Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with The Underpants Rule. The Underpants Rule states that you are the boss of your underpants, other people are the boss of their underpants, and nobody is the Underpants Overlord – a full description can be found here. It’s a shorthand that I use to discuss that fact that our personal choices should not be up for public debate.
Sometimes people get confused or conflicted about the extent of the Underpants Rule. Reader Becky sent me the following question:
“I work in a bookstore and I’m conflicted every time someone wants a weight loss book. On the one hand: underpants rule. On the other: I just want to go Mr. Rogers on them (“I like you just the way you are!”) but without sounding like a creepy stranger or sticking my nose where it doesn’t belong. What are your thoughts on the line between the underpants rule and say something Sunday style activism?”
The Underpants Rule (UR) is a way to describe how I think of interaction around personal decisions. It works exactly the same way that our civil rights are supposed to – our right to punch ends at the tip of someone else’s nose. So while I’m allowed to enjoy choosing to run around, punching my arms out and flailing them around muppet-style, I’m not allowed to do so in a crowed room and claim that if people don’t like getting punched in the face then they shouldn’t come in that room. I’m allowed to yell “Fire!” at home by myself, but not in a crowded theater.
If someone’s decisions are personal and don’t affect me, then the Underpants Rule applies: they are the boss of their underpants and it’s not for me to interfere if they want to diet, or attempt to climb Everest, or take the cinnamon challenge. If someone’s decisions do affect me directly, including and especially if they are attempting to infringe on my rights, then it’s a UR violation. Let’s look at some examples:
Someone thinks that dieting is the path to health so they choose to diet.
Underpants rule all the way, I don’t agree but those aren’t my underpants so I say nothing.
Someone thinks that dieting is the path to health so they try to pass a law that fat people need to diet, or limiting the rights of fat people who refuse to do so.
Noooo. World of no, Galaxy of no. No. Obviously this is infringing on the rights of other people to make choices for their health so the Underpants Rule does not apply.
Someone thinks that same gender marriage is wrong so they marry someone of the opposite gender.
No problem, underpants rule – feel free to take a pass on marrying another dude.
Someone thinks that same gender marriage is wrong so they try to stop other people from having the ability to get married.
Nope, this infringes on other people’s rights so the UR does not apply. (Sometimes people suggest that they are being oppressed if same-gender marriage is legal because they don’t believe it’s right for whatever very sincerely held reason. Not so much. That’s not oppression any more than stores selling bacon oppresses those who think that eating bacon is wrong. They would only be oppressed if they were forced into a same-gender marriage.)
Fat people’s decisions are my business because of my tax dollars.
Not a valid argument for all of these reasons. Underpants rule violation.
Because I’m allowed to attempt weight loss, I should be allowed to talk about my weight loss attempt in every space in the world, including those that someone else created that they’ve designated as a Size Acceptance/No Weight Loss Talk space.
Nope, nope, nope-ity, nope. The fact that people have the right to do what they want with their bodies does not mean that every space has to be available for them to talk about that. It’s completely ok to create safe spaces, whether that’s a Size Acceptance space, a POC only space, a Queer positive space where they don’t allow posts encouraging people to become ex-gay, a weight loss space that doesn’t allow people to disparage weight loss attempts, etc.
I think that I should only wear clothes that are flattering/appropriate etc. by my definition of flattering/appropriate.
Of course, enjoy your clothes, if those clothes aren’t available to you I’ll be happy to fight for your right to be accommodated.
All fat people should wear clothes that meet my definition of flattering/appropriate or they deserve to be treated poorly for their choices.
Becky’s question about someone wanting to buy a diet book from a bookstore where I’m the clerk.
Those are their underpants, so it’s not my place to say anything. (If I was buying Lindo Bacon and Lucy Aphramor’s book and the person selling me the book tried to tell me that I should buy a diet book instead I would be so furious I would be blogging about it on my phone in my car in the parking lot.)
The UR says that I have to accept people’s mistreatment of me because they get to be the boss of their underpants.
This is perhaps the most dangerous misinterpretation of the UR, and shame on anyone who tries to use the UR to justify poor treatment of others. Other people have a right to make choices for themselves, they don’t have a right to mistreat others, or infringe on the rights of others. Ever. You may not be able to control the behavior of others, and circumstances may dictate the way that you react, but nothing justifies your being mistreated, especially not the Underpants Rule.
The fact that the Underpants Rule exists also doesn’t mean that everyone has all of the choices that they would prefer to make accessible to them. There are all kinds of things standing between people and the full expression of the underpants rule – lack of accessibility, socioeconomic disparity/poverty, racism, transphobia, homophobia, misogyny, ableism, healthism, and sizeism, and that’s just a start. Those who try to use the UR to erase those injustices or suggest that they shouldn’t be fought are seriously missing the point of the UR, or are purposefully abusing the concept.
Finally, sometimes people may make the conscious choice to break the UR because they feel that someone is doing themselves harm. Different people have different ideas of when this is acceptable, this is a choice that we each have to make in our own lives.
The Underpants Rule is something that helps me remember that other people’s personal choices aren’t my business if they don’t affect me, and that my choices aren’t other people’s business if they don’t affect them. Our underpants are, in fact, our own.
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