Privilege v. Entitlement

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Unfortunately, much of the discussion of privilege focuses around shaming those who are perceived to have it, rather than trying to strategize about how to empower those who may not. – Octogalore, “Entitlement”

Even before the latest dustup, I wanted to write about privilege versus entitlement (that is, a feeling of entitlement). So what better time than now, since we’re sick of it already?

Octogalore’s post is an old one, but she made me think about some things that I think sometimes get lost in discussions of privilege. Namely, that feeling entitled to success (i.e. what you want out of life) is something that isn’t so neatly distributed along “privileged”/”not privileged” lines. Some people with fewer advantages on paper experience more feelings of entitlement, and some people who seem to have more advantages are held back by the feeling that they not only don’t deserve success, but actually deserve abuse. (I’m not going to claim that everyone who is abused believes they deserve abuse, but it’s a pretty safe bet that everyone who thinks they deserve abuse is bound to get plenty of it.)

How much entitlement you feel, in fact, probably doesn’t come down to a formula of any kind, but a lot depends on upbringing, environment, neurobiology, and how all those things cook together over the years. Like Octo says, too much entitlement can curdle into arrogance, which can not only make an intractable pain in the ass of you, but it can actually backfire when it comes to getting what you want (e.g. you think the traffic laws, metaphorical and actual, don’t apply to you because you rule). Does feeling entitled to success trump privilege? I don’t think so, and Octo doesn’t either. (Seriously, that post is amazing, I highly recommend it.) In fact, privilege often reinforces entitlement; if you expect characteristic X to help you in the future because it has in the past, you are less likely to sandbag your future efforts because you don’t want to deal with the roadblocks. (“Why bother applying for that job? They won’t like me.”)

Do I think it’s possible to accomplish things even if you think you’re a useless dirtbag? Yeah, I do. But I’m going to guess that people who succeed despite feeling little or no entitlement don’t enjoy it a whole lot. And aside from relief to have survived, can anything beyond that be considered “success” if you don’t really enjoy it?

I have always had a serious entitlement deficit. Okay, that’s an understatement; I have had serious problems my whole life maintaining a feeling that I deserved to exist. In fact, the way I found fat acceptance, as I’ve said before, was that my therapist in the mid-’90s recommended I get myself a book on self-esteem, figuring I’d live longer if I actually had some. And I wound up with this one. I’d heard of FA principles before, but post medication weight gain, what Carol Johnson said just made way too much sense. “No, it really IS totally illogical to discriminate against people because of their weight! Yes, it really IS about more than calories calories calories! Yes, I really SHOULD dump the boyfriend who’s been acting like I’m corroded because of my newly Zoloft-padded tush!” I had to be feeling at least some sense of entitlement to get that message, yes? I believed, at last, that I was entitled to eat what I was hungry for, to not weigh myself, to actually live and pursue the goals that were important to me, whether I lost an ounce or not.

This was seismic. We all know that most fat people don’t feel entitled to those things, right? (And probably even more so in 1996, when I bought the book, than now that there’s a Fatosphere and everything.) So you’d think that acceptance of my outsides would soon lead to feeling more entitlement about my insides — in other words, that who I was on the inside deserved my respect as much as my outsides did, that I should feel perfectly free to go after exactly what I wanted in life.

Hooboy would you ever be mistaken about that.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I didn’t have to deal any longer with hating myself for being fat on top of hating myself for everything else. That combination might have killed me. But I still could not, for the life of me, figure out why I did or said certain things the way I did, why people just stopped talking to me and told me “you should know, everyone knows” when I asked what the problem was, why I kept getting booted out of homes, jobs, lives, so unceremoniously. Here’s where neurotypical unprivilege comes in and how complicated that can be, folks. Until two years ago, I didn’t have the privilege of having a diagnosis of Asperger’s, partly because such a diagnosis didn’t exist until 1994, and partly because none of the shrinks I saw after that knew jackall about it. So all I could think was what’s wrong with me? what’s wrong with me? what’s wrong with me? on an endless goddamn repeating loop. When you feel that way, you don’t persevere through rejections; you get one rejection, or maybe two if you’re feeling feisty, and then go hide under the bed for a few years, until the pain of not having what you want becomes so severe you try again, and it’s the same damn thing all over. They said no. That proves I suck.

