Category Archives: justice
As I write this, there are still 6.75 months left in 2020.
This year has seen first a global pandemic, then a national crisis of conscience, completely bungled by the folks at the helm. One has exacerbated the other, and the failure of leadership at the top level in the United States has set the stage for a conflagration that, frankly, needs to come.
I’ve been quiet about it, here, for two reasons.
First, this is primarily a ballet blog, and while everything in my life touches ballet, I’m still not always sure what constitutes going off-piste.
Second, I try not to write about politics here (mostly because I feel like I don’t know much about politics … but, let’s be frank, neither do a lot of the people who routinely and loudly opine about it).
But I realized, recently, that to consign the current moment– a moment in which police brutality has ended the lives of several people in my own community, and in which the simmering cauldron of systemic racism and repression has come to a boil–to the realm of “politics” is a function of privilege.
The Black Lives Matter movement isn’t politics.
It’s people trying to survive. It’s people trying to communicate that they–whether literally or metaphorically–can’t breathe. It’s people saying, enough is enough. It’s people saying, I just want to live.
It’s not that, in the past, I didn’t support the movement in question. I did. But I left talking about it outside of my professional life (I have, to be clear, talked and written about racial inequality in ballet–but in a context very specific to ballet, and not very often in this blog).
The thing is, Black and Brown people don’t get to do that. They don’t get to take their skin color off at the door. It is impossible to separate being Black or Brown from your professional life when you are Black or Brown. And even if you don’t talk about it, the context is there.
So I have realized that I need to talk about it, too. That being silent, even if it’s the silence of “I’m not sure what I should say,” is poor ally-ship.
I can’t speak for people of color. But I can say that I believe them when they talk about their struggles with systemic racism.
Someone I know recently replied to reports of fatal police brutality against Black people with, “Yeah, but this white lady was also killed by the police.” That argument misses the point. It’s not that white people are never subject to police brutality, to workplace discrimination, to profiling, or to the other things Black people experience.
Rather, it’s that for Black people, experiencing these things is the norm.
As a apparently-white male, I can go to a shop with one of my girl friends and hold her bag while she steps into the changing room, and the response I get, even from people who haven’t seen my friend hand me her bag, will almost always be, “Aw, isn’t it sweet of him to hold her bag for her.” Occasionally, someone might look at me with suspicion–but overall, no.
If I was Black, it would be more likely that someone who didn’t see my friend hand me her bag would assume I had stolen it. It would be more likely that I’d be shadowed by store associates or security guards. It would be more likely that if I entered a store that sells expensive things–or one that sells dance stuff, because I need to acknowledge that ballet is still perceived as a lily-white pursuit–people would assume I didn’t belong there. They would assume, at best, that I couldn’t afford the items on display; at worst, that my motives were antisocial and that I should be stopped before I could carry out my nefarious plans.
- “Antisocial” is often used as a synonym for “unsociable,” and because I’m not trying to be a linguistic prescriptivist, I’m not going to decry that usage as wrong. That said, I’m using the word in its more technical sense, here: antisocial as in stealing things mugging people, not antisocial as in curling up with a good book.
If you think that this sounds utterly ridiculous, please know that I have friends who are Black guys around my age who literally experience this every time they leave the house. People assume they’re up to no good simply because they’re shopping while Black, or driving while Black, or walking in the park while Black, or gardening while Black. Please know that their experiences are not the exception: they’re the norm.
This happens to Black women, too: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard my Black women friends talk about being pulled over because someone assumed the car was too nice to belong to a Black woman (that someone isn’t always a cop: sometimes it’s someone who calls the cops, who then have to respond to the scene).
So, in short, this isn’t about politics. Politics will almost certainly be involved in the process of change, because that’s kind of what tends to happen … but at its root this is about peoples’ lives.
As a small detour, it seems particularly fitting to me that so much of this is happening during Pride month. It’s easy to forget that Black and Brown people were right out front at Stonewall: Look up Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera if you’d like to know more.
Queer history tends to get whitewashed just like history in general: but the spark that ignited the movement in this country was lit largely by Black and Brown trans women. D has a facebook profile pic that reads, “The First Pride Was A Riot.”
