I've wanted to write this for a long time, but I've been afraid to.
I don't want this to be all about ME and my feelings, but by the nature of writing about my experiences, there's no way for this not to be about me. Also, I don't know if I'm an effective enough writer to not make it sound like I'm trolling for sympathy from my cushy seat of thin privilege.
Hence, my fear about writing this. You know that nightmare you have about waking up, and all the comments in your article are, "Sorry, Louise, but I'M DONE WITH YOU. This is bullshit"? No? Just me? Well, I'm also afraid that THIS will be that article. (Yes, I also see how many sentences I've written here start with "I"...UGH.)
I don't want to make myself out to be a martyr or a monster. I just want to be better. So hopefully that comes across, and we can help each other.
Since my experience a while ago (which I'll get to in a moment), I've completely rethought how I approach being an ally to people who are marginalized and discriminated against because of their bodies, namely people who are considered fat. I've actively supported fat acceptance, body positivity, size acceptance, etc. — due in no small part to how my own body has been criticized by others as it grew and shrank over the years — and for the most part, I thought I was doing right. Maybe I was sometimes; at times I definitely wasn't.
But I spoke up, I spouted rhetoric, I learned as much as I could, I supported the people I cared about. I saw people I loved fiercely being treated poorly because of how they looked, and I wanted to fight for them instead of with them. My place of privilege became a roar that silenced people instead of lifting them up.
"I..I...I..." — somewhere along the way it became less about the people I supported and somehow about me.
The road to hell...good intentions...so on, so forth.
Anyway, so this is what happened.
About a year and a half ago, I was at a party with some friends, mostly new, some old. At one point I found myself, a few drinks in, sitting in a group of women when the discussion turned to exercise, eating, and weight loss. I mostly just nursed my wine as the other women talked, but I grew increasingly uncomfortable as the conversation veered into the "let's bond over how much we all hate our bodies/have been so bad (eating-wise)."
A woman I had recently met — and whose company I really enjoyed — chimed in about how she really had to stop eating certain foods, eat less, get in shape, how she was self-conscious about her size sometimes (mind you, she did not say "lose weight").
In the moment, I piped up and said, "You're beautiful! Fuck sizes! I think that you should be able to eat however you like, whatever you like. Who cares what anybody else thinks about you!"
It took everything in me not to edit that sentence to make myself sound less naive and ridiculous. I could take the time to tear apart the sentences, but I'm sure you can do that on your own.
I can be so tone deaf sometimes. I've known what it's like for people to tell me how I "should" behave, "should" conduct myself, "should" think. I've known what's it's like for people to scrutinize my body and feel free to comment on it. But I did the same thing to my friend. I'd essentially seen her size and taken it upon myself to comment on it — positive, good intentions aside, it was not my place.
Good intentions, blah blah blah.
My friend's face darkened, and she turned to look square at me, ignoring the group.
"NO," she said.
"You don't get to say that. You don't know what it's like for people to judge you and make assumptions about 'how you are' or 'who you are' just because you're fat. That may be great for you — 'Eat whatever you want, who cares what people think!' — but it's not so easy. I know you're trying to be nice, and I like you, but you telling me how to live my size the way you look is no help."
"I'm sorry...you're right. I misspoke." I didn't really know what to say. I wanted to turn myself inside out and disappear.
She softened. "I know what you're trying to do. I like myself, a lot. But don't tell me how to be fat."
But don't tell me how to be fat.
Holy shit, that's exactly what I had been doing for years now. So obsessed had I become with size acceptance that somewhere, unconsciously, and with the best intentions, I fancied myself some sort of "fat expert."
OH MY GOD.
Please don't misunderstand, I'm not telling you this story because I think I deserve some kind of Self-Awareness Medal. I tell you this story because I think that being an ally to any group is much harder, and more fraught, than many of us realize. The hardest lesson for me, in my overly verbose, I-get-bossy-when-I-feel-comfortable-with-you life, is that in order to be an ally I have to LISTEN.
My role is to support the activism, contribute, but not rewrite it in my image. I do think this is a temptation for well-meaning people in a place of privilege. I mean, I would go through the ROOF — and I have — if a white person gave me advice on how to live my "Chineseness."
In the year since my friend called me out, I've been considering the question of "how to be an ally" a lot, in various respects, but most often in the realm of size acceptance. Perhaps it's because I have a lot of close friends who take part in size acceptance activism — "live their size" — or perhaps it's because it's where I felt the most righteous for so long? Whatever the reason, my reevaluation of how I participate as an ally has changed how I engage in conversation about lives, groups, individuals I may never fully understand, but deserve no less of my respect and support.
We don't have to have walked in another person's shoes to want to stand up for them.
I still don't have the answers, but I'm trying to remove so much of "me" from the equation, to take my cue from others who know better than me. Yes, know better than me — it's a pain and a pleasure to be humbled! Of course, I can't remove myself entirely, but there has to be a balance; for so long I think I made it about how I felt so good taking on this cause. My support, though earnest, was self-serving and shallow at times.
But I can be better. I want to be better.
And yes, that friend and I are still friends. Good friends, who speak plainly and honestly with each other. She is not perfect, she's not the Patron Saint of Fats, but neither am I.
So I ask you, smart xoJane commenters, what advice can you offer to a person who wants to be a good ally? What have been your experiences, on either side? What have you learned?