Telling the Truth About Shit

There’s something that I’ve noticed a lot lately, particularly around graduation and friends who are graduating. Oftentimes when we talk about college we hear things like “it’s the best years of your life”. But Miri’s post about her college experience got me thinking: for a lot of us it isn’t. Unfortunately when we try to say this, people often tell us all the good things that happened, try to brighten us up, or censor our experiences in some other way. This is in no way appropriate, but it is so common that it needs to be addressed.

There is a tendency in our culture to not accept negative experiences. We either want to problem solve, or look for a silver lining, or spin our negative experiences in some way. Many people say things like “you can always choose your attitude” or “you grew from the experience”. We want to convince ourselves that we haven’t wasted our time, money, or energy. And other people don’t like hearing someone in pain or unhappy, so they try to reframe a bad experience to fix the negative feelings. This is particularly true around things that are culturally viewed as “good”, or simply high-investment, like college.

Unfortunately, I think this means that we as a culture often ask individuals to quash their individual experiences and almost lie to themselves about what they truly felt if their experiences don’t fit the cultural narrative. It is highly important to be able to say what hurt you and that you are hurt. This helps you process it. This allows you to then move on from whatever fear, loneliness, sadness, or anger you were holding. If you can never openly say what hurt you without someone chiming in and saying “But what about the silver lining” your feelings get invalidated repeatedly. You’ve been told that you can’t actually know what you’re feeling because there must be a positive to your situation.

This can lead to lots of personal confusion about identity and emotions, it can mean you don’t trust yourself fully, and it means that the experience will likely to continue to hurt you. We as a society need to learn to be comfortable with some radical acceptance: some things suck. They happen and they suck. There is nothing that makes them better or ok or worth it. They just suck. Sometimes you need to talk about them and recognize that they suck, accept that they happened, and then move on as best you can. It takes radical acceptance to not question someone else’s experience.

So I want to own up to something publicly that I’m not sure I’ve ever really said in so many words before: I hated college. College was incredibly bad for my mental health. College was where my eating disorder, anxiety, and depression flowered and took over my life. I had very few friends through most of college, and lived through an emotionally abusive relationship. I did not enjoy my academics. There were positive elements, but they were absolutely not enough to make up for the intense amounts of pain I went through. That happened. I left early because I hated it so much.

But even saying that isn’t enough. It’s not enough for me to own up to a watered down version of what happened. It might sound like I’m being overdramatic, but I want to be clear about how bad the experience was for me and that when people tell me it was worth it or great or that they’re proud of me they have no idea what they’re talking about, and they’re on some level telling me that the shit I went through was good and worth it.

It started nearly immediately after moving to college. My freshman year of college I probably halved the amount of food I ate from the year before. I never ate two days in a row. I can count the number of times I ate that January on one hand. That spring I was so miserable that I literally began bawling because my brother was a half an hour late to pick me up and bring me home for break. I could not stand to be on campus one minute longer than necessary. I had friends, but I felt distant from them. They didn’t share things with me. The passive aggressive nature of the campus and covert racism and sexism made me highly uncomfortable. I was bored with my academics. I finished my first year eager to go elsewhere.

The summer after my first year I was on campus taking a class and working. For most of that time I ate approximately once a week. I was exhausted, lonely. I would drag myself through class and work, and then desperately try to find someone to talk to because the alternative was sitting alone in my room for the next five hours. My work was monotonous, dull, and required no thought. I was intensely depressed. I began to realize that the friends I had made over the year ignored me all summer and had no interest in my life or my difficulties. Coming into my second year, I started to feel as if they ignored my needs and struggles completely, and placed themselves above everything else. I was beyond lonely.

My second year I cut for the first time. I was deeply ashamed. I was living with three girls who ignored my repeated requests to turn off the lights earlier, and I spent a whole semester deprived of sleep, uncomfortable in my own space, hiding in study rooms and common rooms. I cried often, sometimes in public, running to a bathroom to try to hide it. At this point I felt I had no friends, no one to talk to, no one to trust. I went through my days in a pattern that felt exactly the same every day, and while I was learning I didn’t feel engaged. Every morning it was a struggle to get out of bed because I knew the day would replicate the previous one exactly. I was spending hours of every day thinking about food, fighting with myself about eating, poking at my body and hating it. I kept trying to force myself to exercise more and more but I was tired all day every day.

Throughout the summer after my second year, my self harm got worse. I experienced bad relationship troubles. By the fall of my final year I had broken up with someone I cared greatly about and spent the better part of a month nearly suicidal and going through each day just wondering when I could get back to my room to cut again. It was all I lived for, and it wasn’t much. The only reason I did not kill myself then was because I kept wondering who would find my body, and I felt too guilty to do that to anyone. One night, a friend of mine broke into my room and stole my razors. I was terrified when I found out because I didn’t know who it was. I spent the next hour searching my house for something sharp and ended up sitting in the corner of my bed crying, rocking back and forth until at least 3 in the morning because I was afraid someone might come into my room.

