Category Archives: bad advice

Oh, Feminists, Can You Stop Telling People With Disabilities How To Take Care Of Their Bodies?

(A slightly different version of this post appeared at this ain’t livin’ under the title “Yes, Actually, I Can Make An Informed Choice“.)

There’s an interesting trend I’ve been noticing more of late at feminist websites: The idea that certain women don’t know what’s good for them. These women need to be told in no uncertain words about how to take care of their bodies, how to live their lives, how to interact with medical professionals, how to make decisions about their medical care. And, by extension, how to handle their disabilities.

Who are these women? They tend to be women who do things which feminists disagree with. For example, women who opt to have large families are informed that they are endangering themselves with multiple pregnancies and they should stop. Likewise, women who are considered “bad sluts” within the good slut/bad slut dichotomy are informed that they’re doing it wrong. That they are incapable of caring for themselves. Women who opt to stay at home, to not go to college, are also informed that they are making bad choices. Women with disabilities are routinely informed that they don’t actually know their own bodies and that they are endangering themselves. Simply by daring to be disabled and proud!

I’ve seen supposedly feminist websites saying that women should be subjected to unnecessary medical procedures “to make sure that they get STI testing,” because apparently women wouldn’t get STI testing if they weren’t forced to come in for excessively administered pap smears. I’ve seen sites saying that women should get screenings which are not recommended because otherwise they won’t know to take care of themselves and won’t see a doctor in a timely fashion. I’ve seen sites arguing that women who have multiple children are “brainwashed” and “need counseling.”

As one might imagine, I find this extremely irritating. Because, here’s the thing. I think that everyone is capable of making informed choices. And when I make an informed choice, I do not need to demonstrate to anyone that I have satisfied their requirements of what an “informed choice” is, and I do not need to justify my choice, ever. If a woman decides that she wants to have 12 children and she’s making an informed choice to do that, and it is not my business to tell her that she is engaging in risky behaviour and she is brainwashed.

People are welcome to disagree with the choices I make, and to feel that they would not make those choices (but they can’t know my situation so they can’t speak to the issues specific to me which might have shaped my choice). But to tell me that my decisions are not valid because they do not meet someone’s definition of “how to take care of yourself” or “how to be a feminist” is extremely problematic. Please note that I do not view coerced and false “choices” as true choices, and I think there is a legitimate discussion to be had about the “choices” women are forced into. Not whether or not women who make those choices are “feminist enough,” but about the circumstances which force them into those choices. (See the difference there?)

I cannot help but find it intriguing that mainstream feminism is remarkably supportive of “choices” which fit in with the framework of things that it views as “feminist.” Using birth control, for example, is supported and regarded as an informed choice when in fact many birth control users are not well informed and are not making an informed decision. Choosing to only have one or two children is also viewed as a choice worth supporting, but apparently choosing to have more children than that isn’t a “valid” choice any more. Mainstream feminism has a checklist of “what’s feminist” and choices which fall outside that checklist “aren’t feminist” even though decisions do not occur in a vacuum, not even one of perfect feminism, and do happen on a highly individualized basis which means that one choice does not fit all.

This attitude is especially troubling when it comes to disability matters, because it reinforces the idea that other people know more about women’s bodies than they do, and that doctors can and should force procedures on their patients. That ladies don’t know what’s good for them, and therefore it’s up to other people to tell them what to do. That women with disabilities can’t possibly make informed choices because there’s no way they could possibly know more than a mainstream feminist who is providing a lecture about “what’s good for you.”

Try making an informed choice at your doctor’s office. Really. Try asking for more information so that you have a complete picture before you make a decision. And try informed refusal: “no, I do not want this test, it is not necessary.” “I don’t need an appointment right now.” “Given that I’m a virgin, a pap smear is not appropriate.” Informed refusal is met with “well, we have to do it.” Subtext: You silly woman, you don’t know what’s good for you.

This attitude, that certain people get to decide what is feminist and what is not, is a form of policing. There’s one way to take care of your body, and one way only, and you cannot deviate from it. Only certain things are feminist and everything else is antifeminist. If you do not “choose” the “feminist” choice you are a “bad feminist.” It all ties into prescriptive feminism and the idea that it is not only ok but obligatory to tell other women what to do when they are doing something which you disagree with.

For women with disabilities, this is extremely dangerous. Given that one of the core values of feminism is bodily autonomy, it is shocking and very upsetting to see feminists promoting denial of bodily autonomy for disabled women. The inherent conflict here seems lost upon many mainstream feminists, and when they are challenged on it, the pushback can sometimes be quite extreme.

