I Hate People Who Take the Elevator

elevator-and-stairs

A friend of mine made an off handed comment the other day. “I’m sick of lazy people taking the elevator!” To say that I was taken aback would be an understatement. I pushed him a bit, and he simply said he hated that everyone did it, that it was an engrained social structure, that obesity was an epidemic, and that it was a waste of energy.

I think it’s time to review both fatphobia and ableism 101, as well as how they’re intertwined. The first thing to note about something like whether other people take the elevator or not is that it’s none of your damned business because you know nothing about this random other person and their behavior isn’t hurting you (we’ll get to questions of obesity soon). There is nothing morally wrong about not wanting to be active right this instant. And in many cases, someone might be incapable of taking the stairs: some people have invisible diseases, and your assumption that everyone should take the stairs is part of the underlying cultural norm that other people’s bodies belong to us and they all have to be able and thin or they are doing something wrong. They are causing harm.

There are a lot of things wrong with the assumption that you should be able to tell someone else what to do with their body or that it’s any of your business what someone else does with their body, whether that’s how/when they have sex or their choice of diet and exercise. The moment we start deciding what the correct way for another person to treat their body is, the moment we’ve decided to try to take away their basic autonomy.  Everyone has the right to decide what to eat, how to move, where to go, and when you assume that their actions are fair game for your shame and criticism because you don’t like what someone else is doing, you’re implying that someone else’s body is public property. And that’s just really uncool.

There is nothing wrong with being fat. Spoiler alert: it is entirely possible to be healthy, happy, and active while being fat. The Health at Every Size movement has a great deal of information on this, but suffice it to say that genetics plays a huge role in your size, and that body composition makes a large difference. The “obesity epidemic” is based on the BMI scale, which does not take body composition into account at all and reduces many complex health problems down to “you’re a fatty, lose some weight,”. As this article points out, fat people often have to fight for the right to be able to eat food. Relatedly, they also often have to fight for the right to be inactive or rest. Any time we see an overweight person sitting down or watching TV or taking the elevator, we assume they’re lazy. We don’t do that with thin people, even though there’s not any law that says the thin person is more active than the fat person.

We tend to only accept a fat person as a “good fatty” if we see that they only eat salad or take the stairs every time. Fat people are by default considered unhealthy and lazy until they have proven that they do all the correct healthy behaviors and are still fat. Many people assume that if a fat person is engaging in any “unhealthy” behaviors, those behaviors are what has caused them to be fat (and thus a drain on society because all fat people are the worst ya know). Never mind that some people are fat because of disabilities.  Never mind that you literally have no idea whether or not that individual just came from the gym or not. Never mind that you have literally no evidence that taking the elevator is what caused this person to be overweight or whether or not this overweight person is unhealthy. Never mind that some people physically can’t take the stairs, even if they look able bodied.

It’s none of your damned business what anyone does with their body, what food they eat, and how they exercise. Bodies are complicated, and unless you’re someone’s doctor or intimately close to them, you don’t know even close to enough to make a judgment about whether or not they’re lazy. A lot of this is straight out concern trolling, and there’s good evidence that it’s not really about health in the fact that I don’t see any of these concern trolls telling me that they have a right to tell me to eat more and deal with my eating disorder because insurance! Public health! You need to be able to work! They’re not concerned with the state of my health and body because I am thin and able bodied and sometimes I rock climb and swing dance for hours. You cannot read someone’s health off of their body.

Maybe taking the elevator is an engrained social structure, and maybe we could do more to promote exercise. But any fat person or depressed person or sick person can tell you that they’ve heard it. They’ve heard it a thousand times. One more piece of shame is not going to help (it may actually make people fatter). There are more positive and more helpful ways to promote movement. I take the elevator because the stairs take longer and are boring. I’d rather exercise in a more fun fashion. So maybe that “just take the stairs” approach is alienating some people, and is actually an excuse to complain about fat, lazy people.

Yes, maybe it is more energy efficient to take the stairs. But we all make trade offs in our lives in terms of values and priorities, and how we treat our bodies is incredibly personal. If it’s so important to you, then take the stairs yourself, but stop haranguing others when you have no idea what their lives are like.