Because it was. And it was for a reason. No movement goes from 0 to Riot without good reasons, but when people have had enough, they’ve had enough.
I’m going to close with one final thought about how this all relates to ballet. Obviously, we should defer to Black and Brown choreographers in this moment. We can help to make space for their creative voices to be heard, instead of rushing to speak on their behalf. We can promote their works (no better time than now, when lots of companies are making works available to stream free of charge).
But that doesn’t mean we can’t also create work and use our artform in the interest of resistance, of renewal, and of rebuilding. If anything, we not only can, but must.
We just have to figure out how to do it without speaking over the people whose experiences we’re trying to support and amplify.
Remember that the current moment didn’t spring from nowhere. The fires that burn right now were lit by hundreds of years of accumulated wrongs, borne with admirable patience by people whose lives have been harder than they should have been.
Recently, my favorite podcast touched on the topic of the debate within the LGBTQI* community about the prioritization of same-sex marriage (as opposed to trans rights, equal access to housing, etc). Both the host and the guest mentioned only the question of tax breaks as a motivator, with the context suggesting that tax breaks shouldn’t take precedent over issues of survival, like fair access to housing and employment.
I don’t disagree with that premise in the least: frankly, I could care less about tax breaks (and being married doesn’t automatically save you money on your taxes anyway). We definitely need to be more in-tune to issues like the dangers faced by trans people, and especially trans women of color, who are assaulted and murdered at staggeringly high rates just for trying to be themselves. As a community, those of us out here in Rainbowland definitely need to center the issues of those among us who are most vulnerable.
I’m sure that this was an unscripted oversight, and if the topic at hand had been “Let’s Talk About Same-Sex Marriage,” the million and fifteen much-more-important rights afforded by marriage would probably have come to light sooner or later.
But the fact that both the host’s and the guest’s first instinct was to frame the question of gay marriage as one of mere access to tax breaks reflects its own kind of privilege: one that has a lot to do with the one of the Great Divides in queer history, and a lot to do with being relatively young and healthy.
Because, for gay men and women of my husband’s generation, gay marriage has a lot more to do with death than it does with taxes.
Let me back up a little.
D and I are members of two distinct generations.
He was born in a Cold War world, at the peak of the space race, and grew up in the world of arcades, local media, snail mail, and telephone calls. I was born at the very tail end of the Cold War, when we’d already decided to kiss and make up and were basically just sorting out how to do it, and grew up in the world of in-home video game systems, global media, email, and increasingly-rapid telecommunication. In high school, he had the library and his local friends. I had the entire internet and more or less the entire world to chat with.
As D was coming of age, sex was a terrifying game of Russian Roulette: he remembers the time before we knew how HIV was transmitted. He was a young adult at the peak of the AIDS crisis.
As for me … although its confusing specter haunted my childhood and probably made me far more paranoid about sex than was entirely necessary, by the time I first heard about AIDS (from an NPR radio segment in my Dad’s car), we already knew how to prevent transmission and were starting to see effective treatments. As a young adult, I already lived in a world where AIDS was a fact of life—in essence, a particularly obnoxious lifelong chronic illness that could be managed with medication. Like, herpes on steroids, or something.
D is part of the generation that experienced the staggering pain of devoted couples being separated by hospital policies that allowed only legal family members visitation rights.
He is part of the generation that saw bereaved spouses ousted from their homes when the deceased’s family decided to seize the property of the deceased.
He is part of the generation for whom access to life-saving treatment that would’ve been covered by one partner’s benefits might not be covered by the other partner’s—a roadblock invisible to legally-married heterosexual couples. He is a part of a generation in which people literally died because they lacked the protections of legal marriage.
To gay men of his generation and the gay women who carried so very, very much of the burden with them in those dark days, tax breaks are the last and the least concern. I would say “icing on the cake,” but cake isn’t sustenance.
Knowing that your mate won’t be driven from the home you’ve built together after your death? That’s sustenance. Knowing that you can’t be cut off from death benefits simply because you’re gay? That’s sustenance. Knowing that you have legal protection that allows you to see your beloved in the hospital; to advocate for them; to make medical decisions on their behalf when they are incapacitated? That’s sustenance.