Here’s the thing.

I can make an informed choice.

I can research a situation, I can weigh the pros and cons. I can think about the impact which various choices will have on me personally. I can think about what I need to do to meet my needs and to take care of myself. And, considering all of this information, I can make a decision about what I want to do and how I want to handle the situation. When it comes to medical care in particular, I think I know a little bit more about my situation and my body than other people, and I can in fact be trusted to do the right thing, for me. I can even, yes, consider the cultural context of my choices.

To tell me otherwise is to deny me agency. To tell me that a choice I am making is “antifeminist” or “not good for you” is to tell me that I am a foolish clueless person who should not be allowed to make choices for myself. Demanding that I justify my choices is invasive, rude, and inappropriate. I don’t demand to know why other people do or do not do something. I trust them to make their own decisions, based on their experience as unique individuals.

If people ask me for information or thoughts while they are making choices, I may offer it, although I try to structure it carefully to make it clear that I am not speaking for them or prescribing any course of action. But if my input has not been requested, I don’t give it.

It is not appropriate to tell women that they should undergo unnecessary, invasive, and sometimes harmful medical procedures “for their own good.” It is not appropriate to tell women that all bodies are the same and that therefore there’s only one way to take care of them. It is not appropriate to tell women that they cannot make informed, considered, thoughtful choices. It is not appropriate to tell women that there’s only one kind of feminism and only one way to be feminist. Or that a specific choice is always inherently antifeminist, no matter what.

I may choose a different thing for myself than you might choose for yourself. You might opt to respond to things differently than I do. But that does not mean that a woman’s personal decision about something like, say, cancer treatment is invalid. Or that she is “stupid” for not choosing what I would have done. Or that she’s “not feminist” because she did something I disagree with (or even that her individual choice is “antifeminist” because I don’t like it, even if I grudgingly recognize that she might be feminist despite that).

I can make an informed choice. You can make an informed choice. Can we trust each other to do that, and move on to more important things than policing each other?

Dear Imprudence: Dan Savage, Savage Love, and “That’s Retarded” (Hint, Dan, “Leotarded” Is Just As Unacceptable)

One of the things which inspired the “Dear Imprudence” column here at FWD was the Savage Love column from 30 April, 2009, in which a reader sent in a letter politely asking Dan to stop using “retarded” as an insult. abby jean kindly covered “retarded” for the Ableist Word Profile, explaining the origins of the word and why it’s not appropriate to use, in case you need a refresher. I know that this column is old, but I thought that I should profile it, since it’s pretty much a shining example of what we’re talking about when we talk about bad advice.

Here’s my thing with Dan Savage. He infuriates me. A lot. His persistent fat hatred is extremely upsetting. His assaults on so-called “PC culture” are irritating. But, every now and then, he actually gives good advice. Really good advice with which I agree, which is why I read Savage Love pretty regularly even though it makes me want to scream sometimes. In fact, I almost profiled him for a “Getting It Right” column recently, but couldn’t bring myself to do it, because of the “leotarded” column.

So, let’s review. In case you need to be reminded of why so many people strongly dislike Dan Savage…

A reader wrote:

Stop using the word “retarded” as an insult, Dan. I know it can be hard to break a verbal habit, but make an effort. Perhaps you should have a “retard jar” that you put a dollar in every time you use the word. When the jar is full, send the money to the Special Olympics.

Whatever you do, though, try to remember that you have lots of listeners and readers who have loved ones with mental disabilities, and we don’t want to hear you misuse the word “retarded.” Please don’t tell me to read or listen to other people if I don’t like what I hear. I want to read your column and listen to your podcast, but without the put-downs directed at people with mental disabilities.

The Real Other Sister

Dan responded:

I’m going to turn over a new leaf, TROS, and make a conscious, conscientious effort to break myself of the bad habit of using the word “retard.” But I don’t think the “retard jar” is for me. Instead, I’m going to use a substitution for the word. From now on, instead of saying “retard” or “that’s so retarded,” I’m going to say “leotard” and “that’s so leotarded.” I won’t be mocking the mentally challenged, just the physically gifted. I will pick on the strong—and the limber—and not the weak.

Oh, Dan, you are so funny! My sides are aching! Oh, wait, I think that’s just indigestion.

Advice columnists, as a general rule, tend to be pretty prickly when called out by readers. A notable recent example appeared in “Ask Amy,” when Amy shamed a rape victim, was called out on it, and basically said “I don’t see what the big deal is.” Honestly, sometimes I think that advice columnists print letters critical of their responses specifically so that they can be mean to the person who sent the letter.

