Intersectionality: Mental Illness and Fatphobia

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Ok so this should be my last super subversive post for a while because I need to have some time to learn how to deal with comments and disagreement (yay learning adulthood)!

 

But since this is a followup to one of my recent posts I figured I should post it now rather than later. I recently posted about fatphobia and thin privilege, and I got a few comments from people who said that I “just didn’t get it” because I straight out said “I have a hard time accepting my privilege”. Now I’m still slightly confused as to what this means. If anyone can parse it out, I would be forever grateful. I was under the impression that when you’re trying to accept that you’re privileged sometimes it can be difficult to accept but that as long as you keep reminding yourself of your privilege and listening to those people who are oppressed and trying to get better, then you’re being an okish ally.

 

However when someone tries to call me out on something, even if I can’t quite tell what it is, I do try to think about it. And so I spent some more time with my experience of weight, my experience of thin privilege, and I came to a realization, which is that I think the intersection of eating disorders and thin privilege is one of the most confusing ones there might be in the social justice world, because it is the only one that I can think of in which someone may understand that a certain privilege exists, but refuse to believe that they are part of the privileged group.

 

I objectively am thin. If I look at my BMI, it is on the low side of average. It has dipped into underweight a few times, and is always hovering around there. If I look at my clothing sizes, I am thin. If I ask my friends, family, or even strangers, they will tell me I’m thin. By all objective measures I fit into the group of privileged people who benefits from their size based upon the attitudes of society.

 

However despite these facts, I cannot believe that I am thin. My brain reminds me every day that I’m not. No matter how many times I look in the mirror I cannot see myself as thin. I try over and over again to remind myself that yes, I experience privilege from something I cannot believe is true of myself. I cannot think of another form of privilege where this happens: is it ever the case where a white individual firmly believes they’re black? I wonder if any trans* individuals can speak to this. It seems like a unique situation to me. How can accept my privilege when I don’t believe I am thin? How can I be a good ally when I don’t see myself accurately, when my perception of reality is so distorted? How can I fight against oppression when I’m too busy fighting against myself to even accept reality? I think that as an ally being open about our hangups makes us better allies. It means that people can call us out a bit easier and help us when we need it and ask. It means that we’re not lying just to say the right words. So I want to be open when I have a hard time getting past my privilege so that we can more thoroughly understand what helps entrench that privilege.

 

This next section I want to be very careful about. I absolutely do not want to co-opt any experiences of the fat community or reduce their experiences in any way. I am trying to be honest about my experiences though. So in addition to having a hard time accepting my own privilege because I have a hard time accepting my thinness, I believe that I have also experienced some forms of fatphobia. These have never been forms that come from society. They are not external. They come exclusively from my own mind. It reminds me every day that I am fat, and that when I am fat it means I am lazy and worthless and useless. I am reminded that the most important thing in my life is to lose weight. I am told that none of my accomplishments mean anything unless I am thin. I am told that everyone is staring at me when I go out, and that I should be ashamed. I’m told people only like me despite my body. I am told that I shouldn’t wear revealing clothes because my body is too disgusting to be seen. I’m even sometimes told that I should hurt or starve myself because I take up too much space.

 

Is it possible to be oppressed by one’s own brain? Probably not. Obviously there is a HUGE (hugehugehuge) qualitative difference between this and true fatphobia because I cannot systematically oppress myself. Again, I 100% understand that this is NOT the same as the experiences of fat individuals and that it is NOT bad in the same ways and that it is NOT oppressive in the same ways. However it certainly leaves me feeling confused about how I could have privilege for something that I’m also firmly ridiculed for. It is distinctly a mind-fuck that the same thing which causes other people to give me privilege is also the thing which causes me to hate myself and compromise my health.

 

And I believe that this is one of the most important things that we need to be aware of as allies and as privileged individuals: WE DO NOT GIVE OURSELVES PRIVILEGE. The thing that gives us privilege is not INHERENTLY giving us privilege. It is only the reaction of others that gives us privilege. It could be anything in the world, but society has chosen things like whiteness and maleness and able-bodiedness and thinness. My brain may hate whatever piece of me has privilege. I could despise being white, and still have white privilege. I KNOW these things. And I know that I always have to be aware of them. I know that while my experiences differ hugely from those of the average thin person because of the intersectionality between my mental illness and my thinness, that doesn’t change the attitudes of society and I need to continually fight against those attitudes.