Coincidentally, it’s also access to safe housing. It’s also access to healthcare—on the private market, D and I bear less of a financial burden for one decent plan than for two poor plans. We have access to such a plan because we’re legally married. If it weren’t for that, we’d be scraping by with two separate iterations of the kind of health plan that only covers you in catastrophes.
Never mind certain other critical protections: spouses cannot be forced to testify against one-another, for example … unless they’re not legally married, in which case anything goes. Legal marriage can prevent one’s life-partner from being deported.
I’m not saying that any of this makes the other work that we’re doing as a community any less critical. But to frame same-sex marriage as a matter of a tax break is short-sighted. I hope nobody actually believes that was the prime mover, here.
For what it’s worth, legal marriage also serves the vulnerable.
It affords a path to safety for immigrants who arrive here on journeys of love, or who arrive here on other journeys and fall in love anyway.
It affords protection against post-mortem dead-naming by hostile families of deceased transfolk.
It prevents children of same-sex parents from being torn from their homes if one parent dies and homophobic family members (or legal systems) intervene.
It protects the devoted spouses of military members who are severely injured or killed in service.
My generation isn’t old enough for death to have touched many of us in the ways it touched D’s generation when they were our age, or younger than we are now. We mostly haven’t dealt much with death: most of us still have both our parents (and probably a step-parent or two as well) and will for many years. Many of us still have all our grandparents. Few of us have lost our spouses.
We might have been alive during the most harrowing days of the AIDS crisis, but if we were, we were children. We didn’t personally lose friends in staggering numbers or watch our friends suffer the agony of being barred from hospital visits. I have, in my lifetime, lost one friend to AIDS—a lovely guy a few years older than I am who committed suicide because he had contracted a strain of HIV that wasn’t responding to antiretroviral treatments and so forth. He chose to end his life before the complications of HIV could end it for him.
People Denis’ age lost dozens, sometimes hundreds, of friends, in a ground swell of bereavement complicated by discrimination against which no grounds for legal protection existed.
Death, for my generation, isn’t the visible specter that it has been for so very long, from such an early age, for the gay men and women of D’s generation. For them, it has been very real from the beginning of their adult lives, as have the potential repercussions associated with the lack of the legal protections afforded by marriage (and which efforts to secure by other means have not reliably secured).
I’m not saying that focusing on gay marriage, to the exclusion of other issues, was by any means the right path. I do think that, in many ways, it was low-hanging fruit: in an age when the US is far less uncomfortable with queer people in general, but fraught with racial tension and wildly unsure about transfolk, it was relatable. Marriage, as it were, will play in Peoria.
One thing it was not, though, not ever, was simply a tax break.
Either way, at this point, it’s a fait accompli, more or less. It could be undone, but it would be easier not to undo it. People who don’t believe in gay marriage can go on not getting gay-married all they like. They don’t even have to come to our weddings (amazingly, Rainbow Goons won’t show up at your door if you choose not to attend your lesbian cousin’s lesbian wedding, and in fact you’re not even legally obligated to feel guilty about it).
And now that we’re over that hurdle, maybe we can all agree to focus our efforts on the most vulnerable among us, and on making the queer world one that hears their voices, that sees and embraces them. And maybe we can also work on making the queer world one in which no one feels like an alien and a stranger.
For the past eight years, I’ve been silently grumbling to myself about the various “Not My Fault” and “Not My President” bumper stickers and their kin.
If you live in the US and you’ve left the house during the Obama administration, you probably know the ones I mean.
Here’s the thing: my problem with them has never been a question of politics. I’m down with the whole idea of people being free to hold hold and express dissenting views, and indeed whatever views they do hold and express.
Rather, it’s the smug, supercilious tone that bugs me — because it’s a hallmark of everything that’s gone wrong with civil and political discourse (fwiw: autocorrupt gave me first “disgrace,” then “dispute” — since when does it know what it’s talking about?).
It’s the kind of thing one expects from the less-mature members of your average middle school populace.
