Come back, you selfish person, we’re not done hurting you yet!

This post, The Selfishness of Skipping Church, came across a progressive Christian Facebook group I belong to. I was, to put it mildly, not impressed. People don’t go to church, he argues, because they’re selfish and lazy, and view church like buying a car. He does say he isn’t criticizing ” the shut-in, the sick, or those who must work” but he also calls hurts, needs, and disappointments an “excuse” that apparently isn’t sufficient reason not to show up every Sunday, at a minimum.  He criticizes people who only go to church “once or twice a month”:

 Imagine if a construction crew showed up to a building site only once or twice a month.  Think of what would happen if physicians and nurses manned the hospitals and ERs only a couple of times a month.  Consider the problems in education if our teachers worked only two days a month.

How about considering that construction crews, nurses, and teachers have promised to work a certain job, day in and day out, and in exchange for that commitment are being paid. In contrast, church is something people need to fit in around the activities that actually pay their bills, and something that most people have made no promise to attend every time the doors are open.

To me, making it to church every other Sunday counts as pretty regular church attendance, but apparently it’s a “cold, lifeless” and selfish behavior. The author bemoans the fact that people used to go to church “weekly and even several times a week,” which is apparently the expected standard. It may just be my own church history, but when a church wants me to go to two and three services a week, it feels like a red flag to me.  Am I supposed to have hobbies or a life outside the church? If I try to have boundaries, are people going to respect them?

I would even be fine with railing against people who renege on their commitments, like volunteering to serve and then suddenly dropping the ball. But for this author, even serving in church isn’t enough, as he criticizes “church workers who only show up to church when they are scheduled to serve, teach, or lead.” These are the people who are keeping the church running, but that’s not enough if they ever skip church. They might get a pass if they’re sick but being tired, or wanting to go out of town for the weekend, ever, probably doesn’t cut it.  Likewise, if you’re actually scheduled to work the hours that church is in session, that’s okay, but if you just got off midnights Sunday morning, drink some coffee and drag your selfish butt to church because American civilization will be wrecked by “rabid hedonists, religious fanatics, and ignorant young socialists and progressives” if you don’t go to church often enough. This bit had me scratching my head, because I have to wonder what counts as a religious fanatic to someone who expects unfailing church attendance regardless of an individual’s needs. At least I know from the jab at ignorant socialists and progressives that he doesn’t actually want me at his church, which I’m quite okay with.

One of the worst things about this article is that it so narrowly defines valid reasons for missing church or leaving a church. It’s not even enough to attend church regularly; once you start going to a church, you and that church are married, and you aren’t allowed to even consider other churches, lest you be a selfish church-shopper, ” ungraciously and habitually leaving church after church.” No acknowledgment that some pastors are abusive, or that some churches teach harmful theology. No acknowledgment that people’s religious beliefs can change over time, and they might leave a church over serious disagreements, whether because the church changed or because they did. And certainly no acknowledgment that anyone might leave a church because they aren’t welcome, or literally aren’t safe. Nope, you’re just selfish and lazy, with a cold and lifeless faith and a greedy consumerist attitude.

But even worse, in my view, is combining that with the reasons that the author is so dead set that all Christians must attend church all the time no matter what:

The culprits in the current spiritual malaise and indifference in our country are the selfish Christians who fail to consider how they can help, assist, and encourage someone else by coming faithfully to church instead of focusing on and serving their own wants, preferences, needs, and schedules.  That single mindset of coming to church not for what you can receive, but for what you can provide is the key to a true spiritual renewal in our land. When you are not in church the gifts and abilities in you are not made available to others.

That is, your needs aren’t important. We don’t care about your schedule, or your other obligations, or your struggles, but we expect you to care deeply about ours. You must always encourage, assist, and provide, never expecting anything in return, and if you get burned out and want any kind of spiritual nourishment or encouragement for yourself, we’ll berate you for your selfishness.  This sounds less like the body of Christ and more like an abusive relationship.

Faking Allergies – Don’t do it, but don’t assume others are faking

This article describing the process restaurant kitchens go through to avoid cross-contamination for customers with allergies was fascinating. Labels, separate cutting boards, the whole nine yards.

