What Hatred Can Teach Us

In a town I lived in for over two years, a place I considered home in every respect, there was a rally this weekend in response to a swastika that had been painted on a driveway this past week. I am writing this in 2017. I never imagined I would ever have to write a statement like that, and it has shaken me more than I can admit.

I remember reading Anne Frank’s diary and “Night”, learning about the Holocaust at an age when it was difficult and perhaps a bit traumatizing to be made aware of such horrors of the past. We were taught to consider the intolerance and bigotry of the Nazis, and taught to protect and defend each other in the face of an evil oppressor. We learned about the brave individuals who worked against such evil and who fought for freedom from such malicious parties. We learned about the Civil Rights movement and the bitter fight for equality, something our own parents witnessed first had in many cases. We learned about those who risked their lives rather than remain silent and oppressed any longer.

I am only twenty nine years old. My education can not be that different from most Americans, and from other people in their twenties and thirties. And I am so inspired by the movements towards equality my generation has seen, and the ways that Americans of all ages, races, and genders are standing up to this administration, fighting for what it right. On Saturday in Boston, another city I also consider home in some ways, there were thousands upon thousands of counter protestors to a “freedom of speech” protest meant to defend Neo- Nazis and their “right” to express their views. It is important to show our solidarity against such incomprehensible hatred. This is not about freedom of speech, or individual rights- it is simply about aggressive attacks against specific groups of citizens.

But I am deeply troubled by the fact that we need to be making such protests. We must continue to fight against unjust policies, any sort of  discrimination or oppression, any sort of inequality based on gender, race, or ethnicity. This is nothing new, yet it seems like much of the progress we have made during the twentieth and twenty- first centuries has been rendered meaningless this past year.

We are threatening individuals who have come to this country to build a better life for themselves, we are labeling anyone “Middle Eastern” or Arabic as a terrorist, and we are pushing women’s rights backwards in very harmful ways. Discrimination based on gender identity and sexuality may become legal.

This is not the world I imagined, nor is it the future our country deserves.

I can not express how frightened I have been at times this past year. Some of the events have seemed unreal, and it becomes more difficult to believe that it is not hopeless, that we can continue to overcome the destruction this presidency has brought to our country.

Both our environment and individual rights and safety and being continually threatened. Our educational system is being given away to those simply seeking profit, scientists are being silenced and targeted for speaking truths about the state of our planet. This doesn’t even begin to touch the scandal surrounding the election itself and Trump’s finances.

But these recent attacks have shook me the most. The fact that white supremacists feel they have every right to try to take control again, by violence if necessary, is utterly terrifying. I do not believe that we will truly degenerate into another civil war, but I do fear that we may face fatal assaults before these voices of bigotry and maliciousness are silenced. I will do whatever I can to ensure that our nation is a place of tolerance, peace, and hope, and I do believe there are millions of others in this country who feel the same way. We will keep fighting, but I feel both saddened and distressed by the fact that we do have to put up such a resistance.

Perhaps we have just continually turned a blind eye to this lingering hatred that has been passed from generation to generation, that has quietly grown throughout the nation. Honestly, I can not say I understand their ultimate goals, what they believe they will accomplish. How is such illogical spite and brutality developed in individuals? How can one believe that they are being threatened by a particular group of people, how one could not see their own hypocrisy in claiming superiority over others.

Whites are not be “discriminated” against. Jewish people are not to blame for causing anyone to be poor, and they are not dirty or evil in any way. These are basic logic statements that I believe nearly every American accepts. I realize as a white female I have had advantages over African Americans, both men and women, and over other non-whites who are either natural citizens or immigrants. I also realize that as a woman, a white man has advantages over me in certain respects. I realize I have never had to face any persecution because of my sexuality or religion, and that I may never truly be able to understand what their experience has been like. I could not image adding to their difficulties in any way. I can not pretend I understand that experience of a refugee attempt to escape their own battle- torn country only to find they are treated as an undesirable here simply because they may be a “terrorist” or they may take some other “real” American’s job.

We can not continue to devolve into a country that is run as a dictatorship, filled with corruption and hatred. We can not descend into a country where certain individuals are denied basic rights for any reason, or become a country that is fueled by aggression and suppression and fear.

I believe there is always hope, and I continue to believe our country can be a peaceful, caring place to live. It will be hard work, and we can’t let ourselves be divided, and we have to remain active. We can not passively wait for someone else to come and “save the day” anymore- WE must be the ones to do it.

Yes, there are still white supremacists in our country, there are people in our country who believe woman shouldn’t be allowed to make decisions about their bodies, there are people in our country who believe gay and transgender individuals should not have the same rights as every other citizen in the country. It’s time to face this, and time to have real conversations about how this can change.

We can not believe we are powerless. We can not simply sit back and accept that our country will be controlled by individuals who are intolerant, greedy, and irrational.

While we have seen hatred and brutality these past few weeks, we have also seen that we are not alone. And that makes all the difference.

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Changing the Conversation

A little over two years ago, I entered the ACUTE Center in Denver, Colorado, weighing around 55, to receive treatment for anorexia.

I say this not out of pride, nor do I say it to receive pity or praise. Simply, at that time in my life, I was not healthy physically or mentally. I was terrified and angry as I went into recovery, and I am thankful for the support I had to help me return to a more “normal” life.

I don’t wish to tell my story of recovery here- though I do wish to share it in full at another time. What I do wish to discuss is body positivity as it relates to body image and self acceptance.  