Maybe self-esteem is privilege too, in a way.

Believe me, I’m not going to be all smug about understanding the whole privilege issue better than some people do. I had a terrible time with it, actually. Because I didn’t have a handle on my basic right to exist, when I first started reading about it, it sent me into a terrible downward spiral. How can having privilege not make me a bad person? If I’m costing other people their safety and health and dignity just because I exist, doesn’t that make me a murderer and a thief? I really did believe I deserved to die over that, all because of my belief that life had to be a zero-sum game where one person gets to live and one gets to die and the one who had to die should be me, that nothing could possibly change to distribute things more equitably unless I took my own life. That way, there’d be one less useless white body in the world, right? It would make white people that much less of a majority, right? Yes, I actually did go there, and the fucked-up thing about it was that I knew how fucked up it was to have that reaction, and that just made me feel that much worse.

Mine was an extreme and wildly inappropriate response, I’ll admit, and I’m pretty sure it’s rare for anyone to actually think that way. (My psychiatrist, when I first presented to him, had no trouble confirming my therapist’s diagnosis of Asperger’s, on the grounds that “your depression pattern is extremely atypical.”) But if that episode taught me anything, it’s that ideas can go through people’s filters in a way you can’t necessarily control from the outside. I can see where the defensiveness about privilege comes from; it’s about the belief that there have to be winners and losers at everything, and if you’re not one of the winners who has an advantage over someone else (earned or not), you have to be the loser, and in America being tagged a loser can cost you everything, including your life. Is this a matter of too much entitlement, or not enough? I think it’s a little of each; maybe you feel entitled to your own comfort, but not entitled to a world where you don’t have to be scared to fucking death of losing it for no good reason.

I think I’ll let Octo have the last word here:

At any rate, it strikes me that the endless carping about privilege is mostly for the benefit of the privileged. It allows a shame solution to a problem that really isn’t about whether or not the relatively privileged shamed person takes pride in herself. And therefore lets her off the hook easily, for the price of a mea culpa. Well, fuck that. It’s not that easy.

Fuckin’ A. Okay, I lied, the last word is MINE MINE MINE! Because it’s my blog, and I’m entitled.

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Well, I Dood It

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I sent my letter to Sen. Wyden.

It should go out in Wednesday’s mail.

I sent it to the Washington, DC office.

I wrote it out in blue ink (PaperMate Eagle pen, not expensive, but not so cheap it leaks) instead of just printing it, figuring it might otherwise get lost among all the other black and white computer-generated pages. I printed, because my cursive looks like a first grader’s. (My handprinting at least makes it to fourth grade.) I used lined paper because I can’t write straight on unlined paper to save my life. (When I tried it, I actually wound up with part of a sentence on one piece of paper and part of it on another. Yargh.)

I made some minor changes (cleaned up an editing glitch in the second paragraph), but otherwise it’s what you saw here. It wound up being 5-1/2 handwritten pages (I print pretty big). I even put an extra stamp on the envelope, just in case.

Just reminding y’all, I’ve never, ever done this before. So if I can do it, so can you, if you think you might want to.

If I hear anything, I will update, even if it happens on my official blog hiatus next month.

First Draft of My Letter to Sen. Wyden

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Right now, this is about as brief as I can make it without leaving anything out. I haven’t sent it yet, so if you have any feedback for me, I’d love to see it. If you were going to cut, what would you cut?


Dear Sen. Wyden:

I am a constituent of yours from Portland, and I have been following the healthcare reform fight with great interest. I am in my 40s, am diagnosed with Asperger syndrome (a form of autism), and I also have polycystic ovarian syndrome (a metabolic disorder that affects an estimated 5% of American women) and take psychiatric medications for severe, life-threatening depression. The drug I am on is the only one that has ever worked to keep my depression in full remission, and in combination with my metabolic disorder, it has also ensured that despite a high-quality diet and moderate activity level, I am teetering on the borderline of “morbidly obese.” I am told by my doctors that this is more common than not for people taking this medication and, keeping my PCOS in mind also, they do not blame me for my weight. I am grateful for this.

