Feeding the Trolls: Further Adventures in YouTube Land (with Drag Queens!)

Hi! I got my first round of fat trolling on YouTube this week! As a person, it’s a little creepy and depressing. But as an online aggression researcher, it’s kind of awesome! I wasn’t trolling for trolls, I was just drooling over my latest favorite drag queen’s music video. Ginger Minj very nearly became America’s first fat Drag Superstar. She didn’t win the crown, but she’s super popular and released a video wearing a tee with her self-hashtag, #glamourtoad. So awesome. Anyway, I watched the video and posted in the comments that I really wanted one of those shirts. Enter troll. He/She spread the love far and wide, but here was my  little bit of the action:

glamourtoad0The troll was posting under the name “discount demi” at the time he/she posted, but later changed his/her name to “horse renoir”. Weird; just keep in mind it’s the same person.

Other gems:

Screen Shot 2015-06-05 at 8.27.41 PM Screen Shot 2015-06-05 at 8.43.42 PMThere were lots of other comments that were disparaging of Ms. Minj and her fans.

This is pretty normal fare in my area of research. I’m not looking at the hardcore, violent stuff, just run of the mill nastiness and passive aggression. This particular troll did a hit and run, leaving several nasty comments, and didn’t follow up on any of the responses.

What was interesting for me was trying to walk my own talk. I wanted to hit back, hard. I could say something really intellectual and superior or something nasty and witty…but here’s the thing. The troll had some need which he or she fulfilled by attacking fans of Ms. Minj, particularly due to his/her distaste for Ms. Minj’s body type. Reading the troll’s comments made me seriously annoyed; the troll made him/herself a prime target for my aggression and frustration with fat discrimination and those who rationalize and defend it.  But, projection (which is what I’d be doing if I hit back with an equally nasty comment–I would be projecting my accumulated frustration on one lonely troll) just keeps on bouncing back and forth like a ping-pong ball. So, knowing what I do about defense mechanisms and online discourse, I decided to take a deep breath, and think about how to respond. What could I say that would help me not feel victimized (the popular stance, “Don’t feed the trolls” doesn’t cut it for me) but not fall into an aggressive or passive-aggressive trap? So I did this:

glamourtoadI felt better. I didn’t hit back, but I also didn’t roll over. It felt like the right response. It was hard! I have a heavy streak of passive-aggressive, which, coupled with some expert rationalization, can make it mighty hard to think of some way not to be bitchy when I’m attacked. My requirement for myself in responding was to stay at the adaptive level of defense mechanism.

It was really interesting was seeing how others responded. I’m on the “top comments” list, (number of likes is now up to 25), and one person counter attacked the troll, possibly on my behalf, while the other seemed to be coaching me on how to deal with the trolling. So what is going on in this community? As an avid of RuPaul’s Drag Race, I often get my post-season fix by watching videos posted by the performers, many of whom are quite prolific. This is a pretty typical comment thread on YouTube, particularly if the poster is fat. While I’m not actively seeking interaction with trolls, I’ve decided to be less inhibited in posting on YouTube pages a form of appreciation.

As in the previous post where I interacted with a troll, my response seemed to have a constructive effect on the other viewers, at least to the point that several were motivated to “like” my comment, interact with me, or defend me. To get all psychodynamic about it (again), I was operating at the adaptive defensive level by using sublimation  – consciously redirecting my ire and hurt into inquiry. The troll was operating at the immature level by acting out through making unsolicited disparaging and critical comments. The commenter who told me to ignore the troll was perhaps operating at the neurotic level by using reaction formation–partially expressing anger towards the troll by indirect name calling (“pathetic hater”) while coming to my defense.

I’m taking a phenomenology class right now, which is a bit hard to explain, but it’s about doing research from inside the thing you’re studying, instead of observing it from the outside. So I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few weeks trying to describe my experience of aggression from multiple angles. One of the things that has been most interesting is how incredibly physical it is. Even just hearing someone speak cruel words, or reading them online has a physical effect. Have you ever felt like someone knocked the breath out of you, verbally? Or punched you in the stomach–verbally? Or dumped ice water down your back–verbally? None of those feelings are exactly like the descriptions, but they’re something like them. Reading the troll’s comment felt a bit like that. It made me really angry, and I wanted to punch him/her in the face–verbally.

I’m good with words. I’m also good with denial. A year ago, I might have written a really scholarly, academic sounding response that was the verbal equivalent of skewering the troll on a BBQ fork while convincing myself I was being perfectly civil. But after this year of studying online conversations and testing my assumptions about them, I know how that would likely go. Others would join in on the flaming, or the troll might fire back in some extra creepy ways, or I might just not say anything (thinking I was taking the high road) but doing that would leave me with some free-floating hurt and anxiety that would end up directed somewhere less appropriate. I might react disproportionately to my daughter’s behavior, or snap at my husband. Not that those things don’t happen–I just don’t want them happening because I wimped out on confronting a troll on YouTube. Right? The funny thing was that after I responded, my body relaxed. I didn’t feel creeped out anymore, and I didn’t feel any dread about how the troll (or others) might respond. I felt calm and curious. The quality of my aggression went from jagged and painful, to quiet and watchful. I was still mad, but not unsettled. My curiosity about how my comment would be taken was much stronger than my anger.

I suspect that I’m not the only person who can have a physical-emotional response to something I read on a screen. A number of my friends have disconnected from social media because they find it so unsettling. The norms of online society don’t seem to leave much room for talking about hurt feelings or uncomfortable sensations. I consciously chose to omit that my feelings were hurt, because I didn’t think the environment would be safe or welcoming. YouTube commentators do not equal group therapy. Nonetheless, there is some really interesting stuff going on, and not all of it is immediately accessible through reading comments. I wonder how, as a researcher, I can get at this stuff? Pondering.

