Diet Culture and Disordered Thinking

TW for eating disorder discussion

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life is crazy right now, but these thoughts have been stewing in my brain and body and I need to get them out on the page.

Society’s basic approach to eating and having a body, especially for women, is highly disordered. We don’t just have an eating disorder crisis, we have a society full of people teetering on the edge of (or really quite over the edge of) highly disordered relationships to food, eating, bodies, and self.

For as long as I can remember, the women around me talked about how much they hated parts of their bodies and how they were restricting their diets as penance and punishment. They compared themselves to others, positively or negatively.  While my parents tried much harder than many in my generation to feed me and my brother fresh food, it was often framed in terms of suffering for a reward, which does not engender any kind of positive relationship to hunger or cravings. Tasty food was “bad” and healthy food, delicious or not, was “good”.

Animals do not worry about bad and good foods. They eat what their physiology dictates when it dictates. We are animals. We are wired to eat what we need when we need it. But girls are taught from the time they can understand the language spoken around them that their bodies are flawed, their need to eat is a sign of weakness, and vanquishing hunger, though any means possible, is a sign of moral strength and fortitude.

This is so beyond fucked up.

The amount of diet culture I had absorbed by the time I was seven and my parents started actively trying to restrict my diet and change my eating habits (they claimed I ate too fast. Food insecurity causes people and animals to eat what they can when they can and a child can’t tell the difference between a lack of food and the threat of food being taken away) was already verging on disordered. Add into that picture living in Southern California where disordered body relationships and eating were the norms, and parents who were worried that I would get fat and ruin my prospects at a happy life/career/relationship and I was well and truly fucked.

In my late teens, I reasserted control over my life by increasingly restrictive diets and eventually anorexia. It wasn’t like one day I was all, “Anorexia is the answer to all my problems!” I had been soaking in a number of toxic cultures, none of which presented trusting and appreciating my body as an option – only restricting and punishing it. The toxic masculine, rape-culture of the 80s. The beauty worship of Southern California. The health obsession of Northern California. Generational trauma. Abusive relationships. There was no chance for me — I had never seen an example of a woman who loved and nourished her body with pride — or if I had, she had been derided for being too masculine or fat or ugly.

I was a fast learner and I learned this lesson young: Your body is not your own. It’s public domain and it’s your job to manipulate it into the most visually pleasing form at any cost. And no, you don’t get to decide what is visually pleasing. It’s crowdsourced and can change from moment to moment. So dig into that self-hate and spend your adult life trying to be something other than you are, no matter how miserable it makes you or how much energy it leeches from your soul.

I know this may sound extreme. Some of it is. But most of it – not so much. Girls are exposed to unhealthy standards for beauty, size, personality, and eating as early as they can observe the people around them and see commercials, browse YouTube, or flip through a beauty magazine. Girls are taught that their bodies are flawed, unreliable vessels that need to be disciplined and monitored with hypervigilance. They are rarely presented with an alternative – that they are their bodies, and that life is a gift that should not be wasted on obsession with the potential judgment of others.

Who among us was taught that our food preferences were okay? Who among us were told that we were beautiful because we ourselves were wonderful, rather than we were slightly more symmetrical or thin or pale than another girl? Who among us was allowed to naturally enjoy eating?

Our culture is deeply disordered. If we told boys that they were worthless unless they looked like a cartoon version of a man, we would be terrible people. If we thought that breathing too much or too little was a sign of weakness and sloth, we would be instantly diagnosable. If our parents taught us that drinking water was to be approached with the same trepidation and guilt that eating when hungry is, we would be in foster care.

We teach kids to mistrust the core of who they are – the body. The body is not our enemy. It is us. The idea of mind over body, of spirit over mind–that is the disconnect. Our mind is not distinct from our body, not psychologically, and not psychologically. It’s all one organism that we fracture into imaginary pieces. We have to stop doing this to ourselves and to our children. We have to stop.

There are many alternatives that have emerged in recent years. Health at Every Size. Intuitive Eating. More holistic and less objectifying approaches to health and happiness. But it’s still an energy-draining struggle in a culture that thrives on industries that teach us to spend most of our time, money, and energy on fixing problems that are socially and economically constructed to be un-fixable.

I’ve come a long way since my late teens and the height of my eating disorder, but I still catch myself in old thought patterns a lot. Some of them are just stubborn bastards that don’t want to die. I’ve loosened up my ideas of beauty and health tremendously. I’ve learned to enjoy food and movement with much more gusto than I ever imagined. But I’ll never completely shake the darkness that could have taken my life.

