I’m not sure that I address this well; I have a lot going through my head and most of it stems from current circumstances. If I’ve addressed something badly, feel free to engage with me and provide me different perspectives. I’m still trying to sort out the feelings I’m having regarding my situation, and I’m sure conversation that stems from such will be very helpful. It’d definitely be appreciated.
In the past week, I’ve written a dozen posts about abuse that have tried to discuss issues that I have with the way that we’ve learned about it and how we have conversations about it. It’s been far more difficult than I anticipated, and I’ve found that I keep coming up with different questions every time I write a new post and subsequently delete it.
Mostly, I keep returning to one question: How do things like culture and socialisation shape the way that we perceive and address abuse?
Obviously, there are so many pieces to this question. When it comes to physical abuse, most people are more likely to agree that it’s unacceptable and will take action against it. This is part of why we’ve seen an increase of discussion on Twitter in tags like #MaybeHeDoesntHitYou and #MaybeSheDoesntHitYou, where people have been continuing discussion about non-physical abuse. And we also have had #WhyIStayed to discuss the reasons why it’s sometimes quite hard to leave partners who are abusive.
These discussions are all fantastic and necessary; it’s great to see them making more people aware of the existence of things that are less obvious: emotional, mental, and financial abuse. These discussions are also outlining the fact that even hard evidence doesn’t mean you’re safe from the unnecessary critiques of those observing you, as we’ve recently learned with the high-profile news about abuse that Amber Heard endured. And it’s even showing that, no matter what, your actions are never appropriate. If you stay, you’re ‘weak’ and ‘asking for it’; if you leave, you’re ‘not trying hard enough to make things work’ and ‘are taking the easy way out’. For people perceived as girls and women, this is particularly true; there’s a reason that Australia has released an advertisement discussing the influences for domestic violence and how it starts with disrespect that appears to be okay within the society. For those perceived as boys and men, it’s just unlikely that they’re socialised to even discuss any abuse at all and are told to just ‘man up’.
And in any case of abuse, you never seem to have enough evidence.
But back to the questions I asked: How do we discuss abuse while also accounting for aspects of culture? Let’s me use an example of something that I endured growing up: fat- and body-shaming.
Throughout the world, people have generated conversations that have made it possible to view fat- and body-shaming as the abuse that they really are. We’ve found that the more you shame a person for their eating and exercise habits, people who are attempting to lose weight are less likely to achieve their goals; it actively pushes them in the opposite direction, leading many to gain weight despite attempts to do the latter. Even for fat people who may not be trying to lose weight, many have been found to comfort eat and feel less comfortable engaging in physical activities; it often scares them from just trying a new dance class that they’re interested in or joining groups playing casual games of soccer. More than any of that, it’s just absolutely atrocious behaviour to verbally emotionally abuse someone under the guise of ‘concern’.
I can say that all of this applies to me: I gained more weight due to comfort and stress eating. I gave myself ridiculous goals, trying to meet them any way possible and often failing because they were absurd, leading to further comfort eating. I frequently felt terrified going into gyms or aerobics classes, and I still feel uncomfortable and terrified blatantly exercising in public; the only exceptions are walking and biking. Even my middle and high school PE classes made me so nervous and uncomfortable, as they perpetuated the problems because my peers would hurl abuse and my teachers enabled it (or, at the very least, didn’t dare stop it). I still feel bad doing hiking trips with my friends, feeling as if I’m holding people back even when they tell me it’s okay. It’s made me hate doing physical activities in groups, like running and biking; people who ask me to do it with them always leave me behind, making me wonder why I even bothered to go with them. I get easily embarrassed if I mess up in the dance classes, and I always feel immediately uncomfortable upon entrance. Much like Lindy West, I wanted to make myself smaller, allowing my personality to take up as little space as possible; I still identify with that so much, even as I’ve allowed it to grow in recent years.
And despite the level of my own personal experiences, all of that doesn’t even get into the fact that there are also racist aspects of fat- and body-shaming. It also neglects that people are willing to include transmisogyny in their body-shaming tactics.