As such, I’d like to float the idea that maybe those of us who didn’t vote for Trump could, like, find a better way to express our dissenting views — and, yes, our anger. (I mean, feels gonna feel, and venting is a necessary and healthy thing, but maybe we can keep public discourse a little more mature?). I mention this because I’ve already seen suggestions for exactly that same kind of smug-ugly mind of bumper sticker.
I have no doubt that there will be some ugly gloating across the aisle. Frankly, that’s kind of been the tenor of the whole campaign, and it’s something or culture has come to encourage(1).
- The gloaters out there should maybe spend some time learning ballet or Muay Thai or racing bikes or working around horses — all those things will take you down a peg quick if you start getting full of yourself).
Bullies gonna bull — especially when they feel like they’ve been oppressed (isn’t that, more or less, where bullies come from?).
And, let’s be honest, things are hard all over. Harder for half the population that’s now faced with a transition from a president who treats treats them as valued equals to one who treats them as expendable objects. Harder for the part of the population that follows the teachings of Muhammad (PBUH). Harder for the people whose skin is a few shades darker. Harder for those who have come here seeking refuge and opportunity,like basically everyone’s ancestors except, oh yeah, that other group whose ancestors were here first — harder for them, too. Harder for those who love differently. Harder for those whose gender expression doesn’t match the prescribed model. Harder for all those guys and gals.
But still hard all over. The vast majority of people in this country have been up against some stiff losses.
So the people who are doing doing the gloating, the bullying: they’re doing it because they’ve felt themselves losing out, and they’re fed up, and possibly their parents didn’t teach them any better (and honestly, because retribution feels great when you’ve convinced yourself you’re absolutely in the right) — but also because as a culture we’ve done a piss-poor job figuring out how to forge alliances and give each-other breathing room, and because the forces that are have done a great job dividing this house against itself (remember that whole “a house divided cannot stand” bit from history class?).
A lot of us in the opposing camp have experienced bullying before. For many of us, this is going to reopen old wounds; wounds that were inflicted when we were powerless. Maybe we’ll find ourselves wanting to bully back. We can’t. We have to respond: but not by sinking to that level. If bullies want to stoop, let them. We don’t have to.
We’ve had eight years of na-na-na-na-na-boo-boo from both sides. This is where it’s landed us.
So maybe we can can come up with something else — something better.
Maybe we can start by omitting obnoxious bumper stickers.
…This is probably the last post in going to write about this, but the way. I stay out out of this stuff partly because I don’t like to feed the flames, but also because I’ve spent enough of my life dealing with legitimate, in-your-face conflict that I just don’t have it in me to fight meaningless battles online.
As such, I’m going to say up front that I won’t hesitate to close comments on this post — not to censor anyone, but because this is my blog, and I have enough crap to deal with right now and don’t have tiiiiiiime for all that (or, well, really, I don’t have the strength right now, not here).
Right now my country is in a welter of anger, fear, pain, and (too often) recrimination. I don’t know what words to say about it; as with the Orlando shooting, I think other people have already said what needs to be said better than I could here.
Back in the 13th century, though, Saint Francis of Assissi wrote a prayer that encapsulates a lot of what I’m feeling right now. I first encountered it as a singer, and along with Tich Nhat Hanh’s simple breath-following meditation from Being Peace, it it one of the things that swims into my mind at difficult times like this one.
Even for those whose worldview is entirely secular, it says a great deal about how to be a force for peace in the world — not by giving money to organizations (which is okay, too) or agitating for change (which is also okay), but simply by being in the world. Anyway, here it is.
Saint Francis’ Prayer for Peace
Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
I try not to lend aid to the cause of people who would use fear to control the rest of us, so I’m not going to comment on them. Not directly. Not here.
Nobody — asexual, bisexual, queer, straight, Atheist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Wiccan, female, intersex, male, transgender, immigrant, native-born, Asian, Black, Latino, White, any race, any faith, any anything, whatever else people can be — should be targeted with violence.
And yet it happens every day.
We notice when it happens to a lot of people at once. We don’t always notice when it happens to one person at a time; not until it reaches a kind of critical mass.
