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.

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Gender unawareness: the benefits of social isolation

Growing up autistic, I was less receptive than most to the subtle underlying pressure society exerts to separate men from women. At primary school, I was bullied horribly by girls and boys alike. But from the age of 11, I attended an all-girls secondary school that prided itself on teaching its students to be leaders. Rarely socialising with my peers, I was never exposed to the social requirement to hide my competence and enthusiasm in the presence of men. Looking back, my loneliness seems a small price to pay for the privilege of a sexism-free adolescence. Of course, I knew that there was something “wrong” that made me less than my peers. But it had nothing to do with my gender.

The lessons I learned in childhood and adolescence bear a stark contrast to the lessons impressed on most girls in their teenage years. In a girls’ school and later at university, I found delight in exploring concepts, helped on as we were encouraged to discuss and develop. Never mind if our answers were wrong or incomplete; I was consistently met with a willingness to explain, to lead me into a deeper understanding.

But in a gendered environment, girls learn that they are expected to be wrong. They learn that unless they have a perfect answer, they should keep quiet or risk ridicule. “Girls talk too much”: so goes the stereotype, implying that women should be careful before speaking to ensure that what they have to say is truly valuable. By the mid-teenage years, some girls would rather present their teacher with a blank page than submit their work so far and ask for guidance. The lessons learned here persist long into adulthood, with women (in my experience) being much more defensive about mistakes and less willing to discuss what went wrong – with a view to what could be improved – than men.

I remember a time when I didn’t “see” gender. Although I grew up surrounded by women and girls, I’ve never been uncomfortable in a working or social environment dominated by men. It served me well in my university studies, and I had no qualms about gender balance in applying for jobs in scientific fields. In the workplace, that’s changed. But not in the way you might expect.

The thing is, from an autistic perspective, I’m now generally more afraid of women than men. In the neurotypical world, behaviours that come naturally to me are often misinterpreted. Both men and women have cautioned me against arrogance, where I suspect they might have recognised (and approved of) confidence in a man. But in face-to-face interactions, I feel like I can trust a man to speak out openly if he thinks I’ve been rude. An open challenge I can face down, or accept and apologise as necessary. Whilst a woman, conditioned to avoid conflict, will keep her feelings quiet and unresolved – and I will never know. This is an observable impact of men learning that their identity and personhood has a value worth defending; whereas women have been socialised to submit, never challenging anything that makes them uncomfortable. The upshot of which is that with a woman I’ve offended unintentionally, I may never get the chance to make it right. With a single mis-step on my part, the relationship is poisoned.

The fact that I’ve learned to “see” gender in the working environment because of these socialised differences does bother me. I try very hard to treat people equally, and I always presume competence regardless of gender. I know that it’s equally possible to have informative, rewarding technical conversations with women as with men. But I’ve found that from an autistic perspective, conversations with women tend to be much less accessible to me, and much higher risk. There is so much more padding and subtext. Getting to the point with someone who’s been taught it’s rude to be direct is hard.

So I find myself fearing a female supervisor. Not because I have a problem with women in authority, or with women in general, but because experience tells me we’ll struggle to maintain an honest dialogue. I fear she will misjudge me, and not speak out. I fear I won’t be able to find her message, hidden in amongst the soft edges. I fear that when I make the inevitable mistakes, I’ll never have the chance to make it right.

(Throughout my life, largely because of my undiagnosed autism, I have learned that my own feelings are subordinate to those of others, and that I should not assert myself or challenge those things which are wrong or uncomfortable. The same lessons learned by every schoolgirl, but on different subjects, and for different reasons. The irony – that I must be afraid of women who have learned not to defend their own interests and expect me to be equally submissive – does not escape me.)

Of course, this fear of perpetual misunderstanding applies to some men, too. But in my experience, there are fewer men who will not speak out in the face of a perceived wrong. And perhaps this is because of how we are taught to relate.

The language of interectionality and feminism is new to me, but the concepts make a lot of sense. It’s interesting to think about the interplay between autism and gender in UK society. I don’t pretend to offer deep or particularly original insights here, but I think I might post around this topic every so often, when I want to explore something new. (New special interest, moi?!) In the meantime, if anyone more experienced wants to recommend me some reading on this I’d be keen to learn more.