Hello, Shapelings! This is A Sarah, reporting from amidst a sea of boxes. (Well, actually it’s more of a puddle of boxes at this point, hooray!)
As usual, a lengthy preamble and personal anecdote: As I’ve mentioned before, we recently moved to a different area of the country, and I’m just now starting my first faculty job. Because I’m young and female – and because I’ve been peppered with advice over the years about What! Not! To! Do! If! You’re! A! Young! Female! Faculty! Member! — I’ve been paying closer-than-usual attention to my self-presentation, knowing that my colleagues and students are forming first impressions that will be hard to undo later.
Attention to self-presentation, honestly, still fills me with anxiety and dread; I feel as though I’m always “on” and can never relax, and I berate myself whenever I do something that accidentally gives away power or otherwise gives the impression I wasn’t going for. That said, I have found that, this time around, I’m able to relegate some pieces of advice to the list of Things I’ve Decided Not To Care About Because They Aren’t Worth It To Me To Try And Change At The Moment.
So, for example, if it’s really true (as I heard once) that one cannot be young and female and warm and friendly in class and be taken seriously… well, then, too bad for me and my institution, because my default warmth and friendliness is not something I’m willing to spend time changing. For the record, I don’t actually think that rule holds true — though I can squint and see where it comes from. But my point is: even if it IS true that I must never smile while teaching? The amount of effort and emotional energy it would require for me to change my personality so thoroughly would leave me with nothing left for my students, my colleagues, my family, my friends, or my own well-being. Which would not be my fault, and which would suck. But people’s lives are complicated. One person may have the energy and circumstances and privilege that enable them to do something that would exhaust another person. Personality transplant, under oppressively gendered circumstances, in exchange for success in the academy? Not a tradeoff I can make. Someone else probably can; not me.
On the other hand, there’s apologizing. I tend to apologize too much. I learned early on that it was a way to keep people from being mad at me when I wanted something they didn’t think I should want or didn’t understand, or my personality didn’t appeal to them, or I was smarter than they found congenial. As an adult, this habit no longer serves me well; and it is of course a function of sexism that I ever acquired it in the first place. In my new job, am I willing to try and keep my gendered habit of apologizing in check? Well… yeah, I can do that. That’s an area where, for me, a modest amount of effort actually results in some noticeable change; but maybe more importantly, I actually find it life-enhancing to remind myself periodically that, no, I have nothing to be sorry for. I suppose it’s a kind of self-improvement (in the sense that it improves my life); but for me, it doesn’t require any kind of punitive understanding that I was BAAAAD before and now I’m trying to get GOOOOOD.
In a different category, I think, is dressing up for work. Which I’m also able to do fairly easily, and which I currently do, because it seems to go a long way toward causing people to perceive me as a competent colleague and teacher. Of course this ability — less so, I think, than not apologizing so damn much — is clearly a function of my class privilege and thin privilege. (I’m not thin, but it’s fairly easy to find US size 14 women’s business wear.) And so I sit uneasily with that, wondering what exactly I’m colluding with by dressing up, wishing that it weren’t so, and telling myself that old story about how I’ll do this to get tenure and then work to change things. But right now, dressing up is a tradeoff I’m willing to make, and I’ll keep reevaluating.
Anyway, making these kinds of conscious tradeoffs with respect to self-presentation — where I decide what things might make my life easier and better, without requiring of me huge amounts of energy or a script of self-loathing — has got me thinking about a little phrase you hear from time to time, usually when someone is trying to encourage you to devote huge amounts of your time and energy to the self-improvement scheme they want you to embark upon.
“You’re worth it.”
Like many Weight Watchers alumni, I once heard, and used, the phrase “worth it” in connection with dieting. I proclaimed I was “worth the effort” (not to mention the considerable financial expense and time drain) of staying on program. I’m “putting myself first,” I said. I’m “doing this for me.” I’m “taking charge of my life,” and so on and so on and on and on and on. And of course, all of these sentiments are just repetitions of what we all hear on diet commercials — albeit phrased, not in dainty “I” statements, but in brash imperatives, needling interrogatives, and pious testimonials. Put yourself first! Take charge of your life! I did it for myself! Aren’t you worth it?
And, Jiminy Christmas, what a ridiculously messed-up sentiment.
On the one hand, it’s ridiculous on the very face of it — in ways that we could all probably articulate without much trouble. I mean, really, Weight Watchers meeting leader? I’m “worth” the time and hassle of impressing people who wouldn’t like me otherwise (because, goody, they’re the ones whose favor I want!)? And I continue to be “worth” that effort even when the chance that it will have the desired effect is close to zero and it takes a major toll on my sense of well-being? I’m “worth” a self-defeating and time-consuming regimen undertaken for the purpose of gaining the approval of people who don’t see value in me as I am now? AWESOME, thanks!
