One day I was grappling with shame and self-consciousness over my tendency to take stock of the kinds of people new people in my life surround themselves with. I was thinking about this in relation to bodies and, specifically, race and fatness. Until that moment I had internalized this behavior as unnecessary, judgmental, and even shallow. But I had a realization that allowed me to let those feelings go.
I have written before about the ways our bodies can impact our access to care and intimacy from others, and this continues to reflect my experiences, and inform how I navigate my relationships.
I was thinking about this in relation to how I manage the potential budding relationships with people I meet. In my aforementioned article, I talked about expressing anxiety over whether or not a person is attracted to me and how that would impact their willingness to invest in our relationship and, by extension, me.
I realized that when I feel hesitant about fully relaxing around a person who I see as primarily having close relationships — whatever types of relationships those are — with thin people, and white people, that it is legitimate to be weary of their values, limits and, ultimately, ability and willingness to care for me.
We Are Only Taught to Care For Certain Types of Bodies
We do not think about ways of relating to others with love and care as specific skill sets that need to be cultivated and nurtured, but they are. Learning how to be in mutually beneficial and healthy relationship with others is an unspoken driving force of our lives.
Broadly speaking, as children we are frequently taught ‘manners’: how to be polite, how to share our resources, how to express our behavior in a contextually appropriate form. Another way to think about these actions are ways to relate to others in a caring way. In a way that demonstrates an understanding to others that their feelings matter, that our behaviors impact others, and to be conscious of those facts in how we treat one another.
But these skills are frequently not instilled in us in a way that translates outside of specific relationships. For example, we might be taught to respect our elders when they are our caretakers, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc., but simultaneously taught that, for example, service workers or houseless folks are not owed the same, or any, level of respect when they, too, are elders—to the extent that we normalize and even encourage rude, aggressive, erasive or otherwise violent ways of relating to them.
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The ways that we have been taught to distribute care is dependent on bodies. I don’t necessarily think this is an unreasonable practice, since we all naturally have a limited reserve of energy to spend on those we are in relationship with.
But, what this process always teaches us is this: it only teaches us how to care for certain bodies.
Caring is a skill set. And it is a skill set that is not necessarily transferable across all bodies. Different bodies have different needs—need to be cared for in different ways.
If we grew up in environments with no men, or no women, or no people of color, no fat people, no queers, or no disabled people (and so on), then we likely have not had the life experiences necessary to learn the specific skill set necessary to care for these bodies, and we won’t learn those skills until we actively seek them out.
Sometimes — especially for queers — this is a skill we learn to cultivate for our survival, to build community with other queers…. but it might stop there. Although I have cultivated a skill to care for my queer community, growing up around women and femmes has left me without a skill set of being intimate with men (broadly defined), which has been a difficult one for me to build. It is one I am still working on, and my lack of skill has caused me a great deal of emotional pain, and left me harming people I care deeply about when my inexperience left me unable to navigate our relationship in healthy ways.
Similarly, I continue to witness many queer people I am in community with to have a limited skill set for caring for a diversity of bodies beyond queerness.
I witness this most when communities of people consist of people who are exclusively white, or thin, or cis, or masculine, or not disabled, or have citizenship status, or any other privilege that queers hold alongside our sexual and gender identities.
Knowing how to care across difference means to know to check in with our Black loved ones when another Black person is inevitably killed by state-sanctioned violence without recourse for their non-Black murders.
It means people with male privilege walking our friends to their cars or bus stop when they’re alone at night.
It means not assuming I can fit into a booth when we go to a restaurant.
It means not asking invasive questions about our trans friends’ bodies, genders, and sexual practices without their consent.
It means thinking about who can access spaces when planning—if it will be impossible to enter for wheelchair users, if the venue is in a part of time where people of color, or queer and trans folks feel especially targeted.
It means not assuming the people in our lives are not HIV-positive, do not have or have had STIs, have not experienced sexual violence, have citizenship status, have bodies that can walk as far as ours, and countless other ways.
TFW Someone “Gets” Your Access Needs
Mia Mingus recently wrote a brilliant piece about access intimacy. She describes it brilliantly and succinctly as ‘that elusive, hard to describe feeling when someone else “gets” your access needs.’ And while Mingus’s remarks rightfully center on building coalition between disabled and non-disabled people, it is important for people who do not identify with disability to remember that they/we have access needs, too—they are just frequently being met.
What would it mean if knowing how to care for another as another type of access intimacy?
After all, knowing how to care for whiteness, masculinity, heterosexuality, monogamy, able bodiedness, thinness, etc. are also types of access intimacy—the dominant ones.
And as Mingus says, access intimacy is difficult to build, and frequently dependent on the choice of non-disabled people to engage or not. Likewise, the access intimacy necessary for care for people of color, women, trans folks, fat folks, sick and disabled people, the undocumented, queers, sex workers, those in poverty, etc. remains optional for those with different life experiences, and can frequently act as a barrier to coalitions across identities and experiences without intentionality.
While we might not be conscious of it, or consider our social worlds to be passively constructed, we need to think about what we are doing to disinvite people into our lives without saying a word. I am less likely to be willing to enter a relationship with someone if I see that all their loved ones are white, or thin, and so on.
Homogenous friend groups and social circles willingly and intentionally (recognized or not) allow us to remain in safe, comfortable, dominant zones.
And, to be clear: this is different from neoliberal buzzwords like ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’. This is not about merely surrounding yourself with a diversity of bodies and experiences without doing the difficult work of understanding the needs that come with them. It is about recognizing the privilege that inevitably come with our bodies and doing what we can to consequently produce a more just world through our intimate lives.
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It is about being conscious of who we are incorporating into our lives in meaningful ways, who are distributing our care to, and if those actions align with our larger goals of collective liberation. It is about, then, making the choice to expand our skill sets of care, or not.
I Deserve to Be Cared For and Ask That From People In My Life
And, ultimately, for me, this sort of surveying of who a potential friend or lover surrounds themselves with is a completely justified self-protective measure. It has taken me awhile to realize that if those who want to be in relationship with me and inevitably have different experiences continue to stagnate their relationship skill sets by surrounding themselves with others with much more privileged people than me, it communicates to me that they do not have the skills necessary to care for me.
I have learned that this is what I am gauging when I am being cautious about when I see these types of relationships from those around me—and the sense of relief when I meet a thin person who can demonstrate to me that I am not the first politicized fat person to enter into their life.
And, although it took me a long time to internalize it: I deserve to be cared for, and I can ask for that from the people in my life.
If people cannot meet my needs, then we simply are not compatible. This realization does not have to be pathologizing, or meaningful beyond this simple statement. Being incompatible with me is not a judgment of another— it simply means we have different experiences and skill sets.
And I recognize that I likely have my own limits that might prevent people with various embodiments to distrust me. I accept the responsibility of bridging those gaps in an effort to continue to build the world I want to live in. And that those who want to be close to me will have to do that work.
But I can no longer invite people to share my life with me if they cannot do the work to meet me halfway.
[Feature Image: A person with light skin, short dark hair, and a short beard sits on a ledge in front of an old building with a wrought iron fence. They are wearing red pants and a white t-shirt with blue lettering. On their head are white headphones, and in their hands is an iPod. They are looking down at the device. Source: Michael Coghlan]