Home The Op-Eds The Case Against ‘Tough Love’

The Case Against ‘Tough Love’

by Erika Nicole Kendall

For some reason, there’s regularly—regularly—someone who “can no longer be silent” about the “disease” that’s “plaguing the black community.”

For some reason, they can no longer be silent on an issue that has literally been spoken on so frequently, that The New York Times published a less-than-remarkable essay written by a woman who essentially admitted to starving herself and her family with disordered eating behavior because she feared “fat,” herself.

For some reason, it’s always time for “tough love” when it’s time to talk about “fatness” within the black community. And, for some reason, it seems like we’re aiming our arrows for black women*.

Unsurprisingly, these people are not particularly skilled at slinging arrows. People are aiming wildly, completely missing the mark, and hurting innocent bystanders in the process—in other words, people empowered by bad and inaccurate and incomplete info are emboldened to use it to “educate,” often because they themselves are thin and feel as if their ability to maintain that size justifies feeling like it’s their rightful place to “speak on it.”

Except, they’re not talking about anything beyond what they see. What do they see? They see fat people. Fat black people. Frequently, women. That’s often all it takes to begin the tirade.

(It’s worth noting the number of times this is done by someone selling services intended to “help” people with the “problem” of obesity.)

What is tough love, anyway? “Tough love” is when people decide it’s time to “no longer be nice.””Tough love” is what you get when people decide that the feelings of the recipient of their rambling shouldn’t matter as much as the need of the rambler to “get it off their chest.” Tough love isn’t simply just saying the hard things—”tough love” is willfully saying the hard things with absolutely no tact, no thoughtfulness, and no empathy whatsoever.

Tough love is when your father decides to tell you,”I’m tired of your mother coddling you. You’re fat and you need to do something about it. All that fat is why you can’t find a husband and get the hell out of our house, now.” “Tough love” is how your mother describes his rant when you try to talk to her about it. “Your father just thinks he’s giving you some tough love, honey.”

“Tough love” is when, as is the case almost quarterly, someone on social media decides they’re fed up watching all these fat black girls finding ways to be comfortable in the mirror long enough to put on some gorgeous makeup, head full of curls, and a sundress the color of a bright July afternoon. Then is the moment they decide “we really need to talk about all the obesity going on in the black community,” eagerly interrupting the self-love brigade with an inane need to talk about treadmills and kale.

Here’s the problem. “Tough love” doesn’t work. “Tough love” never works. And people always complain about “coddling” or “PC” culture as an excuse to justify their inability to articulate empathy for the people they’re talking about or talking to; instead of acknowledging their own failure to be empathetic, they put it on the person receiving the abusive language. They complain about them being “sensitive.” They complain about the need to be “politically correct.” Because heaven forbid they have to respect a person who is frequently mistreated and abused, anyway.

“Tough love” doesn’t work because people don’t change for the long term from a position of abuse. Sure, people might be able to shame themselves into submission, a la Biggest Loser-style tough training talk, but guess what? When the self-shame no longer works, they gain that weight right back… unironically, just like the Biggest Loser contestants.

“Tough love” doesn’t work because it ignores the fact that the “excuses” people make aren’t “excuses” at all. They’re cries out for help that you’d hear if you could bother to be empathetic to the people to whom you speak. When a single mother of three children under 4 tells you she struggles with grocery shopping, listen to her. Do your research. Does she live in the area where there are thousands of people and still, for some reason, no grocery store… meaning, she has to take three toddlers on a bus to get groceries, only to take a cab back with three toddlers and bags of groceries? Does she tell you she doesn’t like fruit? Listen to her. Did she just tell you she grew up in the hood where the fruit market only sold partially-expired fruit for a cheaper price, meaning the fruit was bitter, rotting, and thereby undesirable?

Do you even think of these things when you’re starting on your petty tirade about black women and their need for “tough love?”

“Tough love” doesn’t work because we don’t treat people we love cruelly, ignoring their thoughts and feelings because we have a point we must make. If you’re cruel to people you love as a practice, you’re not acting out of love. You’re acting out of narcissism, and that’s frequently where these “tough love” screeds come from. The speaker needs attention, and intends to step on the necks of black women to get it. Call attention, erroneously and offensively, to the perceived problem of their size, and use it as an effort to gain attention for yourself along the way.

