psychiatrist at the time proved the biggest stumbling block, because despite the facts that I’d never been able to participate in a “normal” job more than eighteen months, had never worked full time at all, and participating in standard workplace environments made me verifiably psychotic and suicidal, he claimed I could handle a job if I “really wanted to.” That is, because I didn’t present as irrational during my meds checks (fifteen minutes once every couple months, the only time he saw me), I was not disabled.

I had to have a hearing before a judge and a panel of experts. My lawyer advised me to let my hair grow out, not to care for my appearance, and to show up in sweatpants. That is, I had to perform my disability right. Putting on what I considered the appropriate clothes to appear before a judge would have been a mark against me. Breaking down in tears during the hearing was a plus. The fact that I’d managed to graduate college was a minus, because people with severe mental illnesses don’t complete college. Etcetera.

In the end, the judge decided in my favor. At this point, some readers may be angry because I “gamed the system.” I’m angry because the system as it is required gaming for me to get my needs met. At the same time as I was going through all this, a friend in the UK was suffering a major depressive episode, too. She went to her doctor, told him what she was going through, and he gave her a slip of paper saying she needed disability support because she couldn’t work due to her mental condition. That was IT.

My experience is one example of the need to perform illness for the able. The consequences of requiring sick and disabled people to perform stretch much further and have an extreme negative impact on our lives. They’ll continue to do so as long as able people are the ones defining disability. One thing I notice a lot is how much the very idea of disability, at least in the US, depends on the normalization of unhealthy aspects of capitalist/corporate culture, like quelling your symptoms with cold medicine so you can go back to work. The idea is, if there’s any way at all you CAN conform, then you’re not considered disabled, no matter how much physical or mental distress you might be in. In this culture, the only way to “earn a living” (in itself a horrific concept) is to work at a paying “job.” Yet jobs providing a steady source of income take limited forms. Even with accommodation, many with chronic physical and mental illness cannot participate in these forms. We may be suited to other work where remuneration is less automatic (or doesn’t exist at all). But there’s always the fear that if you make too much noise about this other work, you’ll sacrifice the support systems that allow you to do it at all.

Here’s another personal example: I’m an author. I’ve published six books in my Caitlin Ross series (gratuitous promo: check out a sample!) As a self-publisher, I do virtually all the work on every book myself. I do the formatting, the interior design, and the editing, in addition to writing the numerous drafts of every volume. Some days I work twelve hours at a stretch. Other days, I can’t work at all due to one or another of my illnesses.

I’m not independently wealthy. The ONLY reason I can engage in my career is my disability (well, that an an understanding partner). The extra $400 a month (yep, that’s all) and the insurance covering my medications assuages the guilt of not “earning a living” enough so that I can focus on writing. Yes, some (most) authors work at full time paying jobs aside from writing. I cannot do this. Working at a job-job takes so much out of me that I simply cannot do anything else. I wish I didn’t have to explain this every time, but I feel like I do because of voices both internal and external that scream “BUT SO-AND-SO WROTE [Bestseller[ WHILE WORKING 12-HOUR SHIFTS AT WALMART; WHY CAN’T YOU?”

Anyway. I live in fear that some government official will see those six novels, or get wind of the days I work a lot, and decide, “If she can do that, she can go get a job at the gas station down the street,” and cut my disability. Because in the mind of an able person, time is time and effort is effort, and what’s the big deal? Even my last therapist made cracks about “people on disability hanging out scribbling in the coffee shop instead of doing something productive,” as if the ability to do one is the same as the ability to do the other. Sick and disabled people are constantly walking this tightrope between performing the disability well enough to be believed and maintaining quality of life, because to able people having any quality of life at all is a privilege to which they alone can aspire.

Really, as far as I can see, the only way of doing away with the need to perform illness is to redefine society’s relationship to it and make room for people to live their lives in the best way they can. It would require a sea change in our relationship to the very concepts of ability and disability, and it would start with listening to sick and disabled people and believing what they say about their experience.

