What’s Wrong With Clinton? A Study in Overwork and Sexist, Classist Expectations

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I recognize that I’m hitting this topic a little late, but I had a busy week last week and I still think it’s an important thing to discuss.

This isn’t really an article about Hillary Clinton. I mean sure I’m going to talk about Hillary Clinton, but she’s really just one example of thousands of women who work in the same sexist milieu. She is simply the highest profile example of something that we all experience when we are expected to overwork ourselves and still show up to work with a smile.

Last week, people became utterly concerned with Hillary Clinton’s health because it is one more way to show that she is unfit to be president. It’s a transparently sexist criticism, since we’ve had chronically ill presidents before and no one today seems particularly upset over that. Women are clearly inherently more frail, so any sign of weakness is evidence that she could drop at any moment.

In response, I’ve seen some memes along the lines of “Clinton had pneumonia and kept working. If that’s not strength, I don’t know what is!”

Neither of these seems like an appropriate response to a 68 year old woman fainting while working.

Instead, I think we should be asking some questions about how she ended up in this position. Why has she felt the need to continue working through pneumonia? Why has she made an additional effort to keep her illness hidden? What changes can we make so that people aren’t just passing out while they’re trying to do their jobs? What the fuck is wrong with our society that we feel we should criticize someone who has overworked themselves instead of offering them support?

Even more importantly, if someone who is as privileged as Hillary Clinton still feels these pressures, what about the average peons who don’t have thousands upon thousands of dollars and wealthy connections and basically every privilege box checked except for gender? I recognize that campaigning is something of a special circumstance, as it’s a directly competitive job, and if one candidate decides to keep working through illness, the other one almost has to in order to keep up. But I also see in the ways that we’re talking about Hillary Clinton’s pneumonia many of the same problematic attitudes that keep the average Joe at their job through sickness and injury.

The first element of the problem that I see is the evidence that no one is immune (pun intended) from having their health held up for public discussion. I’ve heard numerous times from friends with chronic illnesses that their bodies and abilities are suddenly considered public property the moment health comes up. This is doubly true for women, whose bodies already get discussed without their consent on a regular basis. Even though Hillary Clinton was trying very clearly to keep her health a private matter, hundreds of people seem to believe that it’s relevant to her job performance and her abilities.

That’s the second element that’s a problem to me. For people who are chronically ill, there are nowhere near enough employment protections to help them find and retain jobs, and this particular debacle highlights the way that “health” is considered a prerequisite for work. I think there are some layers of complexity here, because it’s true that there are some illnesses that can make it impossible to fulfill certain job duties, however our current system tends heavily towards providing few to no accommodations, judging people on a moral level for illness or sickness, and providing minimal time off to care for one’s health. That makes it really difficult to keep up work when you’re dealing with illness. If even our wealthiest and most privileged are struggling with finding a way to continue at their jobs without being criticized and nitpicked for any illness, then how are the rest of us supposed to get by?

Perhaps even more troubling is the response that says Clinton is exhibiting strength by working through pneumonia. Refusing to practice self care is not strength, it’s unhealthy and potentially dangerous. I understand the pressures that put Clinton in a position she felt she had to do it, but I don’t think we should be praising the behavior. We should be talking about how we create a culture where that’s kind of odd and worrisome.

Health SHOULD be a matter of national importance, but not for the reasons it’s being discussed now. It should be a matter of national importance because people don’t have adequate sick days or feel capable of taking their sick days without falling behind or being judged poorly by the higher ups. It should be a matter of national importance because we currently see it as completely normal to go to work while truly, dangerously ill, and because it’s considered evidence of a good attitude to prioritize work over health. It should be a matter of national importance because anyone who actually is chronically ill understands just how few opportunities there are for anyone who isn’t completely able bodied.

But it really shouldn’t be news because maybe someone who appears to be mostly in good health got sick and now we want to use it as additional evidence that she’s not good enough. There’s no world in which I would describe Hillary Clinton as “frail” but I also don’t want to praise her for continuing to exhibit behaviors that are unhealthy and are demanded of most of us in the real world where we’d get fired if we took a week off for health reasons.

So let’s talk about health and work. But let’s not talk about Hillary Clinton.

