What I don’t want to talk about, more than I have to, is the incredibly condescending tone of an article I read recently, and the way it dismisses any criticisms of its message as the irrational ravings of hateful monsters.
There’s an attempt at logic and argument in there, buried under a mountain of disingenuous rhetoric. And while the latter is what originally made me grumpy, I don’t want to respond emotionally in the way that first occurred to me.
Instead, I want to talk directly about the item being defended with such sneering derision for those who took umbrage to it. This item:
If you’re anything like me, and haven’t seen this before (apparently I missed the Twitterstorm when it first made the rounds), you’re probably feeling some things quite strongly after taking all that in. Notice what you’re feeling and how your hindbrain wants to react. Mull that instinctive response over. It’s important, but you need to not stop there.
Maria Kang actually seems to be a decent person. She’s overcome adversities in her life and succeeded despite them, and she seems to genuinely want to encourage other people to do the same. There’s a significant understanding gap evident in the above picture, and the caption is massively misjudged, but I think there was very little malice to her intentions.
However, there is an implication to the words she chose to use. In her blog entries discussing it later, she acknowledges the way her message was interpreted by many, but never really takes ownership of it. And the unsympathetic, compassionless, impatient, victim-blaming overtones – even if they’re not at all what she intended – represent a tragically common worldview. A worldview in which there are no “reasons” when it comes to absolutely any level of shortcoming or failure, only “excuses”.
Let’s pretend that I’m somebody being asked the question, by somebody who takes this “no excuses” attitude (which I acknowledge is not that of Maria Kang herself). Here’s how I might answer:
What’s my excuse?
My excuse is that different people’s bodies react to stimuli in different ways. Different people get saddled with different genetic backgrounds, as well as upbringings which teach them different life lessons, so they end up with massively different mental and physical responses to certain situations.
Some people find some things difficult or painful which are a positive delight to others. Some people are passionately devoted to interests and hobbies which bore the pants off 99% of their fellows. Some people have an arrangement of chemicals in their brain which behaves in an entirely different way from the arrangement of chemicals in yours.
I am a different person from you. I have different goals, different loves, different struggles, different expectations, different capabilities, different talents. The ways in which you and I might vary are numerous.
Maybe you were already keen on fitness before having kids, and had become familiar with the routine of it, surrounding yourself by other people and immersing yourself in a culture which also focused on exercise and healthy living, familiarising yourself with the lifestyle, all of which made it easier for you to slide back into it after your pregnancy. Maybe I was in decent shape before having children and had other interests beyond putting in the effort to do much better than that, and have been struggling to get started since then, unfamiliar as I am with the complexities of the fitness industry, and never having previously learned to identify and make efficient use of the most healthy foods.
Maybe you have family who live nearby who’ve been able to help out with childcare now and then, which let you find some spare time to do the things that matter to you, like keeping in shape. Maybe I don’t have anyone around like that, and have had less free time for such things outside of work and raising my children.
Maybe your innate physiology was such that your body handled several pregnancies well, and allowed you to recover quickly with few ill effects each time. Maybe I had a different body structure from yours, received different medical treatment, and experienced more complications during the process, so that after giving birth I’d lost a lot of blood, was scarred and depressed, and needed a longer period of recovery before I could reasonably be expected to start living a normal life at a reasonable pace again.
Maybe when I attempted to implement exactly the same workout regime as you, I was reaching beyond the options nature made available to me, and spent a half-hour throwing up from the over-exertion after five minutes, thereafter being quite reasonably put off from making any more serious attempts to get back in shape for a while.
Maybe you’re a shit-ton richer than me and so have a lot more options open to you, in the way that money tends to do, as well as avoiding a lot of the negative health effects of the stress that I face from my day-to-day worries of whether I’m going to be able to cover the rent next month after paying for my kids’ food and healthcare bills.
Maybe there are resources available in the area where you live which aren’t accessible to me.
Maybe something else. Maybe none of these. I don’t know you or what your deal is, after all.
But maybe, in short, your disingenuously posited question actually has quite a lot of perfectly valid answers, and to imply otherwise is petty and mean-spirited and cruel.
(And we haven’t even touched on the idea that maybe everyone else excusing themselves for not being more like you isn’t even necessary. Maybe we neither want nor need to aspire to your alleged optimal state. Maybe my excuse is that I’m fine just the way I am and don’t want to meet your standards for how a person should apparently look if they oughtn’t to feel bad about themselves.)
So that’s enough maybes.
Obviously not all of them will apply. But some of them could, and they don’t deserve to be drowned out by the sound of yet another game of “find someone who’s already achieved something impressive despite ostensibly having things at least as tough as you”.
That game can be a malevolent force when it starts being used to promote the “everyone can do anything if they just try” ideology at the expense of actually existing human beings. After all, what does it say about people who fail? People who encounter setbacks from which they never recover? People who don’t “win the fight” against illness or circumstances, who never reach what you insist on calling their full potential?
They could’ve thrived if they’d just put in the effort – look at all these other people with the same condition who did – but they failed. So they must not have been trying hard enough. So, really, they didn’t deserve any better than they got.
This is an unkind and damaging way of thinking.
And in response to another obvious objection: None of the above diminishes your achievement of attaining the body you presumably want while successfully raising three happy, healthy children. If you’re proud of having worked hard to accomplish what you consider worthwhile, then that’s great. I have no desire to take any of that away, and if we hadn’t got off on kinda the wrong foot I’d be totally happy for you. None of this is about hating anyone for their success.
Suggesting that maybe some people had less free time than you doesn’t mean that you’re a slacker. Wondering whether some folk might have suffered greater financial hardships than you doesn’t imply that you haven’t worked hard to use your own limited funds efficiently. It may well be that you accomplished something which required a great deal of bravery and strength and hard work; but you completely undermine your own merits if you refuse to accept that it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect everyone else to be capable of the same results.
It’s not that the attitudes you find fault with don’t exist. There is such a thing as making excuses, and refusing to take responsibility, and stubbornly blaming all your own failings on the world fucking you over. But there is also such a thing as being fucked over by the world. And you’re massively over-simplifying the way the universe operates, in quite an offensive and patronising way, to endorse the line of reasoning: “I worked hard and got what I wanted; therefore the only reason most people don’t get what they want is that they don’t work hard.”
It’s a very right-libertarian thing, but that’s a tirade for another time. This has gone on far too ramblingly long already, so here’s where I’ll draw the bottom line:
Telling someone “You can achieve anything” can be encouraging and empowering.
Following it up with “So why haven’t you?” just makes you a dick.