Unlearning

Published August 20, 2012 by sleepydumpling

Firstly, I would like to welcome all the new readers who have come over here from the article in U on Sunday in the Sunday Mail (Brisbane) yesterday.  For those of you old timers (I love you, you oldies!) who haven’t yet seen it, you can read it here.

Just a note – if you’ve come here to tell me I’m going to die… so will you.  If you’ve come here to tell me I’m going to infect people with my fatness… careful, or I’ll rub up against you.  And if you’ve come here to tell me that I am crazy – I’m not the one who Googled a blog just to rant in the comments section.  And we won’t have any stigmatisation of mental illness on my watch thank you very much!

So, on to today’s topic!

In light of a lot of comments on Saturday’s post on the Nike ad, some of which I chose not to publish because they were stigmatising, and some of the responses to the article in the Courier Mail yesterday, I wanted to talk a little bit about the things that we’ve always been taught, those things that “everybody knows”.  Mostly because in my experience, I have realised that I have had to unlearn so many things that I took as given, since I took up fat activism.  In fact, I pretty much have spent the last 5 years unlearning the previous 35 years.

One of the reasons I think people rail so heavily against fat activism is that they are terrified that they might not know things.  They hear or read something that is contrary to what they have always been led to believe, or have simply assumed, and they feel inadequate in not having known that.  Or they feel like they must prove those things wrong to save face themselves.  Instead of taking a step back and re-thinking things, doing a little research, asking a few respectful questions of people who know stuff, they lash out at anyone who challenges the dominant paradigm.  The thing is, as human beings, we should be taking it as a given that we really know very little indeed.  And that when we don’t know something, or don’t understand it, there is no shame in just sitting back and listening, or seeking more information.

When I was in high school, my favourite teacher was my science teacher, Mr Bendell.  The one lesson he taught that really sticks with me, is that there is no shame in simply admitting “I don’t know.”  Remember when you weren’t paying attention in class and the teacher would catch you at it and ask you a question, and you’d stammer and try to bluff your way through it?  Well to Mr Bendell, that was the worst thing you could do.  After all, you didn’t know, you hadn’t been paying attention.  The appropriate response was “I don’t know Sir.”  It acknowldedged that you hadn’t been listening, (and in Mr B’s class, being called out was punishment enough, we all loved him) and there was no trying to prove you knew something by lying about it.

But that said, it wasn’t until recent years that I’ve started to understand that what I thought I knew about the world really isn’t a fraction of the whole picture.  I’m learning, sometimes through making mistakes, that if I don’t understand something, or I don’t have direct experience with something, that there is nothing wrong with just shutting up and learning.  There’s nothing wrong with letting other people speak.  And if I still disagree, when I have privilege over someone, I can just leave it alone.  I don’t have to leave a comment railing at how they are wrong (when I have never experienced something from their underprivileged perspective) and that because I didn’t interpret something in the way they do.  For example, it’s not my place to tell people of colour what their experiences are as I am a white woman.  They are quite able to speak for themselves and their own experiences.  It’s my job to listen, to learn, to adjust my own behaviours and assumptions, and to bear witness to those experiences when they happen around me.

But I also wanted to talk today about some of the things I’ve personally had to unlearn about bodies, weight, health and fatness over the past few years, especially considering I have been a fat person myself for many, many years and believed a great deal of things that I now know, were not right.  I love a good list, so how about we try that?

