Fat shaming, gender roles, and becoming a woman with autism

Those of you who were diagnosed autistic as adults will probably understand when I say it takes a while to grow into the identity. There’s the tearing down, sudden or incremental, of the person you’ve built on lies of neurotypicality; the grief; the acceptance; and the beginnings of real life.

The process isn’t steady: it comes in fits and starts. Against a smooth background of progress, I encounter every so often those single jolts of realisation, “eureka” moments that seem like a physical leap forward from where I’ve been.

I’ve known for a long time that the images we see and the views we read in the media, online and on television, can have a strong influence on our unconscious biases. The constant bombardment of idealised female physiologies, the skewed representation of women towards youth and a specific body type, twists the self image of girls from early in childhood: that if they do not fit this trope, they are a failure. There are further, deeper issues around “thinspo” and “fitspo”: online media specifically designed to encourage disordered and self-damaging behaviours around eating and exercise. These issues are well covered in the more progressive online literature, as well as, ironically, by much of the same media that perpetuates the problem. But something I read recently cast this type of media message, for me, into a different frame.

The piece from Beauty Redefined, which very eloquently and sensitively explores the benefits of a “media fast”, doesn’t strictly cover anything I didn’t know. But it sets out the problem in a slightly different light. Instead of just telling me again that these messages towards women are wrong and harmful, it suggests tools I can use to choose which media messages are safe to consume. I was intrigued: it made me think. And considering those tools for a while brought home to me a new understanding on why being an autistic woman, in this world, can feel so dreadfully wrong.

The narrow, idealised pictures we see of women in the media aren’t just physical: they’re personal. The few roles available for women in books and films paint them as social creatures, valued by society for their prettiness, but also for their “traditional values” of kindness and sensitivity. They have many friends. They organise parties. They answer the telephone late at night and babysit their siblings’ children. When a friend is in trouble, they always know the right thing to say. The role of this comfortingly conventional woman is defined entirely by her interactions, not with the world, but with people: who she knows; who she supports; who she loves.

This picture of women painted by society as we know it is distorted enough from a neurotypical perspective. From an autistic one, it is almost unendurable. In my darkest moments it was to this impossible stereotype that I compared myself, doomed to failure and shame. To be autistic was to diverge from every part of the societally accepted female identity. A lifetime of niggling doubts had coalesced overnight into something monstrous; and I suddenly saw myself marked, judged all my life by something that everyone but me could see. My lack of social skills had me constantly labelled as aggressive; insensitive; uncaring; I’d learned not to listen, to try not to be hurt by what I could not understand. But now I knew of those people accusing me: that they were right, and I was so, so wrong. It didn’t matter that I didn’t feel or mean those things. It mattered how they saw me. How I looked.

When first I realised I had autism I forced myself to read on and on, no matter how much it hurt. I read about how I was different, how I was less, in order to learn to be more. Endless reams of well-meaning advice for the parents of young boys; myself described in such condescending terms, a million miles from where I had learned I should be. And it wasn’t just the popular media, by any means. There was autism psychology, emotional maturity and developmental trajectories: bald statements in print, coldly enumerating the skills I lacked at each level of my childhood and adolescence. The tone of pity – or not even pity, but pragmatic acceptance that people like me just need to be cared for and tolerated. Like we couldn’t ever have value as autonomous adults, or command respect as our own selves.

When I read about autism, even now, it makes me want to change. Sometimes that change is about learning and growing, but mostly it’s not. I don’t feel encouraged by what I read to reach out, to connect with others and learn new social skills. I feel obligated not to inflict my naivity on the world. I don’t feel eager to develop my appreciation of the wider picture: I feel ashamed of the narrowness of my focus. What I see written about us entreats a primarily non-autistic audience to tolerate and accept our limitations, but never to encourage, accommodate or seek out our strengths. It paints autism as an embarassment. It tells other people about me, that I am less. It tells me I’m not good enough the way I am.

But back then, when I was at my most vulnerable, I had to read; I had to learn to be a better person. If I didn’t read and absorb and accommodate the world’s expectations, it meant I was lazy. And worse than that, it meant I didn’t care about the people around me. I had to protect them from the horrible impacts of autism. From me.

The parallels between this thinking about personalities and the distorted body images encouraged by fitspo and thinspo are closer than a breath. What’s written about autism is meant for non-autistic people – as if we didn’t exist – with no regard to the damage it can do. Like thinspo, coverage of autism is all about looking a certain way for other people. It’s never about being and feeling a certain way, interacting with people authentically, as myself. Even the labels, conjoured by disordered thinking from these caricatures of reality, are aligned. “Lazy”, “selfish”, “undisciplined”? These are all traits that the body-shaming media silently attribute to “fat” people – and particularly fat women – by implication, for not trying hard enough not to be who they are. “I just feel sorry for them – think of [ how much healthier they’d be / how many more friends they’d have ] if they [ weren’t so fat / acted more normal ]?” Wrapped up in the guise of caring, people who just want you to be healthy, to be happy. Keeping your failures hidden from the world. Helping you to change who you are.

I don’t need to change who I am to be happy. I don’t need to become invisible to be loved.

I do need some support and accommodations at work. I need guidance to navigate office politics and clarification of what’s expected of me. I have a lot to learn about many things, for which I will need time and patience and acceptance, just like anyone else. But I don’t need the guilt. I don’t need to feel bad every time I ask a question, that I haven’t “developed the skills” to be completely autonomous. I don’t need to force myself through social interactions that drain the life out of me and give nothing in return. I don’t need to ration the supports I request for fear of being seen as lazy or undisciplined. I help other people with the things I’m good at, and they help me. I am not worthless because I think and socialise differently.

I’ve grown as a person since my diagnosis. I’m becoming more comfortable with this identity. But sometimes I still need reminding of the benefits of a media fast, to clear my mind and remind me who I am.