From Theory to Praxis: Turning Apologies into Advancements

While I didn’t explicitly say this at any point during the semester, many of my peers already know that I have Tourette Syndrome (TS) and OCD. Tourette Syndrome is a neurobiological disorder characterized by motor and vocal tics, or involuntary movements and sounds. Thus, my journey from childhood into young adulthood was marked by instances of shame and pain, in which my peers voiced their disgust towards the “stupid” noises I made. I remember feeling defenseless against angry classmates who just wanted me to “shut up”, for they failed to understand the lack of control I had over my own body. Unable to bear the weight of the insults, I devised a plan to flip the script such that I was in a position of power. I decided to talk. In fifth grade, I gave my first TS talk, which involved a very informal discussion with my fifth grade classmates about TS, including the symptoms, the sensations, and the discomforts of the disorder. However, this one-time presentation very quickly evolved into a fulltime job. In highschool, I was certified as a Tourette Syndrome Ambassador for the Tourette Syndrome Association, and my job involved travelling to different elementary and middle schools in New Jersey to educate kids not only about TS, but also about stigmatization in general and the negative impacts it has on kids’ self-esteems. The overarching theme for the presentation was the importance of accepting people’s differences. While I came to college thinking I had taught thousands of kids an important lesson on “tolerance”, GSS 101 has changed my perspective, and, as a result, my future lesson plan.

Through our countless discussions regarding marginalization of mass amounts of people based on their race, sexual orientation, and physical capabilities, I’ve learned an important lesson on the apology narrative. As we discussed in class, pop culture has unfairly, and frankly, mistakenly characterized homosexuals as ashamed men and women who, deep down, desire a heterosexual orientation. In this way, popular coming out narratives frame gay people as apologetic for their sexual orientations, feeling they need to justify their sexual deviancy from the heterosexual norm. However, this framework is inherently flawed. It suggests that homosexual people are somehow lesser and subservient to their heterosexual counterparts with whom they are confessing a deep, dark, embarrassing secret, when in fact, variance from heterosexuality is common and no less acceptable than heterosexuality. This need to apologize for what makes us different stems from hegemonic monoliths that produce us as subjects—specifically heteronormative, white subjects. As a result, any deviancy from this model results in unwarranted discomfort and shame.

In the TS presentation I used to share in high school, the closing slide was a real tear-jerker, but now I realize it was also extremely stigmatizing in nature. On the last slide, I read an apology note to the students, pleading with them to understand that if I could, I wouldn’t make any noise in the back of the classroom, and that it bothers me just as much as it bothers them. Now that I’m armed with knowledge regarding subjectivity in our society, I feel incredibly embarrassed and ignorant for feeling the NEED to beg for forgiveness from a load of 10 year olds. In apologizing for my differences, I merely strengthened the shame discourses associated with disabilities as opposed to subverting them as I intended. I realize now that in order to truly deconstruct stigma surrounding various medicalized disabilities and differences, we need to look BEYOND medicine, which describes disabilities as pathologies, and present what we refer to as “disorders” as merely other versions of the “norm”. In the future, I plan to delete that slide from the presentation and, instead, work to deconstruct children’s perspectives of normalcy, which is where all stigma stems from.

 

Review of Fat Gay Men by Jason Whitesel

While we expect marginalized peoples to band together towards a common fight for universal liberties as a result of their shared stigmatizations, minorities are often splintered further as people embody multiple “deviant” identities. In this way, those who are both African American and asexual, lower class and lesbian, or Muslim and paraplegic confront ostracism not only from their race, class, and religion, but also from their sexual and disabled peers. As Jason Whitesel exposes in Fat Gay Men, the same can be said for homosexual men, facing heteronormative isolation, who are fat, confronting more stigma still within the gay community

In fact, America’s preoccupation with weight as a measure of worth, sexuality, and capability is so pervasive that overweight, gay men created a niche community separate from their skinny gay counterparts in pursuit of much-desired comfort, sexual freedom, resignification, and normalcy. Jason Whitesel analyzes, through his own personal research, discussed in Fat Gay Men, how society injures big, gay men and, in turn, how they respond to their isolation. More importantly, however, Whitesel observes and comments on how the “Girth and Mirthers”, members of the fat gay society he studies, redefine what it means to be chubby and homosexual to reflect value as opposed to worthlessness.

