“No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.”

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?

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4 Responses to “No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.”

  1. Chris says:

    I’ve been thinking about the illusion of control a lot lately. I haven’t got it all properly sorted, but I feel like people want to assume we all have the ability to control ourselves all of the time – how we feel and what we do and how we react – but how much can you control? You can’t control what people say to you – but can you control how you respond to it? You can control how you react – to a point, but there’s a difference. I suppose it’s more a fantasy of choice – this idea that it’s normal or desirable to be in control all the time looks to me like a denial of chaos. And managing chaos is about more than denying it by just talking about being in control.

    I don’t know if this is making sense. You don’t have control over how you feel all the time. This should be obvious, in a world where clinical depression is a reality. And feeling bad about yourself doesn’t automatically mean you’ve given power over to someone else. Accusing the marginalised of giving their power over to their oppressors excuses the oppressors. Is that what we want? Is telling someone they can’t feel inferior without allowing it to happen just another way of making someone feel weak? Does it excuse bullying by simply demanding that the bullied be more resilient?

  2. You are making sense. And I think the answer to your (rhetorical?) questions is yes. While not comparable in a lot of other ways, it seems like there’s a requirement that targets of both bullying and sexual assault be “perfect” victims before we will deign to feel any empathy for them. I think there’s a difference between A) recognizing your feelings and accepting them, mindfulness-style, but acting thoughtfully, and B) the expectation that people will just not have feelings if those feelings are “wrong”.

    And yes, I think unrealistic ideas of control are a big part of it. Denial of chaos is sticking one’s head in the sand, and in the end it results in even less control. Being prepared to have an emotional reaction and taking steps to manage it is more responsible than pretending you can just choose not to have feelings like you’d choose clothes from your closet.

    • Chris says:

      It was only marginally rhetorical, in that I’m happy for a reply! I think I shan’t wear despair today, I’ll wear the joy jacket… if only it were that simple. I like your approach – being prepared to have an emotional reaction and taking steps to manage it – it seems both sensible and practical. It’s not giving over to chaos completely and throwing your arms up in frustration and impotence, and it’s not trying to control everything with an iron grip. Buddhists talk about holding things lightly, which as a concept is something I like quite a lot. Also the Serenity prayer, it seems to get the balance right…

  3. Pingback: Remembering Ann Rabson | closetpuritan

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