Content warning: bullying, emotional abuse, food/weight talk
I am constantly beset by the worry that I take too much space. That my entire existence is a nuisance. Because of this, I often find myself consigned to the margins, either by my own reticence or through others’ behaviour. Ironically, I feel profoundly marginalised in communities that are supposed to address and dismantle the systemic marginalisation of those of us who have been pushed to the periphery of society. I am on the periphery of a periphery. Sometimes I wonder if it’s because I don’t sound right, or that I’m not ‘woke’ enough to fit in, even though I’m no Clarence Thomas. I often feel as though I’m in middle school again, being accused of acting white or failing to perform the correct kind of blackness for my peers’ benefit. I feel like an intruder in spaces in which people look like me, but don’t see me as one of them. I worry that I’m not pure enough. Not radical enough. Not loud enough. Not cool enough. I am terminally uncool. Square, nerdy, congenitally awkward. I feel constantly overlooked in discussions about disability and race, even though I have not shied away from discussing the relationships between them. I feel, despite my isolation, that I am somehow taking too much space simply by being there and having inconvenient opinions. I see ‘cooler’ voices amplified before mine. This is not limited to my work in advocacy; as a master’s student, I avoided applying for fellowships and other opportunities within my programme. After all, weren’t so many of the others younger than I was, and therefore more deserving of opportunities? Better for me to withdraw, to focus on my advocacy outside campus instead of intruding. It didn’t help that some people thought I talked too much in class during my first semester. I grew comparatively quieter. I didn’t shut up entirely – it’s not in my nature to do so – but I did feel some pressure to hold back. While I was able to build cordial relationships, there was always the knife-edge fear: I take up too much space. I’m not cool enough. I should just back off and let real people get involved.
I’m 32 years old. I finished junior high eighteen years ago, but I still feel I’m there sometimes, though the consequences are severer.
These feelings have deep roots that extend much further than my involvement in public activism or advocacy. As I previously intimated, it goes back to childhood, back when I grew up feeling as though I were an inconvenience for being neurodivergent. When I was bullied at school, my parents routinely took the side of the bullies unless they were actually inflicting physical pain on me. When I cried out in emotional distress, I was met with ridicule, stonewalling or punishment if they didn’t blame it on Satan. If I felt excluded, I was not to question it; for my parents, it seemed self-evident that I should be excluded, and that my protesting against my exclusion was tantamount to wanting to be the centre of attention for no good reason. Disputing this exclusion was clearly a sign of my being vain and self-centred. My being good necessitated my being a marginal figure. I was not to question, not to feel, not to exist in any substantive way that required that they address my humanity. I take up too much space.
I’m also fat. Very fat. I’ve been fat since I was ten years old, back when I literally Ate My Feelings, pace Mean Girls, because I didn’t know what else to do when I was depressed and dealing with my parents’ emotional abuse and neglect. Ironically, my being mistreated for taking up too much space led to habits that would cause people to believe I took up too much space in other ways. While I no longer binge-eat in the same way, I spent about twenty years dealing with disordered eating as a form of self-treatment when all the pills, prayer, therapy and meditation couldn’t banish the self-destructive demons dominating my thoughts. Doctors berate me about my weight, treating the effects of my self-medication as an individual moral failing. I take up too much space.
I have a hard time initiating conversations, even with friends I’ve known for over a decade. Even though they’ve managed to put up with me for that long and somehow don’t find me repulsive, I feel my initiating contact is an intrusive act. That I am intrinsically repellent and should wait to be approached first. I feel the same way about job applications. I take up too much space.
Even now, nearly twelve years after I have had any direct dealings with the people who inculcated this into me in the first place, I feel compelled to fold myself small and to be marginal for others’ benefit. If others approach me with opportunities, I’ll accept, but I am less forthcoming about seizing them for myself. For doing so requires that I place myself at the centre, rather than consigning myself to the margins and allowing others, who are always more important than I am, to take up space in my stead. For I take up too much space, and always will. The current political climate doesn’t help, either; far-right politicians and their acolytes actively say that those of us who do not fit the mould of an ideal citizen should be eliminated, whether by actively killing us or by persecuting us out of existence through the continual curtailment of our civil and human rights.
I’m trying to convince myself that I deserve to be here, too, but there’s a lot I have to work through before I get there.