I have mixed feelings on the article as a whole. I think it points out a real problem but is also too quick to paint people who go gluten-free without celiac or a wheat allergy as bandwagon-hoppers.

11 percent of American households are following a gluten-free diet, even though only a quarter of them said they were doing it because of celiac or gluten intolerance.

The gluten-free spectrum is diverse. About 0.3 percent of Americans have a wheat allergy, meaning that ingesting even a trace amount could send them into anaphylactic shock. Then there is the 1 percent with celiac. Finally, there are people with gluten sensitivity, who suffer symptoms like diarrhea, bloating, or fatigue after eating gluten. Given the absence of diagnostic tools, the size of this last group is particularly fuzzy, though Fasano’s research suggests it’s in the 5 to 6 percent range.

Fasano is troubled that so many people are diagnosing themselves with gluten intolerance, changing their diet without ever going to the doctor. “You don’t say, ‘I’m drinking a lot and peeing a lot, so I must have diabetes,’ and then start injecting yourself with insulin.”

Many who go gluten-free find themselves feeling better and see that as proof that they have gluten intolerance. But a genuine gluten problem is only one of three possible explanations for their improved health, and statistically the least likely. Another reason could be the placebo effect. The most likely explanation is that paying closer attention to diet and avoiding fried and junk food — which tends to be loaded with gluten — is bound to make anyone feel better.

What’s the big deal if gluten-tolerant people go gluten-free, especially since they’ll be eating fewer Pop-Tarts?

The problem is the more these bandwagon-jumpers demand special attention, the more likely that restaurants and wider society will come to see all gluten-free people as phonies.

The assumption, based on a single poll, is that the majority of people doing a gluten-free diet are simply following the fad. But I don’t think the math holds up. If 1 percent of people have celiac disease, .3% have a wheat allergy, and somewhere in the neighborhood of 5-6% have gluten intolerance, and 11% are doing gluten-free, then the majority (6-7 of 11) of those have an allergy or intolerance to gluten. That’s odd considering that it was the main reason given by only a quarter of the gluten-free respondents to the survey quoted. (The summary of the study itself doesn’t list all the potential reasons or indicate whether respondents had to select a single main reason. And only 25% of the respondents believed that a gluten-free diet was generally healthy for everyone. So, a large majority are well aware that gluten isn’t some dietary bogeyman, but something that some people react badly to.

As another confounding factor, gluten-free diets are hawked as a potential weight loss method, and I don’t know whether “weight loss” was a reason given in that survey. And while gluten-free in and of itself isn’t likely to result in weight loss, having severely limited carb options certainly can, at least in the short term. When doctors push weight loss as the solution to any and all problems, it’s not surprising that people would flock to anything that’s promising that as a potential benefit. In their view, they are doing it for a legitimate health reason. The article mentions claiming allergies to dairy as a weight-loss tactic, but doesn’t connect that with a fatphobic culture or pressure to be thin at any cost.

I also think the “you wouldn’t just diagnose yourself as diabetic and start taking insulin” analogy is way off. If eating something makes you feel crappy, and taking it out of your diet makes you feel better, you are under no obligation to prove to anyone else that your issue with that food is legitimate. You get to eat whatever you want, period, end of story, diagnosis or no diagnosis. Sure, if you’re cutting out whole food groups, you should probably work with a doctor and/or dietitian both to verify that it’s necessary and to make sure you’re not missing important nutrients. And if you’re having symptoms that seem allergy-related, then seeing a doctor is an extremely good idea. Both to make sure you have emergency meds if needed and to nail down what precisely you’re allergic to. But if it’s a mild intolerance, and you can cut something out without stressing yourself out or severely limiting your diet, that’s your call and no one else’s. Eliminating a food from your diet isn’t even in the same ballpark as randomly deciding to take prescription medications with no diagnosis.