Following this I entered into a relationship in which I was pressured for sex, emotionally manipulated, guilted, and shamed. I had begun to find the glimmers of a few friendships after my previous breakup, but my new boyfriend cut me off from everyone and demanded all my time and attention. He began to hurt himself and blame me. He pinned his whole life on me and made it my responsibility. I collapsed under the pressure.

Through all of this I felt that I was not doing enough academically, despite graduating with honors, that I should be keeping up more extracurriculars, working out more, and volunteering more. I was in a constant state of self-hatred for not living up to my own expectations. I was bored out of my mind with most of the academics. There were classes here and there that engaged me, discussions or professors that were wonderful and kind, but overall I found myself disengaging with class because I felt condescended to with the material. Boredom is a huge trigger for me. It makes me anxious, worried that I’m doing something wrong, worried that I am not accomplishing. Nearly all of college I was bored with my classes and frustrated with my classmates.

After I graduated I chose to pursue a second degree at another institution because I didn’t know what else to do. The loneliness of being at a big school led to some of my worst self harm to date as well as the beginning of purging and bad exercise addiction. I would go days without speaking to anyone. I spent most nights crying. More than anything I just wanted to stop, but I couldn’t bring myself to drop out because that would have made me a failure.

College was horrible for me. I was lonely, guilty, self-hating, and judgmental.

I have been bitter about college since I graduated. I have envied the experiences of those who had a positive experience. And I have tried so many times to see what I got out of it. I have thought about what I learned, the good relationships with professors, the books I read, the sports I did. But none of that makes up for what I went through, and all it does is ask me to forget or spin the pain that I felt.

Today I don’t want to do that, I don’t want to learn and grow from the experience. I want to validate to myself and in front of others that it was bad and it was not my fault. It has made me who I am, and all I can do from this position is simply try to move forward with the tools that I’ve got, but one of the tools I have is honesty and I honestly want to say that the best lesson I can learn is to never put myself in a similar position again.

I want the people around me to acknowledge how bad it was. I want to be able to own the hurt so that I can move on and I don’t want to continue having to smile to people and lie about my college experience because people don’t want to hear you say that you were miserable. I’m tired of feeling pressured to put a smile on my face because college has to be a positive growth experience. I have done this for years. Every time a friend or relative asked me how college was I lied through my teeth because it was expected. I’m done with those expectations because they have made me bitter and they have asked me to keep carrying this pain all alone.

I’m done with that. I hated college. I wish I had done it differently. I can’t, I survived and now I will move the fuck on.

Will Follow Rules for Rights

“FOLLOW OUR RULES AND YOU WILL HAVE YOUR FREEDOM” IS THE BIGGEST LIE OPPRESSED PEOPLE ARE TOLD IN THIS COUNTRY

 

This morning I was looking at the twitter explosion over the Texas abortion bill and ran across this tweet from @rare_basement. I don’t know how to explain what this tweet means to me or my neuroses. I don’t know how to explain how this sums up all the intersectionality of my gender and mental health. But I’m going to do my best.

 

This is the lie I’ve believed all my life. No, I am hardly the most oppressed person in the world, but I grew up in the 90s, when girls were told that “you can be anything if you believe and work hard!”, despite the fact that sexism is still alive and well and making life incredibly difficult for women. But boy did I fall for that line. I still believe it, despite trying to make myself grow up over and over again. Because you want to know what happens when you buy into a cultural myth that disappoints you repeatedly, one that tells you that you’re responsible for your disappointments? You begin to think you’re the problem.

 

The line that oppressed minorities are fed is that hard work will get them whatever they want, including the rights and freedoms that have been denied to them in the past. This is the myth of meritocracy. Unfortunately, it’s not true, and minorities simply are denied rights and freedoms, as well as opportunities, because of their status as oppressed. But the myth puts all of the responsibility for these problems back on the oppressed: it tells them that they haven’t followed the rules appropriately or they have not worked hard enough.

 

This is the worst form of victim blaming because it can make everything an individual’s fault, and it can obscure from the individual the larger forces that are at work. And in my mind, the most insidious part of it is that it essentially sows the seeds for mental illness. One of the traits of many people with mental illness is personalization: thinking everything is either your fault or aimed at you. This myth directly tells you that everything is your fault. It builds personalization from the ground up and repeats it over and over until it’s been hammered into you. What’s worse is that it doesn’t just wait around until something bad happens and then tells you it’s your fault. It points to structural inequalities that already exist, and when those begin to affect you it tells you that you should have known better and followed the rules so that you didn’t make these problems for yourself. It retroactively blames you for problems that were there before you were born, so you are suddenly responsible for a disturbing amount of things.