 

 

Don’t Tell Me I’m Beautiful

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Today I posted a Facebook status that I didn’t expect to get much of a response. It was personal and complaining, saying that I love body positivity but that I have a hard time internalizing the messages because I want to see how people view my body.

What amazed me was the number of responses I got. It wasn’t overwhelming, but there was an instant response from a number of female friends who said that they as well couldn’t seem to get over their insecurities, despite hearing from significant others or partners that they were beautiful. Others talked about how powerful it was to have nude photos taken, or work as a model, because it was outsiders seeing their bodies as art.

It’s not a secret that there are lots of negative messages aimed at women in regards to their bodies. Between 40 and 60% of girls age 6-12 worry about getting fat. We get messages early and often about the ways in which our bodies should change, so it’s hardly a surprise that many women do internalize those messages. And while I certainly appreciate when partners and friends tell me that I’m beautiful, what I’m hearing from these responses and what is becoming clear in my own mind is that first, it is not enough for the people we are closest to to affirm us, and second, when only those closest affirm us, it leaves us in a stressful and confusing position.

My friend Brianna summed it up quite well: “I have body image issues and I don’t really believe the things that my SO’s have [said] or do say about its beauty…so I always thought that seeing my body through the eyes of someone else would help me see what they see. I want to see my body as positively as they do, but it’s difficult for me to accept positive feedback from those I’m closest to. Perhaps it’s inconsiderate of me to not see my body positively despite my SO’s insistence, but some part of me just can’t or won’t believe it.”

What truly sticks out to me about this comment is that she says it might be inconsiderate of her. How telling is it that women feel that they have done something wrong when they can’t think positively about themselves, even though the world is repeatedly telling them not to?

Here’s where things turn stressful. How do you reconcile it when someone that you love and trust is telling you something that you cannot, no matter how hard you try, believe? How do you maintain trust and love when that person tells you things that look like lies on a regular basis? It hurts to be in this position. It hurts to choose between telling your partner that you don’t believe them or lying to your partner. It hurts to try to snuff out a voice inside yourself, even if that voice is cruel or irrational, because your partner has told you something different. It hurts to feel as if you’re being stubborn or untrusting because you can’t just believe your partner.

I end up feeling as if I can’t tell where reality rests. Am I being irrational for not believing? Are they blind or insane or lying? Will they find me out some day?

I don’t have any clear ideas of how to make this situation better, because the answer is definitely not “never tell your partner they’re beautiful.” But when a partner says that to me it feels like a huge pressure to react “properly” and learn to see myself the way they do. I feel as if I’m not grateful if I need more. Just as I felt selfish when I posted that status for wanting to see the way a stranger sees me, I feel as if I’m ignoring all the kindness of a partner when they compliment me.

But society has told me a thousand times that my beauty is only worth it if everyone sees it. It tells me that beauty is objective and distant, not a product of love and care. So can anyone truly blame me if I want to see myself through a stranger’s eyes, see art in my lines or sexiness in the swagger of my hips?

It is a problem to me when my partner holds all the responsibility for propping up my self esteem after the rest of the world has torn at it. This is why I love body positivity projects. This is why I love to celebrate the bodies of my friends, and even strangers. Because if it’s up to one person to convince me that I’m beautiful, I’ll never believe it. And it’s more likely than not that eventually I’ll come to blame him. So you. Yeah you. Your body is fucking fantastic. I’m not kidding. Send me a god damn picture. I want to be one more voice that sees how lovely you are.

If I were an artist I’d paint all of you. Believe me.

Why Don’t Men Get To Be Sexy?

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I was just recently watching a video of a dance competition in which the couple competing were dancing “sexy.” When the woman shook her hips, she got cheers. When the man did a little shimmy, the announcer said “that’s just wrong.”

People talk a lot about the expectations that are placed on women to look a certain way, and how those pressures negatively affect them. Nearly every woman I know has self esteem issues surrounding their body, has dieted or is dieting, worries about their weight, and is uncomfortable identifying themselves as beautiful. This seems to come about because women are hyper-sexualized and forced to be in the role of “sexually available” pretty much all the time. If you’re a woman, beauty is the price of admission for life. So when a woman acts sexy or dresses up or puts on new makeup, people cheer.

