Welcome to Ableist Word Profile, a (probably intermittent) series in which staffers will profile various ableist words, talk about how they are used, and talk about how to stop using them. Ableism is not feminism, so it’s important to talk about how to eradicate ableist language from our vocabularies. This post is marked 101, which means that the comments section is open to 101 questions and discussion. Please note that this post contains ableist language used for the purpose of discussion and criticism; you can get an idea from the title of the kind of ableist language which is going to be included in the discussion, and if that type of language is upsetting or triggering for you, you may want to skip this post.
I hear this one all the time. I am pretty sure I am very very guilty of using this one. I saw it used the other day in a context that I am not going to get into here, but it really struck it home for me in a way that made me jump (not at all literally) and decide that it needed to be unpacked here a little.
I feel your pain.
I had to go to the school to pick up my daughter because she had a slight fever. Anything will get them sent home during the Flu Panic going around right now. We walked to the nearest shoppette to pick up some canned soup for lunch before going home, and The Kid had that Look. The tired eyes, with the dark circles and the pallor that told me she just wasn’t feeling well. We got our soup and orange juice and a cab to get home. She nodded off on the ride home as I stroked her hair, shoving aside my own pain wishing I knew how she felt and what she needed. She can only tell me so much. She can only give me clues to what it feels like to be inside her body feeling her experiences of being sick. She is the only person who can communicate the way it feels to have that fever or that headache or to have that need for a nap and soup and cuddles and blankets. No matter how much I understand how colds and germs and immune systems work, and no matter how well I know that low grade fevers are actually good for you, only she can tell me how it feels.
I can’t feel her pain.
Just like you can’t feel my pain.
One of the core principles of feminism, IMO, is the concept of bodily autonomy. My body is mine. Mine and mine alone. You don’t get to tell me how to manage it, you don’t get to touch it without my permission, and anything that tries to attack me from the inside is treated as an enemy hostile if it dares grow uninvited. This stems from the fundamental idea that you or anyone else who isn’t me could never understand my body better than me.
Coinciding with that, is that no one other human being other than me knows how it feels to be me, to be in my body, to literally feel the pain of living in this body.
Even the best of my doctors, the ones who care with all of their compassion, the ones who were and are capable of great empathy, can not physically feel my pain. No matter how many fancy diplomas are on their walls or how many scans they’ve run or how many times they’ve played pin cushion with me, they still need me to resort to the handy dandy pain scale as a rubric for making this clear to them.
So, how can you, random stranger, on a random message board or in a random comment section feel my pain?
Can you feel the moment I wake in the morning, those three fleeting moments where I forget and turn my head too quickly, jarring my neck and triggering a migraine that has been hanging over me like a shroud all night?
Can you feel the way my body feels like it is bruised in all of the places it rested against itself or the mattress all night?
How can you, random person in line with me at the supermarket, feel my pain?
Can you feel the pain that my hip and other joints are causing, necessitating the cane, or that the cane is causing my back and shoulders?
Can you feel the dizziness that the blearing pain in my head causes?
How can you, random family member/friend/concerned citizen, feel my pain?
Can you feel the numerous side effects that my body must endure from the various medications I need to make it through a day?
Can you feel the rawness of my throat from the numerous times one of those side effects was not being able to hold a meal down?
I am not discounting the way that you want to relate to me, or to express that you share in my disapproval of something. I understand that you want to sympathize with my frustration. You may even want to align with my feelings, or appreciate my sentiment. There are lots of options that you have that don’t somehow imply that you have some kind of insider info on the goings on of my body or what it really feels like to be me.