Stop Telling People to Just Be Positive

Angry FrustratedRarely does a day go by that someone doesn’t respond to my activism by saying something like “If you’re happy just live your life and don’t worry about what other people think!” Other iterations of this are “If you were really happy with yourself, you wouldn’t have to talk about it all the time” and “Don’t meet hate with anger just be nice and stay positive!”  I was recently involved in a Facebook conversation that included these and more (the perpetrator seemed to be trying to win a blackout round of Total Bullshit Derailment Bingo.) I responded:

I often notice that people insist that I “have a positive attitude” when my speaking out against oppression makes them uncomfortable, or challenges systems from which they benefit. I think that for some people my insistence that we talk about and fix weight-based oppression makes them uncomfortable. When they say that I “should just be positive” what they seem to mean is “I don’t like your choice to advocate for yourself and fight the oppression you face.” While I appreciate that some people may be more comfortable if I didn’t point out oppression and marginalization and demand that it stop, I don’t find that to be a good reason not to do so.

After I posted I thought that I should write a blog post about that.  Then I remembered that I already had! So I’m re-posting it today:

As always, people are allowed to deal with their oppression and marginalization any way that they want and I’m not suggesting that any of these are inappropriate reactions, I think it’s important to realize that they aren’t obligatory and it’s not ok to tell someone who is dealing with oppression that the “best” response is to just ignore it.

I understand where they are coming from, it can be a bummer to hear about the oppression that happens.  I also think that there is absolutely, positively (see what I did there) a place for the positivity – including celebrating victories and creating our own spaces full of body positivity.

That said, I think it’s important to call out things that are oppressive, especially since it’s so easy for those who aren’t part of a marginalized group to ignore them – not because they are trying to or because their intentions are bad, but because they don’t have to deal with them every day.

I also think that it’s important to look at the balance of power.  The suggestion that if I’m happy I should just live my life and not care about what others say is a nice one, but I don’t think it takes into account the stereotyping, stigma, bullying, marginalization and oppression that fat people face, and the impact that has on our lives.  The government is encouraging people to wage war on me because of my size, people my size get hired less often and paid less than our thin counterparts, things like plane seats, restaurant booths, and waiting room chairs are not built for me and it’s acceptable for people to blame me for this and insist that I should pay more for the same service, bring my own chair, etc.

Doctors are allowed to refuse service to me based on my size, and it’s ok for them not to have equipment that will work for me – beds that won’t hold me, chairs the won’t fit me, instruments that are too small for me.  Until Obamacare it was ok for insurance companies to refuse to provide me health insurance (I now have insurance for the first time in 14 years.)  Medical practices, and other business, almost everywhere in the country are allowed  – and do –  refuse to hire fat people because our bodies “don’t fit with a representational image or specific mental projection of the job” regardless of our actual skills.

People who are dealing with oppression are allowed to ignore it, meet it with constant positivity, and carve out a life around it – there’s absolutely nothing wrong with those choices, sometimes that’s how I react as well, but in general it’s not my style. Engaging in activism – including calling out oppression – helps me to know that I am doing something about the bullshit I have to deal with, and that helps me deal with it.   I think that ignoring bullies allows them to bully in silence without any push back, I want to end bullying and dismantle oppression and I think that starts with pointing it out.

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12 thoughts on “Stop Telling People to Just Be Positive

  1. En-flipping-tirely. My mom specializes in going on about how the world is broken and we are all doomed etc. but when I grouse about something she tells me to be positive. I reply that I am positive this sucks and that shuts her up for a while.
    Keep blowing crap out of the water.

  2. I am reminded of the film Gentleman’s Agreement because Gregory Peck is repeatedly told to ignore racism and xenophobia.

    1. Oh, yeah! Even by some Jews, who just accept the bigotry against them, and try to shut up and deal with it.

      Just ‘staying positive’ is like giving the bullies your lunch money with a smile. They still have your lunch money, and you’re still hungry, so how, exactly, is this better than saying, “No, I’m keeping my lunch money from now on. Stop being a bully.”

      Well, it’s better for the bully and his friends. But it doesn’t make your situation any better, at all.

      I’m all for acceptance of things we can’t change, but if we CAN change it, we should at least try, to the best of our ability at the time (since it’s almost always variable).

  3. Thank you for this post!

    This helps to explain why “Just ignore it!” and “Always stay positive!” are not always the appropriate responses to oppression.

  4. Being positive does not make bad stuff go away. Personally I think that sometimes trying to be positive in the face of bad stuff just makes for more stress.

    When you find good stuff though, celebrate the heck out of it.

    1. The more we celebrate the good stuff, the more people will see that it is worthwhile, and maybe even do/produce more good stuff!

      People say that the reason there are hardly any clothing options for fat people is “because there isn’t a market for it,” and “it would be unprofitable.” But when we celebrate the really good “plus” size clothing options that ARE available, we prove the nay-sayers wrong, and encourage more people to design and sell clothes to us.

      Celebrate the heck out of it, indeed!

  5. the most meaningful, emotionally useful, interesting, and BEAUTIFUL times in my life have arisen from the other side of intense darkness. in the darkness i was never positive. i was pissed off, angry, frustrated, hopeless, done. the transformation begins each time precisely when i let myself BE THOSE UGLYMESSY THINGS! instead of positiving my way through it. kabam! a real revelation.
    “be positive” often really just means “stuff it n smile”

  6. Trying to stay positive and fight oppression are also not mutually exclusive. I aim to be positive in my life, I constantly reflect in all I have to be thankful for and that had a positive impact on my mood and outlook. I also fight back against oppression. Fighting against oppression does not make us negative people.

    This reminds me if an argument I had online with a man who said sexism is inevitable and women should just work harder to better themselves instead of trying to change things. Don’t like that you are paid less and promoted less than men? Just work twice as hard as them for half as much and be thankful to get that instead of expecting to be paid the same or advocating for equal pay!
    No thanks. I’ll keep fighting the systems and people who ate mad at that are just going to have to deal with it.

    1. And yet, that man would be insulted to be on the receiving end of his own advice. “What’s good for the gander…”

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