Allie Brosh, author of the new book Hyperbole and a half : unfortunate situations, flawed coping mechanisms, mayhem, and other things that happened, and I are soulmates. I am absolutely sure of this. Not just because both of our names are Allie (spelled correctly), but because she gets it. She gets pets, she gets depression, she gets cake, she gets procrastination, adulthood, and spider fear, and she gets me. This book gives me all of the feelings.
This book is a collection of her writings and drawings from her website Hyperbole and a Half that cover just about whatever she wants. Her drawings are some of the best things to come out of MS Paint since the programs invention. She represents herself as a stick-ish figure with a pink dress a tuft of yellow hair that kind of looks like a party hat. It’s not high art, but it is hilarious. There is a bunch of stuff in there about her dogs, who are quite dumb but very very sweet. She also tells a hysterical story about a childhood run-in with some cake. Her stories can be incredibly funny, but also tender and meaningful.
One of the best things she does is talk honestly about her depression. On her site she addresses how she used to post a lot more but slowed down because she was depressed. It’s not something she dealt with and now it’s gone, it’s something she deals with all the time. She told the Guardian, “It’s sort of like a thing that is maybe a tunnel, but also maybe a giant tube that just keeps going in a circle. And you can’t tell which one it is while you’re in it. There might be light, but there might just be more tube.” YES. She doesn’t gloss over it; she dives in and brings you with. But it’s not all sad, and there is some truly priceless comedy in those stories.
There’s two things that I’ve learned in the last year. The first is vulnerability is not weakness. And that myth is profoundly dangerous… Vulnerability is not weakness. I define vulnerability as emotional risk,exposure, uncertainty. It fuels our daily lives. And I’ve come to the belief – this is my 12th year doing this research – that vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage –to be vulnerable, to let ourselves be seen, to be honest. - Brené Brown, Listening to Shame
My sophomore year of college I made the New Year’s resolution to “Be Brave.” It’s the only one I have ever kept. The imperative hung on a poster on my wall that year (along with a poor crayon drawing of a T-Rex.) And while the poster is now on another wall, the proposition to be brave has stuck with me.
Sometimes, it’s been a battle cry. I repeated it to myself as I first got up the nerves to audition for the Vagina Monologues. I needed fellow HBer Emily to come with me, but the audition was the beginning of a long involvement with V-Day and an ongoing connection with the play.
Sometimes, it’s been that push. A continuing nudge to not settle, and to take risks in order to attain my goals. It’s been my motto through starting new projects and making big moves and deciding to go back to school.
Lately, it’s an encouragement to be seen. To resist the temptation to hide behind social conventions and insecurity and instead fully connect with the people around me. It’s about the daily bravery of being true and honest with myself and to sharing myself with others.
I believe there is bravery in resisting shame. I don’t achieve this all the time, but it’s something I aspire to. In Weightless’s post on combating body anxiety, she quotes Shauna Niequist from Bread & Wine: A Lover Letter to Life Around the Table on how shame operates:
That’s what shame does…. It whispers to us that everyone is as obsessed with our failings as we are. It insists that there is, in fact, a watchdog group devoted completely to my weight or her wrinkles or his shrinking bank account. Shame tricks us into believing there’s a cable channel that runs video footage of us in our underpants twenty-four hours a day, and that all of the people we respect have seen it. Shame tells us that we’re wrong for having the audacity to be happy when we’re clearly terrible. Shame wants us to be deeply apologetic for just daring to exist.
Shame is really easily understood as the fear of disconnection: Is there something about me that, if other people know it or see it, that I won’t be worthy of connection? The things I can tell you about it: it’s universal; we all have it. The only people who don’t experience shame have no capacity for human empathy or connection. No one wants to talk about it, and the less you talk about it the more you have it. What underpinned this shame, this “I’m not good enough,” – which we all know that feeling: ”I’m not blank enough. I’m not thin enough, rich enough, beautiful enough, smart enough, promoted enough.” The thing that underpinned this was excruciating vulnerability, this idea of, in order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen.