 

But I also want to be open about the fact that I’m actively fighting those battles in my own head. Each of us has to do our best to eradicate the bad beliefs we hold. When I admit that I struggle with my own privilege, that is what I’m doing. I’m saying that I have had some fatphobic or thin privileged beliefs that went unquestioned for a long time, and now I’m trying to challenge them and remove them. And it’s a struggle. Is this a bad thing? I don’t think so. I think it’s the work of every person who wants to fight oppression. And it’s hard. I’d rather be open about the work I’m trying to do so that others can see it’s possible than hide it so as to be a “better ally”. But maybe it does do more harm than good. Thoughts? Maybe I don’t get it. Maybe I am doing something really wrong by publicly admitting to these struggles. What do you think?

 

PS-the reason I post so many pics of myself is a.I talk a lot about me and b.I’m nervous bout copyright issues.

Social Justice 101: Intersectionality

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So here is the beginning of my attempt to create a backstore of blog posts that I can whip out at a moment’s notice so I don’t have to go through the work of re-explaining privilege or intersectionality or institutional sexism again and again. I’m going to do my best to explain intersectionality in a nutshell, although it is an incredibly complex topic. I’m also going to try to link to a few articles that get into a bit more depth or explain particular aspects of it as well.

SO. Oftentimes when we think about social justice problems we think of them as separate. You might be a feminist, or an advocate for the rights of disabled individuals, or working on race issues, or fighting for GLBT rights. Most often we see these things separated out in the practical work that advocates do (at least partially because it’s really hard to tackle more than one thing at once). But this can also be a serious problem. In feminism in particular, there have been many instances throughout history and today in which feminists use certain kinds of power and privilege to oppress other women: in general, feminism has been for white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, able-bodied, upper-class women, and for people who don’t fit those definitions it has been incredibly difficult to gain recognition in the feminist community and have their concerns heard.

And so out of this problem, the concept of intersectionality was born. Intersectionality is the idea that all of our kinds of privilege interact. It’s not a simple question of having privilege for one thing, and then getting part of your privilege pile taken away because you’re part of a different marginalized group. Different oppressions can build on each other, like trans-misogyny, or they can affect each other in really complicated ways (for example being black and having a mental health concern is very different from being white and having a mental health concern). In some cases, even though you have a lack of privilege, you may be using your other privileges to oppress others in the same marginalized category as you (white women do this to black women in feminism all the time by silencing their concerns).

Intersectionality is also about understanding that we exist in a variety of different systems, and sometimes one system is acting on us more strongly than another. For example if I enter into a conversation with a disabled individual about able-bodied privilege and I try to say that I understand because I have mental health concerns, or that it’s just like ____ or say that they’re ignoring my perspective because they’re talking about their own issues, I’ve just effectively used my oppression as a silencing technique for someone else’s oppression. Intersectionality requires a great deal of listening to all kinds of experiences, and yes, even respecting the one black, Jewish, lesbian, trans-gendered woman you know and understanding that her experience of privilege and oppression is different from other experiences of privilege and oppression.

While there is no time in our lives that oppression doesn’t exist for us because we are female or a person of color or disabled or fat or lower class, that doesn’t mean that all of those oppressions exist in the same ways at all times, or that they are pertinent to all other forms of oppression. Intersectionality asks us to examine what privileges we may be using at any given time, and how that interacts with our oppressions, as well as how it can create unique forms of oppression for other individuals.

For some more resources on intersectionality, I suggest Natalie Reed’s blog (although it may be taken down soon, so get over there while you can), or these websites:

http://blog.twowholecakes.com/2009/07/101-thoughts-on-intersectionality-or-why-theres-no-dark-skinned-fat-black-women-on-more-to-love/

http://www.reddit.com/r/SRSDiscussion/comments/p8k1z/effort_intersectionality_101/

http://lipmag.com/opinion/broadening-feminisms-intersectionality-101/