However, what these conditions mean is that I am umbilically dependent on a job to give me health insurance, since there is no way on earth I could possibly qualify for individual coverage with my pre-existing conditions, even if I were to (improbably) become “normal” weight. The job I have is one that is being hunted to extinction — I telecommute for a national medical transcription company editing speech recognition files and doing transcription. My bosses and coworkers have, in fact, never seen me in person. These jobs, at least in the U.S., are becoming more and more obsolete as “front end” speech recognition (edited by doctors themselves) and offshoring the work to overseas transcriptionists who are grateful to do the work for pennies on the dollar compared to what they must pay U.S. workers, and even more so because American workers depend on their jobs for healthcare. I am not particularly confident that I will make it to “Medicare age” without having to find another way to secure myself insurance, and with my disability and age, the number of insurance-providing jobs I can qualify for is vanishingly small. Therefore, I hope with all my heart that we can figure out a universal healthcare solution that is affordable and accessible for all, and I admire the work you have been doing to try to make this a reality.

This is why I was particularly dismayed to see that you supported Sen. John Ensign’s amendment to the healthcare bill that would allow companies to charge an insurance rate differential of up to 50% (with HHS approval, which would be no obstacle that I could see) for people whose “numbers” — weight, cholesterol, blood pressure, etc. — fail to meet their standards. It’s pitched as a “discount” for people who “take care of themselves,” but in practice, with most companies having yearly open enrollments for insurance, it amounts to the “good” (i.e. genetically luckier) people being allowed to pay the old, lower rate, while the “bad” people (who drew the short stick for DNA) are charged the new, higher rate.

And yes, the way I see this, it does also add up to punishment for “bad” genes. Surely you understand that there is a huge difference between people who can, for example, lower their cholesterol 30 points just by switching to soy milk, and people who have to go completely vegan plus take three statins (which are risky drugs in themselves) to lower it by even 10, yet both are expected to meet the same numerical standard. And if even one number is “off,” one gets dinged the same as if all the numbers were “off,” leading to disincentive to make any positive changes at all if merely being “imperfect” is going to cost them just as much as being overtly self-destructive (the latter of which is, I think, relatively rare). It’s also worth noting that people who are lower income (and nonwhite) are more likely to have numbers that are “off,” and that “living a healthy lifestyle” as promoted by mass media is largely a prerogative of the financially comfortable.

This hardly seems just, and if the goal is truly to get people to take better care of themselves (as opposed to taking the opportunity to squeeze more money out of employees), it is likely to backfire. People who have less money in their paychecks have less money to invest in fresh fruit and vegetables and high-quality whole-grain products, and people who have less money also have increased stress, which in itself is known to be deleterious to health. And those who must take second jobs or work longer shifts to make up for the shortfall in their paychecks — which would be common for people who work low-paying jobs such as retail — would have much less time for physical activity and cooking.

I know Sen. Ensign’s amendment provides for a waiver in case of medically documented inability to “make goal,” which I would likely get with my history. I also understand that companies are currently allowed to charge up to a differential of 20% for “good” numbers, and that 30% (the allowed differential without the HHS approval) does not sound like much of a difference. But 50% certainly is, and would almost certainly tempt many more employers (like the one I work for now, which currently charges no differential) to start testing everyone’s blood and urine and saliva and weighing and measuring them in order to save money. Even if I qualify for a medical waiver, I can see no good coming of having to tell my boss I have Asperger’s and PCOS and depression bad enough I was once hospitalized for it in order to get that waiver. It seems like a great deal for them to hold over my head.

And while I have never smoked, and I understand the rationale for banning smoking at work since that affects the health of others, I fail to see how testing people’s saliva to make sure they have not had a cigar in the privacy of their own living rooms of late is going to accomplish anything except further eroding trust between employees and employers. It seems obvious to me that top-ranking executives will not be subject to these interventions, and thus my suspicion that this is merely a way to justify pay cuts among the rank and file — no more, no less — is especially keen. Given all this, I hope you will reconsider your support of this amendment.