Whitesel, who also identifies as gay (but thin), is a sociologist who earned his Ph.D. from Ohio State University in 2009. Now, while writing to incite intersectional interventions that expose the multiple layers of stigma existent in American society, he works as an Assistant Professor at Pace University. His work as an LGBTQ educator has earned him status as 2016’s LGBTQA Educator of the Year, for his tireless devotion to guiding students’ introspective analyses of their own privileges and powers relative to others has sparked change in the minds of our youth. Through Fat Gay Men, Whitesel extends his instruction to the general public, working to undermine the conventional wisdoms equating fat with disease and homosexuality with deviancy.

Before delving into the research Whitesel conducted, he finds it essential to discuss his methodology. Unlike a controlled scientific experiment, in which a researcher manipulates an independent variable and controls for all others in an effort to draw conclusions about the effects of a treatment on a test subject, Whitesel conducts an observational, ethnographic analysis of a society he becomes a part of. Not only does he study the Girth and Mirthers, as they are so affectionately and proudly named, he becomes a “dues-paying member” serving “functional roles” for the group, all the while divulging his researcher status to fellow members (Whitesel 4). As a result, his dual role as participator and investigator allowed him entry into many private lives, earned him companionship and friendship, and thus shaped the nature of his findings; he listened and empathized with honest confessions of hardship and shame, donning both his researcher and friend caps simultaneously.

Once Whitesel commits himself to his readers as both an objective observer and loyal confidante to the Girth and Mirther community, he sets the stage for the direction of the rest of the study. With conviction and transparency, Whitesel promises to “lend legitimacy” to the Girth and Mirth culture placing fat studies in direct communication with disability and sexuality studies over the course of his analysis (5). For, it is the intersectional nature of the various stigmas attributed to fat gay men that drove his study in the first place. Then he sections the feast of knowledge accumulated over the course of his three-year immersion into the fat gay community into five, bite-sized chunks and delves into each chapter in turn.

First, Whitesel defines the term Girth and Mirth, which will be discussed at great length throughout the study. The name in and of itself attempts to reconfigure the shame productive power dynamics produce within fat gay subjects; in laymen’s terms, the phrase means fat and happy–two ideas heteronormative persons rarely join hand in hand. Thus, the fat gay men who join together under the Girth and Mirth umbrella seek or already identify with the sentiment of happiness not always in spite of, but often as a result of, their weights. Why? The Girth and Mirth society provides large homosexual men with a make-shift kin, complete with coffee-groups, pot-luck dinners, and life-long friendships that help these doubly marginalized men confront and alleviate shame. Moreover, the group “draws big gay men out of social isolation” through multiple community-based activities, offering the men a sense of membership and inclusion they never experienced before (Whitesel, 10). Through testimonials, Whitesel supports the above claims with evidence that, indeed, the Girth and Mirth community provides members with sanctuary, society, and family—three facets of social interaction essential to human survival and prosperity.

Next Whitesel backtracks, discussing the various injustices dealt to the big gay men who ultimately seek the Girth and Mirth membership discussed in the previous chapter, ranging from desexualization and dehumanization to “marginalization and shame” (29). In the same ethnographic style as before, Whitesel employs testimonials to provide evidence for the institutionalized discrimination against fat gay men. Some of the systemic wrong-doings include denying health care to overweight, gay patients and, in a Pretty Woman-esque scenario, denying service to overweight, gay customers. For example, one man describes walking into a retail store and failing to flag down a sale’s rep. Despite his efforts, he appeared “invisible” to the salesmen, for fat is often equated with sloppy and poor; how could a man with such disregard for his appearance afford much less desire a crisp, clean suit (Whitesel, 30). Only when dressed in business attire did this large man receive the service he deserved. In this way, Whitesel not only frames the plight of fat gay men, but he illustrates it in such visceral detail his readers are left cringing with embarrassment as they empathize with the overweight customer.

Nonethelesss, Whitesel notes how this sort of fat-profiling often causes more pain when the source is a member of the gay community. For, when gay, fat men seek refuge from the discrimination they face from heteronormative society on the basis of their sexuality, the majority of gay men turn them away, only seeing “‘a bunch of big guys’” (Whitesel, 35). This experience of feeling fat and simultaneously unattractive is one heterosexual women have grappled with for decades. However, Whitesel notes once more how fat, gay men cannot commiserate and work through their shame with heterosexual female counterparts on account of their sexual deviancies. Thus, Whitesel structures the true plight of two-fold marginalization that inevitably relegates fat, gay men to the furthest outskirts of society, and forces readers to understand how and why the Girth and Mirth community came to be.

