Heads up: the first part of this article is a rather lengthy vent about a personal experience. The meat of the topic is below and begins at the three asterisks (***).
A few years ago, a friend told me about a local women’s retreat for fat women. It was a
weekend workshop type retreat, with guest speakers, panels about fat-centric issues, and meals – all for fat women. It sounded like a great idea, though I wasn’t sold on attending after seeing the price tag. There was a bit of sticker shock for the price of the whole weekend, which didn’t include hotel stay. My friend encouraged me to apply for this organization’s scholarship, which would cut the price of the weekend in half.
Fast forward two years and one pregnancy/baby later, and pregnant again, I decided to actually go for the scholarship. The idea of getting away for maybe like, 2 days of the retreat sounded like a nice break from regular parenting stuff and restorative to my grumpy pregnant self. I applied, and discovered that I was awarded the scholarship! Wow! Great, right?
Well…not exactly. As much as I liked the idea of getting away for one night, it wasn’t practical. I didn’t have the money to spend on a hotel room plus even the half price retreat ticket. I didn’t have the flex time for child care for that weekend. A nice batch of prepartum depression flared up, causing a lot of social anxiety; the idea of going to 2 days of a 3 day retreat where I knew only 1 person sounded awful instead of invigorating. I thought back to my last conventions I attended during my first pregnancy and remembered how overwhelmed, exhausted, and “so done” I was after the first half day.
I asked the local organization if I could just pay half of the scholarship price and attend for a single day to check the retreat out and ease my way into the community. They wanted to talk – so a woman called me an explained that the retreat just wasn’t “worth it,” basically, if you didn’t attend all three days. They offered to let me have first dibs as a for-free roommate of a generous woman who was attending and wanted company.
I explained that I didn’t have the child care available for the weekend, that my mental health wasn’t up to it, and probably not my physical health with my pregnancy. Maybe it’s the anxiety speaking, but I am positive I offended the woman I spoke to when I suggested they reconsider a single day pass to encourage accessibility.
I generally was really turned off by the way they handled it. I disliked feeling like I was putting them out and offending them by asking for accommodation financially, emotionally, and commitment-wise. I wondered why they would seem so desperate to get people to register for their retreat in their social media feeds, but be discouraging new folks from finding a way to be welcomed into their community. I thought to myself, this club is too exclusive for me. I am not welcomed because I am a mother and I don’t have the money and time to commit the way their other flagship members do.
*** It got me thinking about accessibility versus exclusivity and what that means for safe spaces – any space set up for an oppressed group to share common ideas and discuss problems that are unique to their community. A safe space requires exclusivity, which can manifest in several ways: primarily through limited access, but may also include limited membership or roles allowed to those who are not members of the community being protected and celebrated by the safe space. This could look like a safe space for fat people excluding people size 14 or smaller, or an online group for people of color allowing white observers only if they do not participate in the conversations in the group. These kinds of limits on accessibility are necessary to create the safe space.
What happens though when a safe space is so exclusive it prevents accessibility from aspects of its own oppressed community? Easy pitfalls seem to be in the form of other kinds of oppression that are less visible; things like ableism, classism, and economic ability seem to be commonly overlooked in safe spaces. These are overarching issues in our society as a whole so it’s not surprising these things would crop up.
There are other niche issues that I would classify as types of elitism or maybe just assholery – the culture of a safe space might look down on people who are new to a group and don’t know the rules and taboos well, or perhaps if someone is not enough or too much of whatever quality the safe space is protecting. Don’t know the jargon of your new community, or just starting to explore the basic tenets of the group’s core philosophy? You may encounter hostility that is confusing or upsetting.
We all know examples of these things – the feeling of being excluded even in places we expect to find kinship. There is usually a spectrum of belief and commitment in any particular type of group that organizes itself into a safe space, if not in the core value but in peripheral issues related to the core values. I would guess that most people have probably found themselves to be in the position of thinking, “I am not _____ enough for this group,” or possibly, “these guys aren’t _____ enough for me.”
I think it’s also very easy to be penalizingly exclusive once you find a safe or safer community. It can be hard to find a group that you feel safe with and that shares the same experiences as you, much less connect with the group on a personal level; once you have that sense of security and belonging, it’s natural to look outward and want to a) maintain it aggressively or b) consciously or unconsciously get “revenge” by directing the oppression you experienced yourself back at other people.