Sen. Wyden, I am not in the habit of writing letters to politicians; you are my first. I know your reputation for considering all sides of an issue and being open to new ideas, and in considering the impact of the laws you work to pass on people who live lives very different from your own. This is a rare commodity in a Senator, and I treasure it. I also know that people are coming at you from all sides regarding the healthcare issue, and I realize that some people might regard the things I have written about here as mere trivia when considering the “big picture” of reform. However, I also would like any healthcare law that passes to actually be a help to people like myself, rather than a hindrance, which is why I am raising these issues with you here. Thank you very much for your time.

Sincerely yours,


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Lots of Stuff About Us, All of It Without Us: Writing a Letter to a Senator

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Recently, something happened in the neurodiversity/autistic self-advocacy movement that made me feel right proud, although I had nothing to do with it. Autism Speaks — an organization that allows almost no autistic people to be involved in its operations, and is devoted to the goal of eliminating the presence of autistic folks from the face of the earth — recently came out with a film called Autism Every Day I Am Autism, which they posted on their Web site. Apparently, they solicited footage of autistic kids and adults participating in everyday life, and then overdubbed said footage (without the knowledge of the participants) with a voiceover that was rife with we’re-autism-we’re-coming-to-eat-your-children’s-brains-mwahahahaha cant. (Transcript here.) And it took about two seconds before the participant bloggers in the Autism Hub (a group of linked neurodiversity blogs not dissimilar to the Fatosphere) raised enough of a stink that AS took the video off their Web site. (It can still be found on their YouTube channel, though.) The gist of the protests came down to this: They don’t even talk to us. They don’t even ask us what we think, because they think we’re delusional. All they care about is getting rid of us. Fuck them. They can’t do that to us.

Sound familiar, Fatospherians?

“Nothing about us without us” is a saying adopted by many stigmatized groups, and especially by the disability-rights movement, of which neurodiversity (ND) is a part. But every frigging day we see examples of people talking mounds of shit about fat people, and very few examples of those same people having talked to us in any great numbers. And it’s rarely questioned by anyone but us fringe wackadoodles, although I’m pleased as punch to see there’s a lot more pushback now than there was even a couple of years ago. But it’s hard to pick up a book or read a magazine article or a Web site or see a movie or TV show on any subject without running into an example of fat-bashing. So much about us. Damn near all of it without us. After all, we’re not just physically sick, we’re crazy too, right? Nothing’s getting between us and our baby donuts, and we don’t care about anything else. We’ll run over kittens in the street to get to our donuts, so how can we possibly be believed about anything?

You’ll notice, though, the difference between how the ND groups were received when they protested, and how fat-rights people are received when they protest. No, AS hasn’t changed their minds about us; they still think autism is a scourge, and furthermore, that anyone who has the presence of mind to complain about it can’t possibly be autistic. (A neat trick, no? Way to create a permanent underclass, by claiming everyone who actuallly belongs to said underclass is incapable of self-advocacy.) But they did something. They’re getting the idea that more people are on to them, and they were forced to tone down the rhetoric. And I truly think a big part of that is that 1) autistic people aren’t blamed for being autistic, and 2) NT people haven’t been terrified to death that they’re two slices of pizza away from become autistic themselves, because that’s completely impossible. “Nothing about us without us,” it seems, only really applies when you have no — and I mean NO — chance of ever leaving the stigmatized group in question. If you can just stick to your diet and get out of the group and stay out, what do you have to whine about? So you don’t get your donut, fatty, get over it.

