relationships

To Those Whom The Saccharine Holiday Cards Have Forgotten

To those for whom grief is like an unwanted gift that is opened anew each morning after that split-second moment of half-asleep-magic when they forget their loved one is dead, for whom the empty place at the table or the missing face in holiday photos is a bottomless pit of horror and unbearable sadness.

To those who have lost a child or a pregnancy, for whom the line-ups for photos with Santa at the mall are agony, for whom the empty cradles and the never-to-be-worn tiny socks are constant reminders of unspeakable loss.

To those whose depression and anxiety make it difficult to survive the day, let alone crack a forced smile at the checkout counter, pick up the phone to receive a holiday greeting, check the mail, go to a holiday party, get up off the couch or emerge from underneath the blankets.

To those who are terrified of facing the holiday parties, the buffets of food, the incessant questions about how much or how little you weigh, if you’re going to just “get over” your eating disorder and eat a fucking meal for once.

To those who are alone, those who have no phone calls or cards, no visiting friends or families, who feel that ache of being entirely forgotten.

To those who lie awake afraid, afraid of the bills that are piling up, the rent that must be paid, the children that are sick, the job that has been lost, the empty fridge, the bullies at school, the fighting parents, the swinging fists, afraid of the addiction, the alcoholism, the rage, the uncertainty.

To those who must hide their scars or their fresh cuts and burns under holiday sweaters.

To those whose anniversaries of trauma, of rape, of assault, fall at this time of year, and whose nights are filled with nightmares, for whom the falling snow, the twinkling lights, the holiday carols are reminders of anything but festivities.

To those who heartbroken, those who have been lied to, cheated on, had their trust ripped out of their chests and their beliefs in romance trampled on, who must face the holiday stories of engagements and weddings with a lump in their throat and anger-bitten tongues.

To those who are dying, who know that this is, or may be, the last holiday season they will have to spend with their loved ones.

To those who want to die and who are holding on, holding on, holding on. Please hold on.

Resources:

Dealing with Grief after a Miscarriage

List of International Suicide Hotlines

National Eating Disorder Association – Holiday Tips for Coping

RAINN – Rape and Incest National Network – International Resources

Resources in British Columbia:

BC Bereavement Hotline

Women Against Violence Against Women

CrisisLine BC

Kelty Mental Health Resource Centre

Food Banks BC

Advertisements

“Bitches and Drinks”: What I Overheard at Frosh Week at UBC

Yesterday marked the first day of classes for colleges and universities across Canada, and on my campus, like many others, the spirit of excitement was palpable. In spite of the rain, thousands of University of British Columbia students congregated on campus to celebrate “Imagine Day,” a day when undergraduate classes are suspended so that a variety of festivities and welcome events can be held. There were dozens of campus tours being led by guides in brightly-coloured UBC shirts, a frenzy of students gathering their supplies and course materials at the bookstore, and hundreds of people checking out the many booths that lined the streets near the centre of campus.

These booths offer a wonderful way for students to check out services on campus (especially those provided by the Alma Mater Society), to find a variety of clubs and activities that they may be interested in joining, and to familiarize themselves with some of their departmental student unions. As with many universities’ frosh weeks, a fair number of booths are also sponsored by various off-campus corporations and businesses, ranging from cell phone providers to banks.

However, one booth in particular got my attention, and not because I was intending to seek it out.

When I exited the Student Union Building after having run some errands, I heard extremely loud music. Now, loud music coming from a booth is not a particularly unusual or offensive thing in itself: it’s part of building the atmosphere and maintaining the excitement of campus events. However, when I heard Trey Songz’ lyrics “I’m only here for the bitches and the drinks, the bitches and the drinks,” I suddenly found that my sense of campus spirit faded away rather quickly. I turned the corner to find the source of the music, and, not much to my surprise, it came from a booth run by an off-campus nightclub, one which is generally frequented by undergraduate students. With that song still blaring, I walked away, troubled, and a bit angry, wondering if any other students had felt the same discomfort as I did.

Now, I’m sure that some of my critics might tell me that I am over-reacting, or that my tendencies towards feminist analyses and my work on sexual violence have simply made me sensitive to anything that might be vaguely construed as misogynist. So, too, it is possible that someone might remind me that free speech is a right, or that this music was played not by a campus group, but, rather, an off-campus company who claims no inherent affiliation with the university.

However, want I want to explore is not “whether or not” this song should have been played. Instead I want to talk about why I find it troubling to have heard it so loudly on campus, especially during frosh week.

For starters, we know that sexual violence, ranging from harassment to rape, is still a big problem on university campuses, both in Canada and in the United States.