So how do we fully connect? We allow ourselves to be vulnerable:
This is what I have found: to let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen; to love with our whole hearts, even though there’s no guarantee – and that’s really hard, and I can tell you as a parent, that’s excruciatingly difficult – to practice gratitude and joy in those moments of terror, when we’re wondering, “Can I love you this much? Can I believe in this this passionately? Can I be this fierce about this?” just to be able to stop and, instead of catastrophizing what might happen, to say, “I’m just so grateful, because to feel this vulnerable means I’m alive.” And the last, which I think is probably the most important, is to believe that we’re enough. Because when we work from a place, I believe, that says, “I’m enough,” then we stop screaming and start listening, we’re kinder and gentler to the people around us, and we’re kinder and gentler to ourselves.
Being vulnerable can be scary. We take a risk when we share ourselves fully – we risk rejection, ridicule, embarrassment. But there is a huge reward in allowing ourselves to be enough. To being who we are and connecting fully with others. So go ahead, happy bodies, and Be Brave!
I’m pretty sick of the Freedom of Speech argument being invoked whenever someone gets called out for being an asshole. Like recall the terrible humor of Daniel Tosh. When many, many people called him out for joking on stage about how funny it would be if a woman in the audience was gang-raped on the spot, his supporters cried that comedy should have no limits (yeah, but one problem is Tosh is not funny) and that he has Freedom of Speech. My response was largely: Yes, you can say whatever you want, but I’m allowed in return to call you an asshole.
The latest Freedom of Speech scandal is over Women, Action & Media’s open letter to Facebook to remove gender-based hate speech. (TRIGGER WARNING: The images posted here are very upsetting.) Facebook has agreed to take down the images in question, and has committed to “refine its approach to hate speech.”
In response, Jillian York of the XX Factor has written an article, Facebook Should Not be in the Business of Censoring Speech, Even Hate Speech. (Under the banner of “What Women Really Think.”)
Now let’s be clear what we are talking about when we invoke Freedom of Speech. There is the Law and then there is the societal ideal. As York correctly notes, Facebook is not the government, y’all. It’s a private company. They can regulate the speech on their site however they want. And they ALREADY HAVE a definition of Hate Speech from which to flag content. Women, Action & Media’s open letter is simply asking Facebook to expand the definition of Hate Speech to include images and text that depict and promote violence against women. And if you want to see the images they have flagged at the above link, there is no question that they are abhorrent. In the letter they asked for Facebook to:
1. Recognize speech that trivializes or glorifies violence against girls and women as hate speech and make a commitment that you will not tolerate this content.
2. Effectively train moderators to recognize and remove gender-based hate speech.
3. Effectively train moderators to understand how online harassment differently affects women and men, in part due to the real-world pandemic of violence against women.
What York takes issue with here is the assault on the ideal of freedom of speech in the “quasi-public sphere” that is facebook. At the same time, she questions whether it is ideal for a company to be defining hate speech for the public. Now the problems and implications of embracing the corporatization of the public sphere is an interesting conversation for another time, but here I want to question what is our ideal of freedom of speech in the public spaces we create? The posters of this content have not been banned from the site or prosecuted, the content is simply being asked to be removed, based on site standards. I think this is more a question of community norms and inclusivity. In this quasi-public sphere do we want to restrict calls for violence? Do we want women to feel safe to participate in the community?
The fact is there already a limitation on Hate Speech on Facebook, created by the site. Users are asking for a refinement of these guidelines. Yes, it is still Facebook’s decision, but isn’t this the ideal way for the norms of this public space to be shaped? By a large group of users asking to change the guideline based on community values? Not according to York. Her final argument?
While the campaigners on this issue are to be commended for raising awareness of such awful speech on Facebook’s platform, their proposed solution is ultimately futile and sets a dangerous precedent for special interest groups looking to bring their pet issue to the attention of Facebook’s censors.