I thought about this when I was in Cinci; when I saw the words WE CAN’T BREATHE stenciled on the same square of pavement every morning; every evening. I thought about it today, when people in Louisville came together to organize a vigil for people in Orlando who they never met.
Regardless, tragedy is tragedy. Human cruelty is human cruelty.
I don’t pretend to make sense of any of this. I don’t pretend to have intelligent things to say about it; I don’t.
Even if I did, maybe it’s too soon to make sense; to say intelligent things. I don’t know.
Grief is a mysterious thing, whether it’s the direct grief of an immediate personal loss or the indirect grief of living in a world where things happen like this.
So that’s what I’m saying, because I don’t have any other words; because for a long time I haven’t had any other words.
(Or, well, some of the reasons, anyway.)
I’ve been reading some really good articles about re-framing our cultural conversation around body size and, for once, reading the comments*, and I’ve discovered that, when it comes to talking about things like diet an exercise, many of us lose sight of one really critical idea:
Knowing about a thing isn’t the same
as knowing how to do that thing.
*You guys, deciding not to even look at the G-d-forsaken comments except in special cases has been one of the best decisions I ever made.
Knowing about a thing isn’t the same as knowing how to do that thing.
…And it really isn’t the same as knowing how to do that thing in a way that works for us, that feels good (which is far, far more important than we like to acknowledge), and that lets us keep doing it indefinitely.
If it was, a lot more of us would look exactly the way we want to look (within the limitations imposed by our genetic makeup, anyway — some of us build bigger muscles easily, some of us have long and elegant muscular insertion points, etc.).
Two Weeks Without Class, Day One: In Which Your Humble Author Makes Announcements and Reflects On Problems
First, the announcements.
The Charitable Sub-Committee of the Women’s … Oh, wait. Wrong announcements.
Here we go.
First, partly as a function of Item The Second (see below), it looks like I’ll be able to add a fourth class to my schedule in January. B. and I are cooking up an idea which will be amazing if it pans out, but I am desperately trying to keep mum about it.
As the Druids supposedly said:
To know, to will, to dare, to keep silent.
In other words, don’t tempt G-d, fate, or the faceless perversity of the universe by blabbing your exciting plans all over the place. Pride goeth before the fall, etc.
Come to think of it, this gets really long, so here — have a More! tag:
Yesterday was a bad day: a very bad day. The kind of day on which the depths of my disorder are somehow visible to the general public; the kind of day on which sensitive people ask me if I’m ill. The kind of day on which, for whatever reason, bipolar reveals itself in enormous dark circles under my eyes.
It was the kind of day on which the thought of talking to people is nearly unbearable — at once repugnant and frightening, since I can’t trust myself to speak in a way that doesn’t reveal the magnitude of my debility; on which I feel the fear the injured alpha wolf must feel — that my weakness will be revealed and I will be torn apart.
The kind of day on which I am wildly paranoid in an inchoate kind of way, but still rational enough to know that I am paranoid.
Yesterday’s venture deeper into to the dark and tempestuous waters of mixed mania was almost certainly precipitated by the use of a sleep aid the previous night. It’s a counter-intuitive outcome, but one I’ve experienced regularly. For some reason, antihistamines do things to my mood.
When I’m fairly euthymic, they render me a little groggy and down the next day; when I’m in my current state — skating desperately along the knife’s-edge of mixed mania — they’re a potentially-disastrous crap shoot.
The sleep-inducing medication in question is an antihistamine.
I seem particularly prone to the adverse effects of antihistamines, anticonvulsants, and other sedation-inducing medications — in short, depressants. Alcohol can also induce deeply unpleasant and even dangerous mood-states after its pleasant effects have worn off.
I would conjecture that I’m also unusually prone — relative to non-bipolar people — to the effects of stimulants, but I rarely experience those with the immense dysphoria typical of my reactions to sedatives.
Sedatives combined with stimulants, meanwhile, are a recipe for a day in Hell (whereby I probably should’ve skipped the iced coffee I had with lunch yesterday).
Yet, there comes a point at which one must decide whether the risks of a sleeping pill-induced bad day are worse than those of continued insomnia.
The after-effects of the sleeping pill, presumably as my brain attempts to re-regulate itself, wear off in a day or so if I don’t take another one. It is possible to get through one very bad day with a little help.
