Monday, December 30, 2013

I got a feeling

There's a certain genre (and I use the term, as always, quite loosely) that consists of personal essays centering on a feeling. Two examples that come to mind, both from Jezebel: Lindy West on flying while fat, and a Groupthink contributor on riding the train while female. (Which I'd remembered as on the main page. Anyway.) Both of these posts are ostensibly about unpleasant interactions with men while on transportation. The former is about a man fat-shaming the author; in the latter, a different dude sexually harasses a different author. The idea being, with both, to get a discussion going about a commonly-shared experience.

The problem in both essays is, the man never quite does the thing he's being accused of. West's plane-seat neighbor never calls her fat, indeed does nothing to indicate he's got anything against fat people generally or fat people on planes specifically. While West's overall point is a fair one - it probably is rougher to be the fat person on the plane than to be the thin person whose personal space is temporarily taken up by another person's girth - the Exhibit A consists of standard-issue in-flight squabbling, West's size having nothing to do with it. West goes on to describe what others tell her "with their eyes on nearly every flight," and it's certainly offensive:

"You're bigger than I'd like you to be." "I dread being near you." "Your body itself is a breach of etiquette." "You are clearly a fucking moron who thinks that cheesecake is a vegetable." "I know that you will fart on me."
And yet. Did anyone say this? This particular seat-mate, she's clear, did not, and he's the offender she chose to focus on. While all of this feels true, and while whichever stash of anecdotal evidence and common sense tells me West knows what she's talking about, it's not there.

The sexual-harassment post follows the same framework. A woman is afraid that a man who's looking in her direction will sit next to her. He doesn't. Was he leering at her? Hard to say. It's even hard to say if he was looking at her to begin with:
You can see him in your peripheral vision and you can feel him looking. You're at a distance, but your hair is pretty bright and you're wearing lipstick so you know he noticed you. Keep reading, keep looking down. You briefly wish you were less attractive or had mousy hair or had an invisibility cloak. He keeps looking at you.
It's ambiguous at best that he was looking, let alone ogling. He never touches her, never talks to her, doesn't approach her, doesn't sit with her when given the option. We learn a great deal about the author's ambivalence about being (as she sees it) an attractive woman, but next to nothing about whether this particular man found her remotely interesting. A lingering gaze on public transportation tends to mean nothing. (Apologies in retrospect to everyone on the subway I've ever half-asleep gazed at for no reason other than they were in my line of vision!) And most of the extra-few-moments' gaze in the direction of the person in the subway car one finds least physically revolting is perfectly innocent. The man in no way violated the author's personal space.

And yet. It can be unnerving to be in a train car with someone giving off an odd vibe. While I can't say I'm personally acquainted with the experience of being just ravishing, just as I can imagine it's awkward to be fat on a plane, my imagination is limber enough to picture that it would be annoying to be stunningly gorgeous on a train. (Instead, I have that small, pale, female, nondescript quality that makes me the person people gravitate next to on public transportation. On planes, there's of course less say in the matter; the norm is for the stranger next to me, whatever his or her size, to view a significant % of my seat as their own space.)

Point being, these are real phenomena being described. The feelings aren't entirely based on self-image concerns. But feelings are tough to convey in argument. Something about rounding up a feeling to an argument puts the feeling itself in doubt, as if it's all just projection, which I - going by my feelings - kind of doubt.


caryatis said...

And why are editors choosing to publish these pieces, when (I'm sure) there are women out there who had truly objectionable encounters with men on planes/trains who would be glad to write about them? I suppose I can see it might be useful as an empathy-building device, for someone who had never considered the sense of vulnerability that comes from being female and the insecurity that comes from being fat. But that's about all we're getting from it.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I'm not sure how Groupthink works, but I don't think there's an editor. That I'd found it at all makes me think an editor did once feature it on Jezebel's main page. As for West's post, while I believe Jezebel does have editors, I have no idea if the regular contributors' posts need to get a go-ahead. My longwinded way of saying, I'd need some more definitively-edited examples of this genre to say much about this.

I'll have to think about this more - do confessional essays that do get edited always have this sort of thing edited out? There's definitely iffiness that comes from the odd mix of needing to make an argument and needing to provide a personal hook", but generally the anecdote is at least one piece of evidence for the argument. What was striking in these two cases was that evidence *was* provided, but evidence that detracted from the greater point. An essay about feeling that others are looking at you in a particular way in the absence of concrete evidence might be stronger than one that ascribes malicious intent to a stranger. Then again, as you say, there are plenty of women who could point to concrete examples of leering/fat-shaming, whose stories might be more informative.

caryatis said...

"Then again, as you say, there are plenty of women who could point to concrete examples of leering/fat-shaming, whose stories might be more informative."

Not fucking hard to find, either. There are websites (Hollaback), there are books about these experiences. I'd have thought every woman above 12 has these stories. I guess it's a matter of looking for contributions from your friends rather than those who might have something meaningful to say.