Yep. Violence against women is just a pet issue. We’re on a slippery slope to not allowing promotion of violence against all sorts of people on Facebook. A truly upsetting way to end an article under the banner of “what women really think.”
I continue to resist the argument that shaming someone “for their own good” is ever an effective mode of changing behavior. Whether it be teen pregnancy (which is a whole other discussion), or fat shaming. It’s insulting, stigmatizing, and ineffective. To put it simply: you don’t take care of a body you hate, and more to the point, it’s no one’s right to make you hate yourself. As Rebecca Eisenberg says in her brilliant take down of internet trolls: ”Why does it hurt you if I don’t hate myself?”
Of course, there are some people who have a lot to gain from making you hate yourself: the weight loss industry. Fat Heffalump has a great article about being given a weight loss flyer on the street as some sort of targeted marketing campaign, in which she brilliantly takes down the assumption that anything done by the weight loss industry is about helping you feel better:
For some reason, it is believed by many people that weight loss peddlers actually care about us. That they care about our happiness, our health and/or our bodies. They don’t. They care about obtaining our money. They tell us our bodies are not acceptable, sell us a product that does not work, then blame us for failing, and sell us the product again, or a new product that does not work. In Australia alone they make almost $800 million per year. In the US, it’s $66 billion per year. They are taking your money and laughing at you as they watch you blame yourself for their product or service failure.
Don’t stand for that shit. Don’t let anyone dismiss what a horrible act it is to single out a fat person and try to shame them into buying a product. Don’t let the weight loss industry brainwash you into believing that they care about you, or that they are doing anyone a public service by pushing their product on to people who never asked for it in the first place.
All I can say is: Word.
The Religion of Thinness: Satisfying the Spiritual Hungers Behind Women’s Obsession with Food and Weight describes a crisis of spirituality for American women. Author Michelle M. Lelwica asserts that spirituality is not the same as religion, although religion has been a way that traditionally spiritual needs have been met. She discuss patriarchy in the Christian church as one way that even women who are religious have had their spirituality stifled. She argues that many women have turned instead to the Religion of Thinness to get their spiritual needs met. I think her thesis is debatable, but its very interesting framework from which to consider our cultural obsession with weight, and how striving for a beauty deal may be masking our other needs.
Let’s consider how Lelwica defines our spiritual needs, and the way striving for thinness and beauty can be used to (temporarily and insufficiently!) fulfill these needs. The Religion of Thinness:
1. Gives us what some theologians refer to as an ultimate concern or an ultimate purpose.
2. Gives us a set of myths to believe in regarding the rewards of thinness.
3. Presents us with iconographic imagery to which we can aspire.
4. Offers rituals by which to organize our daily lives.
5. Creates a set of moral rules and vocabulary by which we can judge ourselves and others.
6. Includes us in a community of women who are all trying to achieve the same objectives.
7. Promises salvation.
Reading the book I was continually reminded of my own personal experience with weight loss and with one of the early articles I read that got me interested in Happy Bodies as a project: The Fantasy of Being Thin by Kate Harding.
Because, you see, the Fantasy of Being Thin is not just about becoming small enough to be perceived as more acceptable. It is about becoming an entirely different person – one with far more courage, confidence, and luck than the fat you has. It’s not just, “When I’m thin, I’ll look good in a bathing suit”; it’s “When I’m thin, I will be the kind of person who struts down the beach in a bikini, making men weep.”
Overcoming The Fantasy of Being Thin might be the hardest part of making it all the way into fat acceptance-land. And that might just be why I’d pushed that part of the process out of my memory: it fucking sucked. Because I didn’t just have to accept the size of my thighs; I had to accept who I am, rather than continuing to wait until I magically became the person I’d always imagined being. Ouch.
