Dear Virgie: What Does Internalized Inferiority Feel Like and Why Does it Happen?
I started writing this monologue for a show I am going to perform in at the end of the year and I have noticed all this stuff coming up around my body. I thought me and my body were on pretty good terms, but then I started writing about my breasts and how embarrassed I was (and I guess I kinda still am) that I have dark nipples and I was also exploring stuff around my mom’s obsession with having light skin.
It seems like I have some real shame around my body, and it is surprising because I always thought I would “feel” shame if I had it. I guess I imagined it would feel like a knot in my stomach or a flush in my cheeks. That’s what I feel like when something embarrassing happens, but maybe this is deeper. I guess what I’m trying to ask is this: are my feelings so internalized that I can’t even feel them?
I really relate to this question. I began to investigate some of my own internalized stuff when I was in my early 20s. I remember having similar feelings of embarrassment around my body and actually even around having dark nipples too. I was SUPER resistant to the possibility that any of this could be internalized racism. I didn’t even have the vocabulary to totally understand that internalized racism was really connected to internalized inferiority, even though it seems so obvious in retrospect.
I was especially annoyed by the idea that the media influenced how I felt about myself. I really, really wanted to imagine myself as a total individual who was too smart to get manipulated by, like, after-school specials. The truth is that internalized inferiority and internalized racism have nothing to do with intelligence.
Oppression is an extraordinarily powerful force that is bigger than the individuals who experience it. It has a major effect on the trajectory of many stigmatized people’s lives.
But one of the biggest reasons I was so skeptical that I was dealing with internalized inferiority was that I was sure that if I felt inferior, it would manifest obviously and consistently in my body. If I was experiencing self-hatred, I thought it would feel exactly the same as when I saw someone I hated: like a lump in my throat or a knot in my stomach.
The truth is, however, that often we can’t “feel” inferiority because it manifests in imperceptible ways, tens of thousands of times over a lifetime, and it becomes a seamless part of our psychology and our world view.
For fat people, this internalized inferiority is why we diet.
For people of color, this internalized inferiority is why we do lots of things, like opt out of certain career paths even when we really want to pursue that path, why we pursue white partners/friends and why our families have more patience and affection for white folks.
For women, this internalized inferiority is why we consistently put ourselves, our lives, our happiness and our desires last.
Under white supremacist/male supremacist ideologies, women of color are automatically positioned as inferior. When a person is positioned as inferior, they are expected to play along no matter what injustice is doled out, and if we refuse to do that then we are quickly positioned as irrational, angry or crazy so that our claims of injustice/desires for justice can be easily delegitimized.
Furthermore, we begin to act on behalf of the systems that seek to marginalize us — and that is what is really at the heart of internalized inferiority: the belief that we don’t deserve anything better because this experience feels natural and inevitable. We lose our individual sense of self when we internalize these ideas about ourselves.
The internalization of race/size/gender-based bigotry is another “unseen” manifestation of oppression. We live in a racist, fatphobic, sexist culture. Period. As a result of that, people or color, fat people and women/gender non-conforming people are taught inferiority that we in turn often internalize (i.e., it becomes part of our world view). This affects how often and to what degree we take risks, how and whether we form meaningful relationships, and it also affects our bodies, because feeling inferior is hella stressful.
Humans are by nature complex and multi-faceted, and contemporary inferiority ideologies are often themselves complex and deeply coded. As language becomes more detached from meaning, it becomes harder to pinpoint exactly what we’re dealing with. I think in your case, it’s a good idea to excavate these emotions around your body while asking yourself where they might come from. Even just thinking critically about this can act as an important intervention.
Hope this helps.
Dear Virgie is a weekly advice column by Virgie Tovar, author, activist and one of the nation’s leading experts and lecturers on fat discrimination and body image. She is the founder of Babecamp, the editor of Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion (Seal Press, November 2012) and the mastermind behind #LoseHateNotWeight. She holds a Master’s degree in Human Sexuality with a focus on the intersections of body size, race, and gender. Virgie has been featured by the New York Times, Tech Insider, MTV, Al Jazeera, the San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, Huffington Post, Cosmopolitan Magazine Online, and Bust Magazine. Find her at www.virgietovar.com.