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You check YOUR fucking privilege! Body image is not trivial!

Posted by pocochina on April 7, 2010

I’m kind of seeing a trend in a lot of the third-wave-y blogs* I frequent in which the authors (a) decry the widespread discussion of body image issues within mainstream feminism because Other Issues are more important, (b) sanctimoniously claim that they’re not going to talk about body image because it is an issue for privileged white girls and no-one else, and they are above such nonsense, or (c) discuss body image issues but with an apologetic caveat that No, Really, This is Self-Indulgent, But Isn’t It Interesting that Ladies on the Teevee Are Getting Skinnier? THAT IS SOME BULLSHIT RIGHT THERE.  It ignores the undeniable (well, so I thought, but maybe I am that much of a fucking egghead freak?) fact that body image issues affect women who are not cis, white, and middle-class, perhaps even more than women with those privileges.  It is flagrantly ableist because it ignores the very real mental health implications of body image issues.  It trivializes the body shame experienced by fat women, who are particularly in need of support from the feminist movement at this moment in time.  And it is philosophically frustrating because it assumes that even the tiny, incomplete alleviation of women’s suffering through honest discussion about body hatred is not worthwhile.

(cut for ED triggers)

Before I start, I want to clarify something that I think is very important about feminism:  there is no one most important issue, and from what I can tell pretty much nobody is saying there is.  There are lots of very important issues, and lots of feminists with varying levels of experience with these issues, and different gradients of harm caused by kyriarchal oppression.  What that means, in practice, is that different people will talk about different shit with their limited time, and choose to do different shit with their limited resources and abilities.  And that’s fine.  Specialization doesn’t necessarily have to turn into pigeonholing.  I think running a blog which strictly focuses on ED and body image issues is a feminist act; I think donating to organization which cares solely about abortion access for WOC and could not give less of a shit about body image is also a feminist act.  None of that is a co-optation of the movement because THERE IS NO ONE TRUE FEMINIST, and generally speaking the women who do get One True Feminist status are getting it from the outside world and the media, and all the interlocking hierarchies that implicates.  I’ve had a job where I spent eight and a half hours a day doing VAW work and wasn’t allowed to mention choice in my policy proposals – STILL FEMINIST!  Even on the days I didn’t come home and get online to flagellate myself for Abandoning The Cause all day, even though the actions I took at work deliberately drew from and contributed to an environment where abortion rights are stigmatized.  I’m really okay with people specializing, as long as they aren’t openly oppressing others in doing so, and remain willing to learn from specialists in other areas to make sure they aren’t under-serving less privileged folks.  That’s not to say that critique of overall priorities and which issues get the most attention is out of place, just to point out that a systemic critique (good!) is not the same as personalized or narrowly-targeted attacks (not particularly helpful in most cases!).  But what chaps my ass is when people use their Good Liberal White Guilt as a self-congratulatory cover for their contempt for people who are suffering right now from body shame and eating disorders.  And that’s what I’m starting to see happening, and it makes me furious.  It’s ableist and appropriative and disingenuous.

I’m not sure how many thousand times this needs to be said, but body shame and eating disorders are not solely white issues. When we pretend that they are – or flat the fuck out say that they are – we do a lot of things that are racist and anti-feminist.  We disappear WOC.  We reiterate the hateful lie that beauty is necessarily white.  We actively get in the way of women who are in pain, who need help and who are even less likely than white women to be able to get help because of these very tropes, by denying their suffering.  We ignore the tireless work of WOC who are fighting the good fight on body issues.  So, no.  Rolling your eyes and declaring body image to be a trite, overdone white woman’s issue is NOT being an ally to WOC, or teaching all those other sucky feminists a lesson.  It is overtly marginalizing WOC, and doing so in order to boost your own white ego.  Now, if you feel that in order to be a good ally you need to spend that time writing a post on a WOC-specific issue, I think that is a grand thing to do.  Again, nobody’s obligated to write on an issue which they don’t understand or care a whole lot about – and in fact, if you can’t help but exclude WOC in your dismissal of body image issues, this is an instance where NOT mentioning an issue you don’t understand is probably the more helpful choice all around.  If you are actually in good faith concerned about the oppressions faced by WOC, and didn’t intend (as I genuinely believe is the case, ladies I have not mentioned!) to contribute to this dangerous widespread social ignorance, you could consider educating yourself on the way WOC suffering from body image issues and eating disorders are marginalized by both the medical and activist communities, and sharing your thoughts about that.  I know I’d love to hear them.  I’m still learning here, too.   Don’t get me wrong, there are tons of WOC who don’t list body image and ED issues as their priorities for the various pro-lady movements; who may even have learned the art of self-love.  ROCK, self-loving WOC!  But you know who DOESN’T GET TO DECIDE THAT?  WHITE PEOPLE.