In this case, Dan’s mocking response made it clear that he didn’t give two figs for the fact that he was hurting people with his language use, and that his “solution” to the problem was to create a portmanteau which “won’t be mocking the mentally challenged.” I’m sure Dan is well aware of the fact that “-tarded” words work as insults because they evoke social attitudes about people with disabilities, whether or not “re-” is prefixed. His answer was basically a big, fat, “fuck you” to the disability community (with a bonus “weak” for extra points).

What’s interesting is that Dan certainly does recognize how the use of words like “gay” and an assortment of racial epithets which I can’t bring myself to type is harmful. So it’s not that Dan does not understand the power that language has, and the impact which it has on social attitudes. He just isn’t interested in the power of ableist language, which is actually a pretty widespread problem in social justice circles in general. People who would never let a word like “fag” or “bitch” cross their lips will freely say that something made them “crazy” the other day or that they saw a “lame” movie last week.

Dan had a great opportunity here to do some thinking, talk about the power of language, explain why “retarded” is wrong, apologize, and say that he won’t be using it anymore. Instead, he decided that more benefit would be provided if he insulted the reader and came up with an oh-so-hilarious variation on “retarded” to start using.

That’s a terrific message to send to all your readers, Dan! Way to go!

Getting It Wrong: Rate Your Students and Ableism

[Possible trigger warning for upsetting and ableist language]

As some of you may know, I am a graduate student getting my Master’s Degree in Women and Gender Studies. I currently have vague career aspirations of getting my PhD or at least remaining in academia in some capacity; my academic interests primarily have to do with feminist disability theory and the body.

I was an undergrad when I discovered Rate Your Students, a blog for college professors and TAs to rant, with anonymity, about the wonderful world of academia–including its apparent hordes of clueless undergrads. I can’t quite remember how I stumbled upon it, but I found it very refreshing. I was probably what the RYS denizens would call a “special snowflake”, or “snowflake” for short–that is, an overeager student who is convinced of zie’s own specialness (however, my low self-esteem may negate such a categorization)–but I found the site a welcome break from dealing with fellow undergrads at my school, many of whom, I felt, fit the “snowflake” categorization perfectly.

Given my disability and resulting limited energy, during this time I was  privately contemptuous of those whom I percieved to be slacking and getting away with it, particularly when I was assigned to work with them on group projects or in discussion cohorts. Inevitably, I would be the one who led the group in discussion–even when I had been the only one to have done the reading–or the one who would do most of the “group” project planning and resulting work. I do not say this to toot my own horn; this information is meant to be context for the reasons that I started reading RYS in the first place.

After this week’s posts on accommodation(s) for students with disabilities, however, I am seriously rethinking my earlier enthusiasm for the site. One professor sent a query to the other readers of the site:

How do you teach a student…who clearly has severe intellectual developmental issues? How do you make sure the other students aren’t held back? What if your course is a small seminar course, not a large course? You have to spend a lot of one-on-one time with one at the expense of several. Why doesn’t the university provide resources for you and this student?

Am I bad teacher for not knowing how to deal with this? Or for not wanting to?

The responses are a motley bunch (the [+] markers denote different responses from different folks), ranging from the awesome to the somewhat reasonable to the awful:

Anyway, I don’t think too much of students who come to me with a letter demanding time-and-a-half on tests. Nor do I pity the poor fucktards when I think of their asking a future boss for time-and-a-half on a project. There are some students who are truly disabled, and truly need accommodations. But ADD is a sad joke. It puts us at the beck and call of every spoiled tool whose parents can find a quack to label the kid as ADD.

I am an academic. I am also a person with disabilities. I know, furthermore, that “difficult” students exist, and in some cases, universities do not provide clear policies for faculty when dealing with students with disabilities. Professors, however, are not usually assigned to be the disability police, and with good reason (see above). From the glut of postings on this topic, the message that I am getting–as a person with multiple disabilities, both physical and other–is that I do not belong in the academy. People with severe emotional or mental health issues, apparently, do not belong in the academy because they freak out the “normal” folks. Furthermore, if I choose to disclose my disability to faculty, I may be subject to disbelief and doubt, due to their past experiences with disabled students. Hell, someone might even rant about me on RYS if I piss them off enough!

I respect the fact that RYS is a site for professors to anonymously vent; all of us need those spaces. Some of us, however, are both hopeful professors and people with disabilities.  Privileged displays of ableism like the above are asking some of us to side against our own, which many of us cannot do.