The effects of insomnia, on the other hand, will continue to accumulate and self-amplify indefinitely, until the current manic episode passes — and it is difficult to predict when they’ll jump the track and become manifestly dangerous. Worse, manic insomnia tends to beget manic insomnia — the less I sleep, the less I sleep — which induces further mania.
This is, perhaps, the heart of the problem with bipolar disorder: beyond its often-disabling nature, beyond the fact that non-bipolar people seem literally (and, perhaps, understandably) unable to comprehend what it’s like, it carries with it an immense sensitivity to all the factors that influence brain chemistry — including the very medications we use to treat it.
Worse still, perhaps, it is associated with great creative gifts — but also with the inability to utilize those gifts.
Bipolar disorder disrupts the ability to do sustained, concentrated creative work (or uncreative work; it may be even worse — the “worstest” — for that!).
The medications we take to counter the destructive aspects of bipolar, meanwhile, are equally capable of destroying both the creative faculties and the ability, physical and/or mental, to exercise them.
Lithium alone is associated with micrographia, Parkinsonian movement disruptions, and disturbances in balance and equilibrium, to name just a few of its adverse effects. For visual artists, dancers, and musicians, it can be devastating. Worse, these effects do not always ease up (as is often the case with other medications) as the brain and body acclimate: instead, they are often cumulative and even progressive.
In some cases (the tardive dyskinesia and akathesia associated with antipsychotics; the thyroid disruption associated with lithium), they become permanent: they will remain, perhaps treatable but generally incurable, even if the medication is stopped.
Artists living with bipolar find themselves trapped between hammer and tongs. The immense sensitivity that informs our work is at once fed, imprisoned, and subjected to danger of execution by the firestorms that rage in our brains and minds; when we bring in the fire crews, however, the ensuing flood too often downs all but the mere ability to keep body and soul together. Too often, the ability of the soul to soar is not preserved, nor even the ability of the body the function as it once did.
I have no useful advice to offer, here — just frustration to vent.
The question that all of us who live with bipolar disorder always face is this: are the costs of this treatment worth the benefits?
For many, the answer is a resounding yes — for many more, a qualified yes. For others, though, the answer is no, or not really, or I feel trapped; there is no right answer, here.
Too often, practitioners and caregivers still treat those of us for whom the existing medical therapies are not acceptable bargains as recalcitrant children who do not know what is best for us.
Sometimes, of course, they’re right — bipolar is a disease that does not want to be medicated, and sometimes it’s the disease talking; likewise, in our most florid moments, we bipolar types aren’t always rational.
However, I don’t believe that should be the first response. When an apparently-rational patient says, “I have tried these medications, and the side-effects were untenable — what now?” a practitioner would do well to listen, to consider alternatives, and — if need arises — to make a referral to someone else who may know if another strategy.
And always, always — even when we are manifestly mad, with all the attendant indignity of madness — patients should be handled with dignity and tact.
By way of illustration, there can be no doubt that lithium, in particular, saves lives.
So, however, does penicillin — and we find other ways to treat people who respond adversely to penicillin. We don’t criticise them or treat them as bad patients.
We who are or who hope to become practitioners would do well to keep that very simple example in mind.
When we express contempt towards mental illness patients who can’t tolerate the usual medical therapies, when we treat them as misbehaving children or miscreants, we are really expressing deep-seated cultural prejudices. Also frustration, of course, but that alone really doesn’t explain it; a doctor, PA, or NP may be frustrated by a patient’s inability to take penicillin, but that frustration isn’t generally expressed as contempt.
Instead, penicillin sensitivity (especially when severe) is generally met with compassion — It’s too bad the simple and inexpensive option doesn’t work, let’s see what we can find that will.
I know this because I, in fact, can’t take penicillin. I’m deathly allergic to it.
I am not, in fact, likely to die from lithium use, and I’m willing to use it as a short-term intervention should things get really, really out of hand. I am not, however, able to tolerate is effects over long-term treatment. The same can be said for antipsychotics.
I do the best I can to manage without — and I continue to research and seek and hope for an alternative. I also realize that, for me, a medical alternative may never appear.
