I left my 23-year career as an English Professor, in part, in order to become a social worker. In the first semester, I completed a presentation project about the origins and history of social work in the United States. It was shocking to me — though in retrospect seems like the most obvious thing in the world — that social work in this country began with well-meaning, rich, white women who needed something to do with their time & money. This presentation forced me to take a larger view of the social work field currently and when I did I realized, things haven’t changed ALL that much. At the same time, I noticed in my program — and in the agencies I was getting exposure to — that most of the well-meaning white women wanted to “help people” because they believed they were the only ones who could fix people. I recognized a profound arrogance that seemed to almost always include unchecked privilege around race, class, cis-het-normativity, and the lack of experience -- therefore deep compassion and understanding -- of trauma. I saw and experienced some truly disgusting examples of this.
Another thing I noticed in this program was that those of us who were willing to admit our own brokenness vulnerably and openly were not there to learn how to “fix” people but to partner with folks on this messy journey of being and becoming more human. Feminist philosopher, Donna Haraway calls this “becoming-with.” And this becoming-with is in direct opposition to charity work. Becoming-with in a white supremacist, colonial-capitalist patriarchy requires what feminist philosopher, Riane Eisler, identifies as a shift from our deeply embedded “control and domination” paradigm to a new (and also very old) “cooperation and partnership” paradigm. Becoming-with and shifting to (or back to) this partnership model requires helping professionals to see themselves as every bit as messy, human, and in need of helping as their clients. In this way, we are all equally engaged in this process of being/becoming human. None of us is perfect.
Perfection is a lie of white supremacy and boy does the expectation of perfection keep white women (and lots of the rest of us too) dancing on our toes. And, it’s also a dangerously hateful bar to set for the humans we are attempting to help. The reality, of course, is that perfection is not real, it is a LIE, a myth of white supremacy. It is the carrot that is perpetually dangled before us in a white supremacist, colonial-capitalist, patriarchy. It keeps us constantly buying things. It keeps us continually distracted with the project of self-improvement. It keeps us from noticing who is really in power and what they are really doing. It’s the greatest synthetic drug ever invented: it both stimulates us to run endlessly toward it and sedates our ability to even wonder what it is.
As a helping professional my whole life and a (for all intents-and-purposes) white woman, I have also been administered this drug of perfectionism. Especially in my early career as a teacher, I too thought I could fix things which included people (because perfectionism objectifies us). But for the past decade or so, I have been involved in the project of learning what it means for me to reject whiteness and white supremacy which means rejecting perfectionism or behaving as if I have all of my shit together at all times.
Not only am I a helping professional who will openly admit that I don’t have all my shit together at all times, I also no longer trust -at all- other helping professionals (or general folks — white women especially) who behave that way either. Assuming our helpers have to be perfect / looking for and expecting perfection in our helpers is the mindset of the colonized. And the project of rejecting whiteness and divesting from white supremacy requires a decolonizing of my mindset.
Anyone who tells you that they never struggle, that their life is never messy, that they’ve got it all figured out, that they went through a program, a series of treatments, an experience and came out the other side PERFECT is full of shit. They are either lying to themselves or lying to you or, more than likely, both.
We cannot undo the dangerous codes that our white supremacist, colonial-capitalist, patriarchy downloaded into our brains and bodies at birth while continuing to live within that same system and not face setbacks, relapses, and slips. Undoing a lifetime of fatphobia and body hatred (or any of the other shit that comes from that aforementioned download) is not a straight line to “I’m-all-better-now”-ville.
When I first started in the work of weight-neutral, body-liberation-oriented health coaching, I slipped back into that perfectionist mindset for a bit and thought I had to be “perfect” in my body liberation in order to bring it to other folks. This just led to me putting unintentional but harmful pressure on my clients to get body liberation “right” at all times. And it forced me to ignore my own humanity which was detrimental to my own recovery and progress.
For a long while now, I have been working in the becoming-with and partnership models of Haraway and Eisler meaning, I see myself moving WITH my clients, on a wide path where there is room for a multitude of experience and divergence. Sometimes I’m farther up the hill than they are so I will reach back and help them up when they are struggling. When I stay in the personal work of body liberation for myself it is much easier to stay on this path with them and to be available when they need that hand. In this way, mine and my clients’ journeys are mutually embedded. We are going together. The benefit of working with a health coach who takes this perspective of care and who experiences the struggle of working toward body liberation in a culture steeped in fatphobia is that I actually LIVE this experience, DAILY. I have had so many frustrating conversations with helping and healthcare professionals - many therapists — who have not adopted HAES in their work and who believe that this struggle is just about being sad about / uncomfortable with being fat. They can be wildly progressive from every other angle and still be so ignorant in their approach to body size, fatphobia, and body liberation. Their ignorance due to a lack of interrogating their own fatphobia isn’t just annoying, it’s dangerous. Their arrogance is dangerous.
We all deserve care outside of the dangerous, arrogant myth of white supremacist perfectionism. We could all use a partner on the wide path of body liberation.
About JodiAnn Stevenson
JodiAnn Stevenson lives in the U.S., in the Northwest Corner of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, on The Big Lake. Her writing has appeared in numerous venues since 1996. She is the author of three published chapbooks of poetry: The Procedure (March Street Press, 2006); Houses Don’t Float (Habernicht Press, 2010); and Diving Headlong Into A Cliff of Our Own Delusion (Saucebox, 2011). Her mixed-genre work Marina Abramovic Is My Mother is available in the form of a short-run podcast. She has also produced eight chapbooks of poetry for The Broken Nose Collective which she co-founded in 2013. JodiAnn was founder and co-managing editor of the feminist micro-press, Binge Press and its sister journal, 27 rue de fleures, from 2004 until 2017.
A (more or less) complete list of publications and appearances: