Not mine alone

This Labor Day, I’m thinking about how easy it is to take credit for things we didn’t secure by ourselves.

To claim our employment successes, for example, when they come in significant measure because of educational advantages or accumulated privileges.

To pride ourselves on our initiative or hard work when–present though those attributes may be–there is ample evidence around the world that some economies reward them very differently, and that status still matters in determining how much our efforts will yield.

And I’m thinking about, in my own life, a perhaps trivial but, to me, still poignant example of this, nearly every day.

I have lost quite a bit of weight over the past few months, now that I’m done having babies. And often, especially when I haven’t seen people in awhile, they will remark about it. It’s usually along the lines of pointing out that I must be working hard, and, not infrequently, even making jabs at those who are overweight, something about “if you can find time to work out, so can they!”

And, to me, thinking about that invisible backpack of privilege that we carry around, that’s not a compliment.

It’s a teachable moment.

Because the truth is that our food system and our gender relations and our economy and our built environment and, indeed, our entire society, are wired for overweight. My successes in counteracting those currents stem not so much from my superior willpower (or, in all honesty, the fact that the treadmill at 5:15AM is one place where no one will interrupt me) but, again, from the scaffolding that places me at a distinct advantage in the quest to reach a healthy weight: adequate income to purchase more expensive, nutritious food; access to quality childcare so that I can exercise knowing my kids are taken care of; an education that positioned me to secure flexible employment; racial and economic privileges that allow me to purchase a home in a desirable neighborhood with ample access to recreation and physical activity…and so on.

It’s not that I mean to dismiss the influence of the individual. Social workers are PIE for a reason. It’s not all environment.

But when we ignore the power of the structures that shape our opportunities and our outcomes–at work, at home, in politics, even on the bathroom scale–we don’t just give ourselves too much credit.

We deny the contributions, and the sacrifices, and the disadvantages, of those who have gone before and those who struggle around us today.

That five-day work week, those paid sick days, those accommodations for disabilities, my pounds lost…all are shared victories.

Not ours alone.

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