  • I know individuals who have been the target of sexual violence on campus: one friend in particular reported being verbally harassed and groped during her first week on campus, an altogether unwelcome and unexpected treatment at what she thought would be a place of higher education, not a place of street harassment.
  • A number of American universities have recently been served with Title IX complaints after numerous allegations and incidents of sexual assault were either dismissed or improperly handled.
  • Even faculty are not immune.  In the U.S., Midwestern PhD candidate and blogger GracieABD has written a two-part series of blog posts about having been sexually harassed by a student.
  • According to statistics cited by the Canadian Federation for Students, 4 out of 5 female undergraduates on Canadian campuses are victims of violence in dating relationships.
  • Moreover, many incidents of violence occur within the first 8 weeks of the new school year (CFS). 
  • Undergraduate students in particular, who comprise the largest population on campus (and who are, indeed, the target of Imagine Day’s events) may have moved away from home for the first time, may be isolated without much support, and may be especially vulnerable to alcohol or drug-facilitated assaults at on- or off-campus establishments. UBC alumna Meghan Gardiner’s one-woman show on this very topic, “Dissolve,” has toured Canada for a decade.

“Bitches” and drinks, indeed.

We also know that sexual harassment and institutional sexism are still insidious in many campus cultures, whether overtly or covertly, whether within undergraduate or graduate populations, or amongst staff and faculty. Universities, including UBC, have policies against discrimination and harassment for a reason: university campuses are supposed to be safe spaces.

Look, I’m not here to rain on someone’s parade, or to act as the campus music-police. I realize that there are much more offensive and contentious things that have been displayed publicly by off-campus groups, and I don’t believe that playlists should be “filtered” by the university before they are used for campus events.  I am not interested in preventing off-campus establishments or companies from advertising themselves, nor am interested in suggesting that on their own time, and in privately-owned spaces that they choose to attend, students can’t listen and dance to whatever music they choose. I’m not trying to hold “UBC” responsible for anything. To be clear, I am also not suggesting that songs about “bitches and drinks” are the CAUSE of rape on college campuses.

That being said, I would like my university (an ostensibly PUBLIC space) to be a space where I feel safe, and where I can walk across campus without being reminded LOUDLY that as a young woman, my value to many people is still just as a “bitch” (or a “ho,” or any of those horribly derogatory terms). I want my university to be, as its slogan proclaims, “a place of mind,” where all community members and, especially, campus guests, are mindful of not perpetuating sexism.  When I heard “bitches and drinks” repeatedly for several minutes—at a location right near the Sexual Assault Centre, the Equity Office, and Counselling Services—I started to feel like I wasn’t really on campus at all.

Play whatever you want in your club: people pay to be there willingly with the knowledge that it is a particular kind of environment. But I attend my public university with the not-so-unreasonable expectation that I won’t have to listen to  misogynist lyrics when I’m just trying to walk across the quad.

Resources & Information 

Canadian Federation of Students Factsheet on Sexual Violence on Campuses

UBC Sexual Assault Support Centre

List of Local Vancouver Sexual Assault Resource/Crisis Centres

Red Ink & Green Envy: Rethinking Failure and Success

I don’t know if it’s because this attitude is becoming more prevalent, or because as an educator and graduate student, I’ve started leaning in and listening more carefully to what people say, but I often hear complaints about how our society has moved away from valuing success to tolerating mediocrity and failure. Some complain about how elementary schools have taken away the element of competition, offering “participation medals” to all who are involved in activities like Sports Day. Some bemoan the attitudes of “poor losers,” pointing out that instead of the gracious acceptance of defeat, people are simply lashing out at those who win, succeed, or do better than them. Some find issue with parents who only want their children to be “good enough,” rather than wanting their children to excel, to go above and beyond in any given pursuit. Some suggest that we’ve gotten too lenient with grading practices, and that the corporatization of education (combined with the effects of policies like “No Child Left Behind”) mean that students believe they’re entitled to a better grade simply because they’ve paid for their studies, and that educators are afraid to (or not allowed to) fail a student because it’s believed that being held back in a particular subject or grade will damage their self-esteem.

Naturally, I agree in part with some of these criticisms. As a teaching assistant in a post-secondary system, where students pay tuition, I have observed students who do feel entitled to the grade they “paid for.” As a child who grew up playing sports in school, albeit certainly not as a talented athlete, I amassed a number of ribbons for anything from 7th to 3rd place, never 1st or 2nd, and don’t believe that these should be dispensed with completely in favour of “participation.” As someone who often struggles with issues of procrastination and a lack of motivation, I most certainly understand wanting to encourage our children to learn to harness their capabilities, to develop good work habits, and to experiment in pushing themselves beyond their comfort zones. As someone who has observed how jealousy and envy can manifest themselves in surprising and upsetting ways, I agree that there needs to be a better way of dealing with the accomplishments and lives of others.

winner-loser1However, I patently disagree with statements that condemn “bad losers” and “people who just don’t succeed/try hard enough/want it enough/spend enough time on something/care enough/don’t value success/drop out/quit” to one half of some absurd binary about human potential and accomplishment: winners vs. losers. I wholeheartedly oppose the mindset that posits success as a simple result of individual work, of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps and bloody well getting on with it. Because as I’ve observed, in my own life and in the lives of others, both failure and success are never so simple as we would like them to be.

