In that it raises the question of self-esteem, Ragen Chastain has an interesting response to a critic in this morning’s blog. The reader accuses Chastain of asserting her beauty and her wonderfulness and calls Size Acceptance and the idea that anyone who’s fat should feel good about him/herself arrogant. Eye roll. I do not, for the record, recall Chastain ever making either claim. She claims to be a practicing dancer, and she is. She claims to be an all around physical bad-ass, and she is. She claims to be smarter than the average car bumper, and she lucidly is. She claims to have a mission, and she does. But she has never claimed to be Vogue material–as if that’s the only standard for beauty?
Why do people read blogs that piss them off? I mean, I barely have time to read blogs that I like and find usefully thought-provoking. If I’m in the mood to be pissed off, all I have to do is listen to the news while I’m driving. The speaker of the House is sure to have said or done something dumb/evil/mendacious enough to elicit my ire. On any given day. I don’t see the point of trolling for it. Perhaps this is a function of my wealth (not $-wise, though I can’t exactly complain about my material existence)–the wealth of things to do (which often feels like a mixed damn blessing, but is, in fact a gift insofar as it’s a manifestation of a life full of connections and places where what I do or don’t do matters) and the wealth of things that interest me (even aside from my…SQUIRREL!!!…um, my ADD-driven attraction to sparkly things). And there’s so much actual injustice and catastrophically bad behavior out there to concern yourself with. So how trivial does your life actually have to be for you to have your knickers in a righteous twist over the idea that fat people might not hate themselves, and to go trolling for fat people who don’t so you can yell at them? I’m guessing pretty trivial/petty/empty. And broken–which part I’m sorry about.
But the more interesting issues are those of arrogance and self-esteem. I’ve been called arrogant all my life. Or a snob–they’re not the same thing, but they’re connected. It’s legit, to some extent, and I don’t mean in the sense that I am not inclined to be apologetic about the fact that I am aware that I have certain intellectual gifts and like having them. That’s a self-awareness issue, and a self-esteem issue. And I can get a little snooty if I’m feeling insecure or attacked. I mean people who think that the fact that I use big words means that I’m trying to say that I’m better than they are. I mean my father thinking that I’m a snob because I think NASCAR is stupid and he wasn’t snobby because he thought brainy people who chose not to pursue wealth were stupid. A lot of things actually are stupid, a lot, and the fact that I think so doesn’t make me a snob–whether NASCAR is one of them is open for debate, but a first world democracy with a crappy school system–that being stupid isn’t up for debate. Anyway, that’s a digression. What I want to say to “Pippy” is that it’s really irritating when people call out other people for arrogance when really, all the first person has been doing is speaking her mind unapologetically. Not apologizing for your big vocabulary, your big stamina, your big hips (see Lucille Clifton’s gorgeous poem “Homage to My Hips”) is not the same thing as arrogance. And it’s not okay to call people arrogant because they can do something you can’t (or I’d be hating on my son-in-law and his math-y big brain all the time) or because whatever that thing is they can do gives them pleasure about which they talk (reasonably–not air-in-the-room-suckingly–that’s another matter). Especially since there’s a reasonable chance that Pippy has some thing about which she is unapologetically pleased with herself–hopefully not her passion for threatening to slap strangers for disagreeing with her.
