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October 29, 2009 / Katie

My oppression is worse than your oppression!

Trigger Warning

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.

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8 Comments

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  1. Gene / Oct 29 2009 10:51 pm

    I can see how a parent calling you “sexy” is creepy, but I’m not sure I understand the problem with a grandmother calling you “princess.” I’d always thought that was annoying at worst and endearing at best. Could you explain a little? I’m not contradicting you, I just feel like I’m missing something.

    • Katie / Oct 29 2009 10:56 pm

      That’s exactly why recovering from it—when it is experienced as abuse—may be so hard to do, because most people don’t understand how damaging it can be.

      for some little girls, it doesn’t affect them at all. For others, it bolsters the unhealthy standard that girls, and later women, constantly try to hold themselves up to. Princess is a loaded word, just look at Disney princesses. They’re not held up for their brains or their actions, they’re just beautiful. Thin and busty/curvy in all the right places. They just sit there and look pretty, sometimes even unconscious (Sleeping Beauty, Snow White) waiting for their prince to come and kiss them, which is itself the happy ending. This can be experienced as sexually abusive by some girls who take the message that all they are worth is their sexuality.

      If you want to do any further research, I’d recommend The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti.

  2. DivaJean / Oct 30 2009 5:58 am

    Awesome post- you hit on a lot of feelings that I have had but never put into words.

  3. angrygrayrainbows / Oct 30 2009 6:09 am

    Clinging to the idea that my suffering was invalid because other people had it worse was one of the most damaging things in my life for decades. I hated myself for my depression and PTSD, because other people had it worse, so I shouldn’t even be suffering or bothering about the past, right? This whole idea that I hadn’t suffered enough to get treatment or deserve help or compassion got me to the point where I was seriously suicidal, self-injuring and taking lots of risks cuz I didn’t feel I was worth any care anyway.
    Thank you for writing this post. I think it’s good for everyone to be reminded (or introduced) to the idea that suffering or oppression isn’t invalid just cuz someone had it worse.
    It would’ve been far more appropriate for those women to say that they just didn’t understand your side of things and couldn’t speak to it as opposed to telling you that your suffering wasn’t worth talking about.

  4. class factotum / Oct 30 2009 7:32 am

    I met a woman who, after I had been working with her for two months, admitted she had had a kidney transplant.

    I immediately said something about how Oh, I guess I shouldn’t complain about my little X.

    She sighed and told me that this was why she never liked to talk about the transplant. “Everyone’s pain is her own,” she said. “Everyone’s pain is valid. My experience does not invalidate your experience.”

  5. Miriam Heddy / Oct 30 2009 7:33 am

    One of the benefits of an intersectional approach is that it lets us recognize that “survival strategies” are complicated, and our ability to envision “smashing” a standard depends on a lot of things. Not all survival strategies are available to all people–and what helps one person survive might actually kill another.

    Julia, at Fatshionista, wrote a really good critique of Kate Harding’s “The Fantasy of Being Thin” in which she looked at how Kate’s default presumption was white person fantasizing–and how limited that analysis was to describing the experience of fat women of color. Julia’s post ” Thin is In and White is Alright” is here:

    http://www.fatshionista.com/cms/index.php?option=com_mojo&Itemid=69&p=116

    I agree that there’s no point in trying to create a hierarchy of oppression. But I also get where, especially for women of color, it can get pretty frustrating to see how often white FA women speak about beauty standards in a presumptively race-neutral way without seeming to think about or notice the way that race matters until a woman of color speaks up and says that it does.

  6. angrygrayrainbows / Oct 30 2009 7:37 am

    One more small addition… I find that if I flip the coin on people telling me that my suffering wasn’t as bad as their and therefore invalid that they see my point…
    For example… it is obviously ignorant and insensitive to tell POC in the US that their suffering is invalid and really nothing, because there are other people in the world who suffer more. There are people who are slaves. There are people who live in famine and don’t even have food to eat. There is all sorts of suffering the world over. Does the fact that there are people starving in Africa (not just people, but also CHILDREN) mean that POC’s here have no reason to complain? Oh heck no! There is real racism here and real suffering for POC in the US… and nothing invalidates that. Just like nothing invalidates the very valid suffering of fat people in a fat-phobic and fat-hating society.

  7. Shoshie / Oct 6 2010 8:37 pm

    It seems like you didn’t discuss the obvious here…fat women of color and transwomen. Many have to perform beauty in order to survive, but they can’t because they’re fat. This is why intersectionality is important.

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