People find inspiration in the darndest places. Like these ads to inspire more women to breastfeed… by showing men doing it. Now, I’m not knocking these brave dudes but I’m just saying that as a lady with mammaries all these ads make think are “Yeah but you can’t… so why are you confusing that baby with a hairy nipple?”
We’ve all done it. Whether it’s sneaking a peek at the treadmill readout from the person next to us and upping our speed a bit to match theirs or seeing someone deadlift three times their body weight and deciding to give the DL another try or even seeing someone proudly wearing a bright, weird outfit and using that to craft our own bright, weird outfit, taking inspiration from what other people say and do is as normal as looking in the bowl after you go to the bathroom. Sometimes we don’t want to admit we do it but nevertheless we all do.
And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with taking inspiration from what’s around us. But the advent of social media has changed the rules a bit – upped the stakes – when it comes to talking about what inspires us. Three recent examples have really shown how publicly thanking people for being inspiring can go horribly awry.
Last Friday, Closer ran a Facebook message that someone had posted about a “fatty” they saw running. Closer posted it under “inspiration” – “We have to admit that, after reading that, we’re suddenly feeling a LOT more inclined to lace up our running shoes and give pounding those pavements a go!” – but many of their readers saw it as anything but.
“To the fatty running on the Westview track this afternoon:
You, whose feet barely lift off the ground as you trudge around the track. You, who keeps to the outside lane, footslogging in the wrong direction. You, who stops for water breaks every lap, and who would probably stop twice a lap if there were bleachers on both sides. You, whose gaze drops to your feet every time we pass. You, whose sweat drenches your body after you leave, completing only a single, 20-minute mile.
There’s something you should know: You f**ing rock.
“Every shallow step you take, you carry the weight of more than two of me, clinging to your bones, begging to be shaken off. Each lap you run, you’re paying off the debt of another midnight snack, another desser, another beer. It’s 20 degrees outside, but you haven’t let that stop your regimen. This isn’t your first day out here, and it certainly won’t be your last. You’ve started a journey that lasts a lifetime, and you’ve started it at least 12 days before your New Year’s resolution kicks in. You run without music, and I can only imagine the mantras running through your mind as you heave your ever-shrinking mass around the next lap. Let’s go, feet. Shut up, legs. F**k off, fat. If you’d only look up from your feet the next time we pass, you’d see my gaze has no condescension in it.
“I have nothing but respect for you. You’ve got this.”
The person was obviously trying to be encouraging but anything that starts with “to the fatty” is bound to be problematic. But the real issue – that this person was essentially writing the runner an entire story line that had nothing to do with who the person really was and everything to do with who the writer wanted them to be – became starkly apparent when the “inspiration” caught wind of the post and wrote back.
“To the man who judged me on the Westview track,
I see that you wrote a Facebook status about my journey and me. It described me on the track and from what I gather it was supposed to inspire after a little insult. It went viral.
So let me tell you what I think of your post…
First off I would suggest you not judge me at all. You have my journey all messed up. My journey did not start twelve days ago. It started over a year ago. You see me at 300 pounds but what you do not know is I was over 400 pounds. You did not know this because I was embarrassed to run in front of other people. So I would come to this track when no one else was around. Sometimes I would go for a couple of minutes. Sometimes I would go for four minutes. It all started when I went for 48 seconds my first time running. Yes, I timed it. Yes I was upset. And yes, I promised it would never happen again.
When I was over 400 pounds and decided to make the commitment to change my life I would wake up and look in the mirror. I would find at least 100 negative things about my body. All the descriptions you made about me…I was even harder on myself.
Then after losing a few pounds I looked in the mirror again. I did not look at my body. I looked in my eyes. I saw determination and character. I saw a man who did not want to be an inspiration for others but one for himself. I was that man.
Your whole post insults me like no end. I do not eat midnight snacks or drink beer. You probably think all “fat” people do this. Well, we do not. I ate better than most at 300 pounds. In fact, I have not had a drink in well over 20 years.
I look down because I see you stare at me all the time. I do not want to give you the satisfaction of looking into my eyes. There are people who were supporting me all along. Not people who made up fictional parts of my life.
I also do not listen to music because I hear everything. I hear the laughter and I hear the snickers. They are never about me except they always are. I have been overweight my whole life. I have not had my blinders on for some time.
There are no mantras going through my head. When I run it is clear. I have no anger or happiness. I am there to complete a task. I am good at that.
You fooled people on Facebook but you have not fooled me. You do not have respect for my journey because you do not know it. I have told my story to thousands of people. I have been told that I have inspired many as well. Not because of the way I run but because of the person I am. Not because of my 200 pound weight loss but because of the words that I have had inside for years.
Many of us have been that person being judged and then twirled into some weird inspirational story. I was judged at the gym at 400 pounds. I was laughed at in Panera at 350 pounds. I was embarrassed at 300 pounds and honestly I was the same person at 195 pounds as I was at 420 pounds.
I tell people now that weight loss should not make you love yourself more. That is the mistake I made.
So next time you look at me on that track do yourself a favor. Look away. I do not look like I once did. I do not want to be your inspiration or your motivation.
I am a runner. I was a runner at 420 pounds and I am a runner today.