Dear Imprudence: How Not To Give Advice

Welcome to our newest intermittent series, “Dear Imprudence,” in which FWD/Forward contributors (and guest bloggers) deconstruct advice columns which offer monumentally bad advice about disability issues. Do you have an advice column you’d like us to deconstruct? Shoot us a link in the comments or via admin at disabledfeminists dot com.

Our inaugural entry in “Dear Imprudence” comes, appropriately enough, from the popular Slate columnist Emily Yoffe, known as “Prudence” or “Prudie.” The column for 22 October featured several instances of bad advice which made it hard to pick just one, but I went with this letter:

Dear Prudence,
I take my 80-year-old mother-in-law to the store for her weekly shopping since it has become dangerous for her to drive. She believes she can simply eat all the candies, bulk items, and fruits she likes before paying for them. I am finding it really hard to convince her that she is stealing from the stores. I want her to stop doing it before she embarrasses herself one day, passing security with a mouthful of goodies. It causes me great stress on what otherwise should be a pleasant day for us. She thinks it’s fun and that I should stop being the moral police to her.

—Paranoid D-I-L

Here’s how Prudence responded:

Dear Paranoid,
If she doesn’t understand that munching her way through the aisles is theft and instead thinks it’s fun, perhaps she needs a complete neurological workup because she may be losing touch with reality. If it turns out she’s fine and just believes the grocery store is an all-you-can-eat-and-you-don’t-have-to-pay buffet, then you need to disabuse her of this notion. I know you’ve been having this discussion with her, but instead of fighting when you’re at the grocery store, reiterate your view while sitting down at her home or yours. Explain that you enjoy her company and are happy to be able to go shopping with her, but your worry that security is going to grab her one day for stealing—and eating food without paying is stealing—is making these trips to the store miserable for you. Tell her if she can’t stop, then you’ll have to. Say that unless she curbs her appetite until the groceries are bagged, you will take her list and do her shopping for her. Then stick to it. Maybe realizing how much her world is going to shrink will prompt her to give up her sticky-fingers routine.


There are a couple of problems with this response. The first is in the very first sentence, which contains a nugget of good advice hidden in a storm of judgment. Sudden behavioural changes in older adults can be a sign that a neurological issue is emerging, and it may be a good idea to see a neurologist in that case, although it sounds like this is not a sudden change at all, but simply an older woman who may be feeling lonely and isolated who likes to have a little fun now and then. But Prudence says that the writer’s mother in law is “losing touch with reality,” which is a really scathing way of addressing a potentially serious issue.

The second, very serious, problem is with Prudie’s solution: Threaten the mother in law with being housebound. This is not ever appropriate advice to give when dealing with anyone, let alone a person with disabilities. People with disabilities already are housebound by social circumstances they can’t control, like lacking access to a mobility device/having a mobility device stolen, being trapped inside inaccessible homes, not being able to access public transit, and, yes, being trapped by supposed caregivers who do not provide them with the support that they need. Suggesting that someone threaten another human being with shrinking her world is unconscionable, and Prudie should be ashamed of herself.

The column also doesn’t address the extent of the behaviour, probably because Prudie doesn’t know the details. I personally “snack” in the bulk section all the time, and my grocery store actively encourages it. They have sample cups out so that people can try bulk foods before buying to decide if they want them. My grocery store also allows people to eat in the store; they just ask that you weigh your items before eating so that the clerk knows how much to ring up at the register.

It’s a bit unclear whether the writer is complaining because her mother in law grabs a few snacks (perhaps she’s hungry? Maybe she wants to try something before buying?) or because her mother in law really does treat the bulk bins as a free buffet. It sounds like the real problem is that the writer views the mother in law as a burden, and wants Prudence to give her a free pass on this attitude.

What would have been better advice?

Well, Prudence could have suggested that the writer do what our grocery store asks people to do: Weigh a bag of goodies, note down the weight, snack through the store, and alert the clerk to the consumption at the register so that the clerk can charge for it. Prudence also could have suggested that maybe the writer should check to see if the mother in law is hungry before they go to the store; perhaps having a snack before shopping would resolve the issue. Prudence might also have recommended hiring an aide or assistant to help the mother in law with her weekly shopping, since daughter in law apparently finds it such a burden.

There’s another problem with this column; the pseudonym used by the writer. “Paranoid” is ableist language. I’m assuming that the writer invented the pseudonym, not Prudence, but in either case, it was not appropriate.