I suppose that’s too much to hope for, but I can dream.

4 Ways the Publishing Industry Promotes Ableism

CW: Ableism, Mental Illness

I am afraid to write this post.

I’ve been thinking these things for a long time, years even. I want to talk about them. And I’m afraid. I’m afraid because the Publishing and Literary community is small, small, small. Even when you include self-publishing and small presses, it’s tiny. You’re always running into the same people. And it’s easy to be seen as contentious, a problem, for your reputation to be damaged. Which, in turn, damages your career. I’m afraid because the things on my mind are hard to talk about, and because I am certain there will be people out there keen to invalidate my concerns. It’s difficult not to invalidate my own concerns in this arena, tell myself I’m not doing it right or not trying hard enough. And as much as I tell myself these are messages I’ve internalized because of ableism, the questions remain: Am I whining? Am I seeing a problem that doesn’t exist and using it to rationalize my lack of success? Am I simply “not good enough?”

I’m afraid to write this post, and I’m going to write it anyway.

Last night I stumbled on this article on Everyday Feminism. It’s an article about “Inspiration Porn,” which is also known sometimes as “Disability Porn,” and why it’s harmful to people with disabilities. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, “Inspiration Porn” is a class of memes that feature an image of a person with a disability–a double amputee with prosthetic legs, a person in a wheelchair, etc.–accomplishing something popularly assumed to be impossible for a person with a disability. Crossing the finish line at a marathon, accepting an honors diploma. Like that. The text points out the disability: “So and so lost both legs in a tragic accident,” and lauds the achievement: “and went on to place in the top five in the Boston Marathon!” The meme closes with some variation of “What’s your excuse for not achieving stuff?”

You’ve seen these memes. I’m sure you have. If you want to understand more about why they hurt people with disabilities, read the article.

The information and analysis weren’t new to me. I read a lot of these types of articles. I read them not to learn about topics I have no knowledge of (although I do often gain new knowledge, and I always want to hear about other people’s experiences). I read them for validation, to see how others cope with problems I face, to get some reassurance that the problems are real, not just figments of my imagination. With this article, I got more than I bargained for when, toward the end, the author started to rant about ableism in literary circles (again, read the article). This is a subject near and dear to my heart, and I have never before heard/seen someone address it in public. If it gets talked about at all, it’s in whispers and private messages. Because, as I’ve already said, the publishing industry is small, and it’s easy to be labeled a malcontent and a malingerer if you challenge the way things are done.

Hey, time for me to give my disability cred! It sucks that I don’t feel like I can continue this post without doing so–and I think that’s probably another kind of ableism–but I do feel that way, so here it is: Chronic Migraine Disorder. Complex PTSD. Social Anxiety Disorder. General Anxiety Disorder. Bipolar with Chronic Depression. All these are currently “managed” as well as is possible for me. Please note that “managed” means I can “function” and/or appear as “normal” to a certain degree about three-quarters of the time as long as I am diligent about self-care. And there are still days when one or the other of these disorders flares without warning, and all I can do is initiate the routines that keep me from jumping in front of a train and wait it out. (N. B. If you think the “jumping in front of a train” part is hyperbole, IT ISN’T.)

Let me also take time to point out that all the above disabilities are INVISIBLE. I don’t need mobility aids. (Actually, aside from the migraines, my body is in pretty decent shape.) I’m not deformed–unless you think fat is a deformity, and some do. I am not missing any limbs. I do not match the picture of “disability” most able people carry in their heads. My disabilities are nonetheless real, and they have a profound effect on the way I live my life.

Good gods, if I could only communicate to you how difficult it was to say “my disabilities are real,” and how loudly the voices in my head rose in protest. When I talk/write about this stuff, the struggle to articulate is constant. I’m sure everyone has their moments of self doubt. I am equally sure that if everyone had my brain process, nothing would get done anywhere, ever.

