“Encouragement” With a Side of Tone Policing

By DB Photographs on Flickr; used under Creative Commons. (https://www.flickr.com/photos/demibrooke/2336528544/)

By DB Photographs on Flickr; used under Creative Commons. (https://www.flickr.com/photos/demibrooke/2336528544/)

Women’s bodies, their size, and how well they fit within current fashion expectations have long been a part of a debate around the place women occupy in our culture. There are articles that link sizeism to the idea that women are taught, from a young age, to take up as little space as possible – both emotionally/psychically and physically – and that those women whose bodies take up more size than the minimum can therefore be categorized as less than. An excellent example of this is the yearly debate on “bikini bodies,” and as my favorite saying goes, “Want to have a bikini body? Take your body. Put a bikini on it. VOILA.”

Recently, a writer on The Huffington Post posted a piece titled, “I Wear A Bikini Because F*CK YOU.” In it, she writes things like:



1. I don’t give a sh*t.
I actually do not exist for your viewing pleasure, and your ideas about who should and should not be seen in a bikini are zero percent my concern.

She goes on to talk about teaching her daughters body-positivity, how her ex-husband was a douchebag who thought certain items of clothing shouldn’t even be made in sizes above what he deemed acceptable, and more. For those of us who’ve been told not to wear sleeveless shirts because of our fat upper arms, or that a piece isn’t “flattering” (i.e. it shows off the curves you love, regardless of how others feel about seeing some cleavage), the article is witty, funny and on-point. One comment, which I ran into on Twitter, surprised me:

As one friend pointed out when I mentioned this to him, this reminded him of the network guys from Sports Night. “We love what you’re doing with the show, but the audience…”

If the writer in question wants to write with anger, that’s her prerogative, and it strikes me as concern-trolling for someone to say that while they personally enjoyed the piece, her “anger” (as they perceived it) a) is unnecessary and b) might make people less receptive to her message. From scanning the comments (my eyes, my eyes!) I can say, with assurance, that there are people who either get it or don’t, and there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of folks falling in the middle. Nor do m/any of the comments seem concerned with the emotions her piece conveys.

Why does the commenter – a well-known individual whose words no doubt carry some weight – feel it necessary to give this kind of backhanded compliment to this woman via Twitter at large. If the Literary Type likes the article and recognizes that the writer has valid points, why not let readers decide for themselves whether they “hear” the writer’s message? If the comment is meant to be constructive criticism (a fully valid defense, particularly given Literary Type’s career and influence), why not aim it at the article’s writer – whose Twitter handle is at the bottom of the article – instead of the reader who tweeted the link (and, by the inclusion of the “.” prior to his response, his entire list of followers)?

Because: Tone Policing.

That wonderful silencing technique whereby someone lets you know that your “tone” is upsetting or otherwise unsavory, and maybe you ought to moderate how you express your distaste for the status quo in the hopes of making a more palatable argument. Except – and here’s the thing – asking someone to write or discuss an issue in a more “acceptable tone” is a bog-standard silencing technique when it comes to discussing issues faced by women and minorities. From Jezebel.com:

Tone policing is the ultimate derailing tactic. When you tone police, you automatically shift the focus of the conversation away from what you or someone else did that was wrong, and onto the other person and their reaction… 

I am responsible for making my life better for me and for the people who are similarly oppressed. I give no shits how recognizing your complicity in an oppressive system makes you feel, and I don’t have to. No one gives a shit about how it makes me feel when I am told that things would get better if I just “asked nicely”. You don’t think I’ve tried that? The reason I’m angry is that I tried playing by your rules of niceness, and you ignored me.

Given the Literary Type’s stature in the industry, I find it hard to believe actual constructive criticism wouldn’t be welcomed – but this isn’t constructive criticism, it’s a derailment of what a body-positive woman is saying about her lived experience of society’s policing of women’s bodies. Her body. And other than the use of profanity scattered through the article, it actually doesn’t even read to me as particularly angry. Comics lace their work with profanity all the time, and while some comedy does in fact come from a place of anger, they’re rarely told, “Hey! Be less angry, or people won’t listen to you!”

Next time, I hope the Literary Type takes his considerable expertise in the world of writing and publishing and brings it directly to the article writer, offering legitimate criticism rather than trying to de-legitimize her point – that women should be able to wear whatever they like in the pool or on the beach, regardless of their body type – via a watered-down, backhanded compliment.

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