But there’s overlap, oh yes there is. When we protest that we haven’t had any donuts and don’t even particularly want any, that there’s a lot more to body weight than just food, and furthermore it’s hypocritical to tell people to butt out of everyone’s sex life if you’re just going to turn around and butt into their eating life instead, how can we expect anyone, even other fatties, to believe us? Those other fatties raise their hands and say, “Well, I eat whole boxes of donuts and I’d be thin if I didn’t, therefore all fat people who say they don’t eat boxes of donuts are liars,” and we’re sunk. Most fat people think they’re to blame for their weight, so those few of us who don’t buy it aren’t real fatties for the purposes of the argument and therefore don’t count. If we’re lucky, we’re acknowledged as “freak exceptions” who can’t get thin no matter what; if not, we’re lazy liars who don’t want to work for our social rewards like everyone else has to. When they’re doing a story on fatfatfat, and they decide to put on their lipase-repellent outerwear and actually talk to one of us for the few seconds they can stand to, of course they’re going to look for the folks who live on donuts and Pepsi, not the people with metabolic disorders, not the people on heavy-duty psych meds (actual mental illness being another thing that eats into mass-media credibility, of course), not the vegans who have been fat since toddlerhood, not even people who merely eat the omnivorous diet in the same amounts and get as much exercise as their considerably-thinner friends. Confirmation bias.

Just like people want to believe all autistic kids will spend all their days biting passersby and smearing their shit around the walls of their institutions forever, and therefore autism must be wiped off the face of the earth, they want to believe that all fatties are stupid and sick mentally and physically and could stop being sick and stupid if we only tried, or alternatively, if only Big Food didn’t have us under perpetual helpless hypnosis (just a different way of calling us sick and stupid, really). People need their boogeymen. They feel so lost without them that they’ll actually make shit up about them to justify keeping them around. Therefore, eating boxes of donuts is seen as a punchline, something nearly all fatties secretly do, and even a fantasy of the perpetually dieting classes, rather than a relatively rare but vexing illness that’s damn difficult to treat and really is not fun at all for the people who suffer from it. We can’t even pick on the donut-snarfers anymore? PEOPLE HAVE NO SENSE OF HUMOR!

All this is a lengthy prelude to the fact that I’m working on composing my first letter ever to my senator. Or any senator. Or any elected official, ever. The subject: The amendment to the health-care bill that allows employers to give a deeper goody-two-shoes discount on insurance than they’re allowed to now. U.S. employers are currently allowed to have a 20% differential between people whose numbers are “perfect” and people who fall short of the mark; the amendment, proposed by John Ensign (R-NV) would increase that to 30% and could even go as high as 50% according to “HHS secretary discretion.” It was approved by the Senate Finance Committee by a 19-4 vote; all four “no” votes were by Democrats (Schumer, Menendez, Rockefeller, Nelson). Kerry, Stabenow, Wyden, those great advocates of the downtrodden, all voted yes.

Ron Wyden is my senator. As politicians go, he seems like a fairly reasonable person who might be willing to listen to a well-crafted argument about why this bill sucks (and doesn’t actually contain the word “sucks,” in all likelihood). Here’s the main reason: We don’t have total control over any of our “numbers,” let alone all of them. It might not sound too radical to allow employers to give a 30% discount instead of 20% for the halo-wearers, but what it really amounts to is a fine on those of us who don’t 100% comply — you “good” people get the old rate during annual open enrollment, and you “bad” people who put butter and salt on your broccoli pay the new, higher rate! Yes, they provide a waiver for people who have well-documented medical reasons for not being able to comply; being someone with a metabolic disorder on psych meds, I have a pretty good chance of getting that waiver. And it doesn’t seem likely that if the difference is 30% as opposed to 20%, that it’s going to make that many more employers start nosing around in our britches. But if it goes up to 50%? What employer could resist? And at the rate things are going, it’ll be at 50% before we know it.

I fail to see how charging people more for health care is going to make them healthier. Taking more out of their pockets for premiums means they have less money available for quality food, not to mention that it essentially functions as a poverty tax, since many workers live in areas where obtaining quality food is nearly impossible. It probably also means that there is a possibility that people will have to take second jobs to make up the shortfall in income, which would leave them more tired, more stressed out, and with less time for “joyful movement” and “slow cuisine.” And if they think forcing people’s numbers down by any means necessary is going to mean a reduction in health care costs, they’re not seeing the big picture. More pills, more therapy, more tests = more doctor visits. Not to mention that it encourages more and more buttinskyism on the part of employers; not wanting people to smoke on the job is one thing, since that affects the health of others, but how is it anyone’s business if someone has a cigar in their own living room? And do I really have to tell my boss I have PCOS and Asperger’s and depression bad enough that I was once hospitalized for it? What’s next, are they going to get to read all my shrink’s notes, too?