  • What happens when you grow up with a parent who emotionally, verbally, or physically abuses you when you don’t achieve good grades? What happens when you’re shamed in a classroom by a teacher? What happens when your classmates call you stupid, slow, or clumsy? How might that develop into an absolute fear of failure later on in life? How might individuals who have suffered that kind of shaming and abuse go on to replicate those attitudes in their interactions with others?
  • What happens when a child simply does not have the physical or intellectual capability to achieve the same goals as their parents, siblings, or peers? What happens if they try their very hardest in math class, but struggle with things like spatial reasoning? What if there’s not adequate support for students with learning disabilities?
  • What happens when your definition of success simply differs from others’? What if you value the pursuit of art over the pursuit of financial security? What if success is simply getting through the day when you’re struggling with severe depression or anxiety?
  • What happens when you have to choose between some nebulous pursuit of success and the very real need for daily survival? What if you can’t afford to pursue higher education? What if you have to drop out of school to take care of your family?
  • What happens when you’re willing to pursue success at any cost? When you’re willing to look past ethics as a means to an end?
  • What happens when our culture associates male identity with the accrual of capital and romantic partnership? What happens to you, as a man, when you lose your job, your house, and your partner? What if you have to declare bankruptcy?
  • What happens when the expectations placed on you because of past successes become impossible to deal with? What if you’re a child prodigy who buckles under or refuses to deal with the pressure? What if you don’t want to have to keep on living up to the expectations of others?
  • What happens when the various systems that endorse racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, or classism make it structurally impossible (if not at least very, very difficult) to enter into, let alone succeed in various environments? What if you have to choose between your safety and sanity or your success?

Look, I understand how difficult it is, I really do.

I know how hard it is to talk about the expectations we put on ourselves, and onto our children. I know how badly we want the best for our children, how much we want them to see their potential, to know their limits and to realize their strengths. I know how much fear there can be when we think about our children having to struggle financially, socially, romantically, intellectually, emotionally, or physically.

I get how difficult it is to understand that just because something is easy or simple for us, that it may not be simple or easy for others, that when we have a talent, a skill, or an ease with something, that it’s often taken for granted.

I feel the agony of reconciling our own limitations and impasses with various structures and institutions. I know how helpless that can make us feel, and for that reason, I empathize with those who turn to narratives of individual agency and effort as the means to success. To deal of structural oppression and constraint is agonizing at its worst, and uncomfortable at best, when it forces us to talk about things like privilege.

I see how notions of failure and success play into the pursuit of meaning in our lives, how we associate our accomplishments with blessings and proof of how special we are, how we might live on in the memories of others, how fame and recognition are profoundly linked to self-worth and identity. I see how the concept of failure can make people feel abandoned by their god, by their community, by their partners, by their families, and how it can make people feel invisible, small, and meaningless.

Despite the complexity of failure and success as concepts and as lived experiences, I do believe that there are ways of mitigating the impact that they have on our lives.

We can stop using the word “failure,” or, at the very least, make an effort to find alternative words to describe our experiences. We can remember, as trite as it may sound, that having taken the risk to apply for that scholarship or that job, to go on that date, or to enter that sporting event takes a hell of a lot of courage and vulnerability. We can understand that, as opposed to the wisdom of internet memes and bullshit gurus like Tony Robbins, that failure and success are not polar opposites, but part of the same process of discovery and knowledge formation. We can talk, instead, about setbacks. Moments of frustration. Queries, questions, puzzles, mysteries.

Spectator Code of Conduct from Port Moody. Image from CTV News.

Spectator Code of Conduct from Port Moody. Image from CTV News.

We can start to enjoy things for enjoyment alone, rather than as part of a culture of competition. We can pursue education for the love of learning, sports and dance for the love of movement, relationships for the purpose of connection, jobs for the purpose of fulfillment and engagement with others, fitness for the purpose of health. We can find pleasure in process, not in an end result.

We can learn techniques and strategies to mitigate the experience of criticism or critique. For instance, as a teacher, I rarely if ever mark in red pen. Some might tell me that not marking in red pen plays into the culture of “well, we can’t hurt their precious feelings,” but if you honestly believe that red does not have practical, oft-reinforced associations with fear or hesitancy, you might check your own heart rate when the light suddenly turns from amber to red. I mark in purple – it’s just as easy for me to do. I also use a marking style that is conversational, and that expresses my experience as a reader. I make notes about what the “essay” does, not about what the “student” does. I try to remember, as Dr. Janet Giltrow suggests, that for many of my students, this work is new for them, and that learning is a process.

We can remember that our own attitudes about failure and success necessarily impact those around us. When we say that we’re failures, that we’re pieces of shit because we left a PhD program or because we had a relationship that broke up, that has an effect on our loved ones, especially when we say “well, no, YOU’RE not a failure for leaving your program or not being married yet, it’s just totally DIFFERENT for me.”

We can take ownership of our decisions without labeling them as good or bad. We can decide that a school or a job wasn’t the right fit for us, and that it was healthy for us to leave, even if a colleague or a friend decides to stay. We can acknowledge that we all have different limits, abilities, tolerances, desires, and goals, and that we make different choices as a result.

We can start talking about privilege. We can talk about all the things we don’t want to talk about, like how the majority of the people who talk about success and failure have the financial privilege and the cultural capital to be able to do so, and how they rarely if ever talk about social injustice, inequity, oppression, and its relationship to things like neoliberalism and capitalism.

This is REALLY hard work. It’s as hard to examine the language and attitudes about failure and success from as it is to examine any other set of thoughts and beliefs. It’s difficult to balance our needs and desires to learn from our setbacks, and to take credit for things that we’ve done well. It’s painful to embrace our limitations and to fight back against oppression. I don’t have all the answers. I’m still working through all of this myself. What I do know is this: instead condemning those who criticize failure, instead of praising those who value success above all, let’s listen to the stories that shaped those attitudes and beliefs. There may be a lot more behind the red ink and the green envy than we think, and it’s only by going into those uncomfortable spaces that we even approach the possibility of equity and opportunity, support and understanding.

On Being Alone: Rethinking The Single Life

It is a truth universally acknowledged that when a man or a woman reaches a certain age, an age that one also generally associates with sexual attractiveness, fertility, the beginning of economic security and the decline of teenage angst, that he or she will seek a partner, indeed, fervently desire a partner, and do everything within his or her power to meet, marry, and mate. In my nod to Jane Austen, here, I am suggesting, as cheekily as I am earnestly, that the societal standards that are steadfastly ingrained in our psyches regarding relationships are still rather predictable, conservative, and normative. And, if I may be so bold to admit—being myself a young woman of a certain marriageable and fertile age—rather draining, dreary, and downright depressing.

As you, dear reader, can deduce, I am single. Solitary. Unbetrothed, unwed. As long as I have been “eligible” to date, I have generally been single. I have had relationships, sort-of-boyfriends even, although given a variety of factors, including but not limited to my own anxieties, my enjoyment of solitude, mismatches based on the naïveté of youth or differences in styles of communication and emotional needs or bad timing, rejection, or the sheer difficulty of sustaining a relationship over a long distance, I have been alone.

I have learned, over the years, that my description of my rather persistent singleness is not neutral. The reception and interpretation of my lack of a romantic partner has called up some of the most interesting, misguided, or presumptive statements and unsolicited analyses of my psyche and my behaviour. It has suggested to many that I may be too nervous to date, too preoccupied with my career, too picky about prospective partners, too conservative, too liable to pick “bad” matches, too this, too that. Funny how one’s personal life so quickly becomes open season fo armchair psychologists! And while these commentaries and assumptions can be only rather irritating at times, the banter of a nosy relative or well-meaning friend, I have recently noticed how awfully sinister, how awfully narrow-minded and rife with victim-blaming they can be.

  • How often they suggest that past relationships are failures, rather than experiences that can offer both parties the gift of insight, as if because something was time-limited or brief or is no more, that it was not fulfilling or wonderful or an occasion to learn.
  • How they imply that women and men who are single must be flawed, broken, undesirable, inflexible, psychologically damaged, unskilled at sex or love or communication, rather than, perhaps, individuals who may simply prefer solitude, prefer a different type of relationship arrangement, who may have done the emotional work that makes them less likely to enter hastily into (or stay in) abusive or unfulfilling relationships, who may have other types of partnerships and connections, or who may simply not have the desire to be in a romantic partnership (now or ever).
  • How they argue that there is one type of love and relation that is aspirational, against which all others pale. As if the love of our families, our friends, our colleagues, our communities, our lovers…were not enough. Eros trumps all, trumps philia, trumps storge, trumps agape.
  • How they infer that until we meet our (presumably monogamous) partner, and fall into some sort of nebulously and poorly defined thing called “love,” we singletons are mere shells of human beings, eternally waiting for our “other halves,” our “soul-mates,” or, at the very least, a person to co-habitate with, and at some point, possibly sign a legal contract that has nothing in actuality to do with love, despite social norms that try to convince us otherwise. As if we are less than whole people, always lacking.
  • How they advise that a single person must simply “love themselves enough” before they find a partner, as if self-love and worthiness were not things that people must and should do for themselves and for the many other relationships they have with their families, friends, and co-workers. As if self-love were not, above all, for one’s self. As if the very people who believe that they are worthy just as they are, who have developed communication skills, who can be vulnerable and sit with others’ vulnerability, are those who do love themselves enough. As if breaking up with someone cannot be an act of self-love, or, indeed an act of love towards others to avoid mutual disappointment or resentment.
  • How they discount the other accomplishments in our lives by assuming our happinesses or our successes are not enough if we do not also “find someone nice to settle down with.” As if the only occasions worthy of public and community celebrations are marriages (and having children).
  • How they presume that being in a relationship or being married automatically makes someone a more skilled communicator, empathic person, sexually open partner, considerate human being, or expert in love than any single person could ever hope to be.

