I am not weak

After I wrote about issues of thin privilege and Pagan fat shaming, I was following some of the conversation on social media. I retweeted T. Thorn Coyle’s post Sacred Body, Sacred Earth, saying that she wrote about bodies, not about weight. MadGastronomer raised some issues of her own with Thorn’s post, and was able to get me to think about the ways that I both appreciate and really dislike some of what Thorn wrote.

Victor Anderson, one of my beloved teachers, enjoined us to neither coddle nor punish weakness.

I don’t know what she means by weakness, but with my personal background, this sounds like either obesity is a weakness or the things that lead to obesity are weaknesses. If that’s not what’s meant, then starting this essay off this way is a very confusing choice.

Regardless of how poetically beautiful the following discussion is about walking a fine line with respect to the challenges and struggles we all face – and it is beautiful, and I largely agree with it in terms of how I’ve tried to approach my own disability – no one, not Thorn, not anyone, gets to call my disability weakness. Anyone who’s struggled with disability can tell you that disability demands strength in order to cope.

There are two other major problems, in my view, and they interact. Thorn talks about how her students all commit to exercise, and that they “must find their own relationship” with exercise. Fine and dandy; she can insist on that for her students, and people can decide whether or not to study with her. But then she says:

We all go through our struggles as best we can. We also help to hold each other accountable.

Sounds great…wait, what? Does that “we all” apply to her and her students, or the whole Pagan community? Because if she and her students want to “hold each other accountable,” go for it; free agreement freely entered. But if you are talking about the community as a whole – “us all” – then accountability is off the table. You don’t hold me accountable if you don’t know me and have a very, very specific relationship with me.

This, specifically, is what is the hardest for me. I have an invisible disability. Thorn writes that she has gone through some similar issues. I don’t know if she ever experienced the stares, the mutters, the grumbles and sighs about taking the elevator up one floor. I wouldn’t be surprised if her spiritual practice helps her cope with that. Mine does for me. But it doesn’t erase it, and those things get wearing. And that’s just the subtle stuff.

I don’t know if she’s ever been publicly confronted by a stranger who insisted that she demonstrate her right to use a particular accommodation. I have. It’s not fun. And yet there are plenty of people who think that doing so is some kind of public service, and actively encourage such hassling.*

I know that’s not what Thorn is calling for…well, actually, I don’t. I hope it’s not, and I don’t think it is. But since she doesn’t explain more clearly how, when, why, and where to – and more importantly, NOT to – do this “accountability,” she, like Dybing, is opening up the field to more shaming, more confrontations, more pain and heartache for people who already have their fair share and then some, thank you very much.

If she’s talking about just her and her students, fine and dandy. But the third problem is that it seems like she’s not – she talks about assessing other people, perfect strangers. She goes back and forth, saying more than once that we can’t know someone’s situation without knowing the person, and then says that she can visually assess someone’s overall health in a snap.

Bottom line is this: we cannot know what another’s life looks like on the inside, by observing it from the outside.

I don’t know if someone needs a ride to their workshop because they have fibromyalgia. I can look at someone and assess pretty well – fat or thin – how healthy they are overall, but I can’t really know without asking. … That won’t look the same from person to person. (emphasis mine)

Here’s the thing: I don’t really want to be asked for the umpteenth time. If you’re my teacher, that’s different. But otherwise, unless I offer, unless I open it up first, you don’t need to ask. Even if I’m requesting or using an accommodation. You don’t need to know.

So while Thorn is promoting an interesting philosophical/theaological approach which might even be similar to mine, there are parts of her post that continue to contribute to problems I experience.

Note: I am responding to this from my personal experience; I’m not assessing what she says about exercise, and I’m glad she clearly didn’t describe health in terms of weight, but she didn’t disavow it either. People with more experience discussing those things and more relevant lived experience will read those aspects differently.

*Yes, I know that the website promotes an app, and that the website has fine print saying to use the app and not get into a personal confrontation. That’s worth the pixels it’s written in. The site actively encourages users to report people based on a whole host of assumptions that will lead to massive numbers of reports of perfectly valid handicapped parking tag use and says that nothing bad will happen to handicapped people as a result. Bullshit.

