Either/Or…. Or Not

by Sarah on October 24, 2013

Last week I wrote my most popular post of all time. I was pretty excited about that.

But as I was writing it, I was intentionally leaving out a lot of the clarifications and tangents I would usually include in my writing.

I knew that if I did it right, it would have some legs.

Unfortunately, “right” meant ignoring a lot of the nuances that really matter to me. I’m glad I wrote it the way I did, even if I then had to deal with a bunch of bigoted idiots saying stupid things about it on reddit.

But since this is my blog, and the bigoted idiots tend to stay away, I thought I’d go back and hit some of the deeper points for you lovely folks who do appreciate that sort of thing.

1. Binaries Are Stooooopid

“Given any binary, it’s fun to look for some hidden third, and the reason why the third was hidden says a lot about a culture. The choice between two of something is not a choice at all, but rather the opportunity to subscribe to the value system which holds the two presented choices as mutually exclusive alternatives.”
–Kate Bornstein

I made a video a while back about the problem with the whole Introvert/Extrovert obsession that has been sweeping the blogosphere over the past year.

The gist of the thing was that while there may be some useful things to be learned in the process of deciding which box to fit oneself into, even more useful things can be learned if one looks at these things as more of a spectrum.

A little bit from column A, a little bit from column B, and suddenly you’ve got a real person, not a textbook example.

The more I try to deconstruct the idea of binaries in my head, the more I realize how constrained I’ve been by them.

And if you’re one of the people rolling their eyes and thinking this is overly sensitive and categories are useful, I’d like to argue that creating two exclusive categories has been responsible for most of the atrocities in our history. It’s the us vs. them mentality. The creation of other. Tons has been written about this, so I’m not going to rehash it all, but it’s pretty much in any dystopian fiction you’d want to read and 99% of historical non-fiction.

And, you know, anywhere you look in life.

In the case of “plus-size” vs. “straight-size”, fat people are the “other.”

My problem with “plus-size” and “straight-size” is mostly just the idea that you’re either this or that.

Someone decided to create an arbitrary dividing line at size 14, and anyone over that size is shamed in a number of blatant and subtle ways: Having to shop in the dungeon at department stores, having to order everything online because their sizes aren’t available in stores, not having access to clothing that is well made and stylish, and so on and so forth.

The truth is something more like… I want to say a spectrum, but truthfully body sizes don’t exist in just one dimension. It’s a lot bigger and messier than even a spectrum would allow for, but a spectrum would at least be closer to the truth.

When we’re asking people to think about the world in terms of false binaries, it’s all to easy for them to dehumanize the “other.”

Don’t believe me? Go read the asshole comments on Reddit.

2. But Men…

“But as a man, I have important feelings about this subject!”
Robot Hugs, “But Men”

A lot of people responded to the article by pointing out that men also have something comparable to “plus-size”, which is known as big and tall.

This is partially true. Men of certain height or girth do have to go to specialty shops to find clothing that fits. All stores can’t carry all sizes, and that is an unfortunate (and non-gender-specific) truth. It sucks, but it’s not the problem I’m talking about.

However, here are some of the things men don’t have to deal with:

  1. Men do not have two separate departments in department stores. It is only the men at the far end of the spectrum who have to go to a separate store. On the other hand, in the case of “plus size” women’s clothing, we’re talking about upwards of 50% of women who have to shop in a separate area of the store, if not a different location entirely.
  2. The big and tall clothes do not carry any appended letters. Women’s plus sizes often have a W at the end, i.e. 16W, 18W, 24W…. Men’s sizes are just measurements. There’s no need to call it a 46M. It’s just 46. The same as 36…. but bigger.
  3. Big and tall men’s clothing looks like all the other men’s clothing, but bigger. Plus-size women’s clothing frequently looks like ugly nightgowns. At twice the price.
  4. There is way less shame and stigma associated with big and tall. Because men aren’t taught to base their worth on their appearance (nearly as much as women are), they’re not suddenly outcasts from society just because they have to shop at the Big and Tall store. This is not to say that men don’t experience sizeism, just that “big and tall” is seen as a descriptor and plus-size is often seen as a moral failing negatively affecting one’s value as a woman.
  5. Finally, big/tall men aren’t singled out and asked what they like to be called and then written up in online media outlets. You’ll never see a HuffPo article that says, “Tall Men Prefer to Be Called Vertically Gifted.” Nobody cares. They don’t care because they don’t see themselves as a unified group and neither do the marketers. They’re not defined by their other-ness; they’re just tall. Generally, nobody calls them much of anything (although they may have the unfortunate problem of frequently being asked if they play basketball or having other people comment on their tallness.) But mostly, they just have to shop at a place where they can find their size.

If women’s clothing were sized and sold the way men’s is… I’d be fine with this. If they would size things by measurements, put only the really rare sizes in a separate store, and make attractive stylish clothing available across the whole size spectrum, I’d probably stop complaining.

I know it’s not fun being a size outside of the mainstream and having to order online or go to special stores or what have you. I have big feet and can only shop for shoes online and at Payless. I get it.

But I’m not crusading against the big-feet-ists.