Over the course of the next two chapters, Whitesel compares and contrasts two national Girth and Mirth events not only in their structure, but in their methods of resignifying fat, gay shame. Every year, fellow Girth and Mirthers look forward to two fat, gay holidays: the Super Weekend and Convergence, with the former occurring in July and the latter over Labor Day weekend. While the Super Weekend is known for its “campy queer” events, which depend on sexual absurdity and perversion to re-establish fat, homosexual men as attractive, Convergence relies on organized programming dedicated to the imitation of “high class” so as to “raise their own status” (Whitesel, 93). In this manner, both events share the same goal: to redefine what it means to be fat and gay. However, the events tend to attract slightly different demographics due to the different methods they employ to achieve a higher social status. While Super Weekend guests partake in casual sexual encounters and perverse sexual performances, Convergence attendees work within the framework of heteronormative society, visiting museums and sculpture gardens in order to emulate skinny, straight peers. Thus, Whitesel’s experiences at both conventions were quite different, but the sentiment he observed and reported upon was the same: an overall desire for inclusion, value, and sexual validity.

Finally, Whitesel discusses alternative methods for coping with shame. Thus far, he discussed how many choose to perform their bodies while others seek status through emulation of the elite, but still others manage their personal shame discourses simply by “weathering” the storm (Whitesel, 111). As Whitesel notes, many fat, gay men meet with their local Girth and Mirth chapters and engage in family-style dinners to escape the ostracism they would otherwise face alone in public. Others choose to confront their shame, with one man submitting nude photos of himself to a magazine in order to deconstruct his body discomfort and replace it with body appreciation (Whitesel, 112). This narrative is important as it acknowledges the tendency of many fat gay men to have a second “coming out”—as fat (Whitesel, 111) .

Those who read Fat, Gay Men will note how Whitesel adequately places his own findings in conversation with other established authors and academics in fat studies, sexuality studies, and disability studies. For example, in Chapter 1, Whitesel not only puts Erving Goffman, an academic expert in stigma, and Eriche Goode, a sociologist specializing in social deviance, in conversation with himself, but in conversation with each other. He demonstrates how Goode’s comment on the tendency of “normals” to “focus on a negative trait” directly plays into Goffman’s concept of “nonperson treatment”, which describes the tendency for heteronormative folk to treat stigmatized people as though they do not exist (Whitesel, 31). Then, he relates both concepts to the experience of the Girth and Mirther who is refused service at a retail store as a direct consequence of his size and appearance, connecting key concepts of disability studies, as obese folk are deemed incapable and undesirable, with fat studies.

Nonetheless, Whitesel’s study design carries a key flaw: his role as an honest researcher and disguised participant switched throughout the three-year investigation. While Whitesel was open with his local Girth and Mirth chapter and attendants at Convergence of his status as a researcher, he concealed that valuable information from participants at the Super Weekend, which may have changed the nature of his conversations with various fat, gay men. For example, while Super Weekenders might have felt comfortable engaging in sexual play with Whitesel, assuming he was one of their own, Convergence attendees might have engaged in more reserved interactions with Whitesel for fear of judgement and perpetuation of the shame discourse that propelled them towards the Girth and Mirthers in the first place. The nature of power dynamics is such that we inherently act differently towards members of authority than others within our own class. Thus, it is entirely possible Whitesel’s encounters with fat, gay men at Convergence were skewed, such that he only saw their efforts to achieve sophisticated class while casual, campy interactions were occurring behind the scenes. Standardization of Whitesel’s behavior may be deemed necessary in order for his findings to merit validity.

Despite his design flaws, Whitesel’s commitment to the Girth and Mirth community over the course of three years merits his findings, in Fat Gay Men, praise, for he engaged with these men for an extended period of time, developing relationships with a few and interacting on a personal level with many. The use of Girth and Mirther testimonials to engage fat studies with sexuality and disability studies was a powerful choice that inherently evokes empathy in Whitesel’s readers, despite their background; while some readers may not be gay, they might identify with weight struggles and the pursuit of an unrealistic skinny goal perpetuated by American media. In this way, Whitesel’s book serves beginners in the fat studies and sexuality studies realms, for his clear, conversational speak welcomes all readers, effectively opening the door to changing dominant heteronormative ideologies. Thus, Whitesel’s piece inherently promotes change, if not in one’s treatment towards marginalized peoples, at least in their understanding of intersectional stigmatization. This newfound understanding serves many as an ideological stepping stone towards altering the productive discourses of shame that have ruled American society into the present, deconstructing the monolith regarding homosexuality as deviant and fat as worthless.