For starters, it suggests leaving a note. That’s a bad thing right there – yet another reminder that other people think you’re a fake, a fraud, a lawbreaker. I’m not going to detail all the other kinds of fail caught up in their assumptions. As far as I can tell, the app is designed for California, but the whole point of the website (and associated Cafe Press materials) is to promote this kind of monitoring of other people’s behavior all over the place. That amounts to encouraging more confrontations like the one I experienced.

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About Literata

Literata is a Wiccan priestess and writer. She edited Crossing the River: An Anthology in Honor of Sacred Journeys, and her poetry, rituals, and nonfiction have appeared in works such as Mandragora, Unto Herself, and Anointed as well as multiple periodicals. Literata has presented rituals and workshops at Sacred Space conference, Fertile Ground Gathering, and other mid-Atlantic venues. Literata offers healing and divination services as well as customized life-cycle rituals. She is currently completing her doctoral dissertation in history with the support of her husband and four cats.
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13 Responses to I am not weak

  1. Well said, my friend. I have been otherwise engaged in the pathways to Women’s mysteries issues but am anxious to get into this important discussion. I honor you for this clear and passionate response. Thanks!

  2. thalassa says:

    I’ve been reading quite a bit on this topic, and while some of what she said also didn’t sit right with me, I’ve been trying *really hard* to overlook what people have been saying badly in favor of what I’m hoping they *really* are meaning.

    My biggest problem with this whole deal is the unquestioned assumption that fat=unhealthy, without examining the social conditioning of fat=unattractive=bad=unhealthy. And, even worse, its a conditioning that fails to take into account the very real complexity of factors that make up weight and the even more factors that make up health, of which weight is just one. I’m overweight. For 90% of my life, I’ve been overweight. Thinking I was overweight and that people were judging me for being overweight did more to wreck my self-esteem and put me in a viscous cycle that kept me overweight than any overtly traumatic event did. And in fact, losing the weight to join the military and doing what was necessary to stay at a “normal” weight did even more to destroy my health, physically, spiritually and mentally than being “fat” ever did. I’m overweight–but I eat well, I’m active and I exercise, I have fantastic blood pressure and cholesterol levels, I feel.good (well, when my allergies and asthma are under control, I do) and I actually like myself most of the time.

    I think it comes down to this…If you see someone doing something that puts them in immediate danger (mixing bleach and ammonia in a non-ventilated space) or you know them well enough in an everyday basis to strongly suspect that they are endangering themselves, its one thing to voice your concern AS GENUINE CONCERN…but its something else to think that you know better than Random Person and their doctor what they should be doing about their health or not. And the discussion coming from some of the people that clearly don’t actually know what it is like to be fat comes off as pure hubris. Even worse is the commentary from people who think the talking points of science reporters is medically valid.

    I’d really like to see this conversation take place in a way that is meaningful…but at the same time, I almost think too much damage has been done. Paganism has, for the most part, been a place of refuge and acceptance for those marginalized by mainstream society…but it seems like there’s been a lot of latent hostilities bleeding through lately.

    • thalassa says:

      ^Just to clarify, since its pretty poorly worded, I’m not saying that I think everyone that is speaking out about the issue of obesity and how we should be addressing it in the Pagan community sounds like they are coming from a place (as you put it in your previous post) of thin privilege)…but a good number of them do seem to.

      • I DO think everybody who is talking about other people’s bodies and how they are wrong is coming from a place of thin privilege, or of having been brainwashed by it.

    • Literata says:

      I’ve been reading quite a bit on this topic, and while some of what she said also didn’t sit right with me, I’ve been trying *really hard* to overlook what people have been saying badly in favor of what I’m hoping they *really* are meaning.

      You may be more charitable in that area than I am. My benefit of the doubt is all tapped out, especially for leaders who have to know that many, many people are reading them and will be taking their words – whatever their meaning – to heart. Yes, no matter how well you write, someone will misunderstand you. I’m not holding them responsible for that; I do want to hold them responsible for saying things that are going to lead to actions that are going to hurt me.

