Wednesday, March 14, 2012

"Outsiders"

One thing I've noticed as I've read many personal blogs is that the vast majority of people consider themselves outsiders, rebels, or as being on the margins of whatever groups they tend to travel in. The interesting thing about this is that they are generally only superficially "outsiders". They say they are so because of style issues (fashion, tattoos, hair coloring, etc.), esoteric hobbies or interests, or attitudes about a specific topic. With so many vocal outsiders, one has to wonder why they feel so isolated in their respective crowds.

Of course, there are also plenty of people whose blogs I read who are fat or super fat who feel they are unique in their body size, but few are actually truly unique in this day and age. Most of them are ostracized and have issues with their esteem as a result of the way that larger society treats them, but they are hardly "outsiders" except to the extent that they view themselves that way (for good reasons which I'm about to get to). While there is no doubt that everyone around them is pointing a finger and saying, "freak" (I've been there, oh yes, have I been there for at least 35 years of my 47 on this planet), most of them are told they are different when they are really not so different. This is a way of elevating the judge at the expense of the judged and doesn't necessarily reflect on a truly odd and unusual nature of the target of such judgment.

This talk about how different one is from ones peers is of interest to me because I've noticed that there are marked similarities among such folks. One is that most of them are sad and mad most of the time. Both the sad and the mad are drawing their emotions from the well of pain that comes from feeling isolated and objectified. The normal response to being constantly bullied is to have such feelings. This is not unique, and is totally understandable. It doesn't matter what aspect of a person's persona or physicality is being targeted to propel the response, the responses would be the same. The truth is that most people are ostracized and in pain, but are not unique at all in either their fatness or their behavior and attitudes. 

At the root of all of this is a struggle not to self-hate as a result of how one is treated. I know this both because I studied psychology and I lived in this space for most of adult life. I've spent more years mad and sad than some people have actually lived. When I started this blog, I was definitely in that space. Being out of it for all of a year or so isn't enough to make me forget what that was like, but it has given me perspective on a lot of things. 

One of those things is that we draw comfort from finding an identity which sets us apart from others in a positive way. Being told you are a freak, ugly and a blight on society day in and day out is huge part of what tears you apart inside and builds in self-loathing. To find self-acceptance, people often re-define themselves as rebels, outsiders, and being anti-establishment. It is taking being objectified and turning it inside out such that it becomes a badge of honor to be fat in a world which seems to be nothing more than a conformity factory that pushes everyone to look like Barbie and Ken dolls.  

This response and effort to re-purpose rejection as something positive is not new. It happened with countercultural movements in the past. In the end, most people end up being re-absorbed back into the mainstream. They do this not because they become accepted, but because the purposeful labeling of self as an outsider is superficial and ultimately unfulfilling. Positioning yourself as a mad person because you feel persecuted will only take you so far in your identity. Eventually, you have to find out who you really are inside, not who you see yourself to be as a reaction to perceived oppressors. 

Why am I even talking about this? The reason is that I think I lived in this identity for a long time and it did not help me. In fact, I think it made it all that much harder to understand myself and love myself. If I see myself as existing in opposition to the world because the world seems to operate against me, that becomes too integrated with my sense of self and affects my actions. I eat in defiance. I go out in public in defiance. I dress in defiance. I project an attitude in defiance. All of this defiance is exhausting and discourages positive change because I see my life as a battle between myself as an outsider and oppressive "insiders" rather than as an individual or self-contained entity.

Early on in this blog, I talk about being conflicted about losing weight because there is a sense that I'm admitting people were right about certain things. They would be right that losing weight would improve my health. They would be right about perceived beauty being more important than character. They would be right that I should conform and fit in. At my core, the largest sense of this particular conflict came from feeling that I was allowing them to "win" when personality is pitted against appearance. I am not my body. I am my soul/personality. Focusing on my body so much and so hard, which is necessary to lose weight, is admitting that my body matters. A lot. As much as "they" say it does. 