And runners do one thing.
They run. Not write about other runners.
(Note: I have known Tony Posnanski from blog land for several years now and love his site The Anti-Jared! But I’m actually not sure if he’s responding to this as the actual person called out in the Facebook post or just what he would have said to that person had it been him. And maybe it doesn’t matter. Either way it’s awesome.)
A second example of this issue blew up XOJane a couple of weeks ago when a self-described “skinny white girl” wrote about taking a yoga class with a “heavyset black woman” called “IT HAPPENED TO ME: THERE ARE NO BLACK PEOPLE IN MY YOGA CLASSES AND I’M SUDDENLY FEELING UNCOMFORTABLE WITH IT”:
“Because I was directly in front of her, I had no choice but to look straight at her every time my head was upside down (roughly once a minute). I’ve seen people freeze or give up in yoga classes many times, and it’s a sad thing, but as a student there’s nothing you can do about it. At that moment, though, I found it impossible to stop thinking about this woman. Even when I wasn’t positioned to stare directly at her, I knew she was still staring directly at me. Over the course of the next hour, I watched as her despair turned into resentment and then contempt. I felt it all directed toward me and my body.I was completely unable to focus on my practice, instead feeling hyper-aware of my high-waisted bike shorts, my tastefully tacky sports bra, my well-versedness in these poses that I have been in hundreds of times. My skinny white girl body. Surely this woman was noticing all of these things and judging me for them, stereotyping me, resenting me—or so I imagined.”
I thought about how that must feel: to be a heavyset black woman entering for the first time a system that by all accounts seems unable to accommodate her body. What could I do to help her? If I were her, I thought, I would want as little attention to be drawn to my despair as possible—I would not want anyone to look at me or notice me. And so I tried to very deliberately avoid looking in her direction each time I was in downward dog, but I could feel her hostility just the same. Trying to ignore it only made it worse.I got home from that class and promptly broke down crying.”
Your essay about your emotional crisis triggered by the presence of a “heavyset black woman” in your yoga class was pretty tough for me to read. You may not even be aware of the level to which you dehumanized the Unnamed Black Woman behind you. You see, unless you are an FBI profiler trained in reading facial expressions, there’s a chance you imagined her “panic and despair.”You crossed every line from describing your experience into assuming hers, despite having had absolutely no direct contact with her. Unless you have some sort of futuristic closed-captioning software in your brain, you took every liberty in identifying her thought process and went above and beyond by declaring yourself the victim of her obvious-in-your-mind “resentment and contempt.”
You see, I don’t think either of you have anything but good intentions, and yet you are using them to pave the road to hell. Further enacting a societal ill in your efforts to call it out is the worst kind of white privilege. It is why we need messages of progress but the messenger matters. Otherwise, we’re left with something like this:Hey, Oppressed Person, I feel bad for you but what’s most important right now is that we make it all about Me, even though it is your time of need. How do I know it is your time of need? Why, because you’re not me, of course! You’re you and that is Less Than Me. But I’m thinking of you! So let’s get back to Me and My Thoughts now…
On one hand, I can definitely sympathize with the need to make everything about Me as that’s basically what I do here, right? Me, me, me, research, me, depression, you, me, me, me, fitness, me. But Glenn’s point was very well made. Especially when it comes to using other people as motivation for us to do something.
All of this made me think of the time some dude wrote about the Gym Buddies and I being “inspirational” to him at the gym on the Missed Connections section of Craigslist. He basically thanked us for being good wank material and called us “fun” “scenery”. It was nowhere near as bad as either of the two examples mentioned above but it still made us feel like crap and had the added bonus of making us look over our shoulders constantly for the next few weeks. I try really hard to choose not to take offense at things, especially where none is meant, but in this instance we definitely didn’t feel inspirational. We felt used, and in the worst way.
As someone who loveLOVEloves giving compliments to strangers – and having stuck my foot in my mouth more than once doing so – I know I am NOT the authority in this area. But as I thought about this, I came up with a few questions to ask myself before posting about someone else being inspiring. And if any of you find these useful, even better!
Questions to ask yourself before posting something “inspiring”
1. Have you had more than a passing conversation with this person? And if so, did you ask them if you could use their story and/or tell them you find them inspiring? So many of these little slights and confusions and I-meant-well’s could be straightened out with 5-minutes of getting to know the person.
2. Are they a celebrity/public figure? You get a pass on the “talking to them” part and also, many celebs craft careful public images with the help of stylists, PR reps, agents etc with the intent it be put out into the public sphere for discussion.
3. Is it kind? No, really, if there is any “backhand” to your compliment then keep it to yourself.
4. Are you humblebragging? Are you using the person’s “inspirational story” to point out a flaw in them that makes your strengths look better by comparison? Don’t.
If all your answers are “yes” (except for #4) then praise away! People ARE inspirational. They are brave and beautiful and kind and generous, often in the most surprising ways. In the end I think it’s important to remember that you can think whatever you want – and be inspired by whatever moves you! – but that doesn’t mean you need to say it.
Where do you guys typically draw your inspiration from? When’s the last time you were inspired by someone in real life? How would you have responded to the “fatty” letter or the yoga letter? Any q’s to add to my list?