I’m sure that I may be perceived as being too harsh here, or as making some rather broad and hyperbolic statements, or that I am assuming that these are simply things that the coupled say to the uncoupled. But these are also things that we single folks tell ourselves. They’re things that I’ve told myself, when relationships haven’t gone right, when I feel lonely, when I feel envious of those who have a partner, and when I get frustrated with the complexities and unpredictability of love and dating. And believe me, admitting to that is not easy. It is, however, useful and necessary.

The normalization of monogamy aside—and the aspersions it casts on the singletons—is that there is, of course, something more profoundly existential at play here, and that is that solitude and loneliness can call up some of our deepest fears and sorrows.

The fear of being rejected for our flaws.

The fear of not being able to handle the flaws of others.

The fear of not having our lovers’ snores or our bustling households to distract us from other sources of shame or feelings of unworthiness in our lives.

And that big fear: the aching, gnawing agony of our mortality. Death as the ultimate solitary event. Spinning silently through the vastness of space on this tilting rock, we cling to each other. The figure of a single person can remind us, painfully, of our need and desire to cling, to love, to make meaning in conjunction, even though we wax poetically about self-sufficiency, independence, and aloneness. If we are insecure or overdependent in our partnerships, the single person can terrify us, reminding us that we have not yet learned to tolerate being alone, to sit with the discomfort of being all by ourselves.

Singleness can also remind us also of how we exclude. How we don’t call up that friend, or that family member, or invite them over for dinner. How we can, so easily, take the companionship and presence of our partner for granted.

Singleness confronts us with how precarious and unpredictable relationality can be. That there’s not always “someone for everyone.” That even if you are emotionally healthy, even if you have a wonderful career, and a good sense of self, that you may end up without a romantic partner, or that the romantic partnership you envisioned in your late teens or early twenties—the fairytale romance—may not be exactly what you get. That your partner may suddenly become ill, or be unfaithful, or die long before you do: that you may once again be alone, and not through your own choosing.

Singleness reinforces the consequences of our choices and situations in life. That with togetherness, as with aloneness, comes compromise, different lacks of fulfillment, different ways of being, different sources of joy. And as they say, the grass is always greener on the other side.

As I enter my mid-twenties, I’ve decided to embrace paradox while I confront my own thoughts about singleness and about partnerships. While I have been told that I can be, at times, rather unromantic in my realism and cynicism about love, I have also been told that I am unrelentingly optimistic and hopeful. I can be wonderfully happy being single, and enjoy the freedoms that it affords me, but can also long for and dream of finding a partner who is my equal, my companion, and my fellow pilgrim on this strange and foreboding but curious and extraordinary road of life.

But most importantly—and I do hope this is the lesson that I can impart—I know, deep in my heart, that it is a truth universally acknowledged that we are all worthy of love, trust, companionship, acceptance, and kindness…whomever we receive it from.

“Don’t Let the Haters Get You Down”: My Past Life in the Pro-Anorexia Community

As regular readers of my blog will know, I often write about my history of eating disorders. I do so because I know that eating disorders are incredibly common, albeit very misunderstood, and I believe that it’s important to offer an insider’s viewpoint on their complex nature. I’m fortunate, in that it’s not something that I find particularly difficult to write about anymore. After years of therapy, I have come to a place where I have a relatively amicable relationship with my body and with food. This June marks the 5-year anniversary of my lowest point suffering from anorexia nervosa, and I’m glad to be able to do so, free from the tyrannies of the scale, counting calories, or of endless self-scrutiny in the mirror. I’m lucky to have a loving family and community of friends who understand that I still have lingering vulnerabilities when it comes to food and body image, and if I ever find myself having intrusive thoughts, I can speak to them openly about it.