Education Reflections: The Profane Version

As I prepare to begin the dissertation phase of my journey at Fielding, I revisited my original Learning Plan (a thing I had to do at the beginning to plan classes and stuff). I have to write a new one for this thing called Portfolio Review that will get me a Master’s degree in Human Development and make me officially…something. Working on my dissertation, anyway. So this is the profane version, or something.

Observe the spiderweb. Sometimes I am the spider: I spin ideas, theories, observations, and passions into a complex web that is both solid and porous. Sometimes, I’m a fly. Stuck on the web, waiting to be eaten or to slowly desiccate, unable to move. And sometimes I’m a caterpillar, moseying slowly along a branch, hoping that someday I will reach the end of my journey and start the next.

At the end of my first class, I was excited (and scared, but mostly excited) about where my journey at Fielding would take me. I was well prepared for the first few classes: I am a good writer, am used to working in APA, and had written and published academic papers in the past. I loved grad school the last time around, and the time before that. I felt I had a running start on this whole PhD thing.

Since then, I feel as if I’ve run into a succession of brick walls, face first. Getting a PhD is very different from getting a masters degree. Getting a PhD at Fielding is also very different from my previous graduate education experiences. I was unprepared for the ambiguity, isolation, and anxiety that comes with self-directed, really expensive learning. I have had to learn to balance my need to take adequate time to ground myself in theory and integrate new knowledge with the need to finish as quickly as possible for financial reasons. The constant tension between the two is exhausting and stressful.

I also didn’t recognize that being a PhD student, Adjunct Professor, and mother of a young child would be totally different from my previous education experiences. My perfectionism used to be a mighty sword I could use to hack the shit out of my assignments and goals. Now it just gets in the way. If I try to be perfect at anything, I suck at something else. I have to let myself be good enough, which is a hard lesson. It’s hard to be a good enough (or somewhat sucky) mom. I love my kid so much, and I want to be great for her.  It’s hard to write an adequate paper. I’m good at writing, and I want my writing to be awesome, not adequate. It’s hard to realize there are vast amounts of theory and literature I haven’t and won’t read. The more I learn, the more ignorant I feel. It’s humbling in almost every way possible.

I was at a kid’s birthday party on Saturday. Several of my original mama group friends were there. Do you remember when you first had kids, and all you could talk about was baby stuff? And your childless friends would get this glazed over look on their faces as you discussed the minutiae of baby life? And how you barely noticed because you were so hormonal and sleep deprived? I have the PhD student version of THAT.

I bore the shit out of my friends, I’m constantly irritated, I don’t get enough exercise, and I spend way too much time on social media. I have insomnia and anxiety. Pretty much like having a newborn except I don’t have to clean up poop and I have constant headaches instead of hormone attacks. At the party, my friends were talking about the 10k they had run in; I was complaining about school. My friends were talking about their kids, I was complaining about school.

One of my friends is worried that my topic of study, online aggression, is messing with my head. People: reading and analyzing online aggression is sweet relief compared to the constant pressure of trying to write all my papers, read ALL THE BOOKS, and figure out how to jump through the myriad hoops I have to clear before I can even start my frakking dissertation. And don’t even get me started on the post-graduation future! Gigantic student loan payments, and a desperate bid to get some kind of full time teaching job so I can pay said loans and provide some much-needed supplemental support to my saint like, endlessly suffering family.

The hardest part, for me, is the feedback. Every prof has a different definition of “academic” and “scholarly”. To one, it means well-constructed, persuasive, and original. To the next, it means a compendium of the work of others with no perceptible trace of my personality. As you may have noticed, I’ve taken to writing the “profane” versions of papers and essays here, so I can get my ideas clear enough that I can translate them into my best guess of each prof’s “sacred”. But you just never know. And this makes me CRAY-ZAY. I’m right back at the Conservatory, age 20, with one teacher saying I’m God’s gift to opera, while another says I’m totally mediocre. But this time, I have my critical thinking cap on, and I know the game is rigged. Every person in academia has a different version of what is good and what is bad, of what is sacred and what is profane. And the problem is I really give zero fucks. I know I’m a good writer, and a good thinker, and I know I have to jump through a certain number of hoops and learn some specific ways of writing to get graduated and get published. But the range of possibilities within what is considered “academic writing” is much, much broader than most of my profs think.

The other thing I’ve realized is that, like opera, academia is peopled with people who are very, very good at one thing, and by definition, really sucky at other things. You can’t spend a big chunk of your life getting to be the expert on one thing without sacrificing something else. This is another reason why I need to embrace mediocrity; because I want to be a good teacher, a good mom, and a good researcher/writer. But I can’t do that if I want to be totally fucking amazing at one of them.

Basically, I’m tired of being trashed (I’d rather do research on people trashing each other in a vaguely egalitarian manner — go figure) and I know I’m in for a whole lot more of it before this is over. Some of it I will deserve. Most of it I won’t. This is great for my innately high levels of paranoia.

So, I’ve gained a lot of cynicism, anxiety, and dread. I’ve also gained a great deal of knowledge, I’ve written some kick-ass papers (some of which are hopefully on their way to publication, stay tuned), I’ve met a few truly inspiring people, made some friends, and figured out a research topic that is pretty darn hot. I’ve changed my major to Human Development, which is great because it means I get to study way more psychology. Win! I’ve become a better, more compassionate and humble teacher. I am much less quick to judge others. I know I’ve been developing in this crucible that is grad school, and I know some of it has been good. I’m just not relishing the uphill marathon that is the next 12-18 months, nor the scramble for work that will start before this part is over.

