Guest Post: Asexuality and Poisonous Body Positivity

This is a submission for the March 2018 Carnival of Aces which I myself have been hosting this month here on my blog. The theme is “Physical Health and/or Our Bodies”

I offered to host guest submissions on my blog if anyone desired that. Here is Rachel’s essay, “Asexuality and Poisonous Body Positivity”:


Content Warnings: vague discussion of ableism and sexism, body shaming, bullying, body negativity, weight (?), industrial strength bitterness, awful metaphors including one about eating pork

*Looks at the theme for the month*

*rushes out from under my rock to write this*

I’ve been practically chomping at the bit for a theme like this for a while, having a mess of loosely connected thoughts on this topic knocking around in my head for years now. For the sake of keeping this semi-coherent, and because I have at least a semi-unifying theme that underlies all of these separate thoughts: a systematic estrangement by the rhetoric of body positivity. What initially set off this domino chain was an anonymous post on Queenie’s site:

Here: www.queenieofaces.tumblr.com/tagged/body-negativity

To my fellow aro ace, whoever and wherever you are, this is, at least in part, for you.

Confession time: I kind of loathe body positivity as a movement. Please refrain from throwing rotten tomatoes at me until the conclusion of this essay. I know how this looks: I’m nervous to even write this, let alone submit it, because I know this will attract naysayers out of the woodwork like flies. My feelings are born of a convoluted brew of bullying, sexism, asexuality, aromanticism, disability, and quite possibly gender all mixed into an obnoxious cocktail.

I am going to start with the bullying since starting at the beginning is easiest: I was bullied a lot as a child, and by a variety of people. My repertoire of elementary school bullies reads like a college diversity pamphlet. It was the body-shaming and body policing from other girls though, that I think did the most damage. My excessive body hair, acne, and, believe it or not, my thinness all made me a prime target for body shaming (the other girls kept insisting that I had an eating disorder and that I should put on weight).

It took me years to put all of these pieces together, in large part because of my then unrecognized aro aceness. My aro aceness comes into play because women’s beauty standards, as an extension of women’s gender roles, are heavily tied in with performing heterosexuality. Even as a kid, long before I knew that I was aro ace, I had an instinctive aversion to performing women’s beauty standards in part because of that non-straightness. Tie in my ADHD and the fact that women’s beauty standards tend to be taxing on executive function, and performing girl was very much a diminished reward. All of that failure to conform, born of disability and unrecognized aromanticism and asexuality (and possibly being quoigender as well) all painted a body-policing target on my back.

The weirdest part is, I actually managed to bounce back from most of this because my ability to avoid internalizing most of that filth. I always thought of myself as having good body image because, well, I didn’t have a poor body image (compare how I thought I was straight because, well, I knew I wasn’t gay). What I do have is in fact an apathetic one. My first epiphany on that was I undergrad, when my dorm had a poster on the wall allowing female students to write something that they liked about their body. At the time, I was supportive of this (and still am), but that flipped the first switch when I realized that I couldn’t think of a single thing that I actually liked about my body. I had good body image, right? So I should have been able to come up with SOMETHING, right…? Please note that while body image is a component of self image, the two are heavily conflated, which I think is shortsighted. It is possible to have an overall positive self image without having an outstanding body image. I am extraordinarily lucky to be in a position to be able to sustain a healthy self image despite my apathetic body image. It’s more than a lot of people have.

Remember what I stated before that I managed to avoid internalizing that body-shaming filth? That wasn’t entirely true. I did internalize it, just in a different way. Instead of internalizing the messages that the traits I was bullied for were flaws that diminished my worth as a person, I internalized the idea that these traits made me an easy target. It has made me acutely aware of the standards that I fail to fulfill. I don’t consider myself attractive to others because I know that my body is coded as unattractive by others. And you know what? I’m okay with not being attractive. Because when you are aro ace like me, and averse to sex and romance to boot, being attractive loses its appeal. But that has still left its scars. I have a knee-jerk mistrust of compliments concerning my appearance. After enduring so much bullying about my body, compliments on it feel insincere, not to mention also kind of sexist. If you want to pay me a compliment, couldn’t you be bothered to pay me one that is more personally and materially relevant? Apparently not, instead I have to make do with insincere sounding ones about the very thing I was mocked for, because all women prioritize beauty first and foremost, right?

Now, what does all of this have to do with my distrust of body positivity? One, body positivity at its most insipid is all about vague and platitude-laden validations of ~you’re beautiful~. Uh, no I’m not, and stop insisting that I am (remember the insincerity hang-up). Women of the world: you do not get to specifically and deliberately target me with ableist, sexist, and aphobic body shaming and otherwise ingrain the message that I am ~not beautiful~ and then pull a complete 180 on me with impersonal and clichéd validations that don’t mean a thing now that it’s easy and convenient. I am not buying it.

