My oppression is worse than your oppression!
I was recently in a dialogue in a feminist forum about beauty standards. My conversation partner was a woman of color who was calling into question my goal of trying to “smash beauty standards.” She said that some people, particularly women of color and transgender folks, have to perform beauty in order to survive. I replied that I didn’t have the option to perform beauty because I’m fat. I can put makeup on, I can dress up, but at the end of the day I’m still fat and in many people’s minds, ugly by default because I don’t fit the cultural beauty standard. At that point the woman of color stopped replying to me and another one chimed in, telling me it was ridiculous for me to be talking about smashing beauty standards as a “survival strategy” when others in the world are actually worried about being assaulted and potentially killed on the street just for being black, transgender, etc. Thus ensued a long argument over what “survival strategy” actually means. I never felt like it went anywhere productive, I only felt chastized for daring to assert that my experience of abuse is worthy of discussion, that I should stop sniveling because there are other people in the world who have it worse.
I don’t think this is how we should have these dialogues. Do I have to worry about my physical safety when leaving the house, due to the color of my skin or my gender presentation? No. Do I have to worry about my physical safety when leaving the house, due to the size of my body? Not really. (Though it does happen sometimes). But do I have to worry about emotional abuse, physical abuse, and being treated as invisible? Yes. Every second of every day.
In the quarter of my 18-month internship class where we focused on human sexuality, our professor, Eldon Olson, discussed his work with survivors of childhood sexual abuse. He said that sometimes the most difficult form to heal from is when nothing “obvious” happened. Not when the little girl was molested by her grandfather, but when grandma constantly called her “princess.” Not when the little girl was shown pornography by her aunt, but when her father said that she sure looked “sexy” in that little dress. Healing from this kind of abuse can be extremely difficult—there is an ambiguity about the situation, a tendency to ask, “was what happened really wrong?” There is more room to make excuses for the perpetrators, saying that they didn’t know better and, really, aren’t we just supposed to love our families, faults and all? Dr. Olson said that healing from that insidious kind of sexual abuse could be a lifetime process, whereas other forms of abuse, that seem much “worse” to us, such as an older male neighbor assaulting a teenage girl, may be less complicated and time-consuming healing processes because there is such an obvious and socially acceptable “wrongness” about them.
So at the end of the day, what I’m saying here is that it’s just pointless to argue about who has it worse, and who needs to shut up and sit down. I’m not saying that people who experience more subtle forms of abuse have it worse than people who experience physical violence, I’m just saying that all of us are oppressed and experience abuse in unique ways, and I think asking who has it better or worse is divisive and counter-productive. As a friend of mine on LiveJournal, Belenen, points out:
I am convinced that the only meaningful way to measure suffering is by how much it affects a person, and the only meaningful reason to measure suffering is to learn how much support that person needs in that situation.
All of us who experience oppression are suffering. Some of us experience similar types of suffering and some are very different. Some of us literally fear for our lives walking down the street; others of us can’t turn on the television without exposing ourselves to abusive language about our bodies. Some of us are prevented from participating in all areas of public life because no accommodation has been made for a visible or invisible disability. Some of us experience physical violence in our families; others experience physical safety but emotional or spiritual violence. And through all of these things, the unique chemistry of our personalities, our tenacity, and our tolerance and endurance levels will make each of our experiences of these oppressions totally unique to us.
All of us are suffering. So the question is, how will we react to the suffering of others?
Will we insist that we have it worse? Will we insist that there is some objective measure of suffering that doesn’t take into account the person’s lived experience? Or will we, through our own suffering, find compassion for the unique suffering of others… not judging or evaluating it but listening, acknowledging the areas we might have privilege that exacerbates their suffering, and finding ways to work together to make the world a more just place?
I think I’d rather live in a world where more people are doing the latter, myself.