One day at a time, one step, one breath. I have to keep reminding myself of this. I have to remember to enjoy snuggling with my rapidly growing little girl. To have quiet moments with my husband. To continue to give as much as I can muster to my students, because they’re the reason I’m doing this in the first place. To make time to hang out with my friends. To leave myself room to feel all the big scary feels that go with feeling in over my head, all the time. In a few weeks I’ll have my third masters degree. In a year and some change, I’ll have a PhD. I will look back on this time as transformational. I will forget how freaking stressed out I am right now (probably not). It will be worth it.

Snowpiercer: Man thinks he can control nature; nature squashes him like a tiny, tiny bug (many spoilers)

I’m trying to write my last paper for the semester. It’s a systems theory analysis of the movie Snowpiercer. But when I try to write in academic words, my brain dries up and blows away. So I’m going to tell you what I think, with much profanity, uninformed opinions, and lack of citations. Then maybe I can write this frakking paper. Here goes!

I watched Snowpiercer about a month ago on Netflix. It is supremely disturbing, and pretty much a masterpiece. In the vein of Cabin in the Woods, nothing is what it seems. This is not your typical man-destroys-the-earth man-survives-much-hardship man-learns-his-lesson man-and-nature-live-in-harmony-amen kind of story. This is not WALL E. Snowpiercer makes WALL E look like a Disney movie. Oh, wait…

I had the idea of looking at the movie through a systems lens, because when I was reading some of the basic systems literature, it became obvious that people have very different ideas of what systems theory does and what it should be used for. Note I say should not can. I’ve always conceived of systems theory as a lens that reminds you that your lens is never big enough. Everything you touch may have repercussions you will never be able to predict. Any drastic change you make to your social world, your economic system, your ecological system, or your psychological system will have many, many unintended consequences, so fuck with the system at your peril. That’s how I conceive of systems theory. Some people conceive of it the same way. “Soft” systems theory is more about understanding and less about exerting control and prediction. But positivist systems theory is obsessed with the other thing. With controlling everything, engineering everything. It’s predicated on the assumption that we can see all the important parts of the system and bend them to our will. Hence, Snowpiercer.

The premise: Man is fucked. It’s 2014, and the nations of the earth have decided to release a chemical into the atmosphere that is supposed to control global warming. Instead, it brings on an instant ice age. The on-screen text at the beginning of the movie tells us that everything on earth has died.

Meanwhile, a totally freaky dude named Wilford has designed a perpetually running luxury train that contains its own sustainable ecosystem and an engine that never wears out or breaks. (Riiiiight…) The remains of humanity, about 2000 souls, are sequestered on the train, according to social class. Poor people in the back; rich people in the front.

So, according to the opening lore of the move, we fucked with Nature, who started to kill us, so we fucked with her some more, and we killed everything. Except the train. 17 years later, the train is the Universe. When Curtis, the hero, asks a little boy what he wants, he asks, “In the whole wide train?” because in the minds of the children of the train, that is the world.

Curtis, urged by Wise Man, Gilliam, (he of few limbs) leads a rebellion of the tail dwellers with the help of Namgoon, an engineer who knows how to get through the mechanical doors that separate the train cars. Much wackiness ensues. If by wackiness, you mean dismemberment, murder, cannibalism, burning man raver zombies, child slavery, and polar bears.

At this point, I’m going to assume you’ve seen the movie (or at least read a review or summary somewhere). Here’s what I thought was interesting.

In Snowpiercer, humanity has lost. We’re already extinct, but we don’t know it yet. And that’s the crazy bit. Usually, in similar pieces (Wall E,  Battlestar Galactica, ) the indomitability of the human spirit eventually forces us to adapt, change, make peace, win, or otherwise survive. In Snowpiercer, this same spirit serves to make us think we are still alive, and more importantly, still relevant. Wilford (the creator and God of the Train), a freaky caricature of Fredrick Taylor, has been obsessed with trains since childhood, and is attributed with foreseeing a post apocalyptic world where humanity’s last survivors would live on his comfy train of death. The train is a closed ecosystem in which every birth and death is orchestrated by Wilford, who is finally living out his childhood dream of never getting off the train.

Wilford’s Minister, Mason, played to bizarre perfection by Tilda Swinton, spouts all sorts of nonsense about the “Sacred Engine” and the “Divine Wilford,” attempting to reinforce a tightly controlled social system where the tail dwellers accept their impoverished, bug-eating (for reals) station in life, and don’t resent or try and mass murder the privileged elite at the front of the train. Clearly, this isn’t working so well, except, it is! By the time Curtis reaches the front, only he, Namgoon, and his daughter remain. Wilford reveals that he worked in concert with Gilliam to enforce population control by orchestrating wars between the back and the army of the front. Psych! So that’s all right then.

Except Wilford is batshit crazy, and his train is breaking down. He’s been taking little kids from the back of the train to act as replacement parts for his not-so-eternal engine. Curtis, in a revelatory talk with Namgoon before shit gets really real, reveals that he used to snack on babies before the cockroach bars were made available. Kids do not have a good time on this train. So Curtis is pretty crazy too. The back of the train was able to re-establish some kind of social order when Gilliam traded Curtis one of his limbs for a baby, thus ending baby sacrifice. (There are a lot of old people missing arms and legs.)

