Man in the women’s room

The Thinker by Rodin

The last few months have certainly been an eye opener. No, I haven’t drilled a hole into the women’s restroom, but I have been attending an Intuitive Eating course locally. I discussed it briefly in January. Since that time I’ve been meeting with a small group of people generally once a week trying to relearn the art of eating intuitively. The surprise for me was not the material itself; it was that I was the only man in the room.

I can’t remember this ever happening before, at least for not such a long time. I immediately felt like slapping myself in the forehead. Of course an intuitive eating course is going to be populated mostly by overweight or obese women. That’s because for the most part men avoid taking courses like these. Some men join Weight Watchers but it too gets far more women than men enrolling. And having taken Weight Watchers courses, it largely doesn’t get into the emotional aspects of eating. It’s all about points, carbs, exercise, sticking with the program and trying to fit you into some company’s model of how you should eat and behave, which is true of all diet programs. Men who want to lose weight are more likely to be looking for a “manly” way to do it, so they are doing it by mail for the most part, i.e. joining Nutrisystem.

An intuitive eating course is not about dieting; it’s about shedding the diet-forever mentality, which has the counterintuitive effect of causing weight gain. It’s more about eating naturally, which is why the French eat very well, smoke, drink to excess but largely avoid obesity, heart disease and other weight issues, oh, and outlive us as well. Eating though is very primal so unsurprisingly there is a huge amount of emotional baggage attached to it. The women in my group brought their lifelong experiences into the group.

At first I felt pretty uncomfortable. Teachers know what tends to happen in co-ed classrooms. Men, being men, tend to dominate discourse and women tend to ask fewer questions and hold back. I didn’t want my presence to inhibit the women from expressing themselves. They have been dealing with weight issues their whole lives. The message women get is relentless: much of who you are has little to do with your capabilities, but how well you fit into the stereotype of who women should be. It’s not just men who tend to prefer the skinny and attractive women who are to blame. It’s also a lot of other women projecting these same values, generally the popular and skinny ones, but more often an obsessive and controlling mother. So I found myself deliberately holding back. I didn’t want my default male attitude to keep the women from getting what they needed from the course.

Over just a couple of weeks I discovered that in many ways it sucks to be a woman. Women do get to have children, and I imagine that mothering a child can be a great pleasure. I was aware of some of the obvious ways it sucks to be a woman: generally being paid less for doing the same work as a man, sexually harassed off and on the job, feeling you have to always look good, not just to attract the perfect man but because you have to keep up with the competition: other women. It’s not hard for anyone to put on weight, but when women do the impact of it is often devastating. There are lots of obese men who feel the same way. But I believe that most men are not nearly as impacted emotionally by weight gain as women are. I certainly wasn’t. A lot of these women spent significant parts of our classes relating their emotional issues with eating and literally crying about it. I never once felt like crying. I could not empathize because I had never gone into these deep emotional wells that these women spend much of their lives inside.

The curious thing was that many of these women didn’t look all that bad. Overweight: yes. Obese? Maybe half the class qualified. Many were quite attractive but it was like they were carrying an extra fifty-pound pack on their backs that was purely the weight of emotional baggage. One exercise late in the class involved writing down things about yourself you didn’t like and having a partner read them back to you. The idea was to respond back with something positive or nonjudgmental, but some women could not go there. It was devastating to one woman. She went to a corner to cry; she simply could not participate. There was a lot of crying that day. Me? I was clear and dry-eyed. It was like Why are you crying about this? But of course I had not lived with all the projected shame these women had, both from outside and inside. That’s because for the most part overweight and obese men don’t get ridiculed and teased the way women do. And it’s devastating.