One of the curious things that I’ve noticed, as I’ve emerged from the depths of my eating disorder, is that so many individuals and communities, who I once perceived as having normal attitudes about food—because they weren’t starving themselves outright, or purging after every meal—were entrenched in various degrees of disordered thoughts and behaviours about food. As I was trying to learn to develop a healthy and balanced diet and relationship to exercise, I realized that the diet and weight-loss industries were raking in more money than ever, that websites such as Tumblr, Pinterest, and YouTube were full of “thinspiration” and “fitspiration,” and that it seemed that almost every woman I knew was somehow dissatisfied with her body. This isn’t an unusual realization for those who are in recovery. Indeed, it’s one of the things that can make recovery so difficult, and I hear it often from friends and from the clients that I volunteer with. When we live in a society that encourages thinness at any cost, and that rewards obsessionally “clean” eating and marathon sessions in the gym, why would there be any incentive to recover?

As an English scholar, what’s struck me most about the disordered nature of many popular weight-loss communities, gurus, or companies that promote diet or health supplements are the eerie rhetorical similarities to some of the most hard-core pro-anorexia websites. Now, I’m certain that most people would disavow any similarities to pro-anorexia communities, since pro-ana argues that eating disorders aren’t illnesses but lifestyle choices. Most weight-loss communities are really, earnestly devoted to helping people and promoting health. I’m also fairly certain that most of those people haven’t been members of these types of communities either, and so would have little way of knowing that their slogans, their mantras, and some of their ways of creating a community of isolation are perfectly in line with the ways that underground, pro-eating disorder groups work.

But I DO know. From 2004-2007, I was a heavy user of pro-anorexia websites. I created collages of “thinspiration,” searched for ways to suppress my appetite and hide my eating disorder, and was a regular member on a number of forums. I logged on every single day, described how much or how little I had eaten, talked about my goal weights, and exchanged tips on how to hide my disordered behaviours from my family. To be truthful, it was only after I decided to leave the pro-ana communities that my eating disorder really spiraled out of control, behaviour-wise. However, the cult-like attitudes that the pro-ana movement had instilled in me made it that much more difficult to shake off the increasing power that my eating disorder had over me.

I want to explain some of those attitudes and techniques, and use them to demonstrate why I have serious concerns about how some weight-loss communities/companies/gurus work. I am not, of course, suggesting that these types of people are out to cause poor health in others, or that they are interested in merely profiteering off of the vulnerabilities of others; however, I want to show that there is a very fine line between solidarity in the achievement of health and the type of manipulation and isolation that creates unhealthy communities, and distances people from their families and loved ones and from a truly healthy relationship with food and body image.

 “Thinspiration,” Clean Eating, and Ideal Bodies

One of the hallmarks of the pro-ana movement (one that has become surprisingly mainstream) is that of “thinspiration.” A portmanteau of “thin” and “inspiration,” thinspiration photographs run the gamut from models to ordinary girls, from photoshopped emaciation to real-life beach bodies. You can find it in every flavour you choose: abs, legs, butt, stomach, arms, collarbones, visible spines. Before and after shots. Whatever you want to inspire you to get the body beautiful: it’s out there.

fitspiration-hate

Lately, especially online, I’ve noticed that the trend has moved from thin bodies to athletic bodies (although most are still thin, in any case). “Fitspiration” is well and alive on websites such as Tumblr, Pinterest, and Twitter, including the circulation of bullshit slogans that “strong is the new skinny,” and that “thin girls look good in clothes, but fit girls look good naked.” The cult of the body beautiful has simply appropriated the techniques of the underground pro-ana movement, packaged it into a more palatable and supposedly-healthy box, and served it anew, not only to millions of teenage girls, but to teenage boys and grown women and men.

Do not kid yourself: fitspiration is the same shit in a different pile. While I am most certainly all for fitness and exercise in moderation (including a focus on healthy eating and less processed foods over all), slogans and photographs of ripped abs and toned thighs are not necessarily representative of health. It’s important to recognize that a desire to be fit and look good can easily devolve into a denigration for individuals who are not (or do not appear to be) fit, a practice of shaming others for food choices that are not exclusively “clean,” a fear of non-clean foods, and an obsession with reps of weights completed and miles run. What scares me most about this aspect of our current focus on health and wellness is that like the pro-ana community, many people begin to believe they’re not harming themselves, and that what they’re doing can’t possibly be disordered. Believe me: it can when it’s taken too far. I’ve been there too.

