Today I was reading the comments on a post that was up on my friend Kitty’s Facebook feed. The post was about a woman who had been fat and currently isn’t fat and how her transition in size helped her understand the intensity of weight discrimination. As a thin-bodied person she talked about receiving more eye contact, more enthusiasm when people meet her, etc. Someone had commented that she wondered how much of the change had to do with this woman’s level of self-esteem before the size transition. And I remembered a time when I would have wondered the same thing...
Because that’s the line I was fed. It goes something like this:
“Virgie, it’s not that there is a major culture-wide system of discrimination and bias, it’s that YOU have a bad outlook and aren’t working hard enough to create the life that you really want. Why do you choose not to create the life that you really want? In fact, your low self-esteem is getting everyone down. You should probably do something about that. Chop. Chop.”
Let me tell you what’s wrong with the self-esteem myth line by line.
1. “Virgie, it’s not that there is a major culture-wide system of discrimination and bias, it’s that YOU have a bad outlook and aren’t working hard enough to create the life that you really want.”
I am certainly not the first person to have made this observation, but I think it’s worth repeating: THIS IS VICTIM-BLAMING/BOOTSTRAPPING RHETORIC. Victim-blaming is about convincing someone that it is the victim’s fault - not the victimizer’s fault - for whatever negative outcomes have resulted from the experience of having been victimized. Boot-strapping is about convincing people that each and every one of is personally and solely responsible for our success or failure.
Both of these ideologies are sold especially hard to people who are (wait for it) marginalized (oppression can get so predictable sometimes, ghurl) because our psychology has already been primed through a lifetime of having been taught that we are inferior. The idea that each individual person regardless of what their experience with discrimination has been is personally responsible for having a sunshiney outlook on the world is weird, creepy, wrong, fallacious, and non-sensical. It just doesn’t make any damn sense at all. Oh, and it’s racist, sexist, and classist too.
2. “Why do you choose not to create the life that you really want?”
The language of “choosing” has made its way into more conversations I am a part of recently (I will admit that this could be a San Francisco thing). Don't get me wrong: I love choice! But sometimes the language of choice is used to obscure the very real ways in which oppression affects our ability to make choices.
Time for a dating anecdote! Once I was on a 3-day date with this New Zealand former-fat-now-skinny-yogi-master named Bruce. We were in Santa Cruz, which he’d driven me to in his bio-diesel fueled Hummer. Seriously. He asked if he could watch me take a bath, and while I was in the bathtub he proceeded to spend the entire time reminding me of how much weight he had lost and how I am at risk for a panoply of diseases blahblahblah. Seriously. Not only was this totally wrong for the obvious reasons - I’m naked and he’s not, I’m fat and he’s not anymore - I didn’t consent to having this kind of conversation with him while I was bathing and he was touching his dick. Seriously. Fat shaming me while he was touching his dick. If that isn’t the perfect metaphor for patriarchy I don’t know what is, ghurl. Anyway, I got upset and the yelling started and then he looked at me and asked: “Why are you choosing to ruin our weekend?” Oooh. I knew he was trying to mind fuck me, and I wasn’t having any of it. Moral of the story: don’t go on 3-day dates with a kiwi who has a hummer.
Back to the analysis. This language of choice keys into bootstrapping, but with an extra dose of mind fucking. Mind-fucking (aka gaslighting) is particularly sexist, in my opinion, because it pushes people to question their sanity and their ability to decipher what is “really happening.” This is a tactic that has been used on women for a very long time because we are taught that women are likelier to be unhinged, “hysterical,” or otherwise mentally unstable.
3. “In fact, your low self-esteem is getting everyone down. You should probably do something about that. Chop. Chop.”
Seriously? So let me get this straight: I was totally fine until the culture taught me that my fat body was wrong and worthless. Then I developed low self-esteem and the attendant body language of surrender so that people would understand that I knew my place (SO THAT I COULD SURVIVE). Now it’s MY responsibility to fix the problem that I didn’t create AND it turns out that somehow it’s actually all my fault? That just doesn’t make any sense, ghurl.
The Take Home Message
What I'm saying is that you don't have to buy into the self-esteem myth anymore if you don't want to, ghurl. The problem is REAL. It's not just in your brain and we can't solve a system of oppression by all making aggressive eye contact and having all of the oppressed people just pretending that the discrimination and injustice aren't really real.
My analyzing brain is tired and I need some eggs now. But you get why this shit is fucked up. So, I trust you to take it from here.
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Virgie Tovar, MA is one of the nation's leading experts and lecturers on fat discrimination and body image. She is the founder of Babecamp (a 4 week online course focused on helping people break up with diet culture) and the editor of Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion (Seal Press, 2012). She writes about the intersections of size, identity, sexuality and politics. See more updates on Facebook.