We will never cure eating disorders if we don’t treat them until they are literally life-threatening. Our culture breeds disconnection. We have to find a better way.


One of the things that got me thinking about this was my Instagram feed. I’ve been following various body-positive anti-discrimination accounts for several years, but have recently added more HAES ED recovery accounts. I see so much of my own experiences in some of the stories these people have shared, and they’ve made me realize I still have work to do. Internal work and external work. One of the great fallacies of diet culture is that it’s all about willpower and strength and self-control. I promise you, every woman in this society has an iron will when it comes to her body. It’s just that the body wants to survive more than she wants to starve it.

I am an educator – it’s my job to help people unpack their assumptions, but this one is extra tricky. Many people are already on the path to awareness, but did I tell you about that time a nutrition student wrote a paper for my class that wrote off Body Positivity because it won’t make you thin? That happened.

Constant starvation, which is what many diets entail, puts the body in hibernation mode – slowed metabolism, respiration, and heartbeat. When we eat, the body stores the food for future starvation. It is very hard not to gain weight if you have put your body through this shit multiple times. Your body wants to survive, even if you don’t.  My favorite quote from The Beauty Myth says,

“A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.”

Obsession with controlling our bodies at their own expense is a kind of madness. Starvation is linked with depression and sometimes psychosis. Yet our culture rewards this madness with promises of happiness, love, and success. There are many more disorders linked to how we treat our bodies than anorexia and bulimia. Excessive exercise, excessive restricting of any kind, obsession with “clean” food, all of it can leach the life out of us.

And let’s look at the word “tractable.” If the worst thing someone can say to you is “you’re fat” – that’s pretty fucking tractable. It’s awfully easy to manipulate people who have been conditioned to see other’s reflections of their bodies as their ultimate worth.

If you are struggling with this stuff, keep at it. I somehow managed to make it to middle-aged as a successful, loved, and fulfilled person without being remotely thin. I’m going to keep struggling and eating because that is so much better than ingesting the toxic mess our society and peers have been feeding us.

Hashtag wars

I’ve been asked to write about hashtag activism, hashtag vigilantism, and hashtag cyberbullying. Sometimes people think they are all the same. They’re not. I’ve been hitting my head against this essay for two weeks and I can’t seem to uncomplicate it enough to write anything coherent. So here are some general thoughts on how hashtags work and the benefits and problems they have. Because I love bullet points. And sentence fragments. Obviously.

  1. Speech (in the US) is a fucking free for all. You can’t control what people say, who they say it to, or how they say it. This is especially true on the internet because law enforcement doesn’t take online threats seriously (in the US) unless they involve money (fraud).
  2. Our hate speech laws are weak, and even though direct threats of violence are illegal, they are rarely if ever taken seriously, let alone prosecuted. This makes any ethical discussion super fuzzy. If you want to see a country that takes responsibility for online behavior, look at the UK.
  3. Hashtags are pretty neat little things – they let people coalesce around just about anything. Events (#marchforourlives), social justice issues (#oscarssowhite, #metoo, #blacklivesmatter), charity fundraising (#familiesbelongtogether), and funny memes (#secondcivilwarletters).
  4. They are also used for public shaming (#bbqbecky, #permitpatty), and in some extra crap cases (#gamergate) violent, damaging, bigoted attacks.
  5. The problem is there is no clear line between who does what. And because our legal code don’t give a fuck about online violence, it’s easy to rationalize harmful behavior.
  6. There seems to be a push to paint all shaming, aggressive, or angry behavior online with the same brush as revenge porn, stalking,  doxxing, and swatting.
  7. The problem in writing about this for me lies in an essential conflict between sociological and psychological perspectives. Something that can be moderately damaging psychologically (shame, fear, anger) can have positive sociological effects if it enforces more equitable social norms. I have no idea how to resolve this epistemologically.
  8. The closest I get is that there is some psychological research that shows that bullying experiences in youth can have positive outcomes as well as negative ones. We learn where our boundaries are. We learn what strengthens and weakens relationships. We develop a greater sense of right and wrong. We learn to survive.
  9. So behaviors that can seem mob-like or bullying online, when used to highlight things like social inequality, can be powerful tools.
  10. Speaking of tools, there are lots of people who are tools and use these tools to be tools. They use hashtags, photoshop, hacking, and other stuff to terrorize people. Not make them uncomfortable–terrorize them. THIS IS NOT THE SAME THING.
  11. If you are being personally harassed or terrorized online, report it to the website. Report it to the police. Document it on the Southern Poverty Law Center website (#hatewatch) if it has any sexual or racial or otherwise discriminatory tone to it. We can’t make laws if we don’t document this shit.
  12. Don’t freak out every time someone disagrees with you. There’s a difference between someone calling you an idiot online and someone threatening to kill your kids or all Jews. Learn the difference. Please.
  13. I’ve been called fat, stupid, ignorant, and various other things online. Oh, and that time some rando told me my insta picture burned his eyes because I was so ugly. Does it suck? Why yes, it sucks. Is it a crime? Nope. But if someone found my personal info and published it widely, published false information about me, or threatened me or my family, I would report the shit out of them.
  14. The internet gives a collective voice to marginalized people. Black Twitter is a real thing, and it’s vital to change the embedded, structural, institutionalized racism in our country. Reverse-racism is NOT A THING.
  15. Calling out white people for calling the cops on black people for #existingwhileblack is not terrorism. Is it bullying? Maybe, but I think the social good outweighs the negative. Most social progress has been made through some form of public shaming.
  16. #metoo same/same. Misandry is not a thing. Rape culture is. Making white men hyperaware of their behavior is not bullying. It’s the cessation of millennia of abuse.
  17. But if some asshole decides to use that as an excuse to threaten one of those women — be it #bbqbecky or a #metoo participant — he’s breaking the law and should be prosecuted. And here we end up back at the same point – crap laws; no prosecutions.
  18. Conclusion – we need better hate speech laws and better laws to govern internet behavior. The end.