But there’s another element to the “women are the sexual objects” bullshit that doesn’t get much airtime and it’s one that pisses me off royally. Whenever I try to tell my boyfriend that he’s sexually attractive, he gets legitimately confused. It’s rare for men to be called sexy unless they’re movie stars. When your average man dresses up or tries to shake his booty, people laugh or shrug it off or say “you clean up good,” as if that’s all the validation that men need when they’re trying to present themselves nicely.

Why don’t men get to feel sexy too? Why don’t we treat men as attractive?

I’m a straight woman. I’m more likely to describe other women as hot or sexy than I am men. Isn’t that a little bit odd? Isn’t it likely that people are going to feel uncomfortable with their sexuality, their bodies, and their relationships if they’ve never been told they’re desirable, or never seen other people of their gender labeled desirable?

Here are some problems with men never thinking they’re attractive:

1. It’s considered weird if a woman initiates sex or intimacy

2. Men think that they must be the aggressors and feel a great deal of pressure to initiate

3. The idea that women must be convinced into sex makes more sense, because men are simply not attractive. Therefore no woman would ever want sex on her own, and so must be convinced/coerced/forced to have it.

4. Physical attractiveness and other positive traits get separated. Men see themselves as intelligent/funny/capable, but not attractive, whereas women are attractive and so cannot be those other things.

5. Men are more afraid of looking at their own bodies, being open to different sexual things, or seeing sex as a mutually pleasurable experience that they can approach in a variety of ways because they can’t conceive of their bodies as something sexy or interesting or attractive, but rather as a tool or instrument for doing things.

6. It just feels really awful to think you’re unattractive, and we’re teaching boys that their bodies will never be attractive.

We can do better. We can teach our kids that every body is attractive in some ways and to some people, and probably less attractive to other people. We can teach people that their bodies are desirable, that they’re desirable, and that they can both give and receive pleasure thanks to their bodies. Even men. We can teach each other that anyone is allowed to pursue a romantic interest (until that interest indicates they do not reciprocate the interest) and that there’s nothing creepy, weird, or wrong about women being the assertive ones or even about having a mutual relationship in which each partner initiates sometimes and some things.

I think men are sexy. I think my partner is sexy. And I want men to know that they are sexy.

My Body, My Mind

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When I feel overwhelmed I change my body.

I tattoo, I pierce, I dye or cut my hair. Sometimes I starve myself or hurt myself. In positive or negative ways, I change my body.

When I am overwhelmed, I feel as if my body isn’t my own. I feel as if I am performing, as if I cannot take a single iota of power from a larger system around me.

Today I want to take my body back from someone who claimed it as an excuse for murder.

“You rape our women. You’re taking over our country.”

That’s what he said before he killed them. Stephanie said that we, our bodies, are not yours. My body has never been anyone’s but my own, much less someone who will now become a figure for the medical and political institutions to talk about the ways they want to limit my freedom. Yes, you know where the conversation will go. He was mentally ill.

I’m sorry, but he doesn’t speak for my body and he doesn’t speak for my brain. My mental illness is not one of racism, and mental illness is not a catch all for murderers.

The media does not get to claim my mind for this racist system, just as this terrorist does not get to claim my body as his excuse.

I want to take my body back today. I want to shave my hair or emblazon my skin with a giant NO or punch holes in every place that the patriarchy says belong to white men.

There are no failsafes for marking myself out as ‘not yours.’ All I can do is say no. My body has not been harmed by the existence of blackness. My body is not in danger due to blackness. My mind is not the site of murderous racism because I have a diagnosis. That is something else entirely and I refuse to allow myself to be associated with it.

Not today.

 

Tattoos and Reminders

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Sometimes I have a hard time knowing who I am. This is pretty classic in Borderline Personality Disorder, and in that case it’s called Identity Disturbance. While I don’t have the same kind of flip flopping of actions, values, or thoughts that some people do, I often have a hard time figuring out what I care about, what I want, who I am, whether I’m good enough or not.

And sometimes it feels like I just forget myself, forget who I am or what I want. I flip flop between caring about my own health and wanting to self destruct. I forget my larger goals, or why I want to be healthy. I’ve gotten a little more stable, but there have been points in my life where I can flip from wanting to restrict for a week to feeling committed to putting food in my body in the course of a few hours.