I think The Religion of Thinness correlates well with the “Fantasy of Being Thin”. Harding pushes the question, ‘When I’m fantasizing about being thin, what type of person am I fantasizing about becoming, and why can’t I do that now?’ Lelwica encourages you to ask, ‘When I am overcome with the desire to lose weight, what is the real need that’s not being met in my life?’ Her book both explains her hypothesis about the Religion of Thinness, and gives the reader tangible steps to fulfilling spiritual needs without falling into this trap. She emphasize acceptance, meditation and thoughtfulness about your body, as well as engaging in cultural criticism, as methods to change the paradigm and create a positive relationship with your body.
So go ahead and pick up the Religion of Thinness! It’s a fantastic read.
READ THIS BOOK. I meant to write about it when I first read it, but I have a lot on my plate, books-wise, and it fell by the wayside. This Saturday I was at the library with a friend and she wanted to read a book by a woman. I handed her Beauty Queens. She finished it yesterday and our conversation really brought me back to everything I loved about it.
Brief plot summary: a plane full of beauty pageant contestants crash land on an island and they have to survive. It’s a satire, so a lot of the plot and many of the characters are really silly, but every character (except maybe the villains?) has a very real side too.
That summary makes the book sound so stupid and one-note, but it is incredible in part because it covers so much ground. This book is for you if you love gender, bodies, female sexuality/female sexual fluidity, disability issues, trans issues, class issues, race issues, television, coming out, safe sex, pirates, and, of course, young adult literature. Seriously. And not only does the book touch on all those things, Libba Bray does it with nuance, grace, and validation.
Since part of the narrative includes the character’s thoughts, you get insight into each of their backgrounds: where they came from, what they’re working towards/against, and the feelings difficult situations bring up. These girls struggle, in a way that feels very earnest, with all the things that brought them to the pageant and with who they are. There is one character, Shanti (Miss California), who meets Nicole (Miss Colorado), and they both have an internal battle and a few verbal battles about who has the contestant-of-color on lock. YES! They know the drill and that in the scheme of this pageant only one can come out on top, but obviously that’s not all they are! One of the girls struggles with her desire to break free of her straight-laced image and become a pirate queen, living a wild life on the high seas. Should she be ashamed of her passion and sexual desire? No! Duh! One of the contestants is a textbook dumb blonde on paper, but through the course of the book she really comes into her own and she contributes in a way that isn’t patronizing. Who she becomes (in the book and the epilogue) isn’t really earth-shattering, but it’s her and it’s valid and that’s so important.
The way that Libba Bray covers so much, so deftly is really beyond me. The silly bits keep you entertained, but everything is so infused with reality and RAD attitudes that even when it’s at its silliest it has so much heart. The best thing about this book is that there’s room for everything and everybody. I want teenagers to read it. I want every person I meet to read it! Read it!
What happens when girls are left to their own devices on an island? Anything. Literally anything. They are who they are, they do what they want, they live their lives, and don’t apologize.
If you want to read this, and I HIGHLY RECOMMEND YOU DO, I’ll open up a thread on the Happy Bodies Goodreads group for us to talk about it.
This is a question that comes up for us a lot: How can I have productive conversation with my friends/family/acquaintances about privilege? I found this piece by Jamie Utt* very insightful, and it is republished with permission from Everyday Feminism. Original can be found here.
I once published a piece about white privilege, and my white friend’s dad lost it. He read it and immediately called his son at work and asked him, “What are you doing right now?”
My friend replied, “Working, why?” My friend worked as a carpet cleaner, backbreaking labor for sure.
“Well, Jamie says you’re privileged. Do you feel privileged right now as you bust your a*s to feed your family?”
“Are you kidding me?!? Screw him! I’ve never had anything handed to me!”
And so the story goes.
How many times have you tried to discuss privilege with someone who is well-meaning but who has no sense of their own privilege and gotten a similar result?
What is “identity privilege?”: Any unearned benefit or advantage one receives in society by nature of their identity. Examples of aspects of identity that can afford privilege: Race, Religion, Gender Identity, Sexual Orientation, Class/Wealth, Ability, or Citizenship Status
After a while, my friend brought up my blog post that pissed off him and his dad so much, and we discussed it.
