Kendra Lee just wanted to go to the gym to work out -- which is kind of a big deal, since she’s recovering from ED/NOS and just working out at all without getting into a spiral of body shame is a huge step for her -- but some douchebag felt the need to wear a gross T-shirt.
“Please don’t feed the sorority girls,” it said, with “campus beautification” and “Phi Kappa Sigma” on the back.
Nothing like getting slapped in the face with a little pro-ana rhetoric when you’re trying to recover from an eating disorder, right?
So the second-year law student wrote a letter to the editor of the school paper, interweaving her own personal journey with ED/NOS with a critique of the shirt and noting her discomfort. She notes that at a gym especially, many attendees may be struggling with body image problems and other issues, and could benefit from a welcoming or at least not actively hostile environment. Especially when a gym has a lot of college-age women, who can be especially susceptible to heavy social pressures on them to look a particular way.
Proposing a solution to the issue of shirts like this, she said:
I don’t think it’s too much to ask that students try not to trigger their classmates’ eating disorders, especially at the fitness center. A dress code at the gym that includes a ban on offensive and potentially triggering items would be a great step. Other universities, including Harvard, Queens College, St. John’s College and Kalamazoo College, have designated a few hours each week where the gym is women-only, and that would be even better.
The fraternity and interfraternity council quickly responded, saying that the person wearing the shirt was an alum and the shirts had been banned five years ago, absolving itself of any responsibility. Duly noted, but they, and many of the commenters, missed the larger point Lee was making: It wasn't just about this shirt, but about the need for a safe environment at the gym, one free of gear that could be harmful to students with eating disorders, given the fact that many of those students could be in the gym.
I READ THE COMMENTS SO YOU DON'T HAVE TO
Yes, dear reader, I violated my own personal “don’t read the comments” rule and ventured below the line, because I was genuinely curious to see how people responded. And for the most part, I wasn’t surprised.
She described the shirt as objectifying and misogynist, both of which are true, and said that in some terms, it could even be viewed as violent. It was a shirt that reduced members of sororities to animals (I wonder how Delta Sigma Theta members feel about this) with the kind of language reminiscent of the signs you see on zoo enclosures, and it exerted ownership over the bodies of campus women.
And, of course, it suggested that only certain kinds of bodies are beautiful. And that you must be beautiful to be welcome on campus -- as a woman, you are an ornament, fulfilling the function of being attractive, and that is your sole purpose.
Yes, the shirt is old. Yes, the shirts were banned almost immediately after they were released five years ago, with the usual mealy-mouthed apologetic statements from fratboys infuriated about being called out after going too far. But the underlying attitude still remains, as seen in the fact that someone still thought the shirt was funny to wear, and as demonstrated in the comments on Lee’s opinion piece.
Because those comments attacked Lee for daring to speak out, calling her “feminist” (which is apparently a bad word now) and “misandrist.” They accused her of creating a tempest in a teacup and told her she should just “suck it up” or focus on working out instead of reading other people’s shirts:
“And this is why we have an overly eating disorder [sic], whales trying to find comfort in food. With great looks comes confidence, women should stop crying and lift.” “Why women are at such a higher probability for anorexia? Because they are dumb and dont want to take the time to learn how to correctly diet so they just stop eating and think that will work.” “However a quite simple and elegant solution to the problem at hand is....ignore it. Every little thing that pops up at this school is blown way out of proportion.” “Woman logic at it's finest. Because the author is incapable of simply ignoring a trashy t-shirt, we need to institute methods of control like segregated gym hours and dress codes.”
And so on.
WORDS! THEY MEAN THINGS!
The predictable flood of misogyny in response to a woman pushing back on the consequences of living in a sexist society is nothing new, as is the utter lack of logic in most of the comments attacking Lee for having feelings, and an opinion.
Lee’s argument in her piece, effectively, is that words mean things, and that words can inflict harm on people; it's a statement that shouldn’t be that controversial, but is. We live in a world where “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” and where, as one commenter put it, we are supposed to think “like a duck” and allow words to slide off our backs.
But we can’t exactly do that when words slither into our brains to take up residence, and beat us up repeatedly, popping up when we least expect them. Words are incredibly powerful; words have brought down nations, upended beliefs, and changed the world, and anyone trying to argue that words aren’t important needs to seriously wake up and smell the coffee. Lee, like thousands of young women, struggles with a disorder shaped in no small part by words.
Hateful words about bodies and beauty and how women should look, reinforced with photographs and video as a visual instructional diagram, with gross rhetoric about what eating disorders are, how they work, and who has them. Words hurled at people, designed to hurt them. Shirts like this one are by no means unique, and all of them are designed to be hurtful. Their goal is to make a “joke” at the expense of other people while at the same time making a statement about beauty, acceptability and bodies.
Words absolutely and utterly have the power to do violence and to make people seem unsafe; many of the commenters scoffed at Lee for feeling uncomfortable in the gym, acting like she was being utterly ridiculous when she said the gym had become threatening for her. Misogynist comments make a space unsafe for women, period, and the number of people who don’t want to deal with that is really mind-boggling.
The fact that many of the people in the comments wanted to make Lee out as some kind of hateful person bent on destroying their personal liberties and oppressing men, rather than acknowledging that words mean things, is telling. Lee said that the university culture needs to shift (and many of the rational commenters agreed with her) and this comment section is a fantastic example of why, and how, culture needs to shift.
When people can’t even engage respectfully with a woman saying she’s harmed by something people in her environment are doing, it’s kind of impossible to hope for any meaningful change. If people refuse to acknowledge that words have consequences, some of the fundamental issues underlying our society are going to be difficult to grapple with.
Lee did the right thing when she spoke up not just about the shirt but about a cultural issue on campus, and I hope she remembers that in the midst of the tide of invective currently being hurled at her.