Motivational Quotations and Success-Speak

During my time in the pro-ana community, I learned the value of “success-speak.” Inspirational quotations were plentiful, whether featured in forum members’ signatures, photoshopped onto images of thin models, or simply listed in abundance on websites as  a way to motivate us in our quest to be beautiful, perfect, and weightless. While the mantras of “a moment on the lips, forever on the hips” were popular, so too, were ones from Oprah Winfrey, Tony Robbins, and any other speaker, “guru,” or public figure you could imagine. Even the words of spiritual figures and civil rights activists were not off-limits in being appropriated for our cause.

fitspiration_24The proliferation of mantras in excess, especially those which focus on individual success as simply a means of trying hard enough, never giving up, and not wanting to give in to “failure,” were certainly excellent ways of putting a positive spin on a means of self-destruction. This is also the same phenomenon that I have observed at work in Multi-Level Marketing companies, many of which are currently cornering the health/diet/fitness market. The more positivity that can be used, the less the unhealthy aspects of the community is revealed, and the more people want to engage in it so as not to let the community down. Skeptics and naysayers need not apply, and are quickly ousted from the community in order to preserve it.

“Don’t Let The Haters Get You Down”

Skeptics and naysayers in the pro-ana community were generally those on the outside: concerned friends, families, and physicians. They were the people who told us that starvation and purging were dangerous habits, who expressed concern when we fainted or were lightheaded, who reminded us that the price of these behaviours was serious illness, if not death. I can’t tell you how many times I not only shrugged off that concern, but began to perceive any outside criticism as a serious threat to the integrity of my illness. Fellow pro-ana community members reminded me that I can’t let “the haters get me down,” that outsiders didn’t understand me, that everyone else would just be jealous of me when I lost weight, and that efforts to intervene were just ways of them sabotaging my weight-loss out of that place of jealousy.

I hear that a lot from people who are involved in weight-loss communities. And while I do not deny that the threat of sabotage is real in many cases, I don’t think that the people who suggest that people are merely out to “ruin their success” is accurate; in any case, it’s certainly not nuanced. Whenever a member of a community (a family member, a friend, a co-worker) begins to undertake a drastic change, whether it be in changing eating habits, exercise habits, or making the decision to stop drinking, smoking, or using drugs, the routines and identities of the other community members are challenged. When you’re used to eating take-out and watching television with your partner, and they all of a sudden start eating differently and being more active, not only is your relationship altered, but you may start to feel pressure to also change your habits (whether you’re ready or not). Given the scrutiny that our society already places on people who are overweight, obese, less active, or who eat “junk” food, it’s reasonable to fear that the person who is changing may start to harbour the same types of attitudes and beliefs against their loved one. Nobody wants to be left behind, and certainly, nobody wants to start to be shamed or looked down upon by the person they once shared a certain activity, behaviour, or food with.

imagesAt its best, the suggestion that we can’t “let the haters get us down” is a caution against the precarious nature of changing, and the impact it may have (or the residual issues it may bring out) in our communities. At its worst, it is a tactic that isolates individuals and risks severing their ties with anyone who is not involved in a similar pursuit, especially when the potential profit involved (weight loss, money, etc) is perceived as being worth more than love or friendship. Need I remind anyone that the “with us or against us” tactic is exactly the same one that George W. Bush used after 9/11, in order to justify and secure support for the “War On Terror”? This isn’t a benign statement in any community. There is, after all, a big difference between becoming assertive and confident to react less strongly to others’ criticisms and starting to view outsiders as weak or malicious, to treat them with paranoia or suspicion.

As I’ve stated before, I do not want to suggest that all weight-loss communities are unhealthy, that all weight-loss/fitness gurus are disordered (although Jillian Michaels once admitted to pouring salt or candle wax on half her food at restaurants so she wouldn’t get tempted…), or that Multi-Level Marketing health/diet companies are all bogus. It’s a lot more nuanced than that, and that’s why I’ve tried to point out some of the areas where the discourses overlap. It’s important to become informed, and be careful of the initial rose-goggle phase of any sudden jump into a community. It’s okay to disagree with certain tactics and agree with others, so long as your disagreement can be articulated, and you’re not afraid of speaking up about it. No weight-loss program, form of diet and exercise, or community is perfect. Certain things may trigger some and motivate others; other things might convince someone to try something and follow it reasonably and yet turn others into devoted radicals.

Food, health, our bodies: they’re sensitive issues. They can play on our vulnerabilities, bring out our strengths. I constantly remind my clients that we do live a world where food is not a black and white issue, and we all need to know where our comfort levels lie.

I have been out of the pro-anorexia community since December 2006. I found healthier online support. Some of my best friends are from recovery sites and outpatient treatment. I am so incredibly grateful for their love and support.

All I can say, as a piece of final advice, is to just be careful out there; take care of yourselves. Get informed. Learn your triggers and your boundaries. Keep open communication. I certainly wish I had.

Verbatim – A Poem for International Women’s Day

Verbatim

Because I am a woman
when I am enraged over political or social injustices
you will tell me that I am too emotional
that I am reactive and ultimately illogical.

Because I am a woman
when I am stressed out
or craving community or company
you will tell me that all I need
is a good fuck.