 

An additional problem with this is that the “rules” for oppressed populations are contradictory and impossible to follow. No matter what you do, you’re doing something wrong and thus don’t deserve rights and freedoms. An example of rules for women: Be good looking but not shallow, and definitely not overly sexy, and definitely don’t flaunt your body but don’t be a prude either.

 

Is it any surprise that we have a generation of girls who have grown up thinking that they are constantly not doing enough, not right, or need to be perfect? A generation of girls who catastrophize everything? If you were told throughout your whole childhood that you’ll be treated with respect, dignity, and liberty if you follow the rules and then are NOT treated with those things no matter how hard you tried, doesn’t it seem logical that you would conclude that you had done something wrong? What amps up the anxiety of this is that you don’t know what it is you did wrong. You can’t figure out what went differently between the times when you got what you wanted and the times you didn’t (hint: the difference was probably not you, it was the circumstances outside of your control), so you get paranoid that at any point you might be doing something horribly wrong and you don’t know it. You might be messing up the rules which can have disastrous consequences. And if you don’t follow the rules exactly perfectly, if you don’t get straight As and no detention ever and dress modestly and act politely, then it’s your fault if you get raped or harassed or if you get denied a job.

 

This is an enormous amount of responsibility and guilt for any individual to take on. It leads almost directly to a paranoia about one’s actions, to a sense of personalization about everything, to perfectionism and to anxiety. For a while I wondered why nearly every girl my age was a budding anxious perfectionist, but this quote makes it so clear to me: we are because we know we have to be in order to be deemed acceptable and in order to try to keep ourselves safe.

Another problem with this message is that it tells minorities that their feelings are not valid or right. When your rights are denied, you have every right to be angry and upset, but this myth tells you that feelings of anger are always wrong because you are always at fault. You don’t get to be angry ever, except with yourself, because society can never do you wrong if you play by the rules. This undermines so much of an individual’s identity, confidence, and emotional understanding that you can be left with no conception of what an acceptable feeling is. In DBT when we talk about the circumstances that can trigger a mental illness, an invalidating environment is one of the first things that comes up every single time.

 

It’s no surprise that oppressed populations have some mental health problems different from those of privileged groups: they’ve been put into a situation where perfection is expected of them, everything is personalized, and their feelings are invalidated. It’s the perfect storm, and yet we sit around wondering why women feel so bad about themselves. This is somewhat akin to leaving tripwires everywhere and then asking why people keep falling.

 

We as a society need to start discussing and addressing the mental health effects of these expectations of women and other oppressed individuals because they are creating mindsets that are rife for mental illness. They are creating expectations of perfection in individuals, they are telling individuals to personalize everything, they are heaping guilt and responsibility on individuals who should be looking at the societal discriminations for their difficulties.

I’m a Duck

It’s been a rough few weeks for me. I’ve had a lot of stress happening, and some close friends have had bad things happen to them, and I’ve been left feeling like the best I can do on any given day is make it to work, sit my butt in the chair, and not cry. I have a lot of friends who have been trying to help, giving me advice, telling me what works for them. Unfortunately, these tend to be people who are not suffering from mental illness or who have never suffered from mental illness. And so I’ve spent a lot of this week staring people’s privilege in the face while they tell me I should just “be more social” or “stop watching TV”, and I have to explain how that’s not possible for me right now.

People don’t understand why I can’t make certain changes in my life. That makes sense. I don’t look sick or injured. I am not mentally incapable in any way, and sometimes I can get a great deal done in a short period of time. I sleep enough, I don’t have an excess of things going on. What is it about my life that makes it so impossible for me to adjust my priorities and work on things like socializing or reading more often or cutting TV out of my life or exercising?

The difference between your life and mine is made up of spoons. For you, getting out of bed, eating your breakfast, and going to work might not take much out of you. For me, it’s a difficult process that requires a lot of high level thinking and a lot of emotional regulation skills. The best metaphor that I know of is that my dad once described me as a duck: people watching me on the surface of a lake might think that I’m placidly swimming along without putting much effort in, but if you look just below the surface I’m paddling my little heart out. That’s what having a mental illness is. Now you might ask what am I doing under the surface just to get out of bed and make it to work in the morning. Well, I’m fighting my own brain.

Let’s just take today as an example. Last night I had a meltdown about socializing, which means that today I woke up tired. I spent a good ten minutes convincing myself that yes, I did have to go to work today and face people again (typically it takes me ten minutes between waking up and getting to work, so that’s a lot of time for me). I then spent the next ten minutes trying to decide whether to buy coffee now or later. To you this is no big deal. To me, this is an important choice. Coffee is an appetite suppressant. If I drink my coffee first thing in the morning, I’m more likely to get hungry for lunch. Drinking coffee first thing in the morning rather than later is a conscious choice to try to set myself up to eat. However leaving my office to go get coffee halfway through the day can be an important act of self care. I spend half my morning trying to decide whether I want to prioritize eating or breaking up the boredom and anxiety of my day.