So when does the exclusivity cross the line from protecting to harmful, if it’s also necessary to keep the safe space intact? It’s not an easy thing to judge, but here’s what I encourage myself to do: consider a) is my community’s exclusivity hurting others? b) Are the people hurt part of a community I value? c) Is the lack of accessibility protecting something vital to my community? d) Is the lack of accessibility promoting something about the core tenant of the community? e) Is there accessibility somewhere else for what my community excludes? f) Am I comfortable with the implications of all these answers in tandem? Let’s break it down.
Is my community’s exclusivity hurting others? First step is to identify what the problem or potential problem is. Exclusion is something that is generally associated hurt and negativity for the people being excluded. If your fat-positive women’s retreat has a high price tag, you may be hurting women who aren’t as financially able as you are. You may be hurting fat-positive people who are nonbinary gendered or male. You may be hurting people who are small- or average-bodied that are fat-positive and want to be celebratory/allied. If you require there to be no talk about weight loss, you may be hurting people who still are trying to lose weight.
Are the people hurt part of a community I value? It starts to get tricky right here, because sticky human emotions come into play. You may decide that a certain type of fat person, like fat men, are not a part of the community that you value. On the other hand, you may value members of the fat-positive community that aren’t fat – but still want to exclude them from a more exclusive level of the community.
Is the lack of accessibility protecting something vital to my community? Excluding people that aren’t fat from all or some of the conversations about fatness may be protecting the feeling of safety people have while doing the vulnerable thing of talking about their larger bodies and the struggles they face in it. Excluding weight loss talk may protect people who have been so emotionally damaged by the process they cannot hear it without suffering. Excluding men and nonbinary gendered people may protect the safe space of vulnerable feelings of some women in the community.
Is the lack of accessibility promoting something about the core tenant of the community? It’s important to consider both the intentional and unintentional promotions; a fat positive women-only group may accidentally be promoting anti-nonbinary or anti-male messages or activism when they are actually neutral or positive towards those additional facets of the larger community. On the flip side, a women’s only group may be intentionally sending the message that fat women’s bodies are acceptable but other types of fat bodies are not. An example of exclusivity benefitting promotion of core tenets would be the sharing of information about where to find products and businesses that share the core tenets or the organizing of activist or political events that require community involvement in order to be successful.
Is there accessibility somewhere else for what my community excludes? When you identify an exclusion problem in your group, you can consider whether or not there’s accessibility somewhere else. For a fat positive group, eliminating queer or non-binary people could be truly exclusionary because there may be zero local or even national accessibility to a similar community. Banning weight loss talk, however, would not be very hurtful or penalizing as you can find weight loss discussion in nearly every other corner of society.
Am I comfortable with the implications of all these answers in tandem? This is really what it all comes down to. Humans create clubs, communities, and support groups to find companionship in those who think the same way as they do. Very exclusive hate groups serve the same kinds of emotional and community functions as very inclusive support groups. As an individual, you have to ask yourself if you are comfortable with the exclusions that your community has adopted.
Do they all make sense to you personally? Do they make sense to a majority of the community? Are there ways to be more inclusive that doesn’t hurt the core safety and tenets of the group? How flexible does the majority of the group want to be to be more inclusive to those who are more or less in line with the core tenets?
Does the exclusivity protect you and your community from growing? I’m not just talking about membership numbers here; I’m talking about your community’s exclusivity preventing you from exploring ideas that may be uncomfortable in the name of protecting your safe space. This doesn’t mean breaking safe spaces by forcing triggering subjects onto a community; it means considering the level of privilege in your exclusivity and whether or not you are comfortable with accepting that privilege and what it means. Is your community racist? Is your community classist? Ableist? Sexist? Anti-LGBTQIA+ or certain parts of that community? If you find yourself shying away from these questions as a community (or as an individual), the more likely it is that your exclusivity is actively harming you and others and setting you up to be participating in assholery.
But my community isn’t set up to consider these issues, you might find yourself saying. Why do we have to? Well, you don’t. Everyone is of course entitled to creating a space that feels safe to them particularly, and if that includes hunkering down into privilege, that’s that. Doing so, however, increases your chances of assholery without merit – and nobody wants to be a Bad Guy. So don’t be; challenge yourself and your communities to consider these questions and grow if needed.