Curtis hates himself, and he can’t see beyond gaining control of the train, and getting relief for his people at the back of the train (most all of whom Wilford has executed). But Namgoon, the Shaman of the lot, has been watching out the windows for 17 years, had an Eskimo baby-mama who taught him about how to survive in the snow, and has been seeing signs of environmental warming and life beyond the train. Curtis has been paying him for his help in drugs, but it turns out the drugs are also explosives. So Namgoon, his daughter, and Curtis blow the train door after rescuing one of the replacement-part children. An avalanche takes out most of the train, but the two youngsters survive and walk out into the snow, and see a polar bear. Psych again! The world is not extinct, it just took a little constitutional in order to rid itself of a particularly malignant cancer (that would be us). So instead of humanity winning through it’s stick-with-it-ness, humanity gets pwnd.

The moral of this story is, Nature wins. Nature is an open, chaotic system, that will kick any Man-made system’s ass. Wilford and his train are a mockery of the idea that humans can create, engineer, and control natural systems. While he does manage to control and brainwash a good chunk of the population for 17 years, he can’t stop the earth from warming, throwing ice down on him, and killing him and his train. Wilford, the ultimate metaphor for the human control freak, finally has a system small enough that he thinks he can control it. But he forgot that the system it resides within is way more powerful, and he really can’t control anything.

Does humanity survive? That’s not really the point. Humanity couldn’t predict warming the earth, we couldn’t predict freezing it, and we couldn’t predict its fairly rapid re-warming. Our puny brains can only encompass so much, and nature is much, much vaster. Namgoon is the only character who actually sees outside the train, and outside the collectively created reality of the train.

So I see this movie as a big fuck you to the people who think they can somehow tame an ecosystem that far more complex than we can comprehend, let alone control. The earth has been around way longer than we have, and it may be getting very tired of our shit.

From a whisper to a roar

As you know from my Feeding the Trolls posts, I’m doing research on how people express aggression in the body acceptance social media  community. A nice, relatively quiet corner of the online universe. Happy fat people collect trolls, so there’s lots to observe, but until a few weeks ago, the term “fat-shaming” wasn’t in the mainstream vocabulary because it was a totally acceptable activity.

Then Tess Munster got signed to a major modeling contract (and this blog post talking about why people troll her went viral), This American Life featured an interview with a blogger and her reformed troll, and now this. The original piece (about being happier fat than thin) is really well written and thought out. I think it represents a growing number of women and men who have decided that life is too short to buy into constructed ideals and constructed stereotypes and are centering their health in their own experience, rather than looking outward for confirmation. Yay!

But what was this little community of activists and their detractors has become a national conversation, rife with body policing, bullying, prejudice and stereotypes, and good old fashioned bile. My favorite refrain is, “Think of the children!” In this context I think the commenters mean that allowing fat people to be publicly content and happy and self-esteem-full will influence children to eat themselves to death. Hey Class, can you remember other times the “Think of the children!” argument was the death knell of some kind of structural inequality? Racial integration, racial intermarriage, gay marriage, women voting, women working….

So, I think this is a good thing.

Why do I think this is a good thing? Because every time we are forced, as individuals and as a society, to confront how complicit we are in maintaining stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination, we usually begin the arduous process of change.

Larry Wilmore on The Nightly Show did a little piece titled “Obesity in America“. It was full of the contradictions we’re facing. He totally defends his right to make fun of fat people (at least ironically), but is then appalled by systemic discrimination against fat people. He decries the levels of obesity in America. So, Larry, obesity is a big health problem that you are concerned about, but it’s not a civil rights issue, but discrimination is still bad. Uh huh. No, your argument is neither confusing nor contradictory.

Wilmore’s weird mixed message shows that we are grappling with hanging on to our harmful stereotypes while coming to terms with the systemic inequality which is (more clearly, I guess) not cool.

Here’s what I know. You can’t look at me and, based on my appearance, know anything about:

  • My health
  • My intelligence
  • My attractiveness
  • My self-esteem
  • My value to society
  • My relationships
  • My productivity
  • My life span

The stereotype of a middle aged fat woman would have me be single, diabetic, lazy, ugly, self-loathing, miserable, and short-lived. While I can’t predict my own lifespan, I know I am healthy, smart, attractive, confident, loved, productive, accomplished, and I live a meaningful life.

In the comment forums under all the things I’ve linked to in this piece (I dare you to read them), people conflate research with stereotypes and use them to “prove” that they can make prejudicial assumptions about others. That is not rationality, that’s just straight up prejudice. There has always been “science” to support social inequality. Science told us, up until recently, that women were dumber than men, black people were dumber than white, and homosexuals were dangerous deviants.This is because:

Scientific research is conducted in the context of the era it is produced.

Let’s say that again.

Scientific research is conducted in the context of the era it is produced.

In a society that assumed that black people, gay people, or women were inferior, the research was skewed to produce those results. It was skewed by the socio-economic context of the disadvantage populations, and by the socially informed assumptions of the researchers.

Scientific research that justifies structural inequality, stereotypes, and prejudice, needs to be reexamined very carefully. The word Science and the word Truth are not synonyms. Also, even good science that stands the test of time is about generalizable conclusions, not specific incidents. That means that even if it could be scientifically proven that on average, fat people were in fact lazy, diabetic, single, etc. etc, IT STILL WOULD HAVE NO RELEVANCE TO THE INDIVIDUAL. If I go to the doctor, he or she may test me for diabetes because I’m fat, but he or she does not automatically assume I have it and start treatment. The current batch of research tells the doctor about the probability of my having diabetes; it doesn’t make the diagnosis for the doctor. The research is also subject to change; that’s the good thing about science. It’s designed to evolve with society. Sometimes society pushes science, sometimes it’s the other way around.