After I get to work, I look at my to-do list. I have about enough actual work to last me an hour, then the rest of my day is spent killing time. Boredom triggers anxiety for me. Huge anxiety. I try to think of as many possible things to distract myself as I can, and then I write them down. Now I have to decide how to start my day. Generally if I go until 10:00 without accomplishing any work, I begin to wallow in self-judgment, however if I usually don’t have much energy first thing in the morning and if I finish all my work first thing I fall back into boredom by the end of the day (see: anxiety). Over and over I renumber the things on my list to try to find the perfect combination of real work and social media work to keep myself engaged and not feeling like a failure.

Currently, my phone has a single message. I know who it’s from. I can see the little red light blinking at me. It’s from someone who doesn’t speak English, who’s called me repeatedly. I tried to send him to intake where they have interpreters, but thus far I haven’t been able to get him the help he needs. I’m afraid to listen to the message and be reminded that I couldn’t help this person, so instead every time I glance over at my phone I have a flashing red reminder of it. This means more mindfulness and emotion regulation work to keep my anxiety and self-hatred in check.

After I finally get my list in order and start doing work, I have a hard time concentrating on one thing because I always think I should be completing everything at once. Periodically my work will devolve into rabid clicking between tabs, typing two words before jumping to something else. When this happens I have to take five minutes to close my eyes and breathe slowly, reminding myself of one-mindfulness. Finally I make it to writing this blog. Some of you might say this is a waste of my time or that I could be spending the time saving my energy for something more beneficial later today. The reason I’m choosing to do this is because it’s a distraction, and when I don’t distract at work I start to get extremely anxious (see again, boredom). Anxiety takes more energy, and leaves me potentially incapable of staying at work for the rest of the day. In the back of my mind there’s the ever present knowledge that my to-do list is not long enough for eight hours. I am always playing out little arguments with that fear, trying to keep myself in the here and now.

It’s now about 1 PM and I haven’t eaten lunch yet. I’ve been thinking about lunch since I got to work though. I’ve imagined what I could eat, how long it would take. I know that eating is a nice break from staring at the computer for me, and that it leaves me feeling a little bit refreshed. However it also leaves me with a lot of judgments and depression about myself that distract me and require a good deal of work to leave behind. Thinking about food is stressful, so the past five hours have been rough, thinking of how good it would taste before immediately jumping to the fat on my stomach or my thighs and the jeans that I didn’t fit into this morning. Back and forth, back and forth I go, my brain constantly ping-ponging between the arguments for and against food. By the time I actually get around to eating I’m almost out of the ability to manage stress, and so eating leaves me very vulnerable. Simply making it to the end of my work day might take all the rest of my energy.

But I also have therapy today, and as anyone who’s been to therapy knows that’s emotionally draining. So by the time I get to the end of the day I will be fairly worn out. I’m planning to cook dinner, because one of my goals is to be able to cook instead of eating out so that I can afford to feed myself in the future. This has also been a balancing act of anxiety about money and anxiety about food. I have to go to the grocery store, which at times has left me bawling in the fetal position, so I’m already steeling myself against that experience. This all will take a great deal of my emotional energy because food makes me worried and afraid, and I will need to use a lot of calming strategies to deal with it. Every one of these stressors not only takes up some of my attention and my energy, but then asks me to engage a complementary skill or coping strategy so that I can make it through the day, keep my job, and not have a melt down.

Add in to all of this that if I don’t eat, I’ll be dizzy and tired by the time I leave work, and the fact that I spend all day at my office freezing cold and trying to warm myself up, and it leaves me fairly exhausted by the end of my day. If I were to go out and try to socialize, it would be all I could do to smile and nod. I have no energy left to read instead of watching TV because my eyes would fall out of focus and I’d read the same paragraph over and over and over. I have spent all day reviewing the DBT skills options and trying desperately to engage skills that I’m still learning and which are incredibly difficult for me. This is a light day for me. Every day of my life I spend constantly calculating how much I can handle and how to manage my emotions.

Some people might say that we always get to choose how we act or what our attitude is, however the fact that I have to deal with all this anxiety is not a choice of mine. I can make choices about how to react to it, and about how to use the small amounts of energy I have. I can make choices about where to spend my time and focus when I have the energy to calm myself. And yes, I do get some choice about what to do with my spare time. However I don’t get to make a choice about the fact that my brain is nearly always screaming at me with something it wants to take up my full attention. I’m left with a very limited number of choices: listen and freak out. Engage skills. Or stuff it all down and pretend it’s not there. I don’t really get to prioritize other things over these because these are always immediate, strong emotions that demand attention. Survival is always my priority.

