I’m really sick of hearing the quote, “No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.” Not because I necessarily dislike or disagree with the quote, but because I keep seeing it used to shut up people when they talk about legitimate grievances.
The beginnings of this post have been in my mind for a while now, but the answer to “Why now?” is because of the reaction both to the Jennifer Livingston video and to Michelle The Fat Nutritionist’s blog post about how the discussion of the video has affected her.
Let’s analyze that quote a little bit. It says, “No one can make you feel inferior…” Not, “No one can make you feel hurt, or depressed, or angry, or isolated, or defensive, or unwelcome…” Refusing to feel inferior is not the same as having no emotional reaction whatsoever.
We’re social animals, not robots, and saying that an entire world full of fatphobia or even a brief period of bullying should have zero effect on people seems like a profound denial of human nature to me.
Whenever I hear that Eleanor Roosevelt quote, I always think of what Gaye Adegbalola had to say about it in a speech, “Civil Rights vs. Queer Rights” (which appears at the end of her Gaye Without Shame CD):
“We are made to feel inferior. Eleanor Roosevelt said that ‘No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.’ But basically, our inferiority has been beaten into us. Simply put, from day one black has been made to represent evil and ugliness… And simply put, from day one, queer physical images and gender identities have been stereotyped and ostracized.”
“Until I embraced the beauty of my blackness, I could not throw off the cloak of my inferiority. And until I embraced the beauty of my queerness, I could not throw off this particular cloak of inferiority. I have no shame. I can look my adversaries in the eye, and be proud of my own self-worth and dignity.”
My point in quoting this is not that being fat is exactly like being black or being queer (that should be obvious), but that when the entire world has been telling you that you’re inferior, your default state is to believe them. You “give permission” to others to make you feel inferior not because you’re giving informed consent, but because you’ve been taught to believe that you are inferior. You need to make a conscious choice to believe otherwise, and then fight to keep believing it each time you encounter another message telling you you’re inferior.
So even when we’re speaking of inferiority in particular, and not just any emotional reaction, there are a lot of messages coming from our society that fat people are inferior. If you are throwing that quote around, and you feel like fat people should be respected but it’s still bad to be fat, doesn’t that mean that you basically believe that fat people should feel inferior in some ways, that they should give people that permission?