The truth of the matter is that if you intend to help people, you come to them from a position of mutual respect and empathy. That’s the first lesson in coaching—you cannot solve what you cannot hear; you can’t hear shit if you can’t shut up and listen. If you had a daughter with a partner who frequently embarrassed her in public, we’d correctly call that out as abusive. We’d correctly identify that as not being from a place of love or respect. Trying to embarrass black women into doing what you think is best for them isn’t “tough love” because it isn’t “love” at all. It’s the insensitive and incessant ramblings of a narcissist.

“Love” is not “tough.” Love is the opposite of tough. Love is gentle, empathetic, understanding. Love listens. Love respects. Love isn’t merely a noun—the most meaningful form of “love” is a verb. It requires effort. Effort on the part of the recipient to listen; effort on the part of the speaker to remember to keep the other party’s feelings in mind. “Tough love” is a misnomer altogether. It’s not “tough,” it’s lazy; it’s not love, it’s cruelty.

And? While I’m at it? Trying to embarrass people into doing what you think is best for them is manipulation, not education and certainly not support. They’d be doing it only to appease you and, when you’re gone—because it is rare that the person dishing out the “tough love” is also willing to stick around to support a person through the journey—what happens? At worst, yo-yo weight gain. Shame for gaining weight. Self-abuse in the form of disordered eating patterns and starvation diets. Weight loss… and ultimately regaining.

There are far too many people in this world who aren’t used to treating black women with love; part of the problem with being a “mule of the world” is that it’s rare that we consider whether the “mule” has feelings. We’re not used to considering them, so we don’t bother. We have to un-learn that. Society constantly tells us black people deserve mistreatment to keep them in line; we reflect that when we mistreat one another simply because of appearance. (It’s worth noting that we don’t walk around to skinny people eating junky food and remind them about the risk of diabetes and heart disease their food choices represents. Most people naturally assume skinny people are okay because they aren’t fat.)

We also have to un-learn what watching shows like Biggest Loser has taught us about what it looks like to motivate someone, especially since we know how much of a failure that show has been. Fat people don’t deserve a special blend of mistreatment and misinformation simply because they’re fat.

No one has all the answers. I certainly don’t. And I for damn sure haven’t always known what I know now. But, after almost 8 years of doing this, here’s what I do know: you cannot help people while you are hurting them. You can’t simultaneously make me the butt of your joke and tell me the pain I feel is supposed to help me.

No person on this planet is deluded about their size. They remember every time they have to share a bus seat, plane seat, or take up any space at all. They remember every time they have to go clothing shopping. They remember every time they try to eat in peace in public. Every time they have to prepare to schedule their annual check-up at the doctor’s office. Every time they have to be in the presence of that one drunk auntie who insists on pulling at a love handle and then calling them a crybaby for not liking it. No one forgets. No one needs “a reminder.” We get them every day. What we really need is to be heard, so that solutions can solve instead of serving as self-gratifying platitudes.

Either we’re in the business of helping, or in the business of hurting. The language we choose to use will always make it clear. We must always choose wisely.

*And, even though I speak frequently about black women in this essay, mainly because issues surrounding size are especially difficult for black women, guess what? This also impacts black men, too. It impacts everyone. No one deserves their feelings being ignored to further some other goal.

PS: I forgot to add this before I published, but let’s not forget: it’s already a part of black women’s experience in America to frequently fight the urge to hate themselves for not having white skin. That comfort in their own skin and their own bodies is hard fought. Any effort to “help” them through demeaning them and breaking down that hard-fought comfort will fail on its face solely because you straight up use tools of The Enemy and cloak it in language of “helping.” When you do that, you deserve every negative response you get.

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Brielle May 9, 2017 - 3:23 PM

All I can say is thank you, I don’t know where you were in my teens and 20’s but I going with I found you right on time. I discovered your blog and I have been glued to it ever since. Folks swear they have more claim to my wellness then I do. Like you’ve said one day at a time

Daneira May 24, 2017 - 9:48 AM

This is excellent. I really love this phrase, “business of helping, or in the business of hurting.”

I’ve often felt that people were really concerned about other people’s health, they would also be concerned about their mental health. I find that when I feel good (or at least not awful) about myself and my life I am more likely to exercise regularly and eat healthier. I embrace healthier habits and patterns. I bounce back from setbacks quicker. I remember one time when I lost like ten pounds because I felt so good from a new hair-do.

Tough love only benefits the person delivering it, the amen choir, or anyone who wants to see the recipient harmed. Any progress gained through tough love will likely be accompanied by resentment.

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