For example, I don’t eat pad thai. I’ve had it twice, once at a restaurant and once homemade. Both times, it tasted delicious, then sat in my stomach like lead, and I felt lousy. Did I just eat too much of it? Is there something in it or some combination of things that I react badly to? Was it a total coincidence? I have no idea. But when given the opportunity to eat pad thai, I think “ick,” associate it with an upset stomach, and don’t want to repeat the experience. But as long as green curry, chicken satay, and tom kah gai exist in the world, I can live quite happily without ever eating pad thai.

If we decide that I’m not allowed to go “pad thai-free” without a real medical diagnosis, how do I accomplish this? If I go to the doctor and say, “When I eat pad thai, I feel sick to my stomach?” do you think they’re going to run tests or try to figure out if I’m intolerant to fish sauce or tamarind or beansprouts, or do you think they’ll tell me not to eat pad thai? Yes, I know there’s a difference between cutting out one highly specific food and avoiding a staple like wheat, but even people with definite gluten sensitivity often have trouble getting a diagnosis. So they do what they need to do for themselves to feel better. If there are barriers to their getting appropriate medical care (and there are an awful lot of those in the US), we should work on those, but in the mean time, people are still going to take care of themselves as best they know how.

I agree that people shouldn’t lie about allergies. If something upsets your stomach or gives you gas or triggers a gag reflex, it’s not an allergy. That doesn’t mean you should be expected to eat it for politeness’ sake, but lying about allergies does cause people to jump through totally unnecessary hoops to avoid cross-contamination. But I also think that people are too eager to “catch” somebody faking and that they jump on inconsistencies that may or may not be dishonesty. The person who can’t have dairy and then ordered ice cream? Maybe they lied. Maybe they weighed the risks and decided it was worth it. Getting to make your own decisions includes making decisions that aren’t optimal. And sometimes people have multiple competing things going on with food that they don’t feel the need to fully explain, which might look inconsistent or dishonest on the surface. This Captain Awkward post about a part-time vegetarian is a good example. People seem really quick to jump to “Lying!” “Attention-seeking!” instead of “Needed protein!” or “Don’t fit fully into either the carnivore or vegetarian box!”

Personal example time again. I don’t generally tolerate spicy foods well, both in taste and in GI unpleasantness afterwards. But it really depends on the day. There will be times when I think, “Bring on the heat!” and times when lamb korma somehow tastes “hot” to me. And while I’ve had GI unpleasantness from Mexican food, I’ve never had that reaction to hot wings. (Possibly because they go with pizza, so the percentage of “hot foods” to “overall meal” is lower.) So, if I turn something down because it’s too spicy and then next week you see me eating hot wings, it may look like I’m bullshitting you, but that’s not actually the case.

I do think it’s impolite to put other people to trouble you won’t go to yourself. If you’re going to expect a kitchen to slow way down to do the allergy dance for you, then you should be willing to forgo the tasty food with the ingredient you just told them you can’t have. And it would be kind of jerk-like as a semi-vegetarian to insist that your steak-loving friends always go to the vegetarian place rather than having your once-every-so-often chicken come from the place they like.

Food and Consent

I love this post from the Fat Nutritionist about a couple where one is a picky eater and the other is a foodie and keeps pressuring her to try new things.

People have to come around to food in their own time. If they aren’t allowed to, if they are pressured or forced or coerced into trying something that they find intimidating, there is a very good chance they will not suddenly love that food, will not have the Foodie Switch in their brain flipped to the On position.

More likely, they will associate more anxiety with that food, not less, and it will probably taint the memory of the delicious thing you were hoping they’d enjoy.

So what do you do instead? I’m going to sound like a broken record, but: follow a Division of Responsibility.

Not the one for parents and children. The one that exists between adults.

As an adult, you are responsible for your own eating. The other adult is responsible for what, when, where, how much, and whether they eat. You can negotiate certain things — where and when are sometimes necessary to coordinate, and if you’re deciding on a restaurant or a recipe, some negotiation around what will also be useful. But you need to remember that any negotiations around what end at offering. Not ingestion.

What this means is, you can both decide on a place to eat, or a recipe to try, and you can put the food on the table and both sit down.

After that? You must chill.