With all this going on just below the surface simply to keep myself a functioning member of society, is it any surprise that it sounds ridiculous to me to suggest that I should just change my lifestyle up, or face my social fears? Is it any surprise that I simply CAN’T strike up more conversations or spend a lot of time emotionally prepping myself for social encounters? Is it any surprise that I’m hurt and upset when people suggest these things because they invalidate all of the work that I’m doing and then tell me that I should take responsibility for being lonely and frustrated with my life?

I realize that for the most part all of this work is invisible, and so no one means ill when they suggest things to me. But from the perspective of anyone with an invisible illness, you all need to know that it hurts when you say that.

It’s hard enough to validate myself and the work that I’m doing as it is. Society is hardly patting me on the back for giving myself permission to take a nap last night instead of calling my loan company. I already feel useless and incompetent at many things because I don’t have the energy to figure them out right now and because the work that I am doing hardly looks like work (right now my to do list includes things like “cook”,  “Hot bath”, “make it to the end of the work day”, and “eat lunch”. I feel like I should probably just add “breathe” on there with how basic most of this stuff is). Being reminded that I have so much more I could be doing, or that I supposedly have the ability to change my situation if I just tried hard enough feels horrible. It makes me feel like everything is my fault, and it tells me that if I want to have a better life I should just change.

Remember that having extra energy or the choice of how to prioritize things in your life is a privilege. Survival is my priority and it has to be right now. Whenever it looks like someone isn’t doing very much but is worn down and complaining, contemplate how much they might be doing under the surface.

When Negative is Positive

I posted last week about my lovely sweet kitty passing away, and since then I’ve been largely quiet on the subject. This is probably because my general coping strategy is to try to get rid of anything that makes me feel bad. I am amazing at distracting, at acting opposite to my emotions, at looking like I’m coping fairly well by going to work and doing everything I’m supposed to do. Interestingly enough, this strategy often gets praised: people tell me that I’m doing well, that I’m getting through things, etc. In conjunction with this, I’ve seen a lot of people lately talking about taking the negative influences out of their life. I think that one of the coping methods that our society promotes right now is to simply abandon, ignore, or run away from things that hurt you. On some level this is good: leaving a toxic relationship behind is a great idea, or getting yourself away from a horrible job. If you cannot fix a situation, it might be the best idea in the long term just to leave it.

 

However I think that this method of coping has gotten extended from one that applies to long term or never-ending situations (in which it’s good) to something we apply to short term situations (which are often good learning experiences or can gain you something in the end). Excising things that are negative is a good coping strategy when there is something in your life which is bad for you and will not end, and whose positive consequences don’t outweigh the negatives. It is not useful in situations that are short term and which you need to be in: for example you need to grieve a loss in order to heal from it. You might need to be able to cope with being temporarily bored because boredom will happen in your life. You should be able to tolerate an unpleasant class because it will end and you know that you need the credits. Removing ALL of the negative things from your life leaves you unprepared to process and tolerate distress. It also often requires stuffing some of the negative emotions you do feel simply by not thinking about bad things that you can’t get rid of (for example the loss of something). Those emotions have nowhere to go, and generally build. A healthy relationship with emotions requires you to be able to tolerate distress in order to process it. Avoiding all distress doesn’t let you do this.

 

I think that in general as a society we have lost the skills for distress tolerance because we have so many tools available to us to be able to take ourselves out of negative situations. Unfortunately, this means that we often might miss out on a big payout at the end, or leave ourselves floundering when something we can’t avoid comes along. Now I think that when we see a clear physical payout, we’re fine with putting in hard work and tolerating distress: we can work long hours or wait in line for tickets to our favorite band, but that’s because we know exactly what we’re getting out of it.

 

However in emotional terms we’re far worse at this. I think that in relationships people are not very good at putting up with bad times, because they assume it means things will always be bad. We may be willing to tolerate boredom (although only with our smartphones at our sides), but when we’re put into a situation that makes us feel unwanted or anxious, we bail. We haven’t learned that we can learn skills to help us calm down, to stand up for ourselves, to effectively get what we want and need, and to still validate the other person in a given situation. We haven’t learned that some bad emotions can teach us things.

 

The problem with this is that when we hide from things that scare us or make us feel bad, we never get around to processing that information, and our brain never gets to the point where the threat feels like it’s gone. We walk around carrying this DANGER sign in our mind indefinitely, still feeling every loss or anger or frustration or fear that we haven’t yet turned off. Our brains need to be told that a threat is gone by understanding the new shape of the world, and in order to do that we have to look at things that hurt. This can be hard. It’s uncomfortable. It feels bad. But it’s also necessary and good, and in the long run will leave us with less stress and anxiety, less anger, and less worry, more content with where we are.

 

There are ways to feel negativity without it getting out of control. You can give yourself a concrete amount of time to feel it, give yourself something positive to look forward to afterwards, or have other people around. Emotions don’t have to be overwhelming.