I got to know these women well enough to learn that this was only part of the psychological baggage they carry around. Men don’t understand. I thought I understood. But I really didn’t understand until these last few weeks. I think this is because I was seen as a safe male. (Confidentiality was also required). Being a woman is tough and most men if they were honest would not wish it on themselves. Very few women develop the stamina and resilience to learn to be comfortable with the person they are. And that’s the real shame. Men like me often see women as women first, not people first. We project our own needs onto women and expect them to deliver. For the most part women are not allowed the dignity of simply being who they are, freed from internal and external judgments. If they don’t fit our projected model of whom we think they should be, we denigrate or marginalize them instead.

The course ended yesterday. I can repeat it at no extra charge so I am thinking of doing that, because there is a lot of material to master and it’s hard to do it in ten weeks. But also, my curiosity and empathy genes are now engaged. Also, I am aging. As I age and my testosterone levels recede, aspects of women like how pretty they are tending to recede. In this class I did not see women; I saw people. I saw beautiful, warm and caring people struggling through difficult issues.

The really sick part of all of this is that we do this to ourselves. Everyone suffers by fruitlessly trying to live up to the expectations projected by others, of course. But women in general suffer magnitudes more than men do. Most of this suffering is so unnecessary and pointless, but it’s something society projects onto people and women in particular from birth. Its impact is devastating and lifelong.

Moreover, we make it worse. Look at the horrid laws being passed in mostly conservative states that are trying to take away reproductive choice from women. Women support many of these measures too. WTF? Why would any woman be so cruel as to keep contraceptives away from other women who can’t afford it? It’s all part of a process, perhaps largely unconscious, of belittling and dehumanizing women as a class of people, wholly for the type of sex organs they happen to have. It’s a choice we can change. We could end all this harmful and pointless nonsense. We could allow women to live full, happy and productive lives instead. First though we have to stop seeing them as fulfilling ridiculous gender roles and see them as whole people.

I’ve intellectually felt this way for most of my life. Now, at last, in my sixtieth year, I feel I’ve bridged that emotional distance too.

The real price of discrimination

The Thinker by Rodin

Today’s Martin Luther King holiday actually has me reflecting on Martin Luther King. That’s in part due to the annual news stories about the holiday and snippets of his most famous speeches that always show up on social media on the holiday. Most churches reinforce his legacy, as mine did yesterday. The bloody march he led to Montgomery, Alabama, which began at a bridge in Selma, Alabama (it happened fifty years ago this March) killed some and injured many more innocent people who were simply demanding that blacks be treated equally.

One of those killed was a Unitarian Universalist minister, and that’s important to me because I am a UU. The Reverend Jim Reeb was one of many UU ministers who hustled down to Selma to join the march to Montgomery. White men with clubs attacked him and others on the march. He likely died because he could not get to a hospital in time, as he could only be transported in a black ambulance (which also got a flat tire en route), even though he was white. Also among the UU ministers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma was the UU minister Reverend John Wells, then of the Mount Vernon, Virginia UU church. He married my wife and I thirty years ago. He spoke proudly of his participation in the march when we met with him for some pre-nuptial planning.

2014 sobered many of us up who were beginning to believe we lived in a post racial society. After all we had elected a black president not once, but twice. Things are certainly better racially than they were fifty years ago in Selma. Yet if we have come a long way to end racism, it’s now undeniable that we still have a long way yet to go. Quite obviously though it’s not just racism that divides us. Martin Luther King spent most of his ministry trying to bring about racial justice, but he was certainly aware that injustice had many aspects. Racial injustice was easy to see and impossible to ignore. Dr. King also helped open the door to expose other forms of discrimination. While I feel aghast at how much work remains to create a racially just society, I can also feel satisfaction in how far we’ve come in other areas. Later this year it is likely that the U.S. Supreme Court will make same sex marriage a right. Fifty years ago homosexuals were barely acknowledged. This is tremendous progress.

