I love Amy’s recent posts about privilege, all of them: the one about “thin privilege,” the one about what privilege is and isn’t, the one about the exercise Jana Olssen did in one of her workshops at Michfest. (One reason I didn’t apply for and don’t intend to facilitate any workshops at Fest this year, intensive or general, is that I want to go to workshops myself for once! All the ones I want to go to and never get to go to because I’m always facilitating so many workshops, like Falcon’s Amazon Survival Skills workshops, which hopefully she’ll be presenting again this year, as she has the past three years, like the various ritual-making workshops, the drumming workshops, Jana Olssen’s feminism workshops, and of course whatever workshops anybody wants to offer on Fest’s female-only policy. Fest wouldn’t be Fest without at least one lengthy, um, “discussion” of the policy in workshop format.)
Anyway, after reading Amy’s posts, I went on to read responsive commentary elsewhere which was critical of Amy’s writings on thin privilege, written by someone who is thin, and who has gone the route by far the majority of women (including me) , during at least some periods of their lives, have gone to get thin, to stay thin, to lose weight; in other words, to conform to what is expected of us under male heterosupremacy.
That’s the concept that is so often missed in discussions of privilege– that privilege is about conforming with standards established by men and male institutions, male power, under white, male heterosupremacy. Among other things, privilege has to do with the way people are accepted, admired, respected, approved of, or are the beneficiaries of certain perks and benefits based on how well they conform.
It’s true that eating disorders are terrible things. I think the majority of American women are or have been eating disordered to some degree or another. I struggle against being eating disordered, too, and have since I was a teenager. It’s true that no woman can ever achieve or maintain bodily perfection under male heterosupremacy, and so no matter how thin we are, or how fit, regardless how rigorously and vigilantly we discipline our bodies and our appetites, we never feel as though we’re “thin” enough, we always feel as though we’re not quite acceptable yet, we always feel we have a long way to go to be more perfect. The perks and benefits feel as though they come at too high a price. And they do. Women’s response to the high price of conforming is and has been feminism, which has always meant refusing to conform. Resistance. Transgression. Rejecting what is imposed on us because we are female.
Those who conform are viewed in American culture as more competent, more intelligent, more self-disciplined, more moral and ethical, more “healthy” than the nonconforming, more beautiful, just all-around preferable in every way, and on that basis, they are rewarded in small and large ways, while the nonconforming are punished. To the degree that we are white, young, heterosexual, traditionally attractive, traditionally decked out, partnered with men, thin, pleasant, deferential, not feminists, not outspoken, not strident, not rocking the boat, to that degree we will enjoy various benefits and privileges, as women. To the degree that we aren’t white, are old, lesbians, not traditionally attractive, not partnered at all or partnered with women or interracially partnered, fat, unwilling to defer to men, to the degree that we are feminists, separatists, outspoken, dedicated to rocking the boat, strident and uncompromising, to that degree we will not enjoy privilege, we will be punished by men and male culture, whether our conformity or nonconformity in any given instance is a matter of biology (we’re female, not male and so born to second class status), or a matter of our own volition, i.e., deciding whether or not to live and present as women are expected to under male heterosupremacy.
I don’t fault or blame women for their efforts to conform. It’s hard to resist conforming when we are materially benefitted for doing so and punished for resisting. At the same time, the hardships which accompany efforts to conform should never be confused with the struggles and challenges of active and ongoing political resistance, which is what refusing to conform to patriarchal beauty standards really is, which is what feminism is. It takes courage– a lot of courage– to resist the pressures all of us, as women, experience to conform. It takes great courage and determination, and resolve, to refuse to diet and to discipline our physical bodies in the way male heterosupremacy insists we must. While conforming is understandable, it isn’t courageous. It isn’t resistance. It isn’t political. It doesn’t make change in the world. If conformity seems to make our own individual lives better, even that is always provisional, predicated on our continued and ongoing conformity. And that is something I believe needs to be underscored if we are to make change in an anti-woman world. Some of the world’s most amazing nonconformists have been those women known as “feminists.” Their struggles to resist and reject male heterosupremacy should not be confused with the difficulties of efforts to accommodate it or to satisfy the demands it makes on the lives and bodies of women.