In the movie Memento, the main character has amnesia and reminds himself of important facts about himself by tattooing them on himself. His name, phone numbers, facts about his life. All are branded on his skin as a way for him to learn about himself again each day, each time he comes back to consciousness with a blank slate.

Sometimes I feel like that’s how I remember who I am. My first tattoo was of music, a dotted sixteenth to remind me that I like to be unnecessarily different and a little offbeat. My second was the eating disorder recovery symbol, to remind me as often as possible that I am committed to recovery and that my health is important. My third was a compass to remind me that I can explore, but always find my way home. Each of these are things that I lose when I get too wrapped up in myself or stress or my to do lists. They’re things that I forget, or that I question, despite knowing that they’re important to me.

For people who easily have a strong sense of self it might seem ridiculous to brand your skin with your values or life choices. I know people who ask “but what if you don’t like it anymore in five years?” Well for your information I probably won’t like it in about five days, but that’s the point. The point is that I want to remember what it felt like when I got it, why I chose it, what was important to me in that moment so that I can come back to my values later in life, or later today, or whenever it is that I feel as if my mind has turned into a foreign influence that is pushing me in ways I don’t understand.

Sometimes I don’t know why I ever thought that being healthy was a good thing. I don’t remember that I did. It feels as if that was always some sort of outside influence that didn’t want what was best for me. Until I look at the tattoo of the recovery symbol on my hip. I chose to spend the time, money, and pain to have that inscribed on me. It was no one else’s decision but my own. I wanted to remind myself every day that recovery is one of my values.

It is proof that I thought differently, that I can think differently again. It’s proof that I have good days. It’s proof that I do value things that are not perfection or thinness or rules. The more reminders I have, the more stable I feel. It’s as if I’m building a new body for myself that tells me who I am.

The permanency is the point. It’s the only thing about me that seems to be permanent.

You Can’t Turn Off An Eating Disordered Brain

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Massive trigger warning for eating disorders

For about the past nine months I’ve been feeling pretty good when it comes to my body and my food intake. I still have a few hangups, mostly surrounding times when I should eat, but overall I was getting a decent number of calories and feeling fairly energized. I had stopped thinking about what my body looked like every day, and I had even stopped adding up the totals of what I had eaten each day to try to decide if I was allowed another item (or if I needed to go work out).

It was a massive relief to not have those scripts playing in my head anymore. But recently, somewhat out of nowhere, they’ve started to play again.

I have a lot more tools available to me now. I have more friends to ask for help, a better idea of what I want out of my life and why an eating disorder isn’t compatible with that, a fuzzy kitten to distract me, and a variety of strategies about what makes me feel good in the moment, but none of these things have managed to turn off the voices or the accompanying anxiety. They are enormously helpful when I need to choose a better behavior than restriction, purging, or overexercise, but no matter how often I try to ignore the bad suggestions my brain keeps giving me, it comes back louder.

This is what a lot of people refer to when they say that you never really recover from an eating disorder. The disordered brain will linger on and on and on. And while outsiders might suggest distracting yourself or challenging the thoughts, what they don’t understand is how incessant it is. When you wake up in the morning you wonder about what you’ll eat that day and think about whether yesterday was a “good” day (ran a calorie deficit). You go to put on clothes and are left with the quandary of what fits and what doesn’t, what you can convince your brain is acceptable. You go outside and now it’s the comparison game, who’s smaller than you are, who will see you as acceptable, does everyone see how big you are or do they care?

It goes on endlessly. You cannot turn it off (or at least no one has figured out the magic switch yet except constantly choosing a different behavior and working to focus on something else).

What no one tells you about jerkbrains, whether they’re eating disordered or OCD or depressed or anxious is that they will exhaust you. They don’t tell you that the worst part isn’t the full on meltdowns, but the normal days where you thought you were ok but instead have to spend half of your energy fighting with yourself.

It’s discouraging. While it is realistic to know that someone with a disorder that is highly linked to genetics will probably always have to be on the lookout against a recurrence of symptoms, it makes life feel like a neverending Sisyphean endeavor, even moreso than it might for someone who just has to get out of bed and drag themselves to the office each morning.