Because I am a woman
whose sexual drive is not as high as you think it should be
you will tell me that I am repressed
and that once again,
all I need is a good fuck.
And a good shrink.

Because I am a woman
who expresses her gender identity
through long hair
you will caution me not to cut it
because you think that will make me less sexually attractive or feminine.

Because I am a short woman
you will call me a little girl
and if I hug you hello
you will pick me up and throw me over your shoulder
as if I were some toy for you to play with.

Because I am a woman
when you compliment me on my intellectual achievements
you will follow up your congratulations
with a suggestive comment
about “what else I might be good at.”

Because I am a woman
you will tell me that you are glad I am not a lesbian
as if my presumed heterosexuality
was there just to fulfill your fantasies or desires,
as if alternate sexualities
that do not include the possibility of you getting off
were a personal affront to your integrity.
Because I am a woman
you will tell me how to react and how to feel
and that I cannot take your words as sources of injury
because you intended them as praise.

Because I am a woman
I will still be paid only .70 to the dollar that you make
Be more likely to be assaulted or raped in my lifetime
Face comparisons to genocidal war criminals if I opt to have an abortion
Be shamed for choosing not to have children
Be shamed for choosing to be single
Be shamed for being
too pretty, too ugly
too fat, too thin
too feminine, too masculine
too virginal, too sexual.

I’ll face all of this – and more
Just because I happen to be

a woman.

“then they came for me”: why my activism is not a choice.

It’s been years since I read this quotation by Martin Niemöller, a Protestant pastor and outspoken critic of Hitler’s Nazi regime:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.

I don’t think I ever fully appreciated what Niemöller meant: after all, I am neither a staunch Socialist, nor was I a union member until I started working, nor am I of Jewish descent. I used to think that there would be very many “and then they came for…because I was not” before I would be forced to speak out about anything. I see this happening with many of my friends, who refuse to speak out, or who think that their behaviors or attitudes don’t matter, because they believe that they and their friends aren’t affected by issues of homophobia, sexism, or racism. I used to think that way too. Until I started to realize that those who are out to injure, destroy, and shame….are a lot closer to coming for me than they are not.

I used to think that I could just wait. Wait for language to change, wait for slurs to be slowly phased out until they become antiquated. Wait for policies to be changed by those who are actually in power. Wait to have children, so that I could raise both my boys and my girls to be sensitive about gender/sexuality/race/class issues. Wait. Just wait.

I can’t do that. And I think that if most of us think long and hard about it, neither can any of us.

—————————-

First they told me they were glad I was not or did not look like a lesbian or a man,
and at first I did not speak out–
because I identify as cisgendered and heterosexual.

and then I realized that it is erroneous to equate appearance
with a particular kind of sexuality or gender
and that if i were gay, i would face a lot of hatred
not least from men who rage about the humiliation
of having accidentally hit on a woman they didn’t realize was a lesbian
and that if i were transgendered, i would face a lot of hatred
not least from those who would consider me “monstrous” or “unnatural”
    and so I have decided
    that I will never have my sexuality or gender
    come at the price of another’s.

First they made jokes about black people.
and at first I did not speak up–
because I am only a quarter black.

and then I realized that if this were the 1950s
that it would not matter how little black blood I had
that I would be told I was a second-class citizen
asked to use separate entrances
and drink from separate water fountains
and so I have decided
    that I will not have my racial identity
    come at the price of another’s.

First they denied their white privilege.
and at first I did not speak out–
because I am only three-quarters white.

And then I realized that being able to “pass”
as ethnically ambiguous
as closer to white than some
has protected me from a lot of racial violence
    and so I have decided
    that I will not have my racial identity
    come at the price of another’s.

First they made fun of uneducated workers,
and at first I did not speak up–
because I have a university education.

And then I realized that I have had the great fortune
of the access and means to paying for an education
not least in part because of the financial means
of the middle-class family I was born into
    and so I have decided
    that I will not have my intelligence or my knowledge
    come at the price of another’s.

First they said that prostitutes were asking to be raped,
and at first I did not speak out–
because I am not a sex worker.

and then I realized that the response and support I have received
when I finally reported and sought help for my own rape
were largely because both the law and society
still thinks you’re a more credible victim if you’re
virginal and non-sexualized
   and so I have decided
    that I will not have my justice
    come at the price of another’s.

First they said all of those things,
and they also said that accessibility was not a concern
that healthcare for refugees was not a priority
that access to nutritious, whole food was merely a triviality
that land claims and the historical legacy of racism not their guilt to bear
that financial support for seniors was adequate

and at first I did not speak out–
because I am not disabled
a refugee
or hungry
or Indigenous
or elderly

but in the end
because I AM a human being
I will not have
my liberty
my health
my freedom,
my identity
my sexuality
my gender
my sense of self
my humanity
    come at the price of another’s.