No one has to put anything in their mouth or their stomach that they don’t want. To insist that they do is a serious boundary violation, and a breach of their bodily agency. There is a spectrum of not-okayness that starts with coaxing, wheedling, and pressuring someone to try something they don’t want, and ends with force-feeding. Don’t be that guy.

One of the many (many, many) ways our culture is screwed up around food is the idea that consent isn’t as important as getting someone to eat the “right” things. This shows up a lot in the idea that it’s healthy and normal to pressure someone to eat :healthy” or try to lose weight, but it’s also depressingly common in the pressure to try new foods, or to eat a wide range of things. There’s the assumption that a diet that includes sushi and Brussels sprouts and kimchee is both healthier and more grown up than one that doesn’t, and that it’s the more enlightened foodie’s job to show their picky partner the light. Oh, and the classism. Let’s not forget the classism. Fancy restaurants, exotic ingredients, even the ability to waste food if you ruin a recipe or end up not liking something—those are all privileges.

Also, I love the idea of applying the Division of Responsibility to adults, with each person having total control over what they eat. I think Michelle is absolutely right that wanting to control what someone is eating, even if it’s by “gentle” pressure, is not treating them as a competent adult. I like the extension of the Division of Responsibility as applied to adults. For kids, it’s pretty easy to make that distinction. The adults choose when, where, and what to offer, while the kid gets to decide if and how much they’ll eat. With adults, as Michele says, there can be negotiation around when and where for a shared meal, and even some negotiation around what, as long as it stops when the food goes on the table.

This got me thinking about how this gets worked out in relationships where one person does most or all of the cooking and one partner is very picky or has food restrictions. (These can be related—a lot of severe childhood pickiness results from choking incidents, and the pickiest person I know also has a long list of foods that will make her sick. When food can and has hurt you, it’s pretty understandable that you’d be wary about it from then on.)

If you’re splitting the cooking 50/50 (or thereabouts), this is pretty easy. When the picky/restricted person makes dinner, they know they’ll get food they like. And the more adventurous person has the option to include foods they like when they cook dinner, as long as they make sure there are also things the other person will eat.

If one person is doing the majority of the cooking, though, it gets more complex. Especially in situations where that division of labor is due to work/school schedules, illness or disability, or other things that make it harder for one person to cook. In general, I think the cook gets final say on what they serve. One of the trade-offs of not doing the work of cooking is giving up a certain amount of control over what gets made. (With the obvious caveat that making someone a meal that doesn’t include things you know they can/will eat is a jerk move.) But at the same time, if you’re preparing most of the meals that your partner eats, and they have food sensitivities or restrictions, I think you owe it to them to provide foods they can/will eat that meet their basic nutritional needs. I’d go beyond including one thing you know they’ll eat and say that at most meals, you should include carbs, proteins, and fats that you know they’ll eat. For example, let’s say the only protein they’ll generally eat is chicken, while you’d much rather have steak, or pork, or wild game. If you do breakfast and lunch on your own and split dinner 50/50, that’s only three meals out of twenty-one where they might miss a protein. Probably not a big deal, especially if some of those meals include other sources of protein like beans or dairy. But if you’re cooking every single meal, and a large portion of those don’t include a protein they’ll eat, that’s really not great. And would probably contribute to a stronger sense of insecurity around food and even less desire to try that awesome quail recipe you found.

The same goes for vegetables, although they tend to be higher on the pyramid of Satter’s Hierarchy of Food Needs, probably hanging out anywhere between “good-tasting,” “novel,” and “instrumental.” So, a meal with a veggie that you can’t eat is less of a big deal than a meal where you don’t get enough of the macronutrients to get you through to the next meal. Still, I think you should meet the person you’re cooking for halfway on veggies. If you don’t do veggies at all, and they need vegetables to feel like a meal is complete, then have a side salad or a simply cooked vegetable at most meals. Likewise, if they will only eat corn, peas, or carrots, you should offer one of those three at most meals if you’re doing the majority of the cooking.