  1. Fat is bad.  Yes, I believed for the first 35 years of my life that fat was the worst possible thing a person could be, and as a fat person, that made me worthless.  I now know that this is not true.
  2. Fitness and health are “inspirational” – no they’re not, they’re blessings that everyone has at different levels.  Things like strength, endurance, balance, agility, speed, flexibility and so on can be improved with work, but everyone has individual levels of these things, and no person is better for having more of one or more of them than someone else.  The same goes for health.  It is perfectly acceptable to find no value in either fitness or health, and neither are a measure of character.
  3. Fat people are going to die.  Well, this one is correct, but the bit I had to unlearn was that ONLY fat people are going to die, or they’re going to die sooner than thin people.  All people die, and none of us can predict when it will happen.  That’s what makes us living creatures – the fact that the life comes to an end at some point.
  4. Fat people live inferior lives to thin people.  No, fat people’s lives are often made inferior by discrimination and stigmatisation.  Their lives are not by default inferior to thin people.
  5. You can tell how healthy someone is, or how long they are going to live, by looking at them.  Nope, you can’t.  Quite often, it takes very extensive tests to measure an individuals health.  Most of us are not qualified to make those judgements.  Unless you are in the medical profession, AND have undergone an examination and related tests of an individual, you know NOTHING about their health.
  6. How you perceive something is how it was intended.  Oh no, not by a long shot.  While your perception or understanding of something may not be harmful, that doesn’t mean the original intention of it was harmless.
  7. If someone doesn’t intend something to be harmful, it cannot be.  Very wrong.  For example, I used to regularly use the term “real women” to describe women who were not thin.  I didn’t understand that by labelling some women as real, as good as my intentions were, I was harming others.  When we say things that are stigmatising to others, but don’t intend them to be stigmatising to those others, it doesn’t mean that any stigma is erased.  See referring to something as “lame” or “gay”, or the whole fat shaming position of many anti-ChickFilA campaigners.  While people with disabilities, gay people or fat people may not be the intended targets, they are stigmatised by these behaviours.
  8. You can discriminate against people with privilege.  Sorry, no.  There is no such thing as “reverse” sexism/racism/sizeism and so on.  That’s the whole crux of privilege – if you have it, you are by default gifted with something that others are without for no good reason.
  9. You have a right to your opinion.  Well, technically yes you do.  But you do not have the right to air it anywhere you choose.  Sometimes the space is not yours to speak in.  Sometimes it is not appropriate for you to air your opinion in a particular forum.  Hold that opinion all you like, but if someone says that you are not welcome to air it in their space, that is their right.
  10. You have freedom of speech.  Again, technically you do, but with that freedom comes the responsibility of bearing the repercussions of what you say.  Also, when we say “freedom of speech”, that actually refers to freedom of speech from your government and from corporations.  It does not mean you have the freedom of speech from individuals.  So if an individual tells you they don’t want to hear you, they have every right to do so.
  11. What you think of other people’s appearance means nothing.  This one is a tough one to swallow for a lot of people.  Your opinion on other people’s appearance is worth NOTHING until that person gives that opinion value.  So if you don’t like what someone is wearing or how they look – tough.  It’s none of your business.
  12. You don’t get to decide other people’s value in society.  You do get to decide their value in your life, but generally speaking, none of us get to decide whether they are valuable in or worthy of society.
  13. Feelings are something that people should “get over” or “deal with”.  It doesn’t quite work that way.  Feelings and emotions are really complex and we have them for a reason.  And while yes, we should be examining them and unpacking them for our own good, we don’t get to tell others to “get over it” or “deal with it”.

I think a baker’s dozen is a good start.  I am sure I could list a whole lot of other things that I’ve had to unlearn over the course of my 39 years and 1o months of life (so far), and there are many, many things I’m going to have to unlearn in the future.

If you are struggling against these things, you’re not alone.  I fought them tooth and nail for most of my life and really had to radically shift my beliefs.  I too railed against them, argued with people, stamped my foot and generally just made an arse of myself over these things.  But I can tell you this.  Once you start to unlearn these things, not only are you generally becoming a better person, but you find yourself a whole lot happier too.  When you start to let go of those things you cling to because either you’ve been taught them by authority figures in your life (from parents to politicians!) or because “everybody knows” them, and start to think about how you measure your own life, and ONLY your own life, life starts to get easier.  Hateful people don’t hurt as much.  Mistakes don’t matter so much when you use them to learn and grow.  Responsibility gets less scary.  Other people’s opinions of you have no power over you any more.

That doesn’t mean everything is rosy and easy and perfect and happy all the time.  God far from it!  It just means that you see the world from a different perspective, and that you are able to unpack your own feelings and how other people affect you.  You’re able to recognise when you need help, and you’re able to draw from your own well of strength.  You’re able to understand that how you see the world may be more privileged than the way others do, and realise that with your own actions, you can change the dominant paradigm, even if only in small ways.