Works Cited

Whitesel, Jason. Fat Gay Men: Girth, Mirth, and the Politics of Stigma. New York:        NYU Press, 2014. Print.

#LikeALLGirls

Media Analysis: #LikeAGirl

If you watched the 2015 Super Bowl, it’s likely that you saw Always’ poignant advertisement endorsing a more nuanced definition for the colloquialism, “like a girl”. A teenage girl named Erin opens the advertisement with her interpretation of what it means to run like a girl, followed by a number of other similarly aged girls and a few boys. She takes her perfectly manicured hands and places them at her sides, with the palm outstretched perpendicularly to her legs. Like a clumsy doll, she proceeds to prance around the room, indicating that girls are unable to run in an athletic, masculine fashion. Immediately after, a set of young girls around the age of 8 introduce themselves and show their interpretation of what it means to run “like a girl”. Young and uncorrupted, these girls appear unfazed by the fact that “like a girl” functions as an insult in society, and they proceed to run “as fast as [they] can” (Always, 2015). Athletic, confident, and powerful, these young girls embody society’s future women, illustrating the uplifting possibility that today’s females may equate themselves to their male counterparts in adulthood if we continue to encourage their strength.

While this advertisement attempts to reclaim and resignify the colloquial phrase “like a girl” to imply strength and power instead of weakness, rocking the traditional gender binary that represses female power, its efforts are futile. Unfortunately, the language and images the campaign promotes alienates a multitude of women who don’t identify with the heteronormative actresses on screen while also encouraging the categorization of society into two neat boxes marked male and female. According to Always, what it means to be “like a girl” is no longer weak, but instead feminine, dress-wearing, and cis-gendered, as Erin and her counterparts flash whitened teeth and flip their freshly curled locks (Always 2015), which is limited at best. Since the 1990s, feminist and queer interventions, two by Anne Fausto-Sterling, have helped us to understand how the very categorical descriptors of “girl” and “boy” subject human-beings as a species to a rigid binary that demoralizes instead of empowers. Furthermore, Foucault’s The History of Sexuality provides insight into how the employment of language, which is productive in nature, results in the subjectification and confinement of humanity to the gender binary that oppresses us (1997). Thus, as Always proposes a newfound strength in girl-dom, one that praises traditional female gender norms such as dresses, makeup, and hair bows instead of condemning them, it fails to empower and speak for women who transcend these norms. In this way, Always helps the gender dichotomy strengthen its grasp on society, for it excludes the all people who don’t conform to one extreme or the other (girl or boy).

Language is both an expanding and restrictive tool, which can reflect and reproduce a narrow understanding of the world around us instead of a thorough one. Anne Fausto-Sterling speaks to this power in her piece, Sexing the Body, which investigates the origination of a commonly accepted philosophy that biological sex determines gender (2000). As Sterling (2000) postulates, the medicalization of the human body in the 20th century resulted in the categorization of the species into two subtypes based on physical genitalia, when, in fact, many intersex beings with combined sexual organs transcend this rigid dichotomy. Always, instead of exposing gender’s abstract nature, encourages the binary by distinguishing “females” from their polar opposite: males. When the producer asks how a cis-gendered, female teen feels when someone says she throws “like a girl”, the actress responds by characterizing women as “strong” even though the colloquialism portrays femininity as “weak” (Always, 2014). However, in doing so, she undermines the commercial’s attempt to rock the gender binary by enforcing a distinction between men and women to begin with. She doesn’t say that people are strong, but that women are strong. In doing so, her language alone separates her kind of woman, a dress-wearing, makeup-using, cis-gendered female from the infinite other genders that truly exist.

