Policing policers by policing

Editor’s note: This is very pre-vaguely wokeish for me. Proceed with caution. There’s a lot of white butthurt going on and it’s all. mine. 

As I’ve become more involved in activism, both as a participant and an observer, I’ve also become increasingly uncomfortable with the policing of each other that activists engage in. In my corner of the internet, body positive activism, I’m seeing more and more of the “10 Ways to Be an Ally” and “20 Ways We Do it Wrong” articles. I’m seeing a lot of women telling other women that they’re not allowed to talk about feeling fat if they’re not fat (by some nebulous standard that sounds a lot like the same one that goes with being skinny or healthy), or that they’re not being inclusive enough, or that they’re getting activism wrong. This worries me. In my current dissertationy frame of mind, it sounds like defensiveness, not inclusion.

I think it’s incredibly powerful to stand up and say, “No! I do not like how you talk to me. I do not like how you treat me. I do not accept this. I will not disappear.” I am so down with this. But constantly telling other people how they’re doing activism wrong, or doing advocacy wrong is so freaking counterproductive. It’s globalizing an individual experience, and turning it into a set of rules.

It’s like the difference between saying, “Do not ignore or marginalize me. I am here, and I want you to know how I feel.” and saying, “Do not ignore or marginalize me or anyone like me, ever, or you are a shit activist.” From a psychological point of view, the globalizing that goes with the “10 Things” lists seems like a defense. Don’t get near me. Don’t talk to me. Don’t engage with me. Don’t ever fuck up and say the wrong thing. Maybe if I write enough lists of things people shouldn’t do, I won’t ever get hurt.

Human relationships are a series of fuck ups. The taboos that allow us to marginalize and harm others are ways that we protect ourselves from our own capacity to do harm. So it seems like creating a whole new set of taboos, instead of just getting down and talking about the harm, is just more of the same shit.

The problem with this is we all fuck up. We all get hurt. We can’t renegotiate the social norms that hurt us without getting messy, fucking up, and letting other people get messy and fuck up. I like the articles that tell individual people’s stories and experiences, letting the reader relate to them as another human. I’m so sick of the ones that tell everyone how to act and how to not fuck up. This one got to me the other day so I ranted on Facebook:

http://www.bustle.com/articles/109422-17-shame-y-comments-plus-size-people-are-tired-of-hearing-from-other-plus-size-people

This article brings up ways that fat stigma is hard to shed, even for those of us who are part of the movement. However, I don’t love that it’s framed as a list of do-nots. We all struggle to accept ourselves as we are, and that means we are not perfect activists at all times. I don’t think I even want to be a perfect activist. I just want to grow in compassion and awareness of myself and others, as I continue to deconstruct the social norms that keep me from being fully at peace with myself. It’s up to each of us to speak our truths to each other and connect as humans. I don’t think the plethora of do-not lists bring us together. I think they freeze us up. I’d rather fall down and learn than stay frozen for fear of breaking a new rule.

Is the author trying to show ways in which we are all still struggling to undo the harm done to us by bullshit corporate/patriarchal norms? Or is she/he saying, “You’d better not do this…” If it had been written as interviews or a first person story, I would be so down with it. Yes! We all still judge ourselves and others in ways that are harsh and unfair. Let’s talk about it! But that’s not how it’s written. It’s written as a warning about how you, too, might be a secret douchebag. And that doesn’t make me want to talk, or share my experiences, or learn, or expand.

I think that’s what it comes down to. Do we want to expand or contract? Do we want to live fuller, more expansive lives (wherein we are likely to fuck up, fall down, get up, and make amends) or stick ourselves in a new little box with a new set of rules guaranteed to keep us from every connecting with another person? The box may seem like it will keep us safe, but we should know by now that it will not. This is often the major difference I see between second-wave feminists in the academy and third and fourth wave feminists online. We’re constantly negotiating boundaries and norms – second-wavers often (not always) see the rules as set. And you get called a gender traitor if you violate them (Hilary vs. Bernie, anyone?).’

This is not an argument that political correctness is evil and unfettered personal expression is good. What gets labeled political correctness is just new emerging norms that take marginalized people into consideration. Considering other people’s feelings and talking about them and taking personal responsibility when we hurt or get hurt is good.

When you were little, did your parents ever tell you that you should have known better? Well, it turns out, most of the time,  you couldn’t have. A lot of the stuff we learn to do as adults — empathize, abstract, predict — kids can’t do that stuff. Their brains grow those capacities in the teen years. So we learn to feel retroactive shame for being human kids, instead of being gradually introduced to concepts that will one day make sense to us. That’s what some of this stuff feels like to me. I hate seeing the BOPO movement eat itself, but I’m afraid of the direction it’s headed in. So many other beautiful movements have dissolved into infighting and chaos. Can we find another way? Can we inquire instead of judge?

As a culture, we are just starting to deconstruct a whole lot of harmful nonsense around gender, bodies, and race. THIS IS MESSY. If it’s not messy, we’re not actually doing it. Can I tell you how many times I’ve tripped over my own privilege as a teacher? So. Many. Times. Face-planting is part of the job. All I can do is try to make amends and do better next time. I can’t avoid the next landmine because I don’t know where it is. But it’s still my responsibility to clean up the mess when I do something unintentionally insensitive.

What if we lived in a culture where we took responsibility for speaking our own hurt and anger and drawing our own boundaries? What if we were allies to those who need help without becoming caricatures of the very ideas that we’re trying to change? What if we just rolled up our sleeves and talked and listened and yelled and cried and hugged? What if we got messy instead of militaristic? Messy is scary, but that’s where the growth is.

Instead of saying, “You’re not inclusive enough!” What about saying, “I feel invisible when you ignore my body type/color/gender expression, and it hurts.” And what if I said, “Holy crap, I’m so sorry! What can I do to help?”

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.

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.