A small taste of institutional ableism

I recently had minor surgery, and my discharge instructions included “Limit climbing stairs to once or twice daily.” I physically *can* do stairs, but my abs get a bit cranky, and I understand the recommendation that I not push it.  Since I work on the second floor in an old building with crappy elevators, it’s been an “interesting” week.

To start out with, I really wish that my doctor, or the hospital, or *somebody* had let me know about the stairs thing at some point in the months leading up to this surgery, rather than only finding out in my discharge instructions. My workplace isn’t exactly conducive to mobility issues.  I work on the second floor, with another little half flight of stairs leading up to my work area. Fortunately, there’s at least a “Porch Lift,” a little elevator designed for a single person to ride up.  The building next door, where I attend meetings occasionally, has a third floor cube farm with *no* elevator access.

So, I came in on Monday, took the elevator up to the second floor and walked up to the disability elevator, only to find that it needs a key to operate.  I, of course, did not have said key.  I walked up the half flight of stairs and looked for the guy who I figured would be in charge of such things.  I didn’t see him, but I did see that the elevator key was in the elevator at the upper entrance.  I grabbed it and shot him an email.  He let me know that there’s another key, which one of the high-level managers has, so I asked said manager for that key.  The elevator requires a key to open the door on both levels, and a third key to actually operate it.  If you hang onto the key when you go down, you can use it again coming back up, but you have to remember to take it each time. Once I got the third key, I could just leave them both in place.

This elevator is a groaning, clunking monstrosity. It takes twice as long to go up half a story than the regular (and also temperamental) one, and it loudly announces your comings and goings to everyone on the floor.  It’s also open at the top, with a half door. A coworker mentioned to me that when a guy who used a wheelchair used to work there, it got stuck, and someone had to jump down to physically get him out. (Facilities has a two-hour turnaround for elevator emergencies.)

Since the surgery was kind of personal, it was also *awesome* to have the noisy elevator announce to everyone that I was using it.  But I definitely mentioned the surgery, without giving details, to anyone who commented on the elevator use, because I didn’t want comments later on me being too fat and/or lazy to take the stairs. (My coworkers are a bunch of smartasses, which I love, but the line between smartass and jackass gets crossed on a regular basis, and there’s a lot of teasing that can get mean-spirited.)

I should mention that, with the exception of a sink and a coffee pot, all the workplace amenities are down on the second floor proper, so I’ve been using this elevator not just to come in in the morning and leave in the evening, but at lunch and every time I visit the restroom and the water fountain. Or the vending machine. Or the kitchen. And since I usually eat breakfast at work, either an oatmeal packet that needs to be microwaved or a Pop-Tart from the vending machine, that’s another trip.

Just when I thought I could not despise this elevator any more, I got in, held down the button, and it descended about three inches and stopped dead. I tried taking the key out and putting it back in, pressing the button again, and bringing it back up then trying again. No joy.  I mentioned it to the appropriate coworker, who emailed the facilities folks. He let me know a couple hours later that they hadn’t responded.

At some point, I just about cried. It was 10ish, and I hadn’t grabbed breakfast, and all I wanted was to go down to the vending machine and get a freaking Pop-Tart. I figured I should wait, though, because the elevator could be down all day and I should save my couple trips up the stairs for lunch and bathroom breaks.  I ended up calling my husband, who works in the building next door, and asked him to bring me a Pop-Tart. He did, because he’s awesome.

Later, I tried the elevator again and discovered that when the half door on the top floor closes automatically, it doesn’t close all the way.  And, strangely enough, the elevator won’t descend unless the door is closed.  Which is a lovely safety feature, except for the fact that the door stops about an inch before it’s actually closed, leaving me to swear a lot and try vainly to get someone to check it.

Before I figured out what was wrong with the elevator, I called my boss and asked if I could move to another location temporarily.  He went off to check who was out on travel or vacation, and he did actually find me another spot. I ended up not needing it, but the actual people I work with have been really helpful. The building design itself, not so much.