The bottom line is that my body does matter a lot, but it matters to me (and my husband). Losing weight wasn't about conforming to society's standards but about stopping so many things which caused me pain both physically and emotionally (and, yes, part of that was constant social censure and not fitting into public spaces). I lost weight because my body mattered to me, not because it mattered to others. Separating this is extremely important after years of being objectified and feeling that I was "surrendering" to the forces that oppressed me. I wasn't. I was surrendering to the reality that my body as it approached 50 was suffering horribly under the strain of my weight. My joints and muscles could not support a body over 200 lbs. well, and absolutely could not support one over 300 without pain and difficulty. 

The irony is that I still feel like an "outsider", but not because of my appearance. I feel like that because of my opinions. There are two large camps out there, fat acceptance and dieting culture. I don't belong to either and feel like I'm a voice in between which does not subscribe to the rhetoric of either side. I've given up entirely on attempting to reason with the people who are clearly in these camps because the responses are generally straw man arguments that respond not to what I'm saying, but what they find easiest to argue with. Being taken at face value on the internet is always difficult, but it is more so with those who operate in an emotionally charged state and are intent on seeing themselves as "rebels". Their natural response is to disagree and to try to shout down anything which resembles opposition to their causes. This happens on both sides. 

The other part of my situation which makes me feel like a continued outsider is my focus on psychology, which is, once more, rejected by both camps (dieters and fat acceptance bloggers) as playing a significant role in dealing with weight and food. Both deny that it has a role in food relationships or weight management issues, albeit for very different reasons. The dieting group insists they suffer no psychological issues that result in overeating and can only conceptualize "psychology" as playing a part when trauma or neuroses are involved. Fat acceptance bloggers similarly refuse to see habituation, routine, or behavior modification as a part of psychology and therefore related to their weight issues, but they do so in the service of denying that they "overeat" at all. This is, unfortunately, the natural consequence of having their behaviors attacked and scrutinized throughout their lives. 

It's rather ironic that this is common ground for two groups who are diametrically opposed. I guess that there is something beautifully symmetrical for me in being the point at which two very different groups can agree, though I can't say that I am in anyway happy about it. Sometimes, you can't escape being an "outsider" whether you want to be one or not. 

9 comments:

Jenn said...

Excellent, thought provoking post!

FredT said...

Currently, I am reading A New Earth by Eckhard Tolle, and it is helping me with my overeating. It is forcing me to look at my life, ego, and the like. It is a tough read, not due to the language,(unlike William James), but rather a lot to think about.

prairieprincess said...

Hi. I was introduced to your blog through the Princess Dieter blog post about you. Nice to meet you!

I agree with you that there are two camps and they should not be so separated. I, too, believe that both sides have their wisdom and they don't have to be so opposed. I agree with the fat acceptance camp in the way they encourage us to accept ourselves but as you say, there are often issues that do lead us to weight gain.

And the dieting side very often makes it ONLY about the physical side and ignore the "head stuff." This year, I have committed to talking about what I call the "deep stuff about losing weight," because for me, that is what is going to help me lose permanently, and become a different person.

I am going to be reading some old posts and getting up-to-date with your blog. Sorry for the long comment but I wanted to let you know how much I agree with you.

The Paris Chronicles said...

I read this post a couple of days ago and have been thinking about it ever since, in particular because I'm observing what you are describing with my 14-year old niece. Morbidly obese since, well, birth (her two parents are as well), and, sadly, not gifted in physical appearance (not only is she morbidly obese, but has a monobrow, a moustache, acne, frizzy hair, braces, a body shape like a man's with broad shoulders and a waist larger than her bust).

The cruelty (from both her peer group and society at large) she has received from childhood has completely shaped her personality. She hates everybody (because everybody is so mean to her), she deliberately dresses to provoke disdain (in her own words) because at least it gives her some attention, she cannot meet your eye when conversing (because she is afraid to see a look of disgust) and views the world as "stupid". This goes beyond the normal adolescent attitude.