But these conversations, though they seem older in some demographics, are taking place in other areas as a result of memes that are believed to be unhealthy and overt restrictions. For example, the variety of body-shaming memes that have been coming out from China have sparked conversations among many people both locally and globally: the collarbone challenge, the belly button challenge, the A4 waist, the 100 yuan wrist, the 2B pencil face, and the iPhone knees and legs. There are quite a few of these viral memes (along with a few hoaxes); they come out on services like Weibo, become globally viral, and then make the rounds until they fizzle out or are replaced with a new one. These memes can be quite harmful locally, and there are people who are discussing things like fat-shaming within the culture. As these memes travel, however, they lose the cultural context that they may have; they become far more literal to many non-Chinese people, losing any meaning and context that they might have.
From my own experience of having lived for a few years between both Taiwan and China, I have grown accustomed to occasionally hearing my local friends and co-workers comment on my weight or the foods that I choose to eat. When visiting the families of my friends, their parents have sometimes commented that I’m “much too fat” and “should work harder to lose weight.” Though it’s not meant to be harsh, it becomes overwhelming to a person who has struggled with their weight since they were a toddler; it’s exhausting to put their concerns and comments into positive contexts, even though I have heard their same comments from the mouths of my family. It’s emotionally draining hearing people tell me that I should “stop eating,” especially when I have cousins back home who once told me that I “should become anorexic so that I could be pretty.”
For me, the fat- and body-shaming is abusive because of the contexts in which I’ve experienced it; for some of my friends, they view it as being helpful by merely telling the truth. I’m not willing to comment more than that, as I am not a member of either culture; I’m not an expert by any means, which means that I’ve definitely glossed over many nuances of what is taking place.
That’s not to say that all Taiwanese and Chinese people do this because they very clearly don’t. When co-workers publicly shamed me, I had a number of students – primarily those who identified as female – that came to tell me how ridiculous and cruel it was that they should say such a thing; they told me about how they were uncomfortable with people telling them how they should lose weight, eat less food, and that they should change their appearance in whatever way that might be most appealing. One of my closest friends often took it upon herself to tell me and other people, especially our students, who were on the receiving end of their comments how beautiful we were in every way and how hard we worked so that she could try to counteract the things our co-workers had told us.
It’s also not to say that places like America are without guilt; I have been misdiagnosed with having a “nervous stomach” and told to lose weight only to later discover that I was suffering from ulcers caused by H. pylori. I lost a significant amount of weight because I couldn’t keep food down; people congratulated me for my weight loss, disregarding the fact I lost it due to illness. My mother had to fight with doctors to get them to do testing to figure out what was wrong with her, finding out that she had early stage liver cancer; the first few doctors said that she was in pain because she was obese. We later found out that her being overweight actually saved her life, as the tumour would grow not into her liver but into her fat; it was the pulling of the tumour from the fat that caused her such pain, allowing her to diagnose her cancer early.
But this can be applied to all kinds of abuse, not just fat- and body-shaming. And it constantly leaves me wondering: How do we discuss these in cross- and multi-cultural relationships or settings? And how do we define emotional and mental abuse in these scenarios, when it’s already so difficult to explain within one culture?
How many times is too many when I have to explain to my partner, who is a non-native English-speaker and comes from a different cultural background than I do, about why it’s not okay to tell me that I’m “too sensitive” or “too emotional?” How many times do I need to remind my partner that they have to ask me to do something rather than assume I’m okay with doing it? How many times do I have to remind my partner and explain why it bothers me that they override or question my decisions, even if they think it’s for my benefit? When does it become gas-lighting? When does it become manipulation? When does it become abuse?
How do I make my partner understand that, while I’m more than happy to take their culture into consideration when understanding their actions, they have to provide me the same respect – making the same attempt to understand my experiences and background – in order to make the relationship work?
Because I feel like this is an often overlooked aspect of abuse, and it often makes it difficult to navigate the world in which we live because we’re assuming all cultures and people view abuse in the same way, leaving many people to remain as victims of abuse without providing them the necessary services and knowledge.