So, publishing. Over the last year or so, as I’ve said elsewhere, the publishing industry has expressed an interest in being more inclusive and putting out more “diverse” books–meaning books written from perspectives and including characters other than the usual white, cis, het, able-bodied, neurotypical, standard-religion-having ones that comprise 90% of what gets published (no, this isn’t a hard percentage). Agent and editor wish lists solicit submissions from People of Color, LGBTQ+ people, and disabled people, and look for stories featuring the same. This is great. I support it! I can’t be enthusiastic enough about the trend!

And yet. Speaking as a person with mental illness–several of them–I have this to say: Despite the inclusive words, the actual practices of the traditional publishing industry promote ableism in that they require people with disabilities to jump through hoops they are not capable of jumping through, and often fault people with disabilities for not performing “professional writer” to an able standard. I’ve believed for years that my problems with the practices of traditional publishing were all on me, signs of my intractability and unwillingness to comply with the “norm,” maybe born out of a weak will and lack of dedication to succeeding in my chosen profession, or maybe from a flawed personality and sheer orneriness. Reading the article last night was literally the first time I allowed myself to believe, “Hey, maybe this isn’t just me. Maybe the flaw is in the system.” I’d thought it before, but I always dismissed the idea.

Here are four ways the publishing industry promotes ableism. For the purposes of this list, I focus on invisible disability and mental illness, because that’s where my personal experience is. Also, there may be other ways the industry fails to accommodate disabilities. These are the first that came to my mind.

#1: Reliance on Social Interaction/Networking

How many times have I read the acknowledgments page in a book by a new author and seen some variation on the words: “Thanks to (INSERT WELL-KNOWN AUTHOR) who encouraged me and recommended my manuscript to his agent”? Or seen (traditionally) published authors suggest that newcomers “get to know” people in the industry, either in person at conferences or on social media? Enough that the message sticks. It’s not a bad message, in and of itself. All businesses rely to some extent on networking, because human beings are social animals. A huge number of people seem, for reasons incomprehensible to me, to want to be authors, so making a personal connection with people in the industry who might be of use in advancing your career is almost a no-brainer. You want agents and editors to remember you.

The reason this is ableist: For people with anxiety disorders, this advice is akin to recommending an extended vacation in the hell of their choice. This goes double if the person is a natural introvert. Some people find it easy to make connections and interact with others. Some find it difficult. For people with anxiety disorders, it’s nearly impossible. Even in a managed state, my daily anxiety level is so high that I almost never leave the house outside of the company of my husband or another person I trust implicitly. I’ve been to one writing conference in my life–and, by the way, suggesting people attend conferences is also classist–and it was so overwhelming I had regularly to retreat to my room to recoup. I managed to engage a few other writers, but I cannot imagine trying to pitch my work in that kind of environment. Putting your heart and soul project on display is hard enough for able people. For people with anxiety disorders, if getting through the meeting is possible, recovering might require days.

I try to perform normative body language, but I know my anxiety often makes me appear stand-offish. I don’t make eye contact. I turn away and cross my arms over my chest. I fidget. All of these are apt to make a negative impression on an able person.

Connecting on social media is somewhat easier, but not much. Frankly, I am exceedingly uncomfortable with all but a small circle of people. Every tweet to someone outside that circle is agony. If the person responds dismissively, or worse, not at all, I am convinced of my utter worthlessness and stupidity. Most of the time, making an overture isn’t worth the expenditure of energy. This isn’t something I can control. It’s the way my brain works. I can tell myself over and over that nothing is personal, blah, blah, blah. And it helps. But it doesn’t alter the process.

For a person with an anxiety disorder, every social interaction requires weighing possible benefit against probable distress and need to recover. Publishing’s focus on social interactions doesn’t take this into account.

#2: The Query Process

I’m pretty sure everyone hates querying and faces it with some mixture of fear and resignation. Most of the writers I know manage to do it anyway. Even I’ve managed to do it. It’s THE WAY THINGS ARE DONE. So how is it ableist?