The moral of my story? If you have ugly thoughts about someone based on how they look, or talk, or walk, or write, or what car they drive, don’t rationalize it and strike out at that person. Recognize your ugly thoughts (I have them too) and find a little compassion for yourself for being human and toward the target of your ire. You don’t know them or their story.

Feeding the Trolls: Different Perspectives

Over the past few weeks I’ve reflected on the experience about which I wrote in my first blog for my Advanced Human Development course. My professor (Hi Judy!) pointed out that the male aggressor on the YouTube thread used a pseudo-rational/scientific argument to deliver a largely aggressive message. I’ve been turning this over in my head. This aggressive pseudo-rationality is one of the main forms of aggression (and perhaps micro-aggression) I’ve observed on online discussions and forums. What is this phenomenon? Why do we use it? What purpose does it serve? Several different ideas have surfaced for me.

On a whim, I looked up pseudo-rationalism and found out it was a thing. A German philosopher named Otto Neurath presented a paper in 1913 that presaged the wider adoption of the limits of scientific rationality and immutability presented by Kuhn in the 1960s. I bring up this little tidbit because I think the ideological wars being played out on the national and digital stage are often argued with the help of “scientific fact”, no matter how grossly outnumbered or untested the facts actually are (man-made global warming, for example). The wider populace now has access to an almost infinite amount of information from which they can cherry pick the data that supports their emotional, irrational, and largely ego-defensive views. I don’t exclude myself from this assessment; I too have often used science and surface rationalism to rationalize my feelings. Since I became aware of this, I’ve started clicking through to the referenced study every time I read an article based on the phrase “studies show”. As I learned in Research Methodologies course (722B represent!), published, peer-reviewed studies often do not show any compelling argument for the claims they make due to shoddy research, small or unrepresentative samples, or conflicts of interest. “Studies show” is not code for fact.

I recently wrote a very emotional blog about an article I read in Huffpost on fat discrimination. The article, mainly a combination of whining and self-loathing about body issues, pissed me off, so I wrote a rebuttal on my website. While you may find my rant entertaining, what actually stands out the most about the subject article was the discussion in the comments section at the bottom. A few excerpts:

“I am like you in many ways. I am sorry that people cannot understand that health issues and not overeating are sometimes what contributes to our weight. You seem like a wonderful woman and I pray that soon people will stop judging others on how they look.”

“I know how it feels to be invisible.”

“You are beautiful; inside and out. Very brave of you to share your story! Thank you!”

Most of the comments are either sympathetic, empathetic, or encouraging. There is little to no policing of her science or rationality, as she does not claim to be happy with her weight, just unhappy with her perception that people don’t like her because of it. If I had to break the comments into categories, they would be: 1) I hate myself, too, 2) You’re beautiful anyway, and 3) Dude, get over it.

Compare this to comments made on a photo posted by a successful independent plus sized model, Tess Munster. Here’s a representative argument between two people who follow Tess’ posts:

Person 1: It really worries me that people actually find this attractive… Says a lot about one of the biggest and fastest growing world problems: overweight/obesity. Stop eating crap and please stop acting like this is normal.

Person 2: Thin people are unhealthy also… doesn’t matter what weight you are! If you’re not a fan of Tess, unlike the page.

Person 1: … i didn’t even liked the page thin people can be unhealthy too, but it doesn’t mean they actually are. However, overweight is always unhealthy and it’s definitely not normal. (Although some people start to think it is, so indirectly they say that it’s normal to have a highly increased chance to get cancer, diabetes, heart diseases or anything else.) Your weight definitely matters! I can’t believe people ignore that… But please enjoy your meal at McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King or any other fucked up fast food place.

The first article doesn’t really challenge any of the existing norms about body image, as the author is apologetic and self-abasing for her body. Hence, she doesn’t attract aggression as the norm-defying plus model does.

But back to pseudo-rationality. See what happened there? The two people are trading “facts” while avoiding whatever emotions prompted them to post in the first place (just like the conversation I had in my last post on this topic).

After scanning about 100 comments, they seem to break down into three categories: 1)You’re Awesome, 2)You’re Gross, and 3) Get Lost, Haters (in response to #2 comments). What’s interesting is how much of the discourse around 2 and 3 are based on semi-rational arguments that are betrayed by highly emotional language. If I apply Vaillant’s defense mechanism spectrum to these exchanges, they look very much like the one I documented before:

  1. Person A projects directs negative emotions on public figure using pseudo-rationality (reaction formation) as the justification for the aggressive act (ex. “Stop eating crap and please stop acting like this is normal“;
  2. Person B takes it personally and rebuts Person A with more factoids (ex. “Thin people are unhealthy also… doesn’t matter what weight you are!“) ,
  3. Person A responds with a mix of pseudo-rationality and ridicule (acting out) (ex. “ However, overweight is always unhealthy and it’s definitely not normal...But please enjoy your meal at McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King or any other fucked up fast food place“,
  4. Person B either tells person A to fuck off, or doesn’t respond, OR the conversation turns into a pseudo-rational clusterfuck on both sides with multiple citations of newspaper, magazine, and blog articles. It eventually peters out or devolves into name calling and cursing.

On the surface, these exchanges are pretty depressing. They seem to be a draw at best; the highest level of adaptation observable is at what Vaillant (2000) would call the Compromise Formation Level – repression (ignoring feelings), isolation (withdrawal) and reaction-formation. Reaction formation seems to be closest to the pseudo-rationality visible in these online forums. Those who exhibit reaction formation repress a taboo or shadow emotion such as rage, jealousy, or misogyny, and replace it with the appearance of its opposite; in this case rational, critical discourse. However, in most of these forums the veneer that masks the infantile emotion is quite transparent, as the aggressive commenters often use words that betray the repressed emotion. What I find particularly interesting is that the participants who respond often let the initial aggressors set the rules of the game; they respond in kind with either rational arguments or aggressive attacks.