 

And so I suggest that we all take a minute today to be with whatever’s bothering us. Just a minute. A contained moment by ourselves to feel it, well and truly, and then to move on and let it be.

The Disgust of Dirty Food

Note: this post has a lot of thoughts packed together that have not been clearly pulled apart. I’m really intending to write more about this, and a lot of these thoughts are preliminary attempts to work through some ideas that I think are extremely important. Any insights are welcome.

 

In my DBT group we’ve been talking a lot about emotions recently: how to identify them, what they do for us, how to regulate them, etc. One of the emotions that we went over which was a little surprising to me was disgust. I suppose that somewhere in my mind I knew that disgust is an emotion, and actually a fairly common one, but as I looked at the prompting events of disgust, the physical symptoms of disgust, and the interpretations of disgust, I realized that disgust is a hugely important element of eating disorders, and that there is a wide body of literature that discusses some of the roots and backgrounds of disgust that never gets touched on in eating disorder treatment. It’s pretty clear that people with eating disorders often feel disgust towards themselves or disgust towards food, but what is disgust? Where does it come from? What purpose does it serve? And what can this tell us about eating disorders?

 

So what is disgust at its most basic? In general, disgust is the feeling we have towards things that might contaminate or poison us. Likely we evolved this feeling for a really good reason: to avoid things that would kill us if we ate or touched them. In many ways, disgust has to do with bodily boundaries. You want to keep the good things on the inside and make sure that the bad things remain on the outside. We are disgusted by things that break down our boundaries: things that can come in through our mouths or ears, things that come through our sexual organs, things that break our skin and leave us without a boundary, or things that can get inside our body through our skin in some fashion or other. The purpose of disgust is therefore beneficial: it can keep us safe from potential pathogens, from sexual fluids, or from things that may invade our bodies. We want to remain pure, because purity will keep us safe and keep our boundaries intact.

 

However disgust has expanded from these origins into moral and religious contexts. Particularly in the Abrahamic religions, this moral tint to disgust came from Judaic purity laws, which mixed together the disgust emotions of purity with other moral issues in order to strengthen both. Judaism extended conceptions of purity and boundaries from literal filth into things that they believed would keep them spiritually pure, as well as keep their society as a whole safe from contaminants. Holiness was equated with purity, because purity is health and safety. If you look at Leviticus or other law books in the Old Testament, most if not all the laws are about keeping different things from mixing together, or from keeping impure and bad things out. A clear example of this is that a woman on her period is expected to remain separate from the community, and anyone who touches her must ritually cleanse himself (Leviticus 5:19-20). In general, blood is considered a pathogen. It’s not something you want to touch. However in order to enforce that boundary, religious law was invoked to create an ethical and moral consequence to becoming impure.

 

So early religions often had purity concerns as a way to enforce this sense of disgust and keep individuals safe. However these purity concerns grew into much more than that, and they took the sense of disgust and expanded it to apply to anything that was considered unethical. Again however we see a lot of questions about purity. When someone lies, you are not likely to feel a whole lot of disgust (even if it’s about something pretty horrible). When someone is raped, or brutally murdered and mutilated, or even humiliated, we feel a great deal of disgust for the perpetrator. These are instances in which someone’s boundaries are violated, either literally with rape, or their body’s boundaries are destroyed in the case of mutilation, or their boundaries of self-respect and self-identity are violated in the case of humiliation. This might be part of the reason we find sexualized immorality more disturbing and disgusting than other sorts of violence or crime: because sexuality is nearly always associated with penetration of some sort.

 

So we have these conceptions of boundaries, and this idea that we need to keep certain things in and other things out, and when things get inside our boundaries or threaten our boundaries we feel disgust. What does this have to do with the disgust of an eating disorder? In my opinion, everything. Eating disorders are all wrapped up in the concept of disgust. If you’ve heard someone with an eating disorder talking about food or about how they feel after they eat, they tend to use words like sick, gross, icky, nasty. They are words that connote disgust. Many eating disorder patients act as if food is unsafe or will hurt them in some manner. These together seem to indicate that people who are avoiding food they deem disgusting to keep themselves safe are concerned with keeping their bodies pure.

 

Food is one of the few things in our lives that we have to put into our bodies. We feel disgust towards eating things that might be a danger to us, and many religions have put purity taboos on certain foods. Food is all wrapped up in questions of boundaries and what is acceptable to put into our bodies. Particularly in modern America, there is a narrative about good food/bad food, which paints certain foods as toxic. These could be foods with chemicals or foods with fats or foods with sugars, but the language around them generally labels them as poisonous. In conjunction with this, there exists the idea that women in general need to be pure. They need to be saintly. They must be morally good, sexually good, and they absolutely can’t let bad things into their system because it could ruin their beauty and worth. If you look at the sheer number of cleaning commercials aimed at women, you might have some indication of how cleanliness is apparently the basis of our self-worth.