Okay, I’m going to come out and say that it’s my belief that the whole idea is fucked up beyond belief. I get the need in the industry for some kind of filtering process. I really do. The slush pile is essentially a thing of the past. Big publishers don’t take unagented submissions, or take them very rarely. Agents read submissions in their “off” hours, because they spend their days working for their clients–which is proper. And it’s not uncommon for an agent to get several hundred query submissions in a day. I get that. And I still believe that judging a 100,000-word manuscript by what a writer is able to convey in a 250-word query is incredibly problematic, and points to what I see as flaws in the industry as a whole.

The ability to write an effective query isn’t one that I think comes naturally to many people, and acquiring the ability isn’t easy. You can attend workshops, both on and off line, and these are difficult for people with mental health disabilities for many of the same reasons I cited in point #1. Some websites devoted to writing have forums where you can post your query and get critique. My experience with those is that they are NOT a good place for people with anxiety and trauma. I frequented several when I first started trying to understand the query process, and found that constructive feedback was rare, while demeaning and downright abusive critique abounded.

I have Complex PTSD from abuse and trauma sustained over a long period of time. I know most of my triggers, but that doesn’t stop them from being activated. For me, the entire query process triggered me to a point where I stopped writing at all because I could not perform this necessary task, and if I couldn’t learn it, writing was pointless. I had severe anxiety attacks even trying to learn the skill. Nothing about it is accessible to me. I did eventually learn it, but I had to take the lessons in fifteen-minute doses over the course of several years. If you want to know what that was like for me, imagine choosing to be flayed alive, not just once, but over and over for years, with no expectation of gaining anything by it and no control over the process. The first time isn’t so bad. But with each successive flaying, the terror and the anticipation increases because you know what to expect and how much it’s going to hurt. Yet you force yourself to do it anyway, time and time again. As soon as you heal enough to stand without pain, you invite flaying one more time.

That’s the closest I can come, and it hardly encompasses the intensity of the terror and the determination necessary. Bottom line: The query process isn’t mental health-friendly. It needs to be changed to be more accessible to people with anxiety and trauma if they ever want to see people like themselves represented in print.

#3: Standards of “Professionalism” are Geared Toward the Able and Neurotypical

This one encompasses a lot of different things, like the ability to meet deadlines and engage in  marketing activities like book tours, as well as expectations of acceptable ways of performing “up and coming author.”

Most writers I know are writing all the time, on something or other. When they finish one manuscript, they start another. They go back and forth between projects, rotating writing, revising, editing, and querying. Most of the writers I know also have “day” jobs (I’m including “full time mom” in this category). Having a paying job to support your writing is a necessity for all but a few, because most books don’t earn out their advances. When you have a contract, you have to keep your deadlines. There’s some wiggle room in these, but once a book is on the publisher’s schedule, things can get pretty tight. If you’re lucky enough to have an extended contract, you’re expected to turn out a certain number of books within a certain time frame to fulfill your contractual obligations (I remember one popular cozy writer mentioning her relief that her new contract allowed her eighteen months between books, rather than requiring a book every year.) Some writers juggle multiple contracts at once.

After your book is published, you’re expected to engage in promoting it. This might mean doing interviews, writing guest articles, going on a book tour, attending conferences to represent your publisher, and more. All of it is part of the job. If industry professionals doubt your ability to keep up, your chances of landing a deal go way down. To quote the article that inspired this post:

“Agents have actually said things to me like, ‘I don’t know if you can handle having a book’ or ‘I don’t know if you can promote a book.’ They mean because of my epilepsy, bipolar, and PTSD.”

