Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Off Switch

This started out as a comment on Fillyjonk's Ask Aunt Fattie post about a woman who is uncomfortable with the occasional sizist thoughts about her partner's body. After a few paragraphs I realized the comment was getting post-length, so I moved it here.

Starting off with the excerpt that really nailed the concept for me:

"Luckily, the key is not to remain untouched by prejudice, but to consciously and deliberately rise above it at every opportunity. You are not failing in your fat activism when you look at your girlfriend and the voices of a thousand magazines and TV shows and judgmental relatives trill out “is she going to eat that?” Rather, you are succeeding when your response is to shake your head and say “how ridiculous you are, tiny voices in my mind.” "

I think this is a brilliant expression of the fact that there is no magically delicious "off switch" when it comes to cultural conditioning. It is a process of constant revision. After spending a lifetime having a prejudice beaten in our heads Aldous Huxely-style, no one is expected to shake it overnight. For example, I wasn't raised to be an accepting person. I was raised with every influence geared towards turning me into a conservative Christian suburbanite WASP. Luckily some of those gears went *sproing* in time for me to do something about it, but they still pop up at inopportune moments. Ten years later I still find a lot of prejudices in me that I have to stop and confront, and a few that get past me without me even noticing until it's too late.

I believe this is an issue for a lot of people in FA. I know it is for me. There was this great tipping point where I looked FA and finally got it. Joy Nash had a lot to do with that moment, as did my Tante' who sent me books and websites to nudge me in the right direction. I suddenly realized that there was nothing inherently wrong with my body. A lot of you know what that moment felt like.

The problem is that I woke up the next morning buried under all the same old baggage. The only real difference was that I now knew it was there. Part of the self-loathing built into our cultural message is wrapped up in the complete helplessness to find any way to fix what we are told is a problem. The only solutions to our differentness, we're told, are to either force our bodies into a semblance of normalcy or, when that inevitably fails, to hide them. We work and slave and sweat in an attempt to solve "the problem" of differentness, with the increasing pressure of shame and guilt heaped on as motivation. That moment when it all clicked was not the moment I solved the problem of my differentness. It was the moment I realized it wasn't a problem.

Since the click was not universal, however, it also didn't remove all the pressure. It didn't stop the negative thoughts about my body (or other people's bodies). It didn't stop my envying thin friends. It didn't stop the built-in reactions to magazine spreads, fat jokes or diet ads. That's because no moment (or year of moments) can undo the conditioning of a lifetime. All it can do is make me aware enough to start to re-condition myself. I can tell the tiny voices they're being ridiculous, that I don't have to justify my food or clothing choices to anyone. I can start catching the judgemental little part of me that comments on the habits of others, and tell it to STFU. Every time I do, I come a little closer to not not believing what they say. But it's a process. I'm not an enlightened human being, so I have to work at it. But those bad moments (and days) when I feel like a mess and stare longingly at the smiling fakery of a Weight Watchers ad don't make me any less a Fat Acceptance activist. Our culture is eerily efficient at creating shame and guilt from natural processes like that, and we don't have to buy into it. The bad moments don't make me a failure; they make me a human being. One that's still learning.

I don't honestly think there will ever be a day when I stop being aware of my differentness, or stop wanting (on some level) to go back to trying to fix it. But when the good moments outnumber the bad, I think I'll call it a win.


Arwen said...

Yes, exactly!
I started out of the gate so well in FA, a sort of a self-acceptance mania, a rebound after a year of seriously being down on myself to the point of trying ridiculous "diet solutions".
I went along like that for a good 4 months, and then suddenly realized that I wasn't really accepting being fat, I was assuming that feeling GOOD meant I was thin now. *lol*
Ever since then, I've been dealing with the conditioning. Some I deal with well. Some I don't. It'll be a lifelong process, I imagine.

fillyjonk said...

The problem is that I woke up the next morning buried under all the same old baggage. The only real difference was that I now knew it was there.

Wow, that is such a perfect way of expressing this experience.

Lindley said...

Yes! I've been fighting a couple of different battles with my own prejudices, and it doesn't just magically stop.

Rachel said...

That was really inspirational, thank you! I've been in the process of reconditioning myself (and living in southern California, I need a lot of reconditioning!) and this reminds me that it's okay when I get those negative thoughts; it doesn't mean I've "failed", I just have to keep trying. And trying and trying. That's life, eh?