While language in and of itself restricts our understanding of gender, a complex topic, to a limited, binary perspective, the manner in which it is employed further reduces our insight. Not only does this Always ad encourage the usage of dichotomous phrases such as “girl”, “boy”, “strong”, and “weak”, but it also subconsciously endorses a singular kind of normative woman. In a later clip, a girl wearing an effeminate blue dress and bright red lipstick states that “[she] walks like a girl and wakes up like a girl because [she is] a girl, and that is not something to be ashamed of” (Always, 2014). Through the voice of the blue-dress-actress, Always fights for unity amongst women but instead alienates the myriad of girls (the asexual, transgendered, masculine, etc.) who don’t walk and talk like the heteronormative actress. In campaigning for pride amongst normative females like Erin and her friend in the blue dress, Always actually oppresses the non-normative women that choose to transcend the gender/sexuality binary, for no genderless women were featured amongst the actresses representing the types of girls society is not “ashamed of” (Always, 2015). This line raises the controversial question of whether or not girls who break the heteronormative mold in fact do have something to be ashamed of, for they don’t dress or express themselves exactly as the Always spokes-girls do. Similar to the way in which the Victorian’s obsession with talking about and medicalizing of sex resulted in the production of sex, men, and women as subjects, this commercial engenders a subcategory of women within the female realm: the ideal woman (Foucault, 1979). Everyone else simply does not fit the mold and is treated as such.

While Always attempts to reclaim the colloquialism “like a girl” and reshape it to express a woman’s power and equality to her male counterparts, the company solely fights on behalf of the heteronormative female population, resulting in a very limited pursuit of girl power that subjectifies many non-binary women through the dissemination and internalization of the #likagirl campaign. When asked once more how to run “like a girl”, an African American actress with straightened hair, winged eyeliner, and highwaisted jeans explains she will “run like herself”, implying that she, a cisgender, heteronormative female, represents all girls (Always, 2015). Clearly this poses a problem for Always’ mission, for it suggests that an acceptable woman is one who conforms absurd beauty standards to satiate the male gaze that has an ever-present hold on female lives. As Always encourages females to pursue heteronormative behaviors, girls and women across the nation will internalize these values (the dresses, makeup, and curled hair) and succumb to a Foucault-dian productive power that prevents them from rising up against the rigid gender symbols forced upon them by our patriarchal society (Foucault, 1997). This sort of “productivity” is more oppressive than it is beneficial. Instead of proposing the explosion of the binary altogether and the reassessment of what it really means to be a girl—whether you are heterosexual or genderless—#likeagirl subconsciously suggests that only heterosexual, cisgender women should explore their inner power within the boundaries of the beauty/behavioral standards that our unyielding society is already accustomed to. How can humankind expect to move past the binary if it only recognizes one kind of woman—the type that wears form-fitting dresses to hug their breasts and show off their traditionally feminine sex characteristics?

Language has evolved since the dawn of time into an essential aspect of human relations necessary to converse, empathize, and understand one another. However, in the search for understanding we have limited ourselves by constructing rigid definitions for each word in our lexicon. Terms such as “boy” and “girl” meant to simplify and explain society subject it to a binary perspective with little wiggle room to explore the possibilities of a more abstract gender sphere. While Always pursued a female-empowering, binary-exploding campaign with its #likeagirl commercial, the language spoken throughout the advertisement (weak/strong, self-conscious/confident, boy/girl) not only encourages black and white binaries,  but also pits women against each other, as heteronormative, dress-wearing females are equated with “winning” while genderqueer women are not represented (Always, 2015) . While #likagirl successfully empowers heterosexual, cisgender females to embrace confidence and self-assurance through the use of heteronormative actresses wearing excessive makeup and traditional female sex symbols such as dresses and bright pink colors, it fails to empower all women. To take this campaign to the next level and fight for equality amongst all females and males, genderqueer women need a voice alongside their heteronormative counterparts. Redefining #likagirl as a more fluid, concept including feminine and masculine women alike will open the doors to exploding the gender binary and, ultimately, achieving a genderless society where #likaperson frames public discourse.

https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwiL-v_G2ZrPAhVm2oMKHS8hADwQyCkIIDAA&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DXjJQBjWYDTs&usg=AFQjCNHXZLObKbGPG0DNeC8iHIsvRknCEw

Works Cited

Fausto-Sterling, A. (2000a). Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality (Revised ed. edition). New York, NY: Basic Books.

Fausto-Sterling, A. (2000b). The Five Sexes, Revisited. The Sciences, 40(4), 18–23. http://doi.org/10.1002/j.2326-1951.2000.tb03504.x

Foucault, M. (2012). The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.