Not a light piece. With systems theory.

I’m in between semesters and have been trying to avoid stress. We just got over a massive stomach flu, and my immunity wasn’t great to begin with from overwork. But holy crap, I just can’t with this country anymore.

I’m a cynical optimist. I know humans are deeply flawed creatures, but there is so much that is amazing in our species. And there is so much that is malevolent. Right now, no matter how badly I want to unplug from the news and the chaos and the constant decay of our democracy and society, I just fucking can’t with it. So two things.

Here’s the deal. We are, as the badass preacher at the royal wedding reminded us, one family. We are one species. We have overrun our planet and our planet is really pissed off at us right now. Try to think of the earth as a massive organism (this is a theoretical thing btw, not just woo-woo talk). It’s a huge, unbelievable complex system with all sorts of redundancies and checks and balances built into it. We can’t possibly understand it, let alone control it. We create stimulus (pollution, emissions, destruction of species and smaller ecosystems) and it responds. We are not destroying this amazing system, but we are making it sick. Its immune system is responding the way any immune system does; throwing off symptoms as it fights the alien intruder bacteria or virus. This is not a battle we can win. We are simply an errant part of the system that has grown out of control and needs to be rebalanced. We cannot control Nature, we can only fight her and lose.

We are amazing creatures, capable of not only self-awareness but universal awareness. We need to help nature fix what we’ve fucked up, and we need to start about a century ago. No amount of oil drilling, fracking, bear hunting, deregulation, water hoarding, or any of the other latest ideas out of our brain trust phony government will work. It will just hasten the vast reduction of our species. We could do that ourselves. We could take population control seriously and environmental preservation seriously and green energy and industry seriously and maybe have some agency in how this goes down. But that means thinking beyond our basest, and currently loudest instincts: individual survival. Which brings me to my other rant.

“But what about the economy?” Nature don’t give a fuck about the economy. We have conceived of capitalism as a system that can grow forever and somehow never run out of resources or consumers. This is unadulterated bullshit, and we are morons to believe it. And it speaks oh so directly to the fundamental problem that seems to be infecting our species yet again, but at a time when technology is so advanced that we actually have other options, if we could finally pull our heads out of our asses.

Man (and by this, I mean white people in particular in the US) cannot deal with the inevitability of  1) their own deaths and  2) their fundamental irrelevance. This is not an anti-religious statement. Most religions, at their cores, say that we are all children of God, all family, and that we will be dying rather soon and so please try not to be horrible while we are here. Blessed be the meek. Blessed be the poor. Your imaginary yacht and McMansion and accumulation of random stuff don’t mean shit to God. You are not special, because everyone is special and unique, and beloved. EVERYONE. If you don’t believe in God just leave out the beloved part, but that’s where I sit with it.