 

The Body As Evidence

Scars visible, still smiling

I’ve written before about the frustrations of having a mental illness that leaves visual signs on my body, and that it can often feel as if my body is betraying me with its scars or its size. I’ve recently noticed what appears to be a corollary to this and it’s something that gets under my skin (pun intended). For those of us who have mental disorders that result in a physical change, our bodies are used far more often than our own words or mental state to gauge whether we’re ok or not.

This is something that has been criticized for some time now. We’ve heard that “you can’t see whether someone has an eating disorder by their size”. Many people are still convinced that size and weight loss are the indicators of eating disorders. Others are certain that depressed people probably look like vagabonds and don’t wash or take care of themselves. I would hope that we all have enough evidence by now that people of every shape and size can have a mental illness and most of the time it’s utterly invisible.

But there’s another layer of looking at bodies as evidence for mental illness, and this one is more subtle and more insidious. This is the one that comes when someone knows that you have a mental illness and really wants to know how you’re doing. So they pick apart your physical appearance for signs: are there dark circles under your eyes? Have you lost weight? Gained weight? Is there a scar or a cut that indicates symptom usage?

Now of course if you’re nervous or worried for someone it makes sense to try to find evidence of how they’re doing. Where this turns into a problem is when bodies are used as evidence against the person whose body it is. Often, when someone with a mental illness says that they’re doing ok, their body is scrutinized to see if they’re right or not. The individual can’t be trusted to know their own mental state or to truthfully express it to others.

In many ways, I think this plays into the idea that people with mental illness are manipulative or disconnected from reality. For most people, if they said that they were feeling ok, or doing better, or their mood was up, they would be trusted unless there was some glaring evidence to the contrary (muttering, monosyllables, glowering face). Particularly with physical illness, if someone has an injury but says that they feel fine, most people take them at their word. We’ve all experienced having a particularly nasty looking scratch that doesn’t actually hurt and reassuring others that we’re fine. For the most part, they trust us to know whether we’re in pain or not. Even with illness, if someone has some symptoms but reassure us that they’re feeling much better, we smile and tell them we’re happy for that.

Obviously all of us use our common sense to determine whether we think someone is lying to us about their internal conditions, but for some reason those with mental illness are held to a far higher bar than others. Any evidence of symptoms is often construed as evidence that our  mood cannot and is not ok, or that things are going downwards. Particularly for things like purging or self-harm, there is a guttural response of disgust and fear to the symptoms that means outsiders are often convinced that it’s impossible for an individual to be doing ok and still engaging in those behaviors (never ever nuh uh). That means any evidence of symptom use is held up as evidence that things are not ok and if the individual says they are it is a lie.

Maree Burns in Eating Like An Ox says “In cultures where identities are read off the surface of the body, one’s physical state is understood to represent both moral and mental health”. There are intersections here with numerous other oppressions: fatphobia, racism, sexism, slut-shaming, ableism (as well as many others I’m sure I’m forgetting at this moment). The problem with assuming that a body is an identity is that no one can ever convince you you are wrong because they must be lying. There is an odd tension in American culture in which we partially dismiss the importance of bodies (we assert that focusing on looks is shallow, we eat horribly and don’t take care of ourselves, we shame people for having sex, and we typically subscribe to a Cartesian dualism that suggests our mind is our self while our body is just a nice carrying case), but at the same time we are convinced that we can read identity and selfhood off of bodies. Fat people can’t control themselves, people with disabilities are lazy, people of color are Other (scary or dangerous).

We don’t see bodies as selves, but we see them as books on which selves are written, clearly and unequivocally. The tension between the fact that we don’t see our bodies as our selves and the fact that we think our selves are clearly reflected in our bodies can make self-identity a serious challenge, but it also serves to undermine the self that an individual might seek to portray or express to others through means that are not the body. And this of course always impacts those who are already oppressed because we are more easily assumed liars.

My body cannot tell you things about my self, my well-being, or my identity. I may have scars, but I am ok. Someday I will openly wear my scars and smile and laugh and be a walking advertisement for the fact that mental health is not visible. Until then, I will just repeat over and over: I’m ok.