I mentioned earlier in this post the need to be diligent about self care. I have to maintain constant awareness of my physical and mental states. If they look dicey, say, if I recognize migraine prodrome or aura, or if my thought processes go haywire, or if a bodily sensation warns me of a change in brain chemistry that heralds a mood dip, I HAVE TO do the routines I have learned will keep me on an even keel. This might look like eating a lot of protein, or it might look like retreating from the world and watching Netflix for two days. If I get a migraine or go into a depressive cycle anyway, all bets are off. I am non-functional at these times. Anything that was on my schedule gets canceled, no matter how much I wanted to do it or how important it was. My health comes first.

This isn’t appealing to the people whose job it will be to book your speaking engagements and need some assurance that you will be able to show up. They’re likely to want to represent a client who is less high maintenance and more dependable. And while that’s understandable, it’s also ableist as hell.

My need to be diligent about self care also makes the very idea of deadlines problematic. Sometimes I can write and sometimes I can’t. That’s just the way it is with my brain. It’s not because I’m not dedicated or I don’t want to do the work. I ALWAYS want to be writing. Doesn’t mean I can. When my brain chemistry is on a high, I can churn out two or three full length novels in as many months. When it’s not, I might go months when getting out of bed is the most I can manage in a day. Writing is about as possible for me as walking on the surface of the sun. In between the highs and lows, I have to pace myself. Even with medication, my capacity to stay on an even keel mental health-wise is limited. I am easily overwhelmed. Pushing too hard because of a deadline or an expectation is an unfortunate part of my trauma. When it gets activated, I invariably plunge into a depressed cycle. So there’s no question of “pushing through” or forcing myself to produce X number of words when the energy isn’t there. It isn’t something I can do and maintain good mental health.

My brain chemistry means I can’t perform “professional writer” to the expected standard. As a consequence, my opportunities in publishing are limited unless someone is willing to make accommodations.

#4: Prominent Voices in Publishing are Able Bodied and Neurotypical

This is the one that bothers me most, to tell the truth. I have read about one or two conference panels where authors talked about their struggles with anxiety and depression, and I follow several authors who speak openly about it on social media. (It occurs to me just now that the latter group rarely, if ever, mention how their anxiety and depression impact their careers or state whether they need accommodation, or what it looks like.) However, the most prominent voices by far are those of the able, and those able people are the ones who most often engage in telling the rest of us “how to do it.” The ones saying “write every day” and “don’t make excuses” and “the only way to write is by writing,” and other things they can say and believe are true because their brain chemistries aren’t fucked up. I’m older than most of them, and I know my process, thank you. And I STILL agonize over it when my brain tells me it’s not a good time to write. I ask myself constantly whether I’m trying hard enough, or whether I’m avoiding writing because it’s hard, or whether I’m being lazy WHEN I KNOW THAT ISN’T THE CASE. The messages we hear from able and neurotypical writers damage those of us who are neither. They promote the view that there’s only one way to succeed, and it’s inaccessible. And they reinforce the idea that we’re flawed, that the problem is in US rather than the system.

A frustrating addition is, I know people with mental illnesses and invisible disabilities who have managed to jump through the hoops and get representation and traditional contracts, enough that you can point to them as evidence there isn’t a problem with ableism in the industry, not at all. It makes me question my experience even more.

Right now, as I try to wrap up this blog post, a number of thoughts are running through my head. The top layer is dismissing the entire conversation as flawed, and therefore worthless. Everyone gets overwhelmed. Everyone is nervous making their work public and afraid of rejection. I have no reason to believe I feel these things more intensely than anyone else. No reason, except that I believe the professionals who have diagnosed me with several mental illnesses.

(Aside: It’s the feeling of being overwhelmed, of not measuring up, that’s worst for me. I’m not actually nervous about putting my work out, because I believe in my work. It’s myself I find wanting, and my fear is that my work might meet rejection because of personal qualities or deficiencies everyone sees but no one will tell me about. And because my various disabilities influence my interactions and behaviors the way they do, I see this as a very real possibility.)