I continue to understand that my current strategy may not always be tenable, either — that sometimes bipolar disorder gets worse with age, and that a day may come when I am no longer able to manage as I currently do.
Right now, the lesser of the two evils is bipolar: someday, that may not be the case.
If that day arrives, I may have to strike a different bargain. Bipolar, in the end, is the mother of many bargains.
Until then, I will struggle to make the most of my creative gifts, knowing that someday I may not be able to use them.
Until then — and indeed, thereafter, should that day come — I will continue to be immensely grateful for the fact that I have health and mental-health practitioners in my life who do not regard my decision to eschew long-term medical therapy with contempt, as the foolish decision of an irrational child, but rather with compassion, as the careful decision of a rational and intelligent adult.
That is an immense privilege; a great gift.
It is also a reflection of privilege: I am white, male, of “normal” size, well-bred, well-educated, and well-spoken. I am married to a medical professional.
Doubtless, all of these things factor in the quality of care that I receive — when none of them should. All that should matter is that I am a human being, and thus deserving of respect even when I’m irrational, stubborn, and wrong.
This, ultimately, is what every single person with mental illness deserves — even when we are irrational: respect. The essential respect of one human being for another.
This is basic human dignity in action.
It should be neither a privilege, nor something we stumble upon by luck.
I noticed today that, for this week, the top search that led someone to my blog was “why should ballet dancers be an ectomorph?”
Grammatical awkwardness aside, I think that’s a good question, and one that I haven’t touched on in a while.
The short answer is:
“Because that’s the trend.”
My full answer to this question is really long, so here’s the TL;DR version up front:
They shouldn’t, necessarily — but because fashion and function influence each-other profoundly in the performing arts and especially in ballet, trends in the art form stemming from the mid-20th century have created a situation that makes it easier for ectomorphic dancers to succeed as professionals. Likewise, I would posit that choreography has evolved to best suit the ectomorphic bodies currently in vogue.
Since professional dancers broadly inform our cultural definition (“what a ballet dancer is“), we have come to think that ballet dancers should be ectomorphs — but really, there’s no overwhelming em>functional advantage.
Functionally speaking, some advantages exist — ectomorphs are usually light, and thus easier to lift when partnered — but disadvantages also exist — ectomorphs are more prone to osteoporosis; they’re less likely to be good at explosive movements like jumps. The mesomorphic and endomorphic body types also come with advantages and disadvantages in dance.
At the end of the day, it’s really a question of fashion.
…And now, on to the “Really Long, But Feel Free To Read It Anyway” version:
Like the mad, socially-conscious Yankee intellectual I was raised to be, I often find myself thinking about language.
Specifically, I think about how to use words in ways that will be empowering, rather than disempowering; unifying, rather than divisive; kind, rather than unkind.
Sometimes, this gets sticky — especially when it comes to speaking with compassion as an ally.
Whether we realize it or not, privilege colors how people in the world hear the words we use: our privilege and lack thereof, as well as their privilege and lack thereof (note that I write “and,” not “or,” because privilege is not an absolute; most of us experience a mixture of privilege and its opposite).
If I call myself queer, anyone who hears me brings internal nuance to the table. Some will hear that I choose that word because I’ve internalized the homophobia of the culture that surrounds me; some, that I’m reacting against that homophobia through lexical reclamation; some, that I don’t fit crisply into other categories; some, that I can myself queer for reasons I haven’t even imagined. All of them may be right or wrong at the same time and to varying degrees.
Few, however, will argue with my right to choose that word for myself (and I’m happy to kindly debate that point with those who would protest — we may never see eye-to-eye, but usually their intentions are good, and we can at least come to appreciate one anothers’ perspectives).
It gets trickier, though, when I’m talking about someone else.
Take, for example, the word fat.
Burlesque dancer Lillian Bustle makes the brilliant point that fat is just a word, like short or beautiful — other traits which Ms. Bustle owns with pride. It’s a word that can be detached from value judgment — unlike, for example, overweight, which by its very linguistic nature underscores the notion that there is a “right” weight, a “right” body size, outside of which people are wrong. We don’t call tall people overheight, so why call fat people overweight? We’ve tried that, and it hasn’t reduced anti-fat prejudice one iota. Why don’t we simply decouple the word fat from its harmful connotations?