In relationship counseling, there is an assumption that both parties, regardless of outward behavior, are usually at the same level of differentiation. Meaning if my husband never picks up his socks and I am righteously angry about it, I’m probably not any more mature than him; I just express my immaturity/aggression in a different, perhaps less obvious way. This seems to be the case on online forums, as well.

Tess Munster may be just a self-employed model who has more supporters than detractors, but she is a lightening rod for the same kind of conversation we see happening on a national scale about abortion, gay rights, global warming, and immigration. Whichever side we find ourselves on in these issues, we believe that science and rationality are on our side, while the judgement of those on the opposite is clouded or flawed. And in the digital era, these arguments take place not just between news anchors, presidents, or pundits, but between all of us, every day, in multiple forums and on multiple issues.

Giselle Labouvie-Vief (1994) talks about tension between the forces of mythos and logos in the human psyche. Traditionally logos, rationality and strength was assigned to the masculine principle while mythos, emotion, nurture, and creativity, were assigned to the feminine principle. Labouvie-Vief deconstructs these arbitrary classifications as reflections of the relative social status of men and women, and looks instead at the myth of Psyche and Eros as the dialectic between the rational and imaginative mind necessary for integration and adult development on a personal and social scale.

Online personalities like Mary Lambert and Tess Munster who provoke  such vociferous critique, defense, and discourse are perhaps examples of mythos in action; choosing to be visible, vital, and alive in a world that marginalizes certain types of people is not a rational act; it’s an emotional and spiritual one. In order to be creative–to embody Mythos–they must defy social norms. They knowingly expose themselves to anonymous aggression, conquering  fear of rejection and judgement. While the people caught in this seemingly endless and stuck cycle of aggression and argument do not seem to be progressing, perhaps there is a larger force at work.

Neo-Jungian James Hillman (1997) discusses pathologizing as a vital force for eventual integration and individuation:

…I am introducing the term pathologizing to mean the psyche’s autonomous ability to create illness, morbidity, disorder, abnormality, and suffering in any aspect of its behavior and to experience and imagine life through this deformed and afflicted perspective. (p.143)

Wow! Look at that language! If I had a dime for the number of times I’ve read the words “morbidly obese, disorder, disease, and abnormal” on the forums I observe, I could pay off some student loans!

Hillman believes that the projection of abnormality on others is really an unconsciously shared experience of our  our unavoidable physical and mental flaws (which will lead to our eventual death), displaced and experienced on the Other. From a Jungian perspective, this is profound! The aggressive online troll who verbally bashes a happy fat person and is confronted with the mirror reflection of his own aggression (even when masked in pseudo-rationality), is actually reaching towards the integration of his or her own fear of mortality, disease, and death. Forcing the image outward makes it semi-conscious, allowing for the possibility that the irrational, emotional, and imperfect can be eventually integrated. Perhaps the seemingly endless skirmishes and standoffs are really a cultural movement towards awareness, which is scary as hell, and integration which is necessary for our spiritual and collective survival. Remember, deviating from the socio-economic-racial-sexual norm was unthinkable and often punishable a scant century ago in our country (and still is in many parts of the world). But in the wild, wild west of the internet, these ripples of disruption, of people who refuse to hide, are forcing our aggression out of hiding and into the observable world.

Hillman, J. (1997). A Blue Fire. (T. Moore, Ed.). New York, NY: HarperPerennial.

Labouvie-Vief, G. (1994). Psyche and Eros: Mind and Gender in the Life Course. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Vaillant, G. E. (2000). Adaptive mental mechanisms: Their role in a positive psychology. American Psychologist, 55(1), 89–98. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.89

Big Sigh: The difference between self-shaming and self-acceptance

I read an article on Huffpost a couple nights ago and became full of ragey, judgy feelings. The title alone is totally cringe-worthy: Yes I’m Fat. But Why Is That All Anyone Sees?. Ugh. Just, ugh.

The author talks about how becoming fat has made her invisible, or judged, or reviled by others, obscuring her accomplished past as a journalist, athlete, expat, and parent. She feels vulnerable to the perceived (but rarely given) criticisms and judgements of others. She assumes that her fat body makes it impossible for others to think that she has had any kind of life beyond slamming oreos and bacon.

I’m trying to feel for her; I really am. But she demonstrates a trope in the body-acceptance/weight discrimination movement that I’m mightily tired of. “I can’t be okay until everyone in the whole world stops having judgmental thoughts about me! Fat discrimination is ruining my life, because it makes it impossible for me to love myself!” <–these are made up quotes that summarize the underlying message I’ve gotten from many activists and bloggers.

But then she goes on:

Now, don’t get me wrong; I don’t want to be fat. I want to feel the way I used to feel. I am on a constant diet and trying every new one that comes along. I watch the weight loss shows and fantasize. I exercise with a personal trainer; I obsess over food and how many calories there are. I get creative with vegetables and eat a ton of them. I get discouraged and pick myself up again. But since my transplant and the steroids I take to keep my body from rejecting my new kidney, I can’t seem to lose the weight that I put on since that life-saving surgery. But losing weight is not what this is about.

Oh God, please make it stop.

Gurl, the diet industry is not your friend. America’s Biggest Loser is not your friend. There is a whole socio-economic system built around making you feel shitty about yourself so you will buy things, continue to feel shitty about yourself, and then buy more things. Diets. Supplements. Idiotic television shows. Spanx.