 

For many people with eating disorders, the food becomes a question of worth, of morality, and of saintliness. The less you eat, the better you are as a person. The more saintly you are. The more pure you are. This rhetoric makes perfect sense in the context of disgust: we feel disgust at things that come inside us, at things that are foreign in our bodies. If you begin to identify food as something foreign that you can choose to let into your body or as something that you can keep out, you begin to think that you can keep yourself safe, just as religions with certain food rules do, by keeping the bad things outside of your body and by being in control of the boundaries of your body. That sense of bodily integrity is one of the most important feelings of control that we get as human beings. The most important thing we can control is how our body interacts with the world around us: what we put in it, how we keep others out. These are the most important for our safety, as well as for our sense of individual identity. When these things are violated, of course we feel disgust. And when you’re barraged with the idea that the world outside of you is dangerous, dirty, and bad, and that you need to be clean, this feeling of disgust can get out of control.

 

If an individual is feeling as though their boundaries are violated often, or they feel as if they have no control over the safety of themselves as an identity or as an individual, they may take radical action to make themselves feel safe by keeping out the bad. This can take the form of an eating disorder. And the feedback loop on it is strong: you feel disgust towards something, you don’t eat it, and you feel safe and secure because you didn’t die. This is also given a moral element by stories of asceticism. Keeping the whole world out of your body has come to be equated with spirituality, with purity, and with saintliness. It apparently makes you better than other people if you keep your body clean from anything associated with the world (because the world is dirty). Restricting taps into this cultural conception, and allows you to feel morally superior for every time you skip a meal. It also tells you that you’re protecting yourself from anything that is unclean or dirty.

 

We don’t often think of America as having a strong purity culture, and our purity rules are not clear: we have a variety of different rules that are not always consistent. It’s no surprise that many people feel confused about what is appropriate with food and purity. It’s no surprise that with all the shaming that happens around food, some people feel that the only way to be safe is to cut food out entirely.

 

I believe that there are important insights to be gained from the disgust towards our own bodies as well, and that these might have ties to sexuality, sexual morality, boundaries, and the world as dirty. I’m hoping to do two follow up posts to this one, on identity and purity, and on sexuality and purity.

Odes to Bootyliciousness

Last night I had a lovely dinner with my boyfriend and we went for a walk afterwards. As I was opining the horrors of having to return to my dull job in the morning, he gave me a delightful suggestion of how to occupy my time during the day. It was brilliant! And so here I present to you all a series of odes to my boyfriend’s bootyliciousness. I hope they give you all a light on this dark Wednesday to guide you to beauteous Friday.

 

Round, firm, delicious

Just juicy enough to love

Bootylicious ass

 

 

I sit on the couch

You are busy, bustling to and fro

I cannot help but watch as you pass by me

Your jeans cup, gently rubbing across skin

Oh that I were those jeans

And could be that close

Spooned lovingly around your cheeks

Giving you the support and comfort

That your gracious gluteus deserves

My hands unconsciously curve to match

The curves of your cuppable caboose

Oh perfection!
Oh beauty!
Shining with the light of divine creation

Glowing in the morning sunlight (as my x-ray vision can see through your jeans)

I am in awe

Jaw-dropping awe

You turn to move into another room

I sigh, but your glorious fanny lives on in my memory

Outshining all other posteriors

Pretending to be badonkadonk

 

 

Apple-Bottom John

I like to sneak a squeeze in the middle of a crowded space

So you know I’m appreciating your fine fanny

It’s a secret for the two of us

And we know from the matching grins on our faces

There are some happy cheeks here

Follow Up: From Criticism to Construction

It’s been about a week since I put up a post detailing some of the discomforts I felt with my local dance community and sexism. And I have to say that I’m entirely heartened by the response. I’ve had some people here or there throwing the responsibility for fixing it back on me, but overall people just want to discuss and improve, and that’s GREAT. I feel entirely lucky to be among a community that’s willing to listen to some random girl with a blog.

So one of the responses that I got quite often was “what can we do better”? Now I’m just one person, and so I can’t solve all the problems myself. I don’t necessarily have solutions for all the problems I pointed out, and I would really like to start a community dialogue so that we could draw from more minds and more backgrounds to get all the best ideas. I know that other people out there have ideas that I won’t think of, and I’d like to hear them, as well as hear more about other people’s negative experiences so that we can try to address a holistic picture of sexism in the dance community rather than MY picture of sexism in the dance community. Because of this, I’d really like to invite others to continue commenting, suggesting, and conversing about the issue, and I would really like to facilitate some sort of in-person forum to discuss these questions.

However as I’m not sure that will happen for some time, I do have some suggestions here.

1.Harassment policies at all venues, posted or publicly available.

