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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?