It didn’t go well. He immediately got defensive, and the conversation ended in anger.
As I reflected upon our talk, I took stock of some of the tools I have been given over the years from my diversity work to make this conversation more accessible and less hostile.
I decided to try again, so I reached out to my friend. The second conversation was tense at times, as any conversation about privilege can be.
But this time it went really well, and I think it did because I worked hard to change the tone of the conversation.
Afterward, I couldn’t help but think, “I need to share these tools!!!” Thus, whether you’re trying to talk male privilege with your dad, white privilege with someone on the bus, or right-handed privilege with your golfing buddy, here are a few things to consider before jumping into the conversation:
1. Start By Appealing To the Ways In Which They Don’t Have Privilege
One of the fastest ways to disarm a person’s defensiveness about their own privilege is to take some time to listen to the ways in which they legitimately do not have privilege and validate those frustrations.
I once attended a workshop with Peggy McIntosh, the original author of “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” The goal of the workshop was to give people tools for leading workshops of their own on privilege and oppression that get past the defensiveness.
One of her suggestions was to have people divide a paper in half. Have every person start on the left side of the paper and write down all of the ways in which theydo not have identity privilege. They can include everything from being left handed and having to drag your hand through the ink to being a woman and having to deal with the gender wage gap. Then folks would write on the opposite side all of the ways in which their identity does afford them privilege that they did not earn.
From there, folks pair up and do a listening exercise where they listen intently to the other person talk about both sides of their list. Doing so allows people to air their frustrations at being denied privilege while also acknowledging that they do, indeed, have privilege.
From that place, it is a lot easier to help folks understand the power of privilege in creating a system of oppression and how eliminating that system is liberatory and transformative for everyone.
Now, to do this, you don’t need to turn it into a workshop. Just try asking the other person to talk about the ways in which they don’t have identity privilege and validate those hurts and frustrations.
Simply listening can go a long way! Plus, it’s a starting point for helping them build empathy for those who do not have their same privileges.
2. Stress That Privilege Is Relative
Each person experiences their privilege and lack thereof within the context of their own community and the people they interact with at the time.
As such, privilege is relative, and we need to talk about it that way.
Does that mean that all privileges are equal? No. I’m right handed and in turn, don’t have to drag my palm through the ink when I write. That’s a privilege I have by the nature of my birth.
That is not to say, though, that my right-handed privilege bears the same weight or social responsibility as the privilege that my skin color, gender, wealth, or sexual orientation afford me.
The point is that our identities are complex and intersectional.
Some folks get defensive about discussing privilege because they fear such a conversation will not address the real and powerful ways in which they do not have privilege. So they deflect by only talking about those things.
Just because we benefit from one form of privilege doesn’t mean that we benefit from all forms of privilege.
When we realize that, we can work together with people who share our privileges and those who don’t to build something better!
3. A System of Privilege and Oppression Hurts Us All
What we most need to stress in conversations about privilege is that this system doesn’t just hurt the people who cannot boast one form of identity privilege or another.
It hurts everyone. Until we understand that, we’re not getting anywhere because the only people of privilege who will ever act to end the system are the ones acting strictly from paternalistic guilt.
Take white privilege, for instance. White privilege is, essentially, a social construction whereby wealthy Europeans wanted to make sure that they could consolidate their wealth by pitting poor people from Europe against poor Africans and Indigenous people.
White folks were made to feel better about themselves and were given paltry privileges over people of color in order to divide the white proletariat.
All that meant, though, is that the white folks got to be the lords over people of color while the wealthy whites still had their boots on the necks of poor whites!
These privileges don’t help us as white people nearly as much as they hurt us!
Similarly, male privilege may benefit men tremendously in certain ways. But in others, it restricts us into a tiny box of masculinity. I don’t know about you, but I am sick of trying to fit into my gendered box, the “Act Like a Man” box.