So effing what? Humility, the problematic opposite of arrogance, does not actually consist in pretending that you have no gifts or that you are unaware of the ones you have. It consists, I would argue, of understanding that gifts are just that, gifts (of genetics, from God, or random products of physics, whatever…) and therefore should be respected and cared for and lived-up-to and used righteously. Which does not include beating other people over the head with them–a thing I fear I have been known to do–but does include remembering that no matter how large your gift(s) there is, or was, or will always be someone out there who’s better at it or at some component of it than you will ever be, no matter what you do. Which consciousness can lead to considerable (and crippling) insecurity and frustration, which can lead, in turn, to obnoxiously arrogant behavior. Oy, the circles…
But the most interesting concept that came up, I think, is self-esteem. I’ve thought a lot about that–not so much in regard to myself and fatness as in regard to my students. For a while there in the 80s and 90s, we were teaching the children of the Self-Esteem Will Save Your Children From Drugs movement, which was crap, (decent prospects for jobs and a life free of abuse by other people will save your kids from drugs rather more often) and which is still tendrilling its way through a lot of parenting and education chatter. Like most of these movements, it started out with a couple of no-duh good ideas about doing more to protect the personhoods of small humans. I am all for protecting the personhoods of small humans. I don’t think any of them should ever be told that his or her worth as a human is a function of his or her capacity to function in a classroom or on a soccer field or to not irritate the crap out of a tired parent. But children are not dumb, as a group, and they can tell that the scholastically competent ones (notice I did not say smarter–there’s a big difference there, in spite of considerable crossover–smart and good-at-school are hugely different things) have an easier time of it, that some of them can run and kick a ball at the same time better than others, that some are prettier than others (according to generally agreed upon, if limited, standards). So when we tell them they’re all equally wonderful, we’re lying. It’s like my daughters’ wretched high school (yes, I am still pissed at you Newark High, and planning to stay that way, thank you very much) having “Excellence is our expectation!” over its main door. What criminal crap. And then we expect teenagers to treat us and our requests with respect, having lied to them constantly, insistently, and loudly. Way to go, grups.
Anyway, back to self-esteem. It’s perfectly okay to give the kid who just plain showed up for soccer a patch or a badge for participation–participation is pretty seriously worthy in and of itself, but it’s not the same as achievement, and giving her a trophy just like the kid who was the lead scorer is dishonest and fails utterly to honor her accurate perception of her place on the team. We don’t spend nearly enough time with kids helping them discover what their gifts are, or teaching them to value and nurture those gifts in the context of socially functional lives. But the real problem is that they aren’t taught that self- esteem is a thing you have to work for, to earn, even if, on some level, it’s a core right. It still needs to be a function of accurate self-awareness and focused work. And if, like those college students in the 80s and 90s, you came to college full of a muzzy, unspecific sense of your own wonderfulness, then you were in for a fairly nasty series of bumps, since college is still, most of the time, more or less a ruthless meritocracy where what you accomplish is considerably more important than how hard you try, especially if you run into old warhorses like me who believe we’re holding the fort against the creeping tide of standard-less cretinism.
The millennials are a more interesting mix, ultimately, of young people who have been worshipped boundarylessly by their parents and taught that learning is a matter of checking off dozens of little definable boxes that will, inevitably add up to an A, and have also been raised by people who are distracted as all get out–no matter how many soccer games they show up for–by The Economy and Work and, and, and, and, and. And, of course, all of these are broooooooaaaaad generalizations based on the largely upper-middle-class, east-coast, bright-normal kids who dominate the population of Pretty Good U. As individuals, they are still beautifully individual and complex and teaching them is an extraordinary privilege, even when they make me want to chew nails.
But back to Ragen and Pippy. Here’s the answer: Ragen may or may not be arrogant–I haven’t met her, so it’s hard to make that call, and hard to sort out, in any event, where the line is between someone who’s caught up in a righteous mission and often put in the position of having to stand for a somewhat battered constituency, and someone who actually thinks her ass is made of chocolate cake (my sainted mother’s pet term for arrogance, and yes, I am aware of the irony in this context–but my teeny-tiny mother’s feelings about chocolate cake border on the religious…). And, by God, Ragen has fully and richly EARNED every ounce of her self esteem by working her ass into the ground. So, Pippy, instead of spending time on line looking for people you would like to be pissed off by, perhaps you should go out and see if you can earn some of your own.
Yep, folks, that right there is a random, irrelevant photo, unless you read the expression as one of frustrated disgust, in which case, maybe it’s not altogether irrelevant. But mostly it’s there because I’m enchanted by the epic fluffitude.