Thursday, March 31, 2011

An army of one.

I've realized that I am a person who says some unpopular things.

I haven't always been this person. Growing up, I always took this "don't rock the boat" kind of attitude. I think it's been a natural progression in growing up for me though. My brother used to tease me about being contrary, but really, I think I am just way more of a radical than I thought.

What's also important to note about me is that I am an INFJ, emphasis on the I. I'm an introvert. You people exhaust me. Yet somehow I live for people. Funny how we work that way.

So as an introvert, I've had a few experiences over the past couple of weeks that have been naturally very difficult for me. First was the experience at the Endangered Species Summit. That was super hard for me to do. I received an overwhelming response, which was great, but I know not everyone in that room was a fan of what I said.

Secondly, I ran a workshop this past Monday at NYU Silver's common day for second year students. Common day is supposed to be a chance for students to learn things about social justice they wouldn't necessarily have the chance to in the classroom. I did a presentation on fat bias, titled "Fat is a Social Work Issue." I thought it went well.

I also received an overwhelming response. Several people came up to me and talked to me about how excited they were someone was talking about this issue, that throughout their entire graduate school experience the topic was never brought up. But I have heard from one of my mentors that some students were not happy with what I said. In fact, they are quite angry with what I said. But no one said anything at the presentation. No one spoke up. I wasn't given the chance to start a real dialogue.

And I know not everyone is willing to be that person who says unpopular things. And speaking out against my presentation would have probably been unpopular in that room. But me, being me, would have loved it. I would have welcomed it. I feel like that is where real work gets done, right in the nitty gritty of disagreeing. Maybe it's the contrarian in me.

I'm just sort of bummed about it. My mentor encouraged them to contact me, but so far no one has, and I can't blame them. I also can't blame myself. The presentation wasn't perfect, but it's my first time, and hell, I'm a first year social work student.

Anyway. I think I am just experiencing some burn out. And to some degree, I do feel a little bit alone in my endeavor. Fortunately, I met some fellow social work students who feel passionately about this cause, and I plan to reach out to them. Sometimes being a leader means you are the only one, but one is the loneliest number, right?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

More reflections on the Endangered Species Summit

A lot of people reacted to what I said on the summit and to my blog post. I have spoken to people at WTCI, and I know that my thoughts and words were well-received and welcomed, and I don't take that lightly. I know that through personal correspondence with Courtney Martin that the needs of all women is an issue the organizers take seriously.

I want to make it clear that what I wrote was a reflection on only one panel. The entire conference, while not perfect, was well worth my time. I was especially pleased to see Deb Burgard's panel on medicalization and globalization, and I'm a huge fan of Michael Kimmel, so that was a lot of fun. And the event really opened up a lot of doors for me. I definitely met a lot of really rad women, and as far as networking goes, I've never been to a more successful function.

I think the concept is brilliant. I think having that platform is so valuable. I appreciate that I was given a space to voice my opinion. I just hope we can figure out a way to open that up to everyone. I had one commenter tell me that I missed the point of the conference entirely, but I think I didn't. I think the point is to get the dialogue going. We can't sit peacefully anymore. Feminism has problems to hash out and we need a space to do it. I need to feel safe enough to call people out when I think they might be committing an injustice, and I need people to do the same for me. None of us are perfect. Solidarity, right?

It was also a huge learning experience to me. I'm pretty new to the world of feminism outside of a women's studies classroom or between the pages the latest Seal Press publication, so I can really chalk up the whole experience to naivety. I thought most of us had this whole intersectionality thing down. I realize now that there is a lot to learn. I realize there is a lot to teach as well.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Breaking Down "Breaking Boundaries"

The Endangered Species Women Summit isn't the only conference I've gone to lately. Here's a blog post my colleague Katie and I wrote together, featured on the NYU Silver School of Social Work Student Affairs' blog.

Read it here!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Who is really Endangered?


So where do I begin? I spent my evening at the Endangered Species Summit, which describes itself as "An international summit to challenge the toxic culture that teaches girls and women to hate their bodies." Sounds like something I can definitely get behind, right? It wasn't that simple.

Courtney Martin and the women at the Women's Therapy Centre Institute have created a terrific space. They really have. But the first panel didn't sit well with me, at all. It was titled "Real Talk: Body Image Advocacy Across Sectors." It featured the one and only Susie Orbach, author of Fat is a Feminist Issue, Emme, supermodel turned host of exploitive reality tv series More to Love, Wendy Naugel, executive editor of Glamour Magazine, Katrin Eismann, digital imaging expert and Chareah Jackson, associate editor at Heart & Soul. The moderator was Jessica Weiner, author of Life Doesn't Begin Five Pounds From Now and Dove's Gobal Ambassador for Self-Esteem.

The conversation mainly focused on how us women, as consumers, could shift the paradigm. Now, I'll be honest--I was critical from the start. I personally believe the root of our problem is in consumerism as a culture, but that's a whole 'nother conversation. I let it go (kinda sorta), and I listened to what they had to say. And what did I hear? A whole lot of the same ol' shit.

And I say that with caring behind it. I really do. I don't think these women were coming from a bad place. However, the concept of "consumer power" only applies to a very minute number of women. Weiner began the panel by putting forth the idea that we need to use our power in numbers to effect change and shifted from that concept to the idea of utilizing our consumer power. What that idea forgets is the fact that while we make up the majority of the population, we have access to a disproportionate amount of wealth. Who has the money? White men. And the few women who have money? They are by and large white. And regardless of what Oprah's theme music would tell you, she is not every woman.

After frantically writing notes back and forth with my partner-in-crime Katie, I decided to go up during the Q&A and address the issue. Before I spoke, however, a kick ass woman decided to call out the Glamour executive editor on her hypocracy. She pointed out the fact that the latest issue of Glamour (which she had in her hands! classic) only had a few women of color, featured a large number of pages dedicated to body shaming and diet talk, and how most of the models are a size four and under. SERIOUSLY. Ms. Naugle pretty much denied all responsibility. She said it was up to the consumers to write to advertisers, and how she doesn't even look at advertisements before they go out. The audience member demanded a date, and she refused to give one. I know she means well, but as far as I am concerned, until she starts walking the walk, she is part of the problem.

And then it was my turn. I was nervous as hell. I started by thanking the brave woman who went before me, and I pointed out the fact that not every woman has this consumer power. Some women are, believe it or not, poor. In fact, most women are. Based on the reaction, I knew I had the audience's support. I, being me, couldn't keep myself composed. I broke into tears because I was one, terrified, and two, really concerned about what was happening in front of me. Emme suggested that just spending "ONE DOLLAR" would help. I said to her "That is really easy for you to say." Weiner, the moderator, engaged me further. She suggested that woman write letters when they can't spend money. First of all, that implies that women even conceptualize themselves as having body image as an issue. Based on my experience, most are too concerned with figuring out how to get dinner on the table to think about their body image in an introspective manner. Second of all, I was standing in front of her. I could have written advertisers a letter, but I thought being there in person would be, oh, I don't know, more effective.

Also, this wasn't my point. I wasn't trying to discredit the work the women on the panel were doing, but the fact that every woman up there refused to own up to their privilege and instead put the onus back onto poor women was super disheartening. I struggled with pointing it out, but did it not seem completely fucked up that there was ONE woman of color on the panel?

It was like I was placed in a time machine. I felt like I was in the 1980s and I was speaking to a group of second-wave feminists who didn't understand the idea that some women don't deal with sexism exclusively. And how a black woman or a Native woman or an Asian woman or a Latina experiences sexism is different than a white woman. ESPECIALLY a white, former-supermodel. For the first time in my life, I have such a bigger respect for the womanist movement. Courtney Martin, in her opening statements, said this is the beginning of real action in the movement. If we're having this same conversation right now, I don't know if that's true. And if it is? This is not the movement I signed up for.

Plenty of women came up to me after the fact and thanked me for speaking up. I know I wasn't the only one thinking what I was thinking. All I want is for those women up on that panel to think a little more broadly. Me fitting my ass into an Oscar De La Renta dress is not going to change things for very long. Broadening the scope of the male gaze will only get us so far. We need to address all issues that contribute to our body image problems, including our consumerist, racist, ableist, sizist, sexist, hetero-normative culture.

To put it succinctly: THE MASTER'S TOOLS WILL NEVER DISMANTLE THE MASTER'S HOUSE. Thank you, Audre Lorde.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

When the social worker has mental illness.

One post in the entire month of February? I know, right?! The truth is, I've been pretty checked out of everything. I tell most people that what I'm in right now is a "funk"; more accurately, I'm in the midst of a depressive episode.

I've suffered from major depressive disorder most of my life, sprinkled with bits of generalized anxiety and post-traumatic stress. I've been in and out of therapy for what feels like forever, and up until about a year ago, I could have sworn the stuff would never work for me. Fortunately I am in treatment, and I have a rad therapist. Which brings me to wonder, why in the hell did I decide to be a therapist?

At NYU, we had a presentation that kicked off our professional development day, and a few of the speakers touched on the topic of secondary trauma. It got me thinking a lot about how I've been processing stress. My placement aside, I've been experiencing a lot of loss in my personal life. That coupled with the stories I have to hear and process at work--it's a lot for me to handle being only 5 months into this gig. It makes perfect sense too, because as studies have shown, listening to traumatic stories will cause trauma for the listener--or secondary trauma.

For the month of February, I really disconnected from a lot of this social work stuff. It's not to say I've been up to nothing--more on that later. I really need a chance to recharge my batteries, to get myself up and running again post-burn out. This whole situation though has me wondering--if I am struggling this month during grad school, what is my career going to be like? How can I possibly hold down a job? How can I ethically allow my patients to count on me when I could at any moment spiral into another depressive episode and need to take this time to recharge? Recharging and time away from things is absolutely vital for my depression. How do I prepare my clients for this without causing doubt in their minds about quality of treatment or going a little deep in the self-disclosure wing?

Sometimes I wonder, maybe I shouldn't be a social worker.

But the reality is, there isn't much else I can do. First, I would be doing social worky type of work regardless of whether or not I was a social worker. At least this way I can get paid for it. Secondly, what field besides social work is going to be as accommodating to mental illness? Can you see me walking up to an investment banker boss and saying "Yo boss, I have this disability that you can't see, and I swear I'm not lazy, but I really need some time off to get my shit together." Oh hell no! I'd be fired on the spot. I won't even get into right now about how being fat complicates my depression in so many ways. In the health advocacy and social work scene, my disability, while sometimes misunderstood, is still respected. Most everywhere I've dealt with this has been willing to work something out. So I guess, really, I'm in the best possible spot.

That doesn't mean I am going to stop thinking about these issues. Dealing with your own mental health issues as a social worker I think is a really unique thing. I am really fascinated about how to best approach this with client relationships. Do any of you have experience with this sort of thing? How did you approach it? If you don't have experience with this necessarily, how do you approach needing to temporarily break a client relationship, due to health issues or a death in the family or anything that will cause you to be away for some time? How do you do that without damaging the relationship?