Intersectionality in Animal Rights

veg

Last night I had the most stressful job interview in the world that also happened to be an interesting discussion. I was interviewing with an animal rights organization, and one of the questions that they asked me was how the animal rights movement might be able to grow/what they should change. I responded that I believe intersectionality was important, and that looking for ways to work with other movements was a good way to move forward, especially in terms of diversity and equity in race and gender.

My interviewer responded that as an organization they’ve made it a point not to take a position on anything but animal rights because they have a diverse membership and don’t want to alienate people who have come to a pro animal rights position through a different path. Of course this makes sense as a stance for an organization to take, but the more that I thought about it, the more I think that any vested interest in treating animals with respect requires us to take a hard look at how we treat every creature, including other human beings.

While I do think it’s possible that one could come to a position of animal rights through a religion that says animals require our protection, I also think that we have to look at the science and the logic behind our positions and that it’s important to be consistent in what we’re saying and believing. If someone says that they believe we should reduce the harm that animals suffer, they are logically saying that they also believe we should reduce the harm that human beings suffer. All of the science that we currently have points towards the fact that human beings are simply part of the spectrum of animals, with no hard and fast distinctions between us and the rest of the animal kingdom.

In order to reduce the harm that comes to animals, we also have to look at the science of pain and consciousness to understand how animals feel, what they feel, and what causes them pain. Even if you are motivated to care for animals by a religious belief, you still have to look at the actual world around you to understand what it means to care for animals. And science tells us that animals can feel pain, can identify themselves as individuals, can make friends and feel love and empathy, and generally have a rich emotional life.

And if you believe that violating these things causes pain and harm, and that causing pain and harm is something that we should not do, you have to apply these understandings to human beings as well. Now each of us gets to apply our values in the way we choose, and we may decide that there is another value that trumps causing no harm (like God’s word that homosexuality is sin), but the only other values that we can derive from the same premises as animal rights are the values that promote negating harm for all creatures wherever possible based upon what we can learn about what causes harm.

Here are things that we do know cause harm: sexism, racism, homophobia, cissexism, ableism, classism…and we know that they do so in subtle ways, including through simple language or jokes, through objectification and exotification, through discrimination or lack of access, through speaking over and ignoring experiences, through rape culture, through the prison industrial complex, through lack of job opportunities and poor wages…many of these things are directly tied to meat eating, such as the low wages for workers in the meat industry, or the symbolic ties of meat to masculinity.

At the very least, listening when people tell you that something you’re doing is hurting them seems like it needs to be a part of your value system if you want to be ethically consistent while prioritizing animal rights. Over and over we hear people saying that ignoring these elements of life harms them and leaves their lives harder and more painful.

I am not suggesting that every animal rights activist needs to put their current activism on hold and jump into all of these other debates. However you should take the time to consider how these fit into your professed set of values and be willing to back up those who ask you for help or consideration when their requests fit within your values. And it is clear that the values that underlie veganism and vegetarianism when it is pursued because of animal rights demand that we treat human beings with respect.

So while politically it makes sense for an organization not to take any stances that might alienate their membership, I also believe that it’s disingenuous to profess a belief that we should minimize the harm our lives create, respect others, and improve the world, while not at least mentioning issues like discrimination, abuse, racism, sexism, and all the other isms that plague our world at the moment. This does not demand that we take specific political positions (after all science and logic don’t lead us clearly in one direction all the time), but rather that we acknowledge that there are many things that harm both humans and animals in the world today and state unequivocally that we do not tolerate discrimination, abuse, cruelty, or violence in any of its forms.

I believe this is one of the areas that we need to take a longer view: while it may be beneficial to gain members who don’t truly believe in respect and minimizing harm but who will help you achieve your goals, this is not going to help the longer goal of fostering empathy and compassion for everyone, animal and human.  In the end, it might undermine your goals: if a church changes its position you may lose those members, but if you gain members because they have come to an ethical conclusion through their own rationality, they are much less likely to change their opinions based on the teachings of others. We may be watering down our message in order to appeal to more people, when we should be strongly advocating for respect on all levels.

