So, I teach Sociology at our local community college, and now that the nation is practicing social isolation, I am working hard to get all of my on-campus classes switched to online learning. This isn’t necessarily a big deal for me, since I’ve taught online classes forever, but as I’m working on lectures and content for my Sociology of Deviance class, I am getting a bit angry…perplexed…wondering about what we consider to be deviant in our culture.
First, deviance is an act or behavior that goes against societal norms (rules) we have in place; and it isn’t always an easy thing to recognize since it’s dependent on so many variables like culture, context, place, etc. Also, a behavior/act isn’t necessarily considered deviant even if it goes strictly against a societal norm; instead, we take into consideration the ‘label’ society has placed on it; for example, does this behavior cause anger in people? Scorn? Disgust? And finally, sometimes you don’t even have to ‘do’ anything to be labeled a deviant. You simply ‘are.’ People with physical or mental disabilities are often considered deviant. Labeling people like this as deviant stigmatizes them. It connects them to negative stereotypes which can cause them to be ostracized ; looked down on as outcasts.
Now, think about this. SOCIETY can ‘say’ a person is deviant simply because the person is ‘different’. Or simply because the person ‘is’. Because they exist. Because they are them. “Holy crap, Batman…what the hell is this?”
“Let me tell you, Robin.” This means that ANYONE can be labeled deviant…have a stigma put on their head…and be treated as such at anytime in their lives. Right? First, let’s take a look at age, simply because (God willing) we will all experience this eventually in our lives.
Oh, Lord…I hate talking about age. As a woman who is (cough cough) 53 (I know…that’s a really BIG number!), I have seen the way I’ve been looked at over the last 10 years or so, and can’t believe the difference! When I turned 40, it was a celebration! “Girl…you are in the prime of your life!! 40 is the new 30!” Actually, it isn’t. 40 is 40. 30 is 30. And so on…you get my point. But when I turned 50? I was almost ashamed! What do you say to a 50 year old? “Ummm…you look great FOR 50!” That’s about it! And what a horrible sentence to hear!! Let me translate it for you: “Kristi…I don’t know what else to say, so I’m going to tell you that you look OK for being 50…but if you were 40, you’d look like hell!” Hmmmm…what a compliment.
Look in ANY women’s magazine. Know what you see? Products that work from the ground up to make sure nothing on you looks old. Nothing. We’re talking younger looking feet (which I rarely show off) to younger looking hair. And face creams? If I tried everyone that was advertised AND that promised to wipe away my years, I’d go broke. Quickly.
But why would I want to ‘wipe away’ my years? Why is it deviant to get old? Why does society tell us our worth is less as we grow up more? Why is a natural aging process a bad thing? And why, because of these messages, should us older people (more so for women than men in our society…much more so) feel guilty if we have wrinkles? I don’t get it.
Mental illness is considered deviant too. Because face it, being mentally ill makes others feel uncomfortable. We’ve all heard the words. At least I have. People use crazy or nuts as a synonym for bipolar all of the time. Even Katy Perry, in her song Hot and Cold, says “…love bipolar” for a crazy type of unhealthy/game playing love. So, I’m deviant because I’m mentally ill too? Because I have a brain disease I did absolutely nothing to get? Because I might cry? Or be angry? Or be depressed? Or be manic? These make people uncomfortable? Scornful? So I’m LABELED deviant. LABELED.
Guess what labels do? Labels make us see ourselves through that mirror. Like sociologist Charles Cooley described in his “Looking Glass Self” theory, we see how we appear to others, and reflect back what we’ve perceived. Don’t believe me? Then why are so many people ‘ashamed’ to talk about their mental illness? Reluctant to let their friends know how much they are suffering on the inside? Hesitant to tell people they’ve dated for a while because they fear it will negatively affect their relationship? Afraid they will be treated differently by colleagues? Worried they might be passed over for promotions? Embarrassed to say their Dr.’s appointment is with their psychologist? Humiliated when words like ‘psycho’ are used to describe behavior tied to their own mental illness?
And for people who have cut…have attempted suicide (2 other groups I fall into)? Wow. The stigma is fierce! How dare I have been in so much psychological pain, that I felt the only relief came from using a razor blade on my legs. How could I have hurt myself, even though the physical hurt took away some of my mental hurt? AND, what an awful person I am that I was in so much pain and so much anguish, that I truly felt, at that time, being with my grandma and grandpa in heaven was better than my life on earth.
These labels…this stigma…is something we have to endure. Not because of what we have. But because of how we’re seen through the attitudes people have. Opinions. Reactions.
Dammit. I don’t know about you and what you might endure in terms of stigmas, but I’m tired of feeling ‘less than’ over issues I can’t help. Yes, I’m old. Yes, I’m mentally ill. And that’s just to name 2, or this blog post would be so long, I’d have carpal tunnel after all the writing (and probably be stigmatized for that as well). And NO. I will NOT be made to feel demeaned because of these things. I refuse too. I will continue to talk about being bipolar. About why I used to cut. About why I took a handful of pills. About all of my struggles, and all of my successes. I will do this again and again, because until we all speak out against stigmas (and in my case, mental illness stigmas), we will never see them gone. Until we all learn to accept everyone for who they are…what they might have…how they might be ‘different’, we’ll never see the change I think we need to see most in this world.