Before and After Stories: Time and Social Justice

What do narratives about trans* people, fat people, neurodiverse people, immigrants, and chronically ill people have in common? Yes they are all narratives about oppressed groups of people, but what sets these sorts of narratives apart from the narratives we hear about people of color or women? These stories almost always neatly fall into the narrative of before and after stories, with the before identity being the oppressed identity.

We rarely think about time in relation to social justice. Generally we view oppressed individuals as having characteristics or traits that don’t disappear with time. We may think about how these traits fit into categories, systems, treatment, prejudices, and the like, but we rarely think about how they change with time, or how the concepts of change and time are used as oppressive tools by majorities that wish these minorities to disappear. Oftentimes these stories are told as a journey with a movement from bad to good.  The acceptability of these minorities is often tied to time, and where they are in relation to a journey or a movement in time.

Recently I read an article on academia.edu that explored weight loss stories and how fat individuals have subverted the before and after weight loss narrative to empower themselves. In particular, “fat” is nearly always painted as the “before” and “thin” is the desirable “after” status. I was struck with this discussion, because this same narrative is often used in eating disordered stories wherein sick is before and recovered is after. This type of narrative is applied to many kinds of individuals, and could be an interesting lens with which to understand certain tools of oppression and new ways to empower oppressed people. Let’s start by looking at what is common across many of these narratives and how they are used to create binaries and enforce the view of society that certain halves of the binaries are acceptable.

One important thing that social justice advocates often talk about is that oppressed identities are often viewed as something that should change, generally in movement towards the “normal” or acceptable identity. When we speak of the identities I mentioned above, that identity is rarely viewed as the true identity of the individual, but rather it’s seen as a layer that needs to be shed to reach the “real” person underneath. You can see this for fat people in movies like Shallow Hal, or for people who are neurodiverse when you see narratives about the disease “possessing” someone, or that “functioning” is supposed to be the end goal. Oftentimes we don’t hear people tell stories of being this identity in the present tense: you don’t hear “I am anorexic and this is what it’s like” or “I am fat and this is what it’s like”. You hear “I was a teenage anorexic” or “my weight loss story” or even “here is my journey of transition from male to female, but now I am firmly female and no longer challenge the gender binary nuh uh”.

This use of the past tense does a great deal to undermine the experiences of these individuals, because it distances them from their experiences, and paints now as reality and the past as distant unreality. We are told that these experiences don’t persist through time: that it’s “just a phase”, or not enough of who we are to continue to be a part of who we are. Particularly when an individual does change, that process and the experience of change through time are often erased by creating a simple before and after picture that does not illuminate the complex and personal procedure of change. We get a sentence as simple as “I recovered” that erases the growth, the change, and the incorporation of the past into a new identity.

These are not always the stories that individuals with oppressed identities want to tell, but they’re the frameworks that society provides for us and appear to be the narratives that society wants to hear. They require us to give up ownership of parts of our lives, to distance ourselves from what we used to be and to look down on it as miserable or wrong. This means that the ability to claim full ownership of your entire life and to see positive and negative elements across time is a great privilege.

The other element of these narratives is that you’re considered fair game for judgment, pity, and condescension when you’re on the “before” end of the spectrum, and most people assume that you’re trying to reach the “after” end of the spectrum. They view you as unfinished until you change, then they see you as complete or acceptable. If you don’t want to change, you are often labelled lazy, wrong, stubborn or broken. It’s considered tragic if you never change. These views of individuals as simply on their way to something better completely erases the day in day out experiences of time, of change as a choice, or of narratives that don’t fit this pattern. The time that you were “before” is often considered lost, and you don’t get to claim it as your own. Relapse, or change back, is completely erased. These kinds of narratives, and the dominant societal interest in the before and after narrative take away many of our choices and remind us over and over again that we are so unacceptable that we are not even real until we have changed. Our experiences are changed from “lives” into “journeys” without our consent, and we are absolutely not allowed to be in between the two poles. These identities are only acceptable if they’re in the past.

So what do we do about these narratives? Are there ways  to rewrite our oppressed identities as things that persist through time, or to subvert some of the narratives? I think there are, but they require us to be extremely vigilant about when we talk about our lives and how we talk about our lives. It’s important for us to tell true stories about our lives at all points in time. When we have an eating disorder, we need to speak up about what it’s like. When we are fat, we need to speak up about what it’s like. When we are transitioning, we need to tell that story as the here and now. But we also need to remind ourselves over and over, and remind each other, that every iteration of us is the real us. You are always you and your experiences are always valid. There is no time when you are becoming yourself. You already are. When someone else tries to paint you as changing, in flux, or incomplete, fight back against that. Remind them that YOU ARE YOU right here and right now.

Stop using the past tense. Talk about now. And beyond that, ask for services and recognition in the here and now, not for the you that you will be. Ask for adequate medical services for yourself WHEN YOU ARE FAT. Ask for respect of your voice and your opinions, support of your struggles and confusions, and good relationships WHILE YOU ARE STILL STRUGGLING WITH YOUR MENTAL ILLNESS. Finally, find ways to rework the narratives. Use a frame that doesn’t have a clean ending. Make your oppressed identity the end rather than the beginning. Parody the narratives that exist a la Judith butler. Claim your identity right here and right now in any way you can.

Our identities are not a step on the path to acceptability. They are who we are. And ya know what? They’re pretty fucking awesome in the here and now. I have an eating disorder. That’s me. Get over it.

One thought on “Before and After Stories: Time and Social Justice

  1. I love this post. Especially enjoy when my presumptions are challenged. You’re right – in our thin-obsessed culture we expect the after photo be some miraculous slim-down not someone growing into health.

    Aren’t we all somewhere between where we were and where will be with today in middle with the “before” also part of the whole?

    Lots of great stuff here to think about.

    Thanks.

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