We have collectively lost our minds countless times in history. Humanity has this freaky eject button that jettisons our frontal lobes and causes this mass projection of our most destructive urges onto others. Obvy, Hitler, the Salem Witch Trials, Every Holy War Ever, etc are just a few awesome examples. Underlying the projection is just massive existential fear. The specter of our own death is something we struggle with over our entire lives. It can make us compassionate, neurotic, depressed, loving, or enraged. And when that rage turns outward–when it becomes ingrained in the Zeitgeist and suddenly police lynchings of black people and mass incarceration of immigrant children and violating the fundamental rights of children in favor of the momentary emotional relief of a few terrified, privileged white people with deadly weapons becomes the norm? We have a very serious problem.

Here’s the thing: You can hate Jews for some weird made up reasons about Jews that have never made sense but lead to 5 million of them being murdered less than a century ago, and you will still die. You can kill black men and children and women for making you uncomfortable, or call the police so they can do it, and you will still die. You can rip families apart who are trying to flee horrible conditions for a country that for so long promised something better, and you will still die. You can blame teenage girls for school shootings by white boys so fragile that they can’t tolerate a moment of shame or misery, and you will still die. You can allow white men to keep their murderous febrile attachment objects at the cost of thousands upon thousands of innocent lives, and YOU WILL STILL DIE.

There is no cure for existential fear. We all die. We all have difficulty facing that reality, and many people distort reality in such extreme ways that somehow killing, or accepting the killing of someone deemed different, momentarily relieves this fear. But you will still die.

Humans have this freaky ability to make it all about them. We all do it, and it can be a benign and even healthy way to deal with the many traumas of life. But faced with overwhelming evidence that the Earth is not taking our shit anymore, we are retreating to this gleefully self-destructive individualism that is so self-defeating I can’t even believe it’s happening. We need to stop treating each other as enemies and start figuring out how to make sure our grandbabies have a non-apocalyptic world to grow up in.

As a species, we have had to develop socially and emotionally really, really fast. The holy trinity of Darwin, Freud, and Marx figured all this out in the late 19th century.

Darwin: We are actually animals descended from apes. Whoops, religious exceptionalism.
Freud: We all behave largely based on unconscious urges. Laters, aristocracy.
Marx: Important people are actually parasitic and don’t matter and labor is vital. Bye, social hierarchy.

Much of the subsequent century+ has been about grappling with these basic observations and getting our limited psyches to get on board and find better ways to do society and humanness. We are sucking at it right now. Yes, there have been some massive awakings since our government went to shit, and I hope that they will lead to some vital changes in our country. But that stubborn, socially supported need to center and protect the egos of white adults at the cost of our society and environment has got to end. If not, it will be the end of us. There is much that is lovely about humanity, and I want to imagine it rising to higher levels of connectedness after I am long gone from this earth. But until we fully understand that protecting children and protecting the earth and its glory is the primary function of our lives, rather than the constant defense of an ego that will be dead in a celestial blink, then humanity will continue to run up to the expiration date we (or God) stamped on our foreheads when we became sentient.

To summarize:

  1. Please stop letting the fears of privileged men and women supersede the basic human rights of everyone else. It’s not a good look on you, humanity.
  2. Stop avoiding the inevitability of your death and instead help ensure there will be a place to live for everyone else forever. Start making up with Nature, because you will not win this contest.

If you want to help get some detained children back to their parents, donate here:

https://momastery.com/blog/2018/05/29/emergency-love-flash-mob-for-the-children/

 

Postpartum depression: Not just for moms

I haven’t written about it much on this blog, but I had really bad Postpartum Depression (PPD) for about 1.5 years after having my daughter. PPD has a significant chemical component, but it’s also behavioral and situational:

  1. Your life has changed forever and that throws your self-concept into question, especially if it wasn’t built on being a mother.
  2. You are seriously sleep deprived, dehydrated, exhausted, and tired of a tiny person being attached to you in some way all the time.
  3. Everyone tells you what to do and how you’re doing it wrong, forever. You are already grappling with the reality that you have no fucking idea what you’re doing and you will be failing, forever.

This is a potent cocktail. But the thing is, there are other times in our lives when we have very similar experiences, minus the hormones. Getting my PhD was one such experience.

I didn’t blog much in between finishing my degree and getting my current job. This is because I was in an increasingly deep depression with a garnish of anxiety. For me, depression is always almost over. Any minute it’s going to lift and I’m going to feel normal again, so I avoid the fact that I’m actually a hot mess and may remain that way for some time. My blog during my PPD is always, it’s getting better! And reading it now I’m like, “Girl, it’s really not. Buckle in.” But when I look at