For me, this is an annoying inconvenience that will be over Friday afternoon. Even if the elevator dies completely, it probably won’t do damage for me to go up the stairs an extra time or two.  At worst, it’ll hurt some. But for someone with a long-term disability, this would be a nightmare.  That wheelchair-using coworker who used to work in the building?  Yeah, they had to move him somewhere else because of elevator issues.  The elevator would be down, and he’d be stuck in the lobby for two hours instead of being able to come upstairs and do his job.

Nobody intended that certain areas of the building be unusable for people with mobility issues.  Technically, the building is presumably ADA compliant. But in practice, ouch.

Some Thoughts on Gluttony

I’ve already mentioned that I get really tired of the conflation of having a fat body with the sin of gluttony. The times that I’ve seen gluttony addressed in a Christian, religious context, “fat” is usually used as a shorthand for gluttony, and eating in any way that doesn’t make you thin (or at least thinner) is viewed as sinful. Particular foods, specifically anything fatty or sugary, are also treated as innately sinful. (And that language carries over into secular discussions of food….sinful chocolate and virtuous salad.)

But I don’t think any act of eating can be sinful in a vacuum. I think there is such a thing as gluttony, but I think it has less to do with eating too many calories and more to do with selfishly taking from others or refusing to share.  And there’s an example of exactly what I’m talking about in Corinthians:

17But in giving this instruction, I do not praise you, because you come together not for the better but for the worse. 18For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that divisions exist among you; and in part I believe it. 19For there must also be factions among you, so that those who are approved may become evident among you. 20Therefore when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper, 21for in your eating each one takes his own supper first; and one is hungry and another is drunk. 22What! Do you not have houses in which to eat and drink? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? In this I will not praise you.

23For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; 24and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” 25In the same way He took the cup also after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” 26For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.

27Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. 28But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly. 30For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep. 31But if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged. 32But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world.

33So then, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. 34If anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, so that you will not come together for judgment. The remaining matters I will arrange when I come.

One interpretation of this that I’ve heard is that the communal meal was supposed to be a way of providing for those who didn’t have enough food. But, the wealthy church members who brought food that was supposed to be shared arrived first.  And rather than actually share, they ate early and finished off everything they’d brought. Then, when the day laborers arrived, after working a full day, there was nothing left for them to eat.

So, is eating a piece of chocolate cake sinful? Not inherently. If it’s the last piece of chocolate cake, and you don’t wait to see if everyone else in the house has had some, then I’d say yes. It’s not the food itself, but how it affects those around you.

I can think of a specific time when I was definitely guilty of gluttony.  We were gaming, and there was a bag of Swedish fish. Another player really liked them, and so the bag ended up by me, partly to rag on him and partly so he wouldn’t just eat them all.  Instead, *I* ended up eating most of the bag.  It wasn’t malicious, more a combination of needing something to do with my hands while the game was going on and unthinkingly eating the food that was in front of me because it was there. (I’m usually pretty good at stopping when I’m full, but I need to physically move the food away from me to do so.)

It’s kind of a silly example, and I’m not wracked with guilt or anything (though I probably will bring a bag of Swedish fish to the next game), but it shows the difference I think is important. It’s not eating that’s gluttonous, but eating more than you need in a way that takes away from other people.

Should you fire someone for fat-hating texts? (Probably not.)

I recently read this Ask a Manager post about a woman who was fired over private text messages. Basically, a retail employee was on her way home from work, texting her boyfriend to complain about the fat woman sitting next to her. Her words were “the fat cow sitting next to me is taking up half my seat as well as hers AND hasn’t heard of deodorant.” Unbeknownst to the employee, a customer was sitting behind her, recognized her from earlier in the day, and took it upon herself to take pictures and pass them to the employee’s boss with a complaint about the employee’s behavior.  The employee was fired, and the store manager won’t let anyone from the store give her a reference. She wrote in to Ask a Manager to ask who was in the wrong.

On the whole, I think Alison’s answer was very reasonable:

Most of all, your employer. It’s no one’s business what you write in private text messages to other people in your personal time. You had a reasonable expectation of privacy in sending a private text message, and they’re wrong to fire you over this.