But most of all, learning is good for everyone.  The more you learn, the more you grow.

What have you had to unlearn?  What do you struggle with unlearning, or at least letting go of?

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21 comments on “Unlearning

  • One thing I’ve had to unlearn and am still working on, is comparing myself and my life to others in terms of success and how I define success.

    I often look at other people my age and they have things I don’t and have done things I haven’t and it’s hard sometimes to not feel like you don’t match up. But I’m learning that success in my life is how I define it and has nothing to do with anyone else.

    Everybody’s lives take different paths and at different times and just because someone else regards something as an achievement in their life doesn’t mean it should be an achievement I should strive for in my life.

    • I have the same exact problem and I imagine a lot of people do, especially career and relationship wise. It’s always nice to find out you’re not alone. :)

    • I’m still working on that one Toots! It gets better as you get older and your priorities change, but it’s a perfectly normal one to be dealing with.

      Here’s to further unlearning of a useless habit!

  • While searching for my own self-acceptance, your blog has been a blessing for me. I cannot thank you enough for sharing your intelligent, inspiring, and powerful words with me and all of your readers. This particular post relates to something that happened in my life recently. I was trying to have a discussion with my sister about all the information I have gained about being fat and the myths related to it. I was very dissapointed that even when I presented her with scientific studies, she still could not break down the barriers of what she was told before – like many of the myths you list here.

    Do not let ugly words and obnoxious people put a damper on everything you are doing here – it is wonderful! Thank you.

  • Thank you! I can’t help but to agree. Thinking that all I fought for the past few years might be for naught and seeing my whole value system starting to crumble, made me defiant at first. Only when I was exposed many times enough (as at the same time I found other fat people living their lives completely uninhibited fascinating) I started to actually try to understand their point and question my perspective. So please keep going just as you are right now : )

  • I had to unlearn to despise my belly. I won’t go into detail of how deep and hurtful that hatred was. But some how I remembered when I was a child my belly was my friend. It was a funny place, a place to tickle and a place to make funny noises with. My belly, my tum tum, my middle was a delight. I began to wonder what had my poor silly tummy done to earn my enmity, my desire to eradicate such an essential part of me? So I am unlearning the hate and trying to find the joy and silliness again. Its much nicer and sometimes I still frown at my belly in the mirror but now I remind myself that my belly is a happy thing, and it deserves my love.

    • Shiloruh I still struggle with my belly too. I’m getting better and better at it, but it’s one thing that I constantly have to work on. We’ll get there eventually!

  • The idea that doctors (and nurses, physical therapists, and other health care professionals) are objective authorities on health. I mean, yes, they do have more formal training than I do on the subject, and that’s certainly a factor I should take into consideration when consulting them for their services. But they all come with their own biases (as all humans have biases), and they are differing degrees of good at acknowledging their biases and working to overcome them. Consequently, those unexamined biases lead some health care professionals to provide inadequate or inappropriate counseling and care to some of their patients.

    • YES Tori! Absolutely! It’s that god complex thing, that medical professionals are all seeing, all knowing, objective beings that only have our best interests at heart. Unfortunately, no. It is very empowering to realise that you can demand better from medical treatment, yet that makes it no less daunting in the face of bias.

  • Great post, Kath. One of the biggest things I’ve had to unlearn is to give up that vicious judging of other women’s appearance, thinking that women in public owe some particular kind of aesthetic. I have had (to my great shame) whole conversations with my mother entirely comprised of tearing other women down in terms of how they dress. Not to their faces, sure, but it’s still so very not cool. I was an embarrassingly advanced age before I really thought about what those conversations were really about and how they damage us all as people.

  • After 40 years of believing I was just not entitiled to do the things I wanted to do, Im finally feeling that wonderful freedom of not feeling ashamed anymore! Im a person, Im fat and Im as worthy as anyone else on this planet. Reading your wonderful blog has just reaffirmed for me that no one has the right to make anyone else feel like a lesser human. Unlearning things is hard, especially after so many many years, but with people like you to inspire me, its getting easier…cheers!