Throughout this post, I’ve been using the phrase “body image issues and eating disorders” or even just “eating disorders.”  This is because often, when people want to handwave “body image” issues, they do so by pretending that the way we respond to these vaguely-defined “issues” is with media criticism, in order to advocate for more “attainable,” whatever the fuck that means, beauty standards in mass media, because otherwise girls and women suffer some self-doubt about their own appearance.  Now, trivilaizign that crucial effort is still a jerk move, because a lack of body hatred is an important step to the eradication of female self-loathing.  Don’t get me wrong.  But what’s a “body iimage” issue for you, Generally Stable Third-Wave Blogger, is a fucking public health crisis for the population of women who are prone to mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, and OCD (not an exhaustive list, but just as examples), because we’re also more prone to eating disorders.  Not “body image” problems, not occasional funky blues around swimsuit season, but actual illnesses with actual symptoms and consequences.  It may be an issue of trivial concern to TAB women, something they get over with a shrug of their shoulders and a compliment from their gentleman associate.  It’s a real and present danger for mentally ill women and girls – and especially girls of color, and working class girls, who are less likely to be able to access the mental health care they need.  I’m glad it can be boring and trivial for you, to seem like selfish navel-gazing.  But feminist scholarship on body image and eating disorders is what let me kick my dangerously restrictive eating to the curb for good.  It’s like that time me and feminism teamed up to save my fucking future and sanity.  If it’s selfishness to think that other women deserve that kind of help too, sometimes the only kind of help they’ll be able to get, then paint me blue and call me Ayn the Gipper, because cold-hearted selfishness RULES!

Here is another thing I have noticed about the ladies who brush off body image concerns – they are thin ladies.  While I’m not a mind-reader, I’m going to go ahead and guess that they have unwittingly absorbed the mainstream (and heavily sexist) picture of someone with “body image” issues:  that great magazine-friendly photo of a thin, pretty lady staring into a mirror and seeing a bloated, fatter (though not usually actually or exceptionally fat) version of herself staring back at her.  This is some serious thin privilege at work.  Because some women with body image issues, who see and loathe the fat ladies in the mirror, are looking at perfectly accurate pictures of themselves.  That doesn’t mean their suffering is any less important or more bearable, or that their drastic and disordered attempts to lose enough weight to consider themselves acceptable women are any less psychologically harmful or physically dangerous.  In fact, in a lot of cases it’s going to have aspects which are even more difficult, because her bad feelings about herself will be reflected back by the outside world, which blames her for everything from The! Obesity! Epidemic! to global shitting climate change.  She’s likely to be suffering actual discrimination for her body shape and size, and her “body image issues” are telling her not to challenge it because hey, she deserves it.  Her dangerously restrictive eating is going to be applauded as a diet.  She’s not going to be included in feel-good anti-ED stories in mainstream ladymags.  Again, if size acceptance is just not a given writer’s cup of tea, that’s fine, I more than respect that; unfortunately enough, there are plenty of fights for justice to go around.  But a thin lady scoffing at the constant and hateful marginalization of in-between and fat ladies as beneath her Totally Intersectional Notice is privileged and shitty.

By analyzing these ways of body issues tie into different types of oppression separately, I don’t mean to suggest that they don’t overlap, or to pretend that this is in any way an exhaustive list.  There are plenty of fat disabled WOC who suffer or have suffered from fat hatred, image issues, or eating disorders.  Gender identity can be heavily tied up in body size and shape.  I’ve been focusing on women in this post, but there are serious (if admittedly less frequent) body image issues facing men, and in particular queer men.  These are voices that need to be heard – but as long as we pretend that body image is trite and only matters for the privileged, we will continue to ignore those layers of pain.

That’s why it’s important to accept a healthy body image as an issue of discrete, individual importance.  Our experiences with the outside world and with the other layers of identities won’t be the same, but if we choose not to accept and gloss over the very real pain of body hatred, maybe we can help each other out.  That doesn’t mean privileging the perspectives of white middle-class ladies so much as it means working not to disappear everyone else.  Which brings me to my final point – even if body hatred did not overlap with these other identities, even if it was suffered exactly the same in symptom and degree in women of all colors, even if it did not play a huge role in serious mental health conditions, it is still raw and basic human suffering, and therefore, still worth combating.  DID WE ALL MISS THAT DAY IN HUMAN DIGNITY 101?!  CHRIST!  Again, if it’s not your issue, it won’t make me hate or disrespect you, or disregard your work on other issues!  Lots of issues, no One True Feminist, plenty of fronts in this particular war, and so forth.

But don’t say that trivializing other women’s pain makes you the Good HIpster Feminist.

*I’m not citing because this is a trend, not a problem of one or a few individuals, and so I don’t want to pile on to the ladies whose posts contained these problematic but off-hand comments that I can remember off the top of my head at this moment.

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