      And as you so clearly point out, if they don’t know better, they should educate themselves, at the very least.

      • thalassa says:

        You know, I wasn’t really thinking about this part of it: “especially for leaders who have to know that many, many people are reading them and will be taking their words – whatever their meaning – to heart”…in which case (while I can personally overlook something) I can see where benefit of the doubt can easily be a well run dry. I do agree that there needs to be some accountability for what is being written…but at this point, I’m thinking people are so entrenched in their “side” that they aren’t listening.

    • Y’know, I just post a piece on meaning well. And here’s the thing about people’s “genuine concern” for our well-being — when it comes to my body and food, it has never, ever not been food-shaming and body-shaming. My family is especially guilty of this. They really truly are concerned about me . . . and they really truly are body and food shaming me. It doesn’t matter what place it comes from, shaming is shaming. I’m really sick and tired of people trying to excuse this shit with intent.

  3. Ruth Rocchio says:

    I don’t really understand TC’s point of view. I think we must accept each other exactly as we are, as best we can. Thanks for your thought provoking post.

  4. mmy0 says:

    I don’t know if she’s ever been publicly confronted by a stranger who insisted that she demonstrate her right to use a particular accommodation. I have

    As have I. In person and in cyberspace. I have had people say that anyone like me who has a food restriction/intolerance should be required to have a certified doctor’s letter to that effect and be ready and willing to present it on demand.

    Scene: a group of people sitting around the faculty lunchroom.

    Person A: here have some of this delicious chocolate cake I made last night.

    Me: No thanks.

    Person A: Really, you have to have some. It is delicious.

    Me: No thanks, it looks lovely, but I can’t eat chocolate cake.

    Person A: What do you mean you “can’t eat chocolate cake” — are you on a diet or something? Just a little won’t hurt. Don’t eat desert tonight.

    Me: No, I am not “on a diet” I just can’t eat anything anything made with wheat flour.

    Person A: Right, so you are another one of those cranks who jump on food bandwagons aren’t you? I bet if I put wheat flour in something like soup and told you it was okay it wouldn’t hurt you at all–it is all in your mind. And you are being really, really rude. I worked hard to make this cake.

    Me: No really, I am a celiac. I was diagnosed as a child. I will get really sick if you slip wheat flour, or anything else with gluten, into my food. I know you worked hard making the cake but I just can’t eat it.

    Person A: I bet you are making this up. Do you have a doctor’s letter? You don’t do you? You just want an excuse not to eat my cake because you are on a diet and you are ashamed to admit it. You don’t have any will power and you are just using a supposed food allergy as a crutch. So unless you show me a doctor’s letter I am going to call you on your shit.

    The above conversation is usually soon followed by someone(s) telling me “for my own good” about all the things that are wrong with my diet (nutrients I am not getting) and then is usually followed up by my a vigorous denial of the idea that I could actually be quite happy being a vegan. Apparently saying you don’t crave animal products is just obviously a lie.

    Sigh

    • Literata says:

      Sigh indeed. I am comparatively lucky that my allergies are to things that most people have heard of someone being allergic to – all those parents protecting their kids from peanut butter, and the news of kids who actually do die from nut allergies, can’t be totally making it up.

      When I’m hosting something, I try hard to ask about people’s “food needs and preferences” so that I don’t make it all about allergies, though. I don’t need to know why you can’t/won’t/shouldn’t eat cheese, I just need to know so that I can be a good host.

      • This.

        I do, actually, send out a little questionnaire to people before having them over for the first time. I ask about any cuisines, dishes or ingredients they especially like or dislike, anything specific they cannot or will not eat, and any other requirements. I want to make sure that I cover my bases with regards to their dietary needs, but also I want to know what they like, so I can craft a meal specifically for them — it’s part of the fun for me.

        I once had someone respond that he had a moral issue with avocados. (He did, too, it wasn’t a flip phrase. Treatment of workers in the specific places we were getting avocados in from.)

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