  • I think the hardest part for me to unlearn is the emotional reactions and the fear. Despite cognitively knowing larger bodies are no worse than small ones, and finding so many fat bodies to be very beautiful through my journies on FA blogs, I still sometimes feel sad and embarrassed about my body being larger than my coworkers’ and many of my friends/family. And the fear that even when I do accept myself (which I can quite often), that other people are looking at me harshly both for my looks/things I say/personality, etc. I’ve heard that caring about what other people think gets better with age, so I hope that’s true.

    • Those are really tough things to unlearn Lindsay. Not to mention that once you do start to unlearn them, you still have to practice and hone it to keep it going. For me, it has been so gradual that mostly I hardly notice that it’s happening, until something kind of jolts me into awareness. And then I realise just how far I have come along.

  • I had to unlearn that the word “fat” is an insult. I was taught, by my babysitting aunt and cousin, that fat = ugly when I was just three years old. I had been sitting on my aunt’s lap and snuggling into/pushing on my aunt’s lovely (I thought) fat tummy, when I said, “You’re fat.” She was furious. I was sent to my room, bawling (I was a very sensitive kid. Plus, my aunt didn’t babysit that often, so it was horrible to have her angry at me.) When the timeout was over, my cousin, who was nine years old, took me into a closet, which was our secret place to talk. She told me that you shouldn’t tell people that they are fat. When I asked why, she said, “Well, how would you feel if someone told you that you were ugly?” I said that I would be sad. She then said that telling someone that they are fat is the same as telling someone that they are ugly. THAT was something my three-year-old brain could understand. Needless to say, “fat” was a bad word from then on.

    My parents were into “new” stuff like self-esteem, body image etc. (This was the early 90s, so I know it wasn’t really “new,” but it was new to my extended family.). I wasn’t allowed to play with Barbie dolls or watch very much TV, and the only magazines in the house were published by “Focus on the Family” (a Christian organization). Unfortunately, my mom was not able to adjust my perception of the word “fat” at the time, because my aunt didn’t tell her what happened. She simply said, “Your daughter said something VERY inappropriate, but I dealt with it.” Had she been properly informed, my mom probably would have said something about how being fat isn’t bad, but I probably shouldn’t use that word, because it upsets many people. Of course, my mom was a bit of a hypocrite. She didn’t want us to have Barbies, but she went on diets a lot. I remember her eating white fish and boiled potatoes for breakfast. She did eventually work with a psychologist, who advised her to stop dieting, and just focus on her health (he said, “dieting causes deprivation, which is bad for mental health”). I think she thought that if she didn’t diet, she would just keep getting bigger and bigger, until she weighed 2000 lbs. Instead, even though she doesn’t have a “normal/healthy” BMI, her weight is stable. I still think she thinks she can’t be healthy unless she has a “normal” BMI, and so I’ve been trying to gently sway her.

    Anyway, regarding mom’s dieting, that’s another thing I had to unlearn: that disordered eating is perfectly normal and healthy.

  • Reblogged this on Laments and Lullabies and commented:
    With my own fat post in the works, I share with you a woman who has helped me unlearn fat hate. Things I know now that I didn’t know before include: I am not an epidemic. People will hate me for the way I look, but that is not ok. Hating myself for the way I look is a waste of my beautiful, valuable life. I am under no obligation to be healthy any more that a thin person is. I don’t have to dress to please anyone but myself. My body is my business. Fat hate is still hate no matter what excuses are made.

  • I had missed the article in the online version of couriermail, so am very glad you put a link. It looks like you had a great time with the interview and photos. As I near the 60 year mark, I have to practice daily to love myself. I want many more years of being able to do that, so I am motivated to make each day count. As I transition from work world (retired last year after 22 yrs teaching high school) to retirement, I now am going to get involved in various woman community groups that I have not had time to do before now. Lots of important things to still get accomplished. Keep up the inspiring life and telling us about it.

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