I want my gender expression to be free and independent of those aspects of masculinity that hurt men and women – violence is acceptable for solving problems, boys don’t cry, men are the lords of their household, men must know everything even when they don’t, etc.
The privileges are marginal when we look at the system of justice that can be built on the other side of this struggle!
4. Privilege Does Not Have To Mean Guilt!
In The Construction of Masculinity, Michael Kaufman describes guilt like this: “Guilt is a profoundly conservative emotion and as such is not particularly useful for bringing about change. From a position of insecurity and guilt, people do not change or inspire others to change.”
So often, when introduced to the idea that they have privilege they did not earn, people respond in two ways that relate to guilt:
- Defensiveness: “I’m not going to feel guilty for what I inherited. If some people don’t have those same privileges, tough luck!”
- Paralyzing guilt: “This is just so unfair, but what am I supposed to do about it!? I never asked for this, and one little person can’t change a system that’s been around for hundreds of years!”
In both cases, we need to remind the person in question that feeling guilty doesn’t even need to enter the equation.
They’re right – they didn’t do anything to earn those privileges. So feeling guilty about them doesn’t make a lot of sense.
But a mentor of mine once said, “If we inherit injustice, we should never feel guilty. We are not responsible for that past. However, if we choose to do nothing about it going forward, then we have plenty to feel guilty about.”
Remind the person that they shouldn’t feel guilty for their privilege but encourage them to act to undermine the system by refusing to simply live in their unchecked privilege.
Which brings me to number 5…
5. Offer Concrete Ways That They Can Undermine the System of Privilege and Oppression In Their Own Life
When people are feeling paralyzed by or defensive about the revelation of privilege, it can sometimes help to offer them big and small ways that they can be subversive.
Encouraging action rather than stagnation can often bring people into the fold!
Throw out a few complex and simple ways for folks to “check” their privilege:
- If someone mentions an oppressive pattern that relates to privilege, i.e. “Men always dominate conversations and talk over women because they are taught that their voices are more valuable,” consider ways that you can choose not to participate in that pattern by, say, being aware of how often you’re speaking and stepping back to listen more often.
- Invest in accountable relationships across difference, not simple tokenizing relationships, and listen to those who do not share the same identity privilege about how this affects their life. Listening is the root of justice, after all.
- If some people are denied rights or privileges because of formal or state-sponsored oppression, refuse to participate in those oppressive systems. For example:
- If you’re straight, consider a commitment ceremony but don’t get married until all people can share in that legal right should they so choose.
- If you’re a white person with wealth and children, choose to invest in and send your children to a local, public, neighborhood school or at least a private school with a strong commitment to diversity and inclusion rather than a lily-white private place with connections to the Ivy League.
By encouraging action, you are not only helping the person in question a way to engage, but you are helping them understand the very nature of privilege and how it functions in a system of oppression.
6. Make It a Conversation of Actions, Not Character
Just as Jay Smooth says in “How to tell someone they sound racist,” the conversation about privilege should not be one about another person’s character.
The actual privileges we inherit because of our identity don’t define our character, but what does is whether we choose to act to change the system of oppression that affords us those privileges.
As such, the conversation should not be, “Hey, check your privilege, you privileged f*ck.”
Instead, it should be, “How can we work to check our privilege and undermine the system of oppression that hurts us all?”
When we focus on the actions we can take, the steps toward liberation we can take together, we make this conversation one that is not only accessible but far more powerful.
Do you have other suggestions for having these tough conversations about privilege and oppression? Leave them in the comments!
To learn more about different types of privilege, check out:
- White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack
- 30+ Examples of Male Privilege
- 30+ Examples of Cisgender Privilege
- 30+ Examples of Heterosexual Privilege in the US
- 30+ Examples of Middle-to-Upper Class Privilege
- 30+ Examples of Christian Privilege
- 20+ Examples of Thin Privilege (find the link back to Happy Bodies!)