Two, related to point one, body positivity is heavily tied up with sex, romance, and sensuality. Messages about ~celebrating~ and ~enjoying~ your body abound, all tied up with eroticism. I’ve written before about how I am averse to sex, romance, and touch. As a result, a lot of body positivity is actively anathematic. I live effectively severed from eroticism and limerence, so what is a heady perfume to most is a noxious sewage to me. Being aro ace with a triple helping of aversions and absolutely no libido means that I don’t have a body that I can enjoy, and certainly not one I can celebrate. To risk misquoting Coyote of The Ace Theist: “I don’t want to celebrate my body. Go jump in a lake.”

Three—and this is a damning thing to proclaim—I don’t think it’s possible to build authentic body positivity for someone like me. Body positivity that encompasses me is self-defeating: it’s great and wonderful that you do not enjoy your body and are indeed stuck in a body that is incapable of being enjoyable. See, aren’t those empowering vibes just overwhelming? Even if I’m wrong and it is possible, I don’t like the idea of creating a permanent underclass of second best in which I can only get the ham hocks and pig ears while everyone else gets the juicy, juicy bacon. (Incidentally, I’d sooner go without pork than eat ham hocks or pig ears thank you very much). Or to use a punny metaphor: a system where everyone else gets to fly first class while I’m confined to flying economy. But I should totally be grateful of the fact that I am at least allowed part of the pig or am allowed to fly at all, right?

Look, I get why these points take center stage in body positivity. I know that these are uplifting messages that a lot of people need. But… I’m sick and tired of being cast aside because I don’t fit trendy rhetoric. I’m sick and tired of being expected to applaud things that benefit OTHER PEOPLE when it comes at my own expense. Because we aces and aros are constantly expected to sacrifice and de-prioritize our own needs for the sake of People Who Matter More. It’s alienating. It’s embittering. It’s isolating. And I really don’t want to be bitter. Despite bitterness being the cool thing to be online these days, I don’t recommend it. I’m not the first one to point out that body positivity is a mess of well-meaning but contradictory sentiments and competing access needs, but I wish that I wouldn’t get branded as regressive for the crime of pointing that out. I wish that body positivity would be honest about being inherently built for some people but not for others. I’d still hate it, but at least I’d respect it.

 

7 thoughts on “Guest Post: Asexuality and Poisonous Body Positivity

  1. Rachel,

    So, I realize that because of some of the wording in my post for the carnival, you might think that I’m really pro-body positivity and wouldn’t agree with you… but I actually do! I appreciate your points and relate to some of your experiences (most notably, I was also body-shamed a bunch in high school because of being so thin people just assumed I had an eating disorder). Body positivity feels more like a “should” than anything else to me, like something I should do because it’s expected, so it’s a source of guilt that I really range from apathetic about my body to negative about it depending on my mood. I avoid talking about it because I don’t meet those expectations. So thank you for writing this!

    I will admit that I don’t quite follow the food metaphors though… hm.

    Also it’s worth mentioning that body positivity is ableist in that it doesn’t really consider people who deal with a lot of physical pain and things like that, either.

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  2. The food metaphor was meant to convey how I feel as though body positivity that tries to cater to me makes me feel like I’m being given an inferior version of what other people are getting. Like a consolation prize, almost. And like the pork example, I’d sooner go without.

    So much of what body positivity revolves around is either worthless or dangerous to me. If you tried to build a body positivity to address that… you’d be removing so many core features that it would be greatly diminished. All the while the (comparative) normies get to benefit from the whole package. And I know that I would catch flak for the crime of pointing that fact out.

    So, yeah. I’m super salty.

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    1. Ah, yeah, I get that. I think I’m just… not familiar enough with different kinds of pig meat, lol. I am not much of a meat eater, so.

      Do you think there’s a way to have conversations about bodies that feels legitimately “nourishing” and uh… satisfying, I guess? …without going to the extreme of body-shaming/reinforcing body-shaming OR the (ableist, and all the other things you pointed out so well) extreme of body positivity rhetoric? I am curious, because for me at least, it feels like no matter how I talk about it, it gets pulled in one of those two directions too hard—or both directions at once in a tug-of-war.

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      1. Sorry for the late reply. I feel you a lot on the whole “no matter what I say it will be distorted by others to fuel harmful standards.”

        The only way to reconcile this that I can think of would be to define bodies as neutral. That people should not be artificially made to dislike their bodies, but not be stigmatized for feeling that way, especially if they have non-superficial reasons for feeling so.

        I held off on making this comparison earlier, but body positivity reminds me a lot of sex positivity. Both are great in theory but tend to degrade into normativity in practice and alienate those with good reasons for being negative about the topic at hand.

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  3. It’s definitely given me something to think about. Body positivity certainly isn’t perfect. I’ve been trying to figure out what exactly I think about body positivity for a while now. My qpp has an eating disorder and some severe issues with body image, so it’s something I’ve been really sensitive about (even though I am not really a sensitive person in general). I like having different perspectives on things.

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