Part of the reason I’ve never written to an elected official is because I have to crunch down everything I’m thinking about into two or three paragraphs. As you know, that’s not necessarily a natural gift of mine. But this is a first step, in trying to get people making the laws think a little harder about the people who are going to be most affected by them, people who are different from themselves in ways they don’t yet understand. I’d love to know if any of you have written a letter to a politician other than a garden variety fan or hate letter, and what the result was.

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Anyone Else Planning on Doing NaNoWriMo Next Month?

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I am. First time.

For anyone who doesn’t know, NaNoWriMo means “National Novel Writing Month.” The idea is you sign up (here) and during the month of November, you knock out 50,000 words, which amounts to about 5 or 6 double-spaced pages a day on average. Most people don’t finish. But enough do that the tradition continues, and since I’ve had this book (young adult novel) in my head for almost a decade, and it’s been nagging at me more and more lately, this might be a good time to get it going for real.

I actually had a near-miss on a different YA novel about 12 years ago; I was a finalist in a publishing contest with a book contract as the prize, and they didn’t pick a winner that year (they reserve the right not to). I revised it, got some more rejections, decided the problems were too big for me to fix, and gave up. Then I started to do some work on this book, brought my first few pages to a new writing group, and they got chewed up like an inexperienced tiger tamer. They told me it was awful, it stunk, kids wouldn’t like it, etc. So once again, I gave up. I’m good at that.

But it didn’t give up on me. All these years. So maybe that’s a fat hint that it’s mine to do, regardless of how it turns out. I am not going to say anything more about it (or offer it up for criticism, unless I have a specific question or issue I need help with), until I’m done with a first draft. I know better now.

So during the month of November, this blog will be on official hiatus. If you are doing NaNo and want to buddy up, feel free to leave me a message or email me privately.

Ten, Two, Four

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Heidi’s post today that mentioned soda reminded me of something. Recently there was an episode of Mad Men (see photo above) that was set in 1963 and featured a vintage Dr. Pepper machine (vending 10-ounce glass bottles) in the waiting room of a hospital. Now, there are some people who doubt the historical veracity of that; evidently those machines were common down south and possibly out west then, but almost unheard-of in New York City, where Mad Men is set. But the machine is true to period, and so is its logo, which says “10 2 4.”

Know what those numbers mean? Those were the times of day — 10:00 AM, 2:00 PM, and 4:00 PM — that one was encouraged to down one of those tasty-ass beverages. Yes, all three! According to the Dublin Dr. Pepper site, this was based on research from the 1920s that demonstrated that people who had something to eat or drink at those times of day were more alert and productive on the job — regardless of whether it involved manual labor or not — and shortly after that research came out, Dr. Pepper came out with the “10, 2, 4” slogan, which was in use for a good 40 years. Evidently, nobody thought it was evil then to encourage people to drink 30 ounces of sugared soda a day. Gasp! The utter decadence of it!

What I want to know is, if we’re all such giant lardfactories because of soda, why were people thinner in the “10, 2, 4” era? Is it really the corn syrup? Then how do you explain us fatasses who hardly ever consume HFCS? (I avoid it mostly because of taste; to me, all soda sweetened with HFCS tastes the same. And I see no reason to dump it into things like soup and crackers just to get rid of it.) And if it’s not All About the Calories, if it’s actually the chemical content of corn syrup as opposed to cane sugar that’s so fattening, then isn’t the “100 extra calories a day is the difference between a thin person and a lardbutt” meme propagated by cities like New York to justify slapping calorie counts on everything in giant neon, just so much stinky hot gas?

Not that I want soda (of any kind) three times a day, mind you; that’s too much belching for me. But I can remember a Miller beer ad from my childhood encouraging people to drink “beer after beer” and a radio ad for Coke saying that since it was sweetened with pure cane sugar, “you can drink as much as you like.” Just imagine anyone coming out with an ad like that now.

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