The woman behind you was out of line in reading over your shoulder, photographing your phone, and sending it to your employer. She shouldn’t have been looking at a stranger’s phone in the first place, and she must have had to make a point of trying to see what you were writing; it’s not like it was forced into her line of vision and she couldn’t help reading everything you were writing. (And even if she hadn’t been able to help it, the polite thing to do in that case is to pretend she didn’t see it — she doesn’t get to comment on, let alone photograph, someone else’s private messages just because she happened to be able to see them on public transportation.)

But your employer is worse. The woman who emailed them was a busybody, but they’re the ones who actually fired you over this. They’re totally in the wrong.

But for what it’s worth, you yourself aren’t coming out smelling like a rose here — and not because of your actions in this story, but because of your commentary on it: You have a pretty gross attitude toward overweight people. Your comment about your store manager at the end of your letter is rude and out of line. That doesn’t change the fact that you didn’t deserve to be fired for what happened, but you’re going to lose a lot of sympathy in life for talking about other people that way, and rightly so. Your boyfriend might be fine with you calling people “fat cows” (although he shouldn’t be), but making a snarky and insulting comment to a stranger (me) about your boss’s weight says to me that you’re out of touch with how kind people talk to and about each other (or possibly that you’re young enough that you haven’t learned it yet). So: Be nicer.

I agree that private text messages that don’t involve anyone from work are not something you should get fired over. I also appreciate that Alison called out the letter writer’s attitude toward fat people.

And yet, I also feel like her manager, on seeing those texts, was put in a pretty awkward position. The texts themselves were none of her business, but the manager herself is also fat (at least by the employee’s description). So, now she’s gotten a glimpse of her employee’s nasty attitude toward fat people and she can’t unsee that just because the texts weren’t meant for her. I wouldn’t want to manage someone who had that level of contempt for any group that I’m a member of, whether it’s women or fat people or whatever, because it’s fairly likely to spill over into work.  Not just for them, but for me too. I’ll admit, it would be hard to deal fairly with this woman if I were her boss, and I understand wanting her gone.

I don’t think firing her was the right call unless it was part of a larger pattern of snotty or sizeist behavior, and if it was, her boss should’ve made that clear. But at the same time, I think it would’ve been totally reasonable to sit her down and say that the comments were out of line, she’s not being disciplined for them because they’re private, but that if she shows that attitude in a work context, or in a way that would be associated with work, she will be.

Where her boss really steps out of line is in refusing to let other store employees give her a reference. That goes from a reasonable desire not to manage someone who doesn’t respect you into petty and vindictive, and it’s definitely not okay.

Trigger Warnings Part 2: It’s not coddling; it’s informed consent.

TW: Mentions of animal abuse (as a trigger, not detailed or visual)

The Coddling of the American Mind argues that trigger warnings are terrible for pretty much the usual reasons: students believe they have a “right not to be offended” and want to pass classes without actually engaging with the material, and besides, bringing up triggers in class isn’t harmful–it’s *exposure therapy.*

However, there is a deeper problem with trigger warnings. According to the most-basic tenets of psychology, the very idea of helping people with anxiety disorders avoid the things they fear is misguided. A person who is trapped in an elevator during a power outage may panic and think she is going to die. That frightening experience can change neural connections in her amygdala, leading to an elevator phobia. If you want this woman to retain her fear for life, you should help her avoid elevators.

But if you want to help her return to normalcy, you should take your cues from Ivan Pavlov and guide her through a process known as exposure therapy. You might start by asking the woman to merely look at an elevator from a distance—standing in a building lobby, perhaps—until her apprehension begins to subside. If nothing bad happens while she’s standing in the lobby—if the fear is not “reinforced”—then she will begin to learn a new association: elevators are not dangerous. (This reduction in fear during exposure is called habituation.) Then, on subsequent days, you might ask her to get closer, and on later days to push the call button, and eventually to step in and go up one floor. This is how the amygdala can get rewired again to associate a previously feared situation with safety or normalcy.