During recovery, I had to come to terms with my own understanding of what a healthy body looks like. I had an intense fear, as many anorexic individuals do, of becoming grossly overweight if I did not restrict calories, eat “healthy”, and exercise obsessively. I believed I could maintain a “perfect” body, and was determined to not be just another lazy, overweight American.

Obviously, my notions of thin and healthy were distorted and I had put my body at risk through a lack of proper nutrition, but my motives were not purely related to the idea of beauty in and of itself. I had accepted that I would never be “beautiful” according to the movies and pop culture, but I did still want to have a trim body. I associated fat with laziness and unrestrained eating of the worst possible foods. I wanted to only eat things that were “good” for my body, and I wanted to prove I was the exact opposite of the stereotypical American “couch potato”.

One can easily argue that my beliefs and obsession was the result of the influence of the media, constantly pushing diets and weight loss, different philosophies for “healthy” eating, and constantly showing women of below average weight as models of the ideal, regardless of how realistic it might be for the average woman. Certainly, culture and media  have a tremendous impact on personal values and psyches. Though it was not the only factor in my eating disorder, the presentation of women in media and culture did have an impact on my own beliefs that I had to fight against to see myself in a different perspective and come to better conceptions of what is healthy.

Over the past decades, there has been many initiatives to support “body positivity” and to embrace all body types for woman, and to better represent these. Changing the standard for what can be considered beautiful is long overdue; all skin types and body types are equally beautiful and valuable, and I am always encouraged to see these movements make it into the spotlight to challenge the dominant message so frequently put out. Women do not need to be constantly told that they are imperfect, and that they need to drastically change their appearance through clothes, diet, make up, or even surgery in order to truly be beautiful. They need to be shown that beauty is hardy a fixed concept, that instead there exists beauty in each and every individual. (I  realize this is an idealistic notion, but it is one I do firmly believe in.) It will take time and great effort, but it is something that is possible.

As I was perusing the news recently, I saw an article that highlighted conflicting viewpoints and the primary points on campaigns (from both sides) for body positivity or acceptance. 

While we must be careful to not mislabel individuals as being over or under what is a healthy weight, it is also irresponsible to present an extremely overweight image as one that is ideal. (To be clear, I do mean extremely overweight, according to BMI standards.) We have to remember that the dominant images presented in the media become acceptable. Obesity IS a concern in our country, and is increasingly a problem for children. Long term health risks from obesity are well known, including risks of diabetes and of  heart diseases. There of course is no single cause of obesity, but what is most important is to recognize that it is an issue that should not be ignored, just  as eating disorders should not be ignored in any way. If we accept obesity as something that is an acceptable part of our culture, more and more individuals will struggle with poor health, as well as overall poor quality of life.

As someone who has grappled with their own body image and feelings of inadequacy, I believe having a conversation about body image is of great importance. Body shaming is not something that can ever be condoned or tolerated. That does not mean, however,  that we should promote a blind acceptable of obesity or being greatly overweight to a point where it begins to affect individual health. Is there a clear line? Certainly not. And there is a great difference between demeaning someone because of their weight and recognizing that their weight is a concern because of more than appearance. Promoting body positivity must also be done in a way that does not the need for correct nutrition and exercise. Life is all about balance; there is no need to be below a healthy BMI for the sake of looking attractive, but there is also no reason to not say that obesity is an inescapable fate that should be presented as a positive model. Individuals of all ages and genders must see that what matters most is their well- being. Ultimately the conversation isn’t about what is and isn’t attractive- it’s about caring for oneself and your body. Emphasizing either extreme- either dangerous thinness or dangerous obesity- is problematic if they are presented as acceptable and “normal”.

I don’t believe it is fair to say that body positive campaigns necessarily promote obesity or overweight body types in an irresponsible way; they are simply showing real woman, with bodies that many more women can identify with over the “traditional” model types. Will showing some women who are overweight having a long lasting impact on our society? It seems unlikely. The women in body positive campaigns are not overweight, according to the medical definition, in many cases. It is important to present alternatives to the unhealthy, unrealistic images that have dominated for so long. But what is more important, I believe, is bringing about greater changes to what we place value on in terms of attractiveness in general, and placing greater value on overall well-being.

One saying I have always found to be ironic is “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” We hear it from a young age, but it not something generally seen and promoted throughout our culture. Especially in today’s world where we are bombarded with images and videos, we are constantly being told what is and isn’t beautiful. I am not so naive that I believe this can be changed anytime soon. But I think it is important that we begin to acknowledge more and more that there is more that one single type of beauty that exists. The pressure for woman, and certainly increasingly on men as well, to fit the ideal image is something that must be addressed, through certainly more diversity in the ways we present beauty in art and advertisement. I don’t want the students I teach daily to feel inferior because they do not look like the famous individuals the see on TV and the internet; instead, I want them to feel that their value comes from their actions and the relationships they have with their friends and families. I want them to have healthy lives, where they can get the exercise they need to truly enjoy each and every day rather than lives imprisoned by feeling that they will never be good enough or by illness from obesity. I want them to be judged by their spirit and quality of life, and to be able to feel proud of the way their uniqueness adds to their own beauty. Why continue to waste time obsession over unrealistic ideas and appearances rather than our own joy and personal successes and growth? 

Here one body positive model’s journey. 

Instead of focusing on whether the woman in ads and in shows are “beautiful”, let’s focus on whether or not they are healthy.

“Acceptance is different than apathy. It is important to strive to be your best self, your healthiest, most productive, joyful self. But that is going to be a different answer to everyone.”  -Teri Hatcher