2.At Heartland the year that I went there was a specifically same sex strictly lindy competition. More of these would be great.

3.More classes that ask their students to switch roles.

4.Classes specifically geared towards experienced students to start fresh with a new part. Oftentimes I think we get stuck after we start in a certain part, and don’t want to put the effort in to go back to the beginning. This kind of a class wouldn’t feel condescending or boring, but would rather meet more experienced students where they are.

5.Potentially a variety of themed dances or songs at events: a gender bender song, a solo jam, etc. I’m not entirely sure about feasibility or usefulness of this one and would like to hear some feedback about it, but I like the idea of having some time set aside for people to try something different on the social dance floor.

6.Invite more same sex teaching couples (when possible).

7.This is more of an individual choice than a community wide effort, but it could be something we could be more conscious of: experienced dancers asking newer dances to dance, and not only asking those of the opposite sex. I know we make a concerted effort to be welcoming to newer dancers, and some of the more experienced dancers also experiment with switching between lead and follow (but generally only with other experienced dancers). But if we want our community to be more welcoming to a variety of kinds of pairings, we have to be willing to model that behavior to everyone right away.

8.More awareness of gender/race/etc equality in our DJs.

The next few are very preliminary suggestions. I would absolutely love and appreciate feedback about the plausibility of these ideas, or variations of them.

9.If possible, some classes that are follow specific, particularly earlier on in dancing, to help follows understand their importance and the benefits of being a follow, as well as to give them more teacher time and focus.

10.Integrated classes between levels: a class with more experienced follows and less experienced leads or vice versa. I think this could help a lot in allowing some of the insights we gain the more we dance to filter down to some of the newer dancers. It could also help new dancers gain confidence. This might also help with the fact that in beginning dance classes we see a lot of simplified metaphors around leading and following. Treating newer or not as talented dancers like they have the same amount of intellect as more experienced dancers can only be a good thing. Even if you’re a newer dancer, you can understand the concept that leading and following are equal.

10a. A potential variation on the integrated class model could be mentors. I know that Peter holds office hours, but he can’t be everywhere at once. If some more experienced dancers would be willing to give a couple hours a week, they could be paired with a newer dancer and given some time to practice or work through things. I think this would facilitate respect between leads and follows, better dancers, and more opportunities for dialogue about the philosophy of dance.

11.More education about rights and space and sexism in the community. I’m really unsure as to what this might look like, but there are definitely some people who really need to be explicitly told that certain things are inappropriate. I’m not sure if this means we have a monthly class about dance etiquette, or when dancers first come in they get some sort of sit down about what’s ok and what’s not…I definitely would appreciate the feedback of teachers here.

12.More discussion around the concept of consent and boundaries. This means understanding that different people have different boundaries and that they may communicate these boundaries to you in different ways. Most of us understand that people can communicate non-verbally: if you go to give someone a hug and they pull away, they are not consenting. We have to respect the non-verbal cues as well. As a strong example of this in dancing, I had a dance in which a leader tried to dip me. I didn’t feel comfortable with it, and so I just didn’t. I pushed back against his lead, and stood on my own feet and basically said “NO” to the move as loudly as possible without actually yelling STOP. However the lead decided to ignore this and attempted to lead the same move two more times with increasing force each time. I know that Shawn has some documents he’s looking at that include dancer’s rights and responsibilities, and I think that posting documents like this, starting a conversation around consent, and exploring what it means to ask for consent is a good start. To leads: you ask for consent every time you lead a move. I give you my consent by either following or not.

An additional piece to this could be to remind follows that while they should follow to the best of their ability, their status as a follow comes second to their status as a human being, and that if a lead leads something they just don’t want to do, they don’t have to. That doesn’t make them a bad follow. It means that they’re setting their own boundaries. YOU GET TO SAY N O. EVERY TIME YOU FOLLOW YOU ARE CHOOSING YOUR MOVEMENT. Remember how much power you have in that.

In line with this, a reminder that clothing is not consent is always great: just because someone is wearing a short skirt doesn’t mean you get to touch her. I realize that sometimes a person might be wearing something that makes it REALLY HARD not to accidentally boob grab or whatever. You’re allowed to not dance with them for that reason. If someone else’s clothing makes you uncomfortable, you can say no to a dance. If you are worried that you might be put in a situation that makes you uncomfortable, you get to say no.

13.Finally, I would like to see the creation of more forums to discuss the philosophy, sociology, politics, and culture of dance so that we can all bring our opinions up and so that we can keep up to date on any issues that might be cropping up. This might mean an internet forum, or it might mean half an hour before one of the events where we hang out and talk, or it might mean a monthly dinner that has an open invite for anyone who comes to dance events.

So thank you to all the people in my dance community for being awesome. I really hope we can continue this momentum and move it into a long term discussion with real impacts.