As a middle-class, white, non-religious woman living in New England, I sometimes have trouble discussing stereotypes. I feel that it is not fair of me to speak of my own experiences with stereotypes as if they’ve greatly impacted my life, nor do I feel that I have the authority to interpret those of others. This isn’t to say I haven’t faced sexism, or body-shaming. These stereotypes are very real and can have an unbelievable impact on both society and the individual.
In the past year I’ve had to deal extensively with stereotypes and their impact. Changes in my world led me to assume what course my life would be taking. I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder almost a year ago. I spent months in therapy trying to deal with my anxieties and my obsessive habits, but more important than the therapy was my own battle to move past the stereotype I was falling into. I didn’t tell many people about my OCD after I found that the people who did know were treating me differently. My OCD isn’t the one most people know about; it’s not about germs. I don’t wash my hands 50 times a day or wipe down all services with antibacterial spray; that version of OCD is the stereotype. It’s the one most people associate with the disorder, but not the only one people live with. It’s the one people joke about when teasing someone about being a perfectionist or washing their hands more than three times a day. I’ve made those jokes. I’ve been the subject of those jokes. For me, the jokes don’t hurt. But it does hurt that people don’t know the real and confusing forms OCD can take. It’s not a black and white condition; it is filled with layers of complex symptoms and underlying causes. I learned, as I gradually worked to figure out how to handle my habits, that society often jumps to judge someone based on the simplest explanation. When the subject gets sensitive, it can be hard to navigate a conversation. As a result, the stereotype becomes the default response.
This stereotype, whether about gender, race, religion, or health, can be more dangerous than most think. There is no one person to blame, no single source of information. We all share this responsibility. We all share the responsibility to stray from the assumptions and to go deeper. Questions are the key to evolution. Instead of leaving those sensitive subjects to rest, we need to be the ones to learn about the real and complex things the people around us are going through. It’s hard to think that something so small could make a difference but it can, and it will. The people who have helped me most in the past year are the ones that reached out in an effort to learn about what exactly I was working to overcome. The people who ask questions, rather than assume responses—they are the ones who can change the world.