On Privilege (Or…that time I was taunted for my thigh gap)

I went out recently in public for over an hour and nobody commented on my body. Why is this remarkable? Because I actually can’t remember the last time that happened. See, what with one thing and another, I’ve lost some weight unintentionally over last few months. And apparently, people have noticed.

I went out with a group of women a while back. These are fun ladies. We enjoyed girly drinks and talked about what was happening in our lives. One of the women mentioned she’d found these cool new shapewear garments on Etsy that prevent “chub rub” (when your thighs rub together and chafe…an uncomfortable feeling). I nodded along, but apparently not very convincingly because suddenly one of the ladies gestured to me and said boisterously, “What do you care? I bet your thighs don’t even touch! Do they? I bet they don’t!”

I hid my embarrassment behind my martini and waited for the subject to change.

You know what? Having someone make a joke out of your body doesn’t feel good no matter what your body looks like. Being made fun of for having a thigh gap does not feel less crappy than being made fun of for not having one.

Still…I chose not to address it in the moment for a couple of reasons. The main reason is that I recognized that I was coming from a place of privilege in that instance. Looking at magazines or Pinterest even briefly can show you that thigh gaps are, for some reason which completely elludes me, highly desired. If thin people want to see that thin is a way that people can look, that is easy to come by. “Thinspiration” abounds. But you know what? Seeing a body that resembles yours made into something aspirational is weird. I don’t find that affirming. I find it dehumanizing. Much like racism is bad for all of us (even white people, though that is harder to see which makes it harder to get people to understand), reducing any of us to nothing but a body type is not good for anyone.

The woman who made fun of my body is a cool person. I think she may have heard a few too many times that thigh gaps are the way to be, and so joking about it is a way to say, “I’m ok too!” Here’s the thing: my body is not an indictment of anyone else’s body; it’s just the way I look. That means if I was less analytical I would have gotten very defensive when it was mocked. But I get it: seeing a particular shape of a body feature held up repeatedly as the arbitrary “way it should be” gets old. I think mostly what happens for people is that they start out declaring, “It’s ok that I don’t look like someone on tv.” This is good and important and essential and true. But then that morphs into to, “It’s not ok to look like someone on tv.” And then from there it’s not a big leap to, “You look vaguely like someone I saw on tv and that’s gross.” (This is the hard part for me.)

I think this is the essence of beginning to deal with privilege of any kind…realizing that people have been hurt, often over and over again, and that if they are prickly about something it’s often not about you personally. Confronting privilege means remaining clear about this one important thing:

It’s not about you.

Do you need to change your behavior? Maybe.

Does the perception of someone deriding something about you mean that your identity is undermined so you absolutely have to defend yourself? It does not.

It’s definitely one way to go, and it’s a not unpredictable reaction when we feel under attack (witness the “All Lives Matter” counter-movement to “Black Lives Matter”). But defensive privilege often doesn’t take into account where a non-privileged person is coming from. In the case of some All Lives Matter folks, they seem to have missed that the point is not that black lives should matter more than other lives, it’s that they should matter…too. Without that piece of understanding, it’s too easy to get defensive. The reason I almost didn’t post about this (and the reason I usually don’t respond directly in conversation when someone comments about my body) is that saying, “stop making mean-spirited comments about my thin body because I would never call you fat” felt like saying “All Lives Matter!” But I realized recently that it’s not the same.

The point of the Black Lives Matter movement is not, as far as I can tell, to say negative things about other people. In fact, most of the things I’ve read (a whole movement is sure to have a wide variety of voices and should not be treated as a monolith) have been quite careful to say that this is about helping and supporting one group that is under attack, which has the potential to help all of us. I have yet to hear a single Black Lives Matter protester say, “I think white people don’t matter.”

The point of saying “Real Women Have Curves,” as far as I can tell, is to make women who have fuller shapes think that they are real women too. I get that. I can even get behind it to a point. But you lose me when you start feeling entitled to speak to me about my own body in derogatory and dehumanizing ways (and no, telling me I look like that actress you just spent ten minutes describing as “disgustingly skinny” is not a compliment).

Objectifying any of us hurts all of us.

At this point, when someone approaches me in an unkind or critical way, I try to listen and then pause to decide whether I need to change what I’m doing based on whatever I’m presented with. The way I see it, I may need to:

  1. Change my behavior or words.
  2. Point out that maybe they should change their behavior or words (this is only rarely the answer), or at least leave me out of it.
  3. Try to discern what important piece of understanding I’m missing.
  4. Let it go (this is almost always part of the answer).

Back to thighs: these days, it seems Real Women either have curves or a thigh gap. If you think either of those things in an exclusive way, I would like to invite you away from a false dichotomy. Real women have identities. Still, it’s the way we’ve been taught to think about our bodies and it takes a whole lot of work to step out of the framework which tells us that people who look differently than us are a threat. Our culture is full of false dichotomies and it’s HARD to leave that behind. But I promise you, it’s worth it in the long run.

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