Also a matter of the tendency to create "safe spaces" in many parts of the liberal blogosphere. You can make statements that are completely unsupported by the evidence--you can talk about how sex work is great for everyone--you can portray yourself as a victim of sexism/racism no matter how clearly culpable you are--you'll never have to be confronted with disagreement. So why even bother finding writers with evidence?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

While you're right that knowing the right people is a quick way to get a voice heard, I think something else is going on here. I Googled "microaggression," which confirmed that it means what I thought it did. Basically, these are posts trying to address microaggression. Or, the more subtle forms of bias that sometimes need to be spelled out for the uninitiated.

The problem in both of these posts was the same. It wasn't that the aggression up for discussion was too "micro." "Micro" would have been fine, and a chance to spell out something not everyone understands. It was that no aggression *at any level* comes up. We learned a bit about one author's feelings about being fat, another's feelings about being attractive, but nothing about the outside world giving these women in particular a hard time about these qualities.

K said...

I think the way (well, my way) to approach these things is to err on the side of trusting someone's experience and perceptions, whether or not you can personally relate. The pushback you'll get on this idea--and appropriately so, I think; I'm not sure how you'd take on this 'genre' without broadening the scope--is that this is the same rationale used to deny racial microaggressions/encounters with racism by people who didn't experience them. The stuff that is so subtle as to be questionable/plausibly deniable is a big part of how these -isms are perpetuated, and the tendency to question the person to whom whatever it is happened is the -ism in action.

K said...

(Not, to be clear, accusing you of any of the above; just bringing up something I think needs to be accounted for in this exercise.)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I tend to agree, and was striving to do that in this post. As I said, I don't have personal experience with being fat or being spectacularly good-looking. But I take the word of those with these experiences that they feel as they do. My guess would be that these women have both had more definitive experiences of the thing they're describing, but for whatever reason - quite possibly the trend of highlighting microaggressions - opted to emphasize moments that overshot the mark and made it seem like something I kind of doubt is all in their heads is just that.

I don't see this as a problem with questioning this "genre," though, because there is a difference between microaggression and imagined aggression. Microaggression is subtle and often requires explanation. Imagined aggression unfairly accuses others of acts they haven't committed. Microaggression is calling a black person "articulate" or, to stick with the transportation theme, when the empty seat next to a black man on a train stays empty longer than the rest. (Oh, NJ Transit...) It's subtle but real, and no doubt exists in ways that I, a white woman, would not know about. It's real even if, in individual cases, it's tough to prove. But these aren't imagined aggressions. That's its own category.

I mean, I'm someone who's written a lot about anti-Semitism, and about how it continues to exist, despite what many these days seem to believe. I've on so many occasions spelled out why X is anti-Semitic, and why non-Jews not seeing this doesn't make it otherwise. (Spelling out the sort of things "X" might be would take too long, but it's in the WWPD archives under the obvious tags.) But if I have an unpleasant interaction while commuting or grocery-shopping or whatever, I don't assume it's because people can tell I'm Jewish (which, if they're at all attuned to such things, they probably can).

What I care about is, if someone says something anti-Semitic unknowingly, that once this is pointed out to them, they don't accuse Jews of being oversensitive. Same deal regarding all other marginalized groups.

But what could be pointed out to the men discussed in these posts? That any altercation with a visibly overweight woman on a plane is fat-shaming, even one with nothing to do with her size? That if a woman in your line of vision is wearing bright lipstick, you should avert your gaze in the direction of a frumpier individual? There's no education of this sort possible when the aggression in question took place entirely in someone else's imagination.

caryatis said...

"...there is a difference between microaggression and imagined aggression."

...The question is precisely whether there is. Phoebe, what you're saying is that it can *feel* to someone as if any given unpleasantness is the result of the characteristic they're insecure about, when in fact it is not and no reasonable person would think so. But there's a small yet fervently self-righteous contingent who seem to deny that this is possible--every imagined aggression is a microaggression, in other words, and if someone thinks you're a racist, that's proof that you're a racist. Being a member of a disadvantaged group proves you are always right. Which of course is highly unconvincing to those outside the bubble.

A more sensible approach would be to judge offensiveness with a reasonable-person standard _for the member of the disadvantaged group_. Would a reasonable fat person think this encounter is about her weight? This doesn't account for the possibility that, say, *every* fat person is pathologically insecure, but it would at least allow us to ignore the complaints of the outliers who are unusually neurotic about it.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I think you yourself just came up with the difference between microaggression and imagined: "A more sensible approach would be to judge offensiveness with a reasonable-person standard _for the member of the disadvantaged group_." What matters is that the reasonable-person standard not be determined by the out-group.

But it may not even be necessary to go that far. There are cases where (as if this were measurable!) 40% of members of the group in question would think X was offensive. But X was still a thing that happened. In both of these essays, what was so striking was that *nothing* happened. They were stories about existing as a fat/beautiful woman, with anything relevant having to do with others' behavior projected onto those others.