But there are two deeper, and possibly even-more-ridiculous aspects to “You’re worth it” that I hadn’t really thought through before… both of which bear on self-presentation and intersectionality. So the idea I’m currently playing around with is the idea that, hidden in all the fake-empowerment “worth it” nonsense are two dangerous and disingenuous – and somewhat contradictory – sentiments that need to be exposed. Here’s my best first guess at what they are, but by all means let’s clarify them further in the comments:
Sentiment 1: Attention: Women In General. We, the spokespeople of the dominant culture, know best how you should negotiate the obstacles you encounter by virtue of being female in a sexist society.”
With the blanket assessment that weight loss — a very specific kind of attention to self-presentation — should strike you as being something “worth” your time and energy, these spokespeople presume to know your circumstances enough to dictate what kind of tradeoffs you should make in your life. Now: that’s temporarily leaving aside the fact that (as we all know) dieting almost never results in lasting weight loss!! But hey, you know, let’s say that it did. Let’s say dieting was one way to reliably improve your chance at being seen as more competent or attractive or valuable — within a system that codes women as being less valuable than men, less competent than men, and existing to look pretty to men.
Even if dieting “worked,” who are they to dictate which obstacles are most worth your attention right now? PARTICULARLY when the obstacles you have to steer your way around were PUT IN PLACE BY ONE OR MORE SYSTEMS OF OPPRESSION which… oh, hey!… they speak for! Bah. Spokespeople, you have no damn clue what I have to negotiate, any more than I have a clue what the woman next to me is negotiating or the trade-offs she’s able and willing to make. (Unless she tells me, in which case it would be nice if I’d shut up and listen and not pronounce about what she should do to become new and improved.) To the extent that I’m able even to influence the way I’m perceived by others: how do YOU know that my time and energy isn’t better spent on some other way of dealing with this shit? I’ll tell you what that time and energy is “worth,” thank you… IF I ever even decide that YOU are worth my time, which I just mightn’t.
Of course, it’s not reeeally all women who are “worth it,” is it? On a different frequency than the above announcement (directed, ostensibly, to women in general), comes this announcement to a select few:
Sentiment 2. “Attention, Very Specific Group of Women: See those unworthy people who can’t spend hours a day at the gym or hundreds of dollars on a weight loss program? Take my word that we can identify them by their fatness. Ew, right? What’s wrong with them, that they don’t have extra cash and time to spend working out? Show, with your thin body, that you’re someone who is “worth” money and time.”
Now, this one has of course bubbled up from the pits of hell. It basically says: Hey, you (presumed middle- or upper-class woman)! You are “worth it” exactly because there are others who aren’t, and you’re different from them. Anyone with eyes and discerning taste can tell the difference, amirite? Plus, all that money and leisure time that enables gym-going and calorie-counting and meeting-attending to be a viable option for you? You had it coming, because you are just soooooo worth it. Being worth it means you never have to consider that, maybe, just maybe, you got some of those perks by being born into them, and not through your own morally perfect decisions. So yeah, go ahead and draw ridiculous analogies — like saying that some people spend money on shoes (OMG SO SAAAD!), but YOU choose to spend your time on your health (as if you couldn’t also buy designer shoes if you wanted them!) No, it’s all FAIR AND SQUARE WHAT PRIVILEGE LA LA LA LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU!!!
As Paul Campos, among others, has noted:
“Americans are obsessed with fat because fatness has become a symbol for poverty, downward mobility, nonwhiteness and socially marginal status in general. Fear and hatred of fat has very little to do with the health risks associated with being “overweight” and “obese” (which are wholly imaginary and highly exaggerated, respectively), and everything to do with the symbolic meanings that thin and fat bodies have in this culture.
The fundamental strategy of the war on fat is to universalize the attitudes of middle- and upper-class white American women toward weight, food, dieting and exercise.” (emphasis mine)
(As if you really needed a current example of this very phenomenon.)
So I think that’s where a chirpy “You’re worth it!” eventually lands us. Any tension between the (faux-universally-applicable) first sentiment and the (very-specifically-targeted) second sentiment is resolved, if we translate it thus:
“I don’t know who you are or what your life is like. But I’m pretty sure that we, the spokespeople of the dominant culture, can pronounce authoritatively upon what you need to care about — and even on how you should best negotiate the oppressive systems we help sustain. And, in that vein, we have agreed that you should want to be a thin white straight cis femme moneyed woman, who takes what we say as authoritative, and who tries to improve herself for our sakes. You’re worth it! You’re welcome!”
That’s my best, and very wordy, guess. What do you think, Shapelings? Is this the real work that “You’re worth it!” is doing? Are there other things it’s doing? How do you decide whether and how to care about self-presentation? What’s the best way to think about being “worth it”? Alternately, feel free just to talk about how “worth it” you REALLY are — just because you’re awesome, and not because of the degree to which you meet someone else’s oppressive standards.
[cue Mister Rogers theme]
[No, really, we're watching Mister Rogers at our house]