Even writing this feels like a repeat of things that I’ve said far too many times. It certainly puts more importance into the question of whether genetics are destiny. But pushing against all of the woe and angst and “determinism means it just doesn’t matter!” is the fact that I know I have changed. The eating disordered brain remains, but there is something in there or in me that can adjust. I make different choices, and the lows come further and further apart. I hate inspiration porn, especially when it comes to mental health, so I have to admit that I have no idea if there’s a relapse in my future or what it means for the quality of my life that self hatred is an essential ingredient of every day. But I am also done with wallowing in the unhappiness, so I also have to say that I have hope. There is the possibility of joy.

Between A Rock and a Hard Place: Triggers

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Yesterday I was hanging out with my partner’s family having lunch and chatting. I generally like Partner’s family, and they’re very kind people. But I’ve only known them for a few months and I haven’t established a very close bond with them yet. That means they’re mostly unaware of my mental illness. It’s not uncommon for people with mental illnesses to be around others that have this level of acquaintance: you know them, you care about what they think, you respect their opinions, and you want the relationship to grow. But they don’t know about your mental illness.

Most of the time that’s totally fine, especially since it’s not too hard to decide that if someone is a total butthead about mental illnesses and runs around spewing stuff like “it’s all in your head” or “just smile more” you can decide that you simply don’t want to invest in the relationship and stop hanging around them. But sometimes you end up in a circumstance in which someone that you want and need to build a relationship with inadvertently starts triggering you.

So yesterday when the conversation turned to calories and weight loss, I really wasn’t sure what to do. These conversations are nearly always triggering to me, to one degree or another. Sometimes I can keep my reaction under control, but usually it means that I’ll spend the next hour to day thinking about calories and weight loss and fighting with myself over my own caloric intake.

What do you do when you’re in a situation in which you can’t disclose your discomfort without outing a whole other pile of things, but you can’t leave without harming a relationship? Are there tools available? Sure I could have set a boundary by just saying “Hey, I really don’t think weight is that important. Could we talk about something else?” or just changing the subject, but when you’re not in a position of power or comfort, that can be extremely difficult. There are all sorts of situations where it’s nearly impossible to set boundaries like that without risking social repercussions.

There are lots of distress tolerance skills that seem really applicable here, things like breathing exercises, soothing oneself with nice sensory experiences (finding the soft blanket in the room and cuddling it), taking a brief mental vacation until the topic of conversation is over, distracting yourself in some fashion (if there are kids around it’s always a good excuse to say you’re just going to go play with them). It’s hard, and it might require limiting time around people you’re not sure you can trust with your mental and emotional health, but as relationships get closer you can start setting clearer boundaries.

The problem in my mind is that it’s still considered socially unacceptable to discuss your mental health in a casual way. It creates situations like these where there will always be unspoken needs because we’re not allowed to speak of mental illness. While physical illnesses aren’t always treated much better, it isn’t considered totally weird or unacceptable to say “hey, can we not have nuts for dinner since I’m deathly allergic and will have a horrible reaction.” It’s considered healthy, logical, and reasonable, rather than oversharing, being demanding, or straining a relationship. For some reason saying “I have the equivalent of a mental allergy to this conversation, can we please stop talking about it?” is awkward and unacceptable, something that opens you up to questions about whether your problems actually exist, or even can lead others to purposefully trigger you.

This might be one of the smaller areas in which mental illness stigma exists. It’s the little times that you have to bite your tongue and just deal with other people metaphorically standing on your feet by discussing triggering or difficult things. But those little moments add up. Each time they happen you have to have an internal dialogue about what you’ll do and how you’ll cope. It uses up important resources. And it normalizes the idea that you don’t deserve to be able to ask for things, even if others aren’t directly sending that message. The unspoken rules of relationships say that until you know each other well, you act polite.

I’m going to try to make a promise to myself that I will attempt to be better at boundary setting, even in situations like these where it’s possible that it will harm the relationship. I don’t have to be rude, mean, or demanding, but letting people know what is harmful to me can go a long way towards normalizing the idea that it’s completely ok to have needs and wants, as well as openly express those needs and wants. It’s even ok to just say that you have a mental illness and invite no further discussion.

This kind of rock and hard place situation doesn’t have to exist. There is no logical reason that disclosing an emotional need should be inappropriate or unwise. So I am going to change something I don’t like by changing my own behavior.