I think it was my mother, whose relationship with her parents was contentious, who first told me that it’s often at the moment when an adult child begins to parent themselves that they suddenly look back at their own childhood with new (parental-perspective) eyes, and name what used to just be “normal” or invisible behavior as abuse, neglect, or just run-of-the-mill shitty parenting.
Sometimes, it’s easier to get angry on behalf of someone you love than it is to get angry on your own behalf.
The fact that we a) often don’t think of ourselves as worthy of protective love, or b) imagine it’s “selfish” to speak up about things that adversely affect our own well-being is a HUGE (and very relevant-to-feminism) topic worthy of a post all its own. So I’m kinda bracketing it off today in favor of talking about the wellspring of rage one can tap into on another person’s behalf. In a way that wasn’t possible when it was just you, somehow. When suddenly you’re in an intimate relationship with someone who is facing social discrimination, hate, judgement, etc. that yeah, you’ve been aware of for years and dealt with for yourself, maybe learned to live with it as a chronic drag on your overall sense of health (I always think here of Courtney Martin’s analogy of low-level disordered eating being like the common cold).
You’ve learned to live with it, or work around it, ignore it, whatever.
And then suddenly you’ve got this person in your life who’s facing that same hatred or social disapproval. And it’s just not enough anymore to blow it all off. Suddenly you feel white-hot rage that this person you love is on the losing side of social bigotry and has internalized feelings of shame or inadequacy because of it.
I notice this happening in my own relationship with Hanna. There’s ten ton of sexist (and related) shit that we both deal with on a daily basis, and I’ve had to learn first-hand in the past four years the very personal consequences of living in a culture that’s as toxic as ours about female bodies, about human sexuality, about social expectations for women of our age/race/socioeconomic class, sexuality. And watching someone else struggle with those issues — it’s like learning to see it all over again. Despite the fact that I critique it on a daily basis on- and offline. Despite the fact that I’ve learned coping and evasion strategies.
Because all of a sudden I’ve got this person in my life who feels like she doesn’t get to be “sexy” because she exists outside of our normative expectations of beauty. Who feels like her body doesn’t deserve to feel good, eat good food, wear clothing she considers beautiful, because she’s “ugly.”
Someone who I think is sexy, is beautiful, and does deserve to feel good, feel at home, in her bodily self.
I absolutely know the voices that are shouting in her head — and why they’re shouting at her. Because they’ve been in my own head in years past. Loud and unceasing. And they still whisper and badger me now, sometimes, though I quash them with greater ease than I used to. ( I don’t know how it became easier, but it did, eventually.)
And I feel so helpless in the face of the haters.
I say, “Sweetheart, you are beautiful and the judgy people don’t get to claim otherwise — who gave them the right?”*
And she rejoins with, “But I can’t find pants that feel comfortable!”
And I’m like, “Yeah, I get that, but that’s the fault of the pants and the assholes who made them, not your actual ass.”
And she’s like, “That doesn’t change the fact that I don’t have pants that fit.”
At which point I’m forced to admit that, yes, assholes sometimes control the availability of pants and that sucks. That there are real, material, consequences in our lives when other people are allowed to continue their bigotry with social sanction.
And that’s when I can feel the overwhelming desire to kick the pants-controlling assholes in the shins begin to take hold.
I realize this isn’t, like a shatteringly new insight and probably there are lots of people younger than me who are reading this and are like, “Duh, Anna, where the fuck have you been for the last thirty years?”
And no, it’s not really a new insight. It’s just that it has renewed personal relevance to me because I love this person, my partner, my lover, hugely and it feels less possible to just minimize, evade, downplay the consequences of hate when there’s someone you love in pain.
I’ve never wanted to kick more people in the shins for lack of common decency and empathy than I have in the past four years.
I’ve never wanted to rage and scream and banish more people from my sight / social circles than I have in the past four years.
There have been moments, in these recent years, when — in response to something Hanna tells me about a social interaction or past mistreatment — I experience moments of rage so instantaneous and complete that I literally lose my vision for a second or two.
When I do actually forget to breathe.
I so much want the power to draw that magic circle around our apartment and seal it with flaming letters that read You Have No Power Here. And keep all the haters out.
I’m not really a separatist at heart, but I totally get in my gut the desire to just flip off the world’s bullshit and set about building a world that’s not predicated on making people I love feel like shit about who they are.
Yes, I know. It’s not practical. Or really, in the end, what I want for the world. I don’t want to simply kick the haters out — I’d rather they didn’t feel the need to judge or hate any longer.
But (and here’s where I know I start to get super whiney) real meaningful social change takes so fucking long. And the slow-progress timeline that I’ve learned to live with for myself no longer seems acceptable when I’ve got someone I love, wrapped in my arms, in pain.
Not acceptable for her, and not acceptable for me. Because experiencing heternormative pressure in a relationship makes the social ramifications of all the -isms so much fucking clearer.
When a partner has body insecurity issues, the effects of that ripple outward to shape the amount of energy it takes for them to get out of bed in the morning to face the world, the bravery it takes for them to get naked (metaphorically and literally) with you, their ability to hear (and believe) you when you catalog the ways you find them sexy.
The haters are making it hard for all of us. Even when/if we have our own shit together — the injuries they cause others affect our lives as well. And that so completely pisses me off. More than I ever thought it could.
I’ve realized that even if I’m okay with my body? If I’ve made peace with my non-normativity? My own body confidence isn’t enough. Because, in a very selfish sense, my well-being is still circumscribed by the fact that my partner doesn’t have the same level of emotional or material freedom to blow off the haters and live the life she wants to live. To live the life she’d thrive in.
This is a rambling post. So I’m gonna leave it there and open the floor:
What about you, Harpies? What -ism issues do your partners/children/family members/close friends deal with that have opened your eyes to the way your own life is limited by their suffering?
*I realize the whole “who gave them the right?” argument is rational but totally useless in the face of both the subjective, internalized experience of not being beautiful enough and also the actual social reality of other people judging you by their (however arbitrary) standards and then treating you like shit because of that judgement. I still find myself hoping if I say it enough I can will it into making some sort of material difference.