Students who call for trigger warnings may be correct that some of their peers are harboring memories of trauma that could be reactivated by course readings. But they are wrong to try to prevent such reactivations. Students with PTSD should of course get treatment, but they should not try to avoid normal life, with its many opportunities for habituation. Classroom discussions are safe places to be exposed to incidental reminders of trauma (such as the word violate).

First off, the description of exposure therapy is correct, but it doesn’t remotely match up with random exposures to triggers in a class. Since my personal triggers are graphic violence, particularly to children and animals, I’ll use that as an example.  If a course reading contains a graphic depiction of, say, someone killing a dog, being assigned that reading does not include a gradual habituation process where first you read a bland factual summary about the dog being killed, then on another day, you read something with a little more detail, and weeks or months later, you read through the whole description. You just read the whole thing if it’s assigned, or you don’t, and you’re penalized accordingly.  Or, I don’t know, maybe we could have some system of reasonable accommodations for people with disabling mental health issues, or give people a heads up about disturbing material before they encounter it?

Secondly, exposure therapy, like any other ethical medical treatment, is based on informed consent. A key component of the treatment is that the *patient* gets to decide when to stop, with no ill consequences, and that the therapist tells them what will happen before it does. If I have *chosen* to work on my triggers in this manner, and you, my mental health professional, show me images or descriptions of animal abuse, in a situation where I can freely walk away, you’re providing exposure therapy. If you, who are not my mental health provider, email me video footage from a slaughterhouse with the intention of making me “face my fears,” what you’re providing is emotional abuse.  Yes, even if you’re doing it “for my own good.” In the same way, you can’t claim that exposing a student to a trigger in class is “exposure therapy” unless you’ve informed them and gotten their consent ahead of time and ensured they have the ability to opt out without penalty.  Which is…basically what providing trigger warnings does.

Granted, there will be some triggers that you can’t adequately warn for, either because they’re highly individual and not predictable (e.g., someone with PTSD who is triggered by yellow shirts because that’s what their rapist was wearing) or because they’re too central to the subject matter.  I don’t do well with gore, so I would not expect to take a class on horror and be excused from reading that might be triggering (which could be the whole syllabus). But that doesn’t mean, necessarily, that I should also fail a class on 20th Century fiction if I couldn’t stomach reading the end of The Pearl*.

Additionally, a key thing a lot of people overlook with exposure therapy is that “nothing bad happens” is not just physical.  If that were the case, then every misguided “awareness” Facebook post I’ve seen with graphic dog abuse pictures would have desensitized me, and by this point, I’d be able to calmly watch Pitbulls and Parolees without my husband pre-screening and fast-forwarding. And yet, just today, I had to ask him to stop reading me a story from a humor site just because it had the phrase “put the cat in the microwave.” Dude, no, I do not want that mental image. For me to actually be desensitized, I have to go through real exposure therapy, in the appropriate baby steps, with a real medical professional.  Random exposure to triggers is not exposure therapy and it can make things worse.

Having a panic attack, or even hanging out on the edge of one, is a highly unpleasant experience. It is, all by itself, something bad happening.  Having a panic attack in a classroom, witnessed by 10-20 peers who you might like to make a good impression on, and who will definitely tell everyone else as soon as class ends, not to mention a professor you like and respect, has to be a deeply unpleasant experience. And instead of habituating you to the trigger, it could add another layer of bad experience onto your fear of that trigger.

Also, I find it weird that one of the common arguments against trigger warnings in college is that students should be getting real professional help if they have mental health issues, and that teachers shouldn’t be expected to provide it, and yet I frequently see exposure therapy brought up in the same argument.  Look, I agree that teachers aren’t mental health professionals (and even those teachers who are, their students are not their patients), but that means that they also should not be providing exposure therapy.

There were some good points in the article, which I plan to discuss in a future post, like the potential for pre-conditioning someone to respond negatively to a potential trigger, and the problems with a group of people who don’t have the relevant mental illness or mental health experience sitting around trying to come up with lists of potential triggers and casting way too wide a net.  But that’s all for next time.

*I did actually read it in high school. I don’t remember if it was truly triggering or just garden-variety disturbing, but it definitely cemented my deep dislike of Steinbeck as an author.