I’m arguing against the system that takes more than 50% of the female population and labels them as other and then insists that their needs are somehow different from the rest of the population…. all in order to sell them on their own inadequacies. (Key word: sell.)

(Side note: I found a pair of jeans last week in my size that are just denim – no stretching, no slimming panels, no tummy tuck technology. I almost died from excitement. You can’t tell me that women who are a size 2 have the same problem. Or that men ever have that problem.)

Plus-size is not the same as Big & Tall. End of story.

3. Sizeism – It’s Not Just For Women

Let’s just get this out on the table: I think the gender binary is stupid.

And while I don’t think men’s clothing creates the same problem for men that women’s does for women, I do believe that all people experience sizeism regardless of gender.

I wrote the article using the phrase “women” because it was in response to an article in HuffPo:Women which did the same. It was not meant to be exclusive of any other genders although it was meant to be particularly directed at people who shop or have experience shopping in the “women’s” clothing departments.

That being said, the war on fat people is not limited to women, and it can suck just as hard to be a fat man or other gendered person, for many reasons.

Sizeism is a huge problem for everyone. I don’t want to belittle that.

I think due to the way our culture thinks about femininity, female-identified people feel a lot more pressure regarding their appearance.

There is a problem with the way women’s value is still defined by physical appearance. So being more, rather than less, sensitive to issues affecting women’s perception of themselves is called for.

(Side note: I’ve been reading Kate Bornstein all the time, and I am finding it harder and harder to say anything about women or men or gender at all at the moment. But as I saw on Twitter yesterday, just because something is a social construct does not mean it’s not real. And being raised under the binary label of woman in a society that has really strong feelings about what it means to be a woman has inevitably affected who I am and how I see the world, and so that’s where I’m coming from.)

4. Learn to Read Studies

Moving on, the actual point I was making was really about how HuffPo and other media outlets distorted the results of a survey to serve their own purposes.

Okay, so an online clothing retailer asking a hundred women whether they prefer to be called “curvy” “plus-sized” or “full-figured” is hardly serious science.

And yet, the mainstream media, in the desire to write sensationalist headlines, came up with stupid things like, “Plus-Size Women Prefer to Be Called Curvy” when in fact, the results didn’t say that.

You can read the original article for the details, but one of my biggest points when writing it was that the media was basically making up things that weren’t true. Plus-size women, at least the ones surveyed, didn’t really care what they were called and mostly just wanted to stop being called stupid euphemisms.

This happens ALL THE TIME.

If you see an article about a study, you should probably go read the study because the article is probably completely misinterpreting it. And the misinterpretation will get read by everyone, and we will have bad science circulating as common knowledge. This is pretty much a fact of life.

The best way to deal with this is learning to read the studies yourself. And not just the summaries, because even the scientists try to put a good PR spin on their results.

Learn about margins of error and sample sizes and statistical significance. Find out what constitutes good science. Understand and look for logical fallacies.

Or at least, don’t believe everything you read on HuffPo.

5. I’m Not Too Sensitive

It’s hard to fight an enemy who has outposts in your head. -Sally Kempton, Esquire, 1970

Slowly, over the past year or so, all the different ways I’ve been fucked over by mainstream American culture have been dawning on me. Even for someone who has always seen herself as an outsider, my own sense of self-worth has been very much affected by how I perceive my physical appearance and my ability to conform to conventional beauty standards.

My ability to move through the world as myself and take up space and get things done is constantly hampered by the messages I’ve internalized about the value of my own thoughts and opinions in the world. And this, from someone who has always thought she’s on the smarter side of smart.

So yes, I’m going to be writing a lot more in ways that may get called “overly sensitive,” but you know what? I’ve been brainwashed – we’ve all been brainwashed – and I’m fucking pissed off about it.

And I’m going to challenge assumptions and questions norms and yell and scream and rant and rave because saying that oppressed peoples are “overly sensitive” is how the people with power get away with this kind of mass mind control.

If one person called me plus-sized and I went home and cried, maybe I’d be overly sensitive. But we’re talking about society-wide systems which tells me that I’m less than because of my body and that tells me my body is my main source of value because I’m a woman.

Yes, one article is “no big deal,” and I could just look the other way and go on with my life. But the truth is that the one article stands for so many problems with our society and looking the other way and not challenging the things I think are wrong doesn’t help anyone. And the fact that one person’s response to one article got nearly 200 likes on Facebook (with my very tiny tiny reach) means that this problem is probably more than just mine.

So I’ll continue my little voice-crying-in-the-wind business and be as sensitive as I damn want. Because I fucking feel strongly about this.

And if I can help you see why, or feel a little more empathy, or even just formulate a question to ask, then we’re moving closer to understanding one another and ourselves.

And that’s all I can ask for.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Noga October 27, 2013 at 1:01 pm

Thanks, Sarah! great post!


Karen J October 24, 2013 at 3:13 pm

ThankYou-ThankYou-ThankYou, Sarah, for elaborating and clarifying around this! So clearly written – I’m jealous 🙂 and incredibly impressed. and I agree with you, 100%.


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