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.

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

Kellogg’s Anti-Fat-Shaming Ad: Progressive or Creepy?


Okay, so many thoughts and feelings about this. I was just talking to a psychology professor at a faculty event today about how the diet industry teaches women that they don’t have the ability to listen to their own bodies when it comes to food; we are bombarded with the message that we need to be regulated and monitored by a (highly profitable) diet industry to be “healthy”. We also talked about how fat shaming is still rampant in the media, so for my own physical and mental health I just avoid media that is going to make me feel shitty about myself, or that misrepresents body diversity as abnormality.

Then rewind a couple more days, when I was buying bras at Lane Bryant. I ended up talking to two sales women for about twenty minutes about how most of the fashion industry makes ladies like us (size 16 – the supposed average size of the American woman) feel like bloated freaks, which means that THEY DON’T GET OUR MONEY. This seems kind of short-sighted, no?

Advertisers might be able to sell stuff based on fear, sex, desire, etc, but shame doesn’t really make me want to spend time around that brand.  So these lovely ladies and I were talking about how nice it is to have a couple of stores like Lane Bryant and Torrid that sell stuff that shows off our curves, rather than camouflages them, in an environment that is non-judgy and fun. It was a very Girl Power Solidarity kind of conversation, and it kind of made my day.

Then I watched this ad. So many thoughts.

The good:

  • Advertisers seem to be waking up to their epic stupidity when it comes to body shaming, whether fat or thin. Fat (or short, tall, or pregnant, or petite) women have just as much money as medium height skinny women. Want to make money? Celebrate body diversity.
  • The demographics of women in the ad are pretty broad racially and physically, though the age range seems pretty limited.
  • Talking about fat-shaming openly is a GOOD THING. The more we are aware of how self-destructive it is, the less of it we’ll pass on to our children as either an acceptable way to abuse themselves or others. Shaming ourselves or others’ bodies is crap. It’s an epidemic of crap, but it can change. So thanks, Kellogg, for outing it.

Not so good:

  • Fat shaming is not going to go away by saying “shhhh!” It’s going to go away when we start talking about it and acknowledging that it’s destructive and looking at the underlying assumptions about femininity that cause it.
  • I’m not sure how happy I am that this serious issue is being used as a selling point for a cereal. It remains to be seen how committed the company is to this as an issue, rather than a marketing point.
  • From Kellogg’s fightfattalk.com site “We believe that fat talk is a barrier to managing our weight and, when so many women are doing it, we’re all further from reaching our goals.” Um, how about we just talk about how we abuse ourselves and how that is holistically a bad thing, rather than how it keeps us from getting skinnier, kay?
  • I have a hard time believing this was a “real” ad – the women have particularly flawless makeup and look amazing on film, and there are a lot of pops of Kellogg red lipstick. In the end, it just feels very slick and manipulative.

What do you think? Is it a good sign that companies are starting to cater to more diverse women, or is it just creepy that they’re using dismorphia as a selling point?