I think Ms. Bustle makes a brilliant point. I agree with her whole-heartedly. I love her spirit of reclamation. Her words were, in fact, instrumental in my process of beginning to deal with my own deeply-seated, deeply-denied fat phobia.
And yet, as someone who lives in a body of the type that is currently privileged in our culture, I hesitate to fly that banner.
I’m carrying it, don’t get me wrong. I’m happy to unfurl it when I’m pretty sure that I won’t cause further harm that way — but believe me, I look around first to make sure I’m not going to poke sometime in the eye.
In short, when a skinny person — especially a skinny guy, because there are extra layers of complexity associated with gender — uses the word fat to describe someone else, no matter how sound his intentions, he risks inflicting unintended pain.
Even if the subject of his words identifies as fat, even if she embraces that word, she probably still hears it used as an insult all the time (by analogy, someone like me, in my locale, might feel the same about the word fag).
It can be hard to glean what someone’s intentions are, and even well-meaning people harbor unexamined prejudices. So if I’m trying to describe someone to another person and I say, “He’s a tall, fat guy with curly hair and piano hands,” it’s possible that it’ll sound like I’m making a value judgment about body size, even if it’s a salient characteristic for identifying the person in question.
The fact that I’m a skinny dude makes it more likely, I suspect, that prejudice will be inferred. That’s not unreasonable: inferences of that kind are generally based upon past experience, which is an imperfect predictor of future experience, but still the best one we have. People of a socially-sanctioned body size probably are more likely to feel justified in using the word “fat” as an insult.
While I can’t control how other people hear me, the onus is upon me to try to words compassionately. It gets kind of weird, though, in territory that’s still in the earliest phases of reclamation. It’s possible reduce harm by thinking before I speak, but there will still be misunderstandings.
I think it’s important to shake things up, linguistically speaking.
It’s good to reclaim words; it takes tools out of the hands of oppressors without adopting oppression as a tool. Likewise, it affords us freedom in identifying ourselves; in describing ourselves. Perhaps most importantly, it often affords us a route away from formulations (non-white, overweight, non-traditional marriage) that, intentionally or otherwise, bear implications of compromised worth and reinforce the idea that average (or in the case of body size in the US, below average) is inherently better.
Prefixes like non-, over-, and under- imply the existence of an accepted standard — and value judgment is inherent in all standards. That’s the nature of standards, and that’s okay — when we’re talking about things that really benefit from being standardized, like astronomical measuring devices and medical equipment.
Human beings, though? Human worth is inherent. While reality sometimes makes it difficult, we do justice to one-another when we use words that reflect that worth; words that don’t imply that one is less correct simply because one is in some way different from a group that has been designated as a standard.
But it’s not always easy to do, nor does it always come off without a hitch.
The same can be said for wandering into safe spaces belonging to disenfranchised groups — the hierarchy of relative privilege gets sticky. I’m not always sure how to manage that, either.
I suspect nobody is. We all have the basics: listen, be compassionate, don’t be a jerk. The devil, as always, is in the details. Sometimes, our best efforts still go awry. Sometimes, we poke people in the eyes with the banners we’re unfurling in solidarity.
I guess, in the long run, this is a pretty good problem for a culture to have: a better one than that of knee-jerk prejudice and socially-sanctioned oppression (not that those are entirely gone, by any means).
I’m still working on all this stuff. If I’m actually a good human being, I’m be working on it, with greater or lesser focus, til the day I die.
I like to think of this as a mitzvah — an extension of tikkun olam, repairing the world. I can work to undo injustices I have done, and I can work with others to right injustices that began long before I was born. I can look at that as an onerous duty or as a joy (hence the word mitzvah, literally “commandment” or “obligation,” but also an opportunity for human kindness, for justice, for celebration of the divine spark in ordinary things).
My efforts at likely to be flawed — after all, I’m human — but with successive approximations, I can improve not only my life, but the world around me … without, I hope, giving out too many pokes in the eye.