My sense is the years of bullying have taken their toll and cannot be undone...her personality has formed and has set, based on how the outside world defined her.

So my question to you is this: Is there a way to counterbalance the outside world's definition of the obese and/or unattractive (by society's standards) child? How does a family unit instill in the obese child a sense that they are more than their physical body, when once they step out of the house everything they encounter tells them the opposite?

It is heartbreaking to see what has happened to this child, and I must admit that feeling warm towards her is difficult because she has become, inside, the "ugly" that society has thrown back at her during her formative years.

Human In Progress said...

"There are two large camps out there, fat acceptance and dieting culture. I don't belong to either and feel like I'm a voice in between which does not subscribe to the rhetoric of either side."

Which is what makes you a role model and an inspiration to me, as corny as that may sound. You really are. Thank you for continuing to write.

screaming fatgirl said...

Paris Chronicles: I've thought a lot about your question and I'm not a parent and can't really speak to what may work with a 14-year-old. I can only say what I would do and hope it would be effective.

The first thing I think is important for people to do is to validate the feelings and impressions. One of the things I always hated when I was younger was being told that my character was more important than my physicality and then finding that that was not true at all when I was in the greater world. I think it's important for family to simply say, “yes, many people suck and will judge you.” I would qualify this by saying that it is not your fault nor is it your responsibility to satisfy them. Like all people, their actions are entirely self-centered and have nothing to do with you as a person, but it relates to their need to elevate themselves at someone else's expense. This is what happens in the world because people are in pain and inflict pain back. You can't control them, but you can control your response. You can decide to let them get to you or not.

The second thing is that, from a very young age, I would have said that there is a public life and a private life. In public life, people will judge you superficially and have no regard for you as a person. They do this to everybody, not just you, but find you an easier target because you don't fit a conventional mold. They don't know you and can't speak to your value. Therefore, they do not matter. In private life, people will judge you for who your really are and see you as a human being. These are the people whose opinions matter and the relationships you need to nurture and care about. They will see your heart and character, and they're the ones you need to heed.

I would hope that, if that separation were instilled in a kid, they would conceptualize public responses for what they are – unimportant, superficial, sadly-motivated behavior. Would it work? I don't know. I don't know kids well enough to speak to that, but that's the best answer I could think of. At 14, she may be too far along in her defensiveness and attitudes to turn back.

The big “cure” for this problem for me was years of unconditional love from my husband. I reached a point where I decided that no opinion but his mattered because he was the only one who knew me. I even wrote a blog post at one point that it's possible that his total acceptance of me may have inadvertently made me complacent about my weight because if he accepted me, then I was okay as I was, even though I could barely walk and limited my activity more and more as time went by in order to avoid going out in public and exposing myself to situations that were humiliating or potentially embarrassing. I in no way believe what he did was “wrong”. In fact, I think that his unconditional love and acceptance were so very important in fixing psychological damage that I suffered, but there may (or may not) have been a certain side effect of my not addressing my weight. That being said, if I had addressed it due to rejection of my body by him, it probably wouldn't have been like it is now. That is, it would have been temporary and emotionally coerced.

I don't know if that answered the question or not, but I hope it was of some use. ;-)

screaming fatgirl said...

prairie princess: Thank you for reading my blog and for taking the time to comment and introduce yourself. It is very hard to become that "different person" (trust me, I know, it has been wrenching), but at the end, I think it is worth it. I wish you the very best with your efforts.

Human in Progress: As always, I really appreciate your kind support and am humbled by the idea that I inspire you. I read everything you post and often want to comment, but these days it's hard to find the time (trans-continental move in progress!). Thank you.

Human In Progress said...

:) Thanks, sending good vibes for the move.

The Paris Chronicles said...

Just a quick note to say thank you for your thought-full and useful answer to my comment. I appreciate it.