When an entire society and its business models are built on mental and physical ability, it’s almost impossible to address the issue in a single industry. Everyone expects workers to be on time, to follow through, to be presentable, not to take too many sick days. Not everyone is suited to every, or any, job. Unfortunately, in the US in particular, personal worth is most often viewed through the lens of being able to fit into corporate culture and “earn a living.” There is almost no flexibility for people who don’t fit this mold. In fact, most often “flexibility” is something required from workers, who need to be available to meet the needs of employers. I’ve rarely seen it the other way around.

Not everyone who writes is going to succeed at it, whether able or not. It’s a tough and highly competitive industry, and no one is entitled to a place on the bestseller lists, or seeing print at all. Still, there are a few things traditional publishers could do to support people with disabilities. First and foremost, publishers could devote more time to on the ground marketing of more than their top authors. Several years ago, I attended a panel on marketing strategies, where all the panelists were from what used to be termed the “mid-list” — authors who sell steadily, but don’t have the clout of a Stephen King or a Nicholas Sparks. Every author on that panel stressed that their publishers left marketing up to them. In fact, a few related that when they inquired about marketing plans, representatives of their publishers actually laughed. This is not okay. It’s not okay in any case, and for people with disabilities like mine, it’s abhorrent. In most instances, the worst part of social anxiety is making first contact. For example, I can show up to an interview or a reading. I can’t set them up. I can’t cold call booksellers and ask them to take a look at my work and consider stocking it. This is something that publishers should do for everyone far more aggressively than they do at present.

Another thing that would help is simple recognition that not everyone functions the same way. Some authors can manage back-to-back engagements. Some can’t. Some can spend twelve hours at a time “on form,” interacting with the public at a convention. Some can’t. Offer of a contract should not presuppose the former. In fact, agents and editors shouldn’t even be considering a potential client’s stamina, or whether they can “handle” having a book. The only reason a disabled person wouldn’t be able to “handle” it is that they might be required to fit into an impossible model. Instead of wondering whether we can “handle” it, a better use of energy would be adjusting expectations and working out ways “handling” it would be possible. Frankly, wondering “if” rather than asking “how” is insulting. Disabled people know what we can handle. If we didn’t think we could handle a situation with proper accommodation, we wouldn’t try it on. Many people in publishing do have an intellectual awareness that people are different. More work needs to be done, to put this intellectual awareness into practice.

The query process could be made more accessible with a very simple adjustment: Stop requiring that queries come from authors. I’ve often joked with other writing friends with anxiety disorders that “I need an agent to get me an agent!” I know people think that they can better determine a writer’s skill if they write their own queries, and I believe this is a flawed assumption. Determine the quality of the writing from sample pages. Let people who are able to engage in marketing do the marketing. I wouldn’t be shocked to find out that some writers privileged enough to have assistants already delegate this task, because everyone hates it. All kinds of professionals delegate, dictate, and/or cooperate on tedious business correspondence. Why shouldn’t writers be able to?

Because of the progress that’s been made in digital publishing, and the lessening of stigma against self published authors, people with disabilities may choose an independent path rather than a traditional one. I did, and I was glad of the opportunity to do so. I also know that self publishing entails many of the same problems as far as networking and marketing. So it’s not a perfect solution.

In speaking of the ways ableism in publishing affects me personally, I haven’t even touched on the ways it limits opportunities for people with other chronic and invisible illnesses. People with lupus, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, schizophrenia, and all the rest have the same or greater need to practice self care. Many do not have my “advantage” of qualifying for government-sponsored disability support, or an understanding partner willing to undertake the bulk of the bread-winning, and have even more limited resources and energy to devote to pursuing writing on a professional level. And they also have stories. I see a great many people in publishing expressing a wish for manuscripts dealing with recovery rather than onset, or simply including disabled characters because disabilities exist. But I have to wonder, when being in recovery means sleeping for days and numerous doctor visits without clear narrative resolution and more tedium than excitement, how would those stories be received? And if the industry doesn’t address its ableist bias, will disabled people believe it’s a good use of their time and energy to write them?

I don’t think so.

 

 

 

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.