There may be a reason that homophobia receded so quickly. Whereas skin color is impossible to ignore, someone’s sexual preference is impossible to know unless it is disclosed. It might be inferred but it’s hard to say with certainty. Whereas many whites may know few blacks intimately, most of us have a gay sibling, cousin, aunt or uncle in the family (and maybe several). This has the effect of forcing us to confront our prejudices. It is easier for us to identify with others when they are close to us. I think this principally explains the stunning advancement of marriage and parental rights for gays and lesbians. As gays and lesbians gain rights and broad acceptance in society, it is becoming easier for other queers to gain acceptance too. The brave new oppressed social group these days seems to be the transgender community. It’s not hard to predict that this community, which already has rights in some localities, will gain full equality relatively quickly as well as specific legal protections. Many of us have now encountered an openly transgender person in the workplace and they no longer seem scary. I have known three.

We don’t think of whites looking down on fellow whites, but in truth whites do this all the time. The whites that populate most of Appalachia, particularly the lower class whites, are targets of discrimination and ridicule too. Terms like “white trash” should be just as offensive as “nigger”. This is an area I need to work on, as I have lampooned Walmart shoppers in a few posts, although it’s not just whites that shop at Walmart. Sites like peopleofwalmart.com and whitetrashrepairs.com cater to those who like to look down at what we perceive as the faults or eccentricities of lower class whites, but really just those with lower incomes in general or that strike us as intensely peculiar.

The unspoken animus is that while we can afford our lifestyle, they cannot and therefore there must be something wrong with them. In truth, what is “wrong” with them is mostly our refusal to help them raise their economic status. These people are actually much stronger and resilient than those of us further up the economic ladder, they just don’t have the resources to ascend the ladder. If the rest of us were forced to live on a quarter of our income, we would not fare nearly as well, although we like to think we could. More about this is a subsequent post, perhaps.

There are many other ways we overtly or covertly discriminate, but they generally have “ism” in common. Most upper class whites are fine having blacks as neighbors providing they adopt our values, maintain their houses real well and don’t raise any problem children. Racism and ethnic discrimination usually amounts to classism. We gain perceived social status roughly based on our income, which we then parade in the quality of our neighborhoods, the skinniness of our trophy wives and the costs and brands of our cars.

The Irish are as white as any group of Caucasians from Europe, but they were ruthlessly discriminated and ghetto-ized when they came to America, as were many other white ethnic groups. They were not so much melted down as grudgingly accepted into the culture if they could find a golden ticket to the middle class. After a while someone’s ethnicity did not matter, but class still did. Sexism is going through something similar. One of our most glaring “isms” doesn’t quite have a word yet. I call it attractiveness discrimination. There is no question that attractive people in general have privileges and opportunities disproportionate to those perceived to be less attractive. Those judged to be plain or ugly are frequently victims of discrimination: in employment, in insurability, in wages and in many other ways. We project onto attractive people qualities they may or may not have, and sometimes discriminate against attractive people as well by assuming they can do things they cannot simply because they are attractive.

I don’t know how we fully rid ourselves of these biases and discriminatory tendencies. It is an ugly side to our species. Dogs to not appear to be classists by nature, so in that sense they are superior to us. What matters is only how they are treated, and sometimes not even that. What is hard to measure is the true cost of all this multilevel, multi-variable discrimination. Whatever the true cost is, it must be catastrophically high. When I read stories like Republicans in Congress trying to cut food stamp benefits or trying to take Medicaid away from the working poor, at best I wince and at worst I cry. To make people whose lives are already so miserable even more miserable seems like a crime worthy of being sent to hell’s lowest level. Our world is so miserable and the misery seems likely to only increase. Yet the classism within us makes the situation exponentially worse. It denies so many of us the ability to achieve their potential. Imagine what our country could be if everyone could live up to their potential. Imagine how enriched society would be.

This is the true cost of discrimination. Those of us who discriminate may do so overtly or covertly, but when we do it we stick the dagger not only into those we discriminate against, but also into ourselves. We empty ourselves of the values we need to have a loving and caring community.

On this Martin Luther King holiday, this is part of his message that so often overlooked that I am pondering. It leaves me feeling melancholy and fighting despair.