Crazy!

homer

Crazy is a tricky little word. It can be an absolutely horrible thing (“My ex is crazy”), but it can also be used in relatively mundane ways (“my cat has the kitty crazies!”). Many people in social justice circles have put a blanket ban in their own speech and writing on the word crazy because of the ways it’s used to discount the validity of those who are mentally ill and the way it often is used to discount other people by implying that they are mentally ill. It’s also used to stigmatize and put away those who have mental illness, brush them under the carpet and dismiss their needs, opinions, thoughts, and feelings.

I have never felt the need to remove this word from my vocabulary (although I do make a point not to use it to describe someone whose opinions differ from mine or whose behavior I don’t approve of). Especially as someone who is diagnosed crazy in many ways, I’ve also felt that I get to decide how far I want to go in removing the word from my vocab because I am the relevant group. However I also care about other people with mental illness and I want to be careful not to use words that contribute to oppression and stigma.

However I also feel the need to be careful with my language and not restrict myself unnecessarily. If I’m going to make the effort to erase a word from my vocabulary, I want to have good reason to do so. And I am still trying to understand what it is about using the word crazy to describe something out of the ordinary, something extreme, or something high energy that contributes to stigma and oppression.

So I’d like to take this time to imagine how using the word crazy in offhanded or unimportant contexts might have negative or unintended consequences.

There are a few ways that the word crazy is used when it’s not being used to refer to someone whose behavior appears to be disconnected from reality, self-harming, or in some other way unstable. Each of these ways has different implications and thus different consequences. The first is to imply that something is weird or different. You see a rainbow painted car driving down the street and yell “that car is crazy!” Oftentimes it’s used in a positive way, and so some might view it as a good thing. The problem is that the implication is that crazy means you stand out, you’re not like others, you should be viewed differently, or you can’t fit in. It’s used to separate, and if someone who is mentally ill interprets it to mean that, they might view it as saying that they are just as out there as that ridiculous car.

Another potential way to use it is for something that is extreme. When I see someone ski jumping I often call it crazy because HOLY SHIT THAT’S A GIANT JUMP. The big problem I see here is that it implies that the behavior of those who are mentally ill is always extreme and always inappropriate for the situation (since that’s what crazy means apparently).  If something is crazy when it’s over the top or irrational, the implication is that mental illness means being over the top. This plays right into the stereotype of the crazy ex, or the violent psycho murderer. But there are all kinds of mental illness, not all of which involve extreme emotions, and even those that do don’t mean the individual is always over the top.

The final way that I’ve used crazy (or heard it used) seems to be something high energy. It might also be taken to mean out of control in similar contexts. I’m not sure if I see a problem with using crazy to mean high energy except that it’s fairly unrelated to most mental illness (I would love to hear from someone with ADHD or autism here as those seem to be more relevant). But out of control certainly has lots of problems. Out of control implies that someone with mental illness is throwing a temper tantrum, that they can’t behave in an adult fashion, that they’re not rational, that their emotions don’t make any sense, that they need to be controlled. Bad news bears.

The other thing that could be problematic about any of these definitions of crazy is that they muddy up what the medical diagnoses actually mean. While some mental illnesses may contain elements of each of these things, none of these is an actual mental illness. There is already stigma around getting diagnosed, difficulties to diagnosis, misunderstanding about different mental illnesses and thus mistreatment for them, and so there could certainly be an argument made that we should do our utmost to clarify what mental illness is and isn’t.

Now with all that said, I do think that most of these uses of crazy have become utterly disconnected from mental illness. When I hear someone call the cat crazy, my mind does not have any associations of mental health, of diagnoses, of anything remotely related to the actual experience of being crazy. If it’s being used as an entirely unrelated word, can it really affect the life of those with mental illness?

I don’t have the resources or research to speak to that question, so all I can say is that these more disconnected definitions of crazy are significantly more complicated than I have thought in the past. I personally will be more careful with my language. I would love to hear more thoughts from others who are strongly on one side or the other of this topic.