And here’s the little secret that one one tells you: This system makes all women (and many men) feel shitty about themselves, not just the fat ones. Even if you’re thin, you fear being fat or you monitor yourself obsessively, compare yourself to other women, and feel like slitting your wrists when you read a fashion magazine. The system is rigged, and it doesn’t matter if you’re fat or thin. So GET OVER THE SYSTEM. Get therapy (lots of it), find positive, healthy, fat role models, sit with your shame and fear and realize that they are just feelings, and your “new body” is the same body you’ve had your whole life, and will continue to have when you’re old and realize that all the time you spent hating yourself was wasted and could have been better spent LIVING.

You do not need to be thin (or white, or straight, or tall, or able-bodied) to have sexiness, mojo, success, or visibility. Cases in point:

Mary Lambert, Queen Latifah, Tess Munster, Jill Scott, Adele, freaking Oprah! And so many more…

The great thing about the internet era is you can curate your media and entertainment experience, which means instead of consuming the bilge that the advertising industry has been feeding us via network television for the last 60 years, you can choose instead to expose yourself to people who don’t fit norms attainable only by winning the genetic lottery and lots of surgery. Discover YouTube (just don’t read the comments if you’re having a bad day). Look up some of the gorgeous, independent plus models and bloggers who are telling social norms to fuck off and celebrating their bodies. Read The Beauty Myth. Today. Opt out of the social hysteria surrounding fat and just LIVE, girl. Your body survived a transplant! It made a child! The same body that did all those awesome things you lament the loss of is THE SAME BODY YOU HAVE NOW!

And here’s a little secret, from one fat girl to another: When dating, being fat screens out a great many asshats.

I don’t know how old the author is, but she reminds me very much of myself in my teens and 20s. I dieted, dabbled in eating disorders, struggled, hated on myself, compared myself to other women, and generally bought into the big lie that only one kind of female body was beautiful and it was never going to be mine. I was miserable. With a lot of therapy, determination, and a conscious re-focusing on my whole self health instead of my weight, I became the self-loving badass I am today. I still have shitty moments, but they’re just moments. I am happy, loved, and fulfilled while fat. I’m much more worried about writing my dissertation or getting my kid to eat vegetables than I am about the size of my jeans. I like my jeans. Amazing! Is this legal?

The author closes with this:

My dream, of course, is to lose some weight. But, if I continue to be unsuccessful, will I ever been seen and acknowledged again the way I used to be? Will anyone step back and see me, want to know me, or will they just continue to see that I am fat?

My dream is not to lose weight. My dream is to raise a confident, strong daughter filled with self-love and respect who sees all bodies as beautiful and sacred. My dream is to help more people reject social norms that have nothing to do with health or happiness. My dream is to make a difference in this hard world, not to whinge that what I do doesn’t matter unless my body somehow reflects my awesomeness so hard that everyone else can see it all the time.

Get a new dream, girl.

 

Hit the wall and keep trudging.

Catchy, no?

I keep hitting walls, picking myself up, and trudging on. Last semester was fairly awful. This semester has been great in many ways, but exhausting and stressful nonetheless. I have to generate at a major paper draft in the next few weeks, hopefully sooner. I’ve pulled two new syllabi out of my ass this semester, but still have a whole new class to teach starting later this week (after I wrap up the last one, today).

In the meantime, I may be getting back to the food blogging, since my body has decided that it won’t digest lactose or gluten. Because that’s helpful. Keep in mind I am a snobby foodie daughter and sister of professional cooks and food writers.  I often sneer at restrictive fad diets while eating my locally sourced meat, cheese, bread, and vegetables. Except now two of those things are gone forever (or at least until after menopause–there’s hope). Re-learning how to eat has been stressful. Speaking of menopause, that’s fun too. And don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t have symptoms before 50, because I will personally fly to wherever you live and bitch-slap them for you.

I feel like I have academia-induced bipolar disorder. One hour or minute or half day I’m full of amazing ideas, I’m speed reading articles, mind-mapping, and writing super cool stuff. The next minute or hour or half-day I’m exhausted, filled with self-doubt, sure I’m going to be sniffed out as a total imposter, and curled up in the corner with my laptop and Pinterest trying to find all the best gluten and dairy free recipes that I will never have time to cook.

This is my life. My poor husband and daughter have to deal with my epic mood swings, periodic isolation, and caffeine induced tantrums. I can’t seem to totally unwind enough to sleep well, cry, or just fucking relax. I take everything personally. I know that most of my problems qualify as “too much of a good thing” rather than all of the really horrible things that could happen, but that knowledge doesn’t help me figure out how to cope right now. I know getting a PhD is a gauntlet that I am willingly running, but the difference between this and other gauntlets I’ve run is that there is no settling in. It’s always changing, evolving, and getting harder. There’s very little room to breathe. That’s what it feels like to me, anyway.

That’s my whinge for today. I’ll see you on the next upswing.

Feeding the Trolls: Part One

I’m starting to get my act together around my dissertation, which is on how people express aggression online, and how the online environment facilitates reinforcement or change of social norms. While I have a very specific sample in mind, I recently stumbled on another idea through getting caught up in a YouTube flame-war.

A few days ago I watched this video on YouTube of Mary Lambert, a gay and body acceptance activist and pop artist/spoken word poet. It’s a really raw, powerful statement about the dual forces of self-love and internalized hate. I was moved, but then I read this comment:

feedingtrolls1

I saw red, and in retaliation openly engaged in the kind of aggression that I usually avoid or observe at a distance:

feedingtrolls2Mr. TheThird trolled me back (aggressively). Note his use of the words gluttony, shameful and violent imagery:

feedingtrolls3I was not the first person to get riled up by Mr. TheThird’s comment, apparently this thread had been going on for a while:

feedingtrolls5And then Mr. TheThird posted a long missive, not long after my comment:

feedingtrolls4Wow. I found his use of words like foul, vile, insidious, morally corrupt, medically aberrant more than a little off-putting and creepy. Disturbed and a bit scared, I took a step back to think about how we seem to keep our aggression in this endless loop on the internet.

Perhaps Mr. TheThird is projecting his unconscious fears of losing control on the woman who is singing about self-esteem-while-fat. When I react, I am in turn projecting my own anger at the forces that have led me to empathize with Ms. Lambert back onto him; rinse, repeat. We are locked in this dance of aggression where there is no understanding or compassion, just lots of anger, disdain, rationalization, and condescension. What might it take to change this pattern?

So, as an experiment, I came back, apologized for my ire, and instead explained my feelings and asked him some genuine questions.

feedingtrolls6He never responded, which is not surprising given the research I’ve read on cyberbullying.

However, the experience made me think about my upcoming dissertation in a different way. Perhaps I was choosing to observe instead of participate in the online communities I am studying as a way to distance from my own discomfort. The inadvertent effect of engaging in this interaction was gaining insight into 1) what motivated me to react online, 2) The effects and repercussions of my engagement, and 3) various ways in which I can try to change the dynamic.

As a way to investigate these ideas further, I’m going to observe online conversations around body image and fat-acceptance, and also engage in them when moved to do so. I will document my experiment on this blog, analyzing the different expressions of aggression using George Vaillant’s interpretation of the Differential Identification of Defenses from The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Here’s a quick run-down from Vaillant’s book, The Wisdom of the Ego (1993 pp. 36-37)):

  1. Psychotic Defenses: Delusional projection, Denial, Distortion
  2. Immature Defenses: Projection, Fantasy, Hypochondriasis, Passive aggression, Acting out, Dissociation
  3. Neurotic (intermediate) Defenses: Displacement, Isolation/Intellectualization, Repression, Reaction formation
  4. Mature Defenses: Altruism, Sublimation, Suppression, Anticipation, Humor

So, trying this out, let me take a look at the interaction between Mr. TheThird, me, and some of the other participants.

Mary Lambert, the artist on which whose YouTube page this conversation resides, could be said to be utilizing sublimation, a mature defense, to deal with her negative feelings about her body, or trauma she has survived that was directed at her body (Ms. Lambert has been open about being the victim of childhood sexual abuse). Sublimation is the ability to direct the residual trauma towards a constructive activity such as songwriting and poetry. Further, her public role-modeling of self-love and survival might be considered altruism, the ability to identify with and alleviate the pain of others, which also may aid in her own healing.

Mr. TheThird’s comments seems to fit into aspects of projection, such as splitting (splitting negative from positive impulses) and demonstrating a superiority complex (obscuring feelings of inferiority), all of which are characterized as immature defenses. While I can only speculate about his psyche based on the language he uses, the voracity of his wording suggests that he is projecting an aspect of his personality that he as “split” off from his core personality, such as desire, craving, or low self-control. His later, lengthy post displays some of the same traits, but also utilizes intellectualization as a way to justify his verbal attacks. Reaction formation could also be demonstrated by his desire to appear rational and scientific in a discussion where he also uses terminology that clearly demonstrates strong negative emotions.

My initial posting could qualify as displacement (neurotic) or perhaps acting out (immature) as I was well aware of my angry feelings, but chose to inflict them impulsively and without forethought. My personal history with my body image is painful, and while I’ve become very accepting of myself and others, my ego is still vulnerable when it comes to aggressive criticism. I personalized Mr. TheThird’s comment and responded as if it was directed specifically at me (and perhaps also as a projection of my own vulnerability onto other participants, who I felt the impulse to defend).  When he responded with more violent language, I became frightened and considered withdrawal, a neurotic defense I’ve used frequently to avoid painful memories, impulses, and feelings. I think this default defense is also the reason behind my initial choice to observe online aggression rather than engage with the participants more directly.

When I took ownership of my feelings and asked genuine questions about Mr. TheThird’s motivation, I was perhaps engaging in courage and self-regulation (mature defenses); I opened myself up to dialogue with an aggressive person, and made some rules for myself around how much time I would spend online in order to project my psyche.

While Mr. TheThird has not yet chosen to respond, so perhaps he has chosen withdrawal, a neurotic defense more mature than his initial behavior.

It has also been interesting to look at the comments of others, which range from mollifying both groups, to enraged all caps cursing, to a lot of arguing of various facts. Intellectualization seems to be the default stance in these arguments, which frequently devolves into passive aggression, acting out, and distortion. I consciously choose not to debate the facts around obesity and health as I think it really amounts to arguing about the validity of a stereotype, which is by its nature persecutory. There is a ton of medical information that both validates and refutes the dangers and perimeters of obesity, but this has nothing to do with our individual lives, choices, and feelings. It seems like trying to justify or rationalize our positive and negative feelings about ourselves and others using cherry-picked science only gets us so far. What I’m really interested in is the larger patterns that emerge in these mini-explosions of aggression. What is their anatomy? Is there a common pattern? Are there different kinds? Do they evolve, or just die down and re-emerge elsewhere?  I’ll be looking at these questions as I observe and participate in other discussions around body acceptance. Stay tuned!

Words Words Words

My life is words. I read, write, and talk for most of my day, every day. So many fucking words. So instead of blogging to wind down, I’ve taken to drawing (again). The only thing I can do in the evening to quiet my mind is watch some Netflix with my husband and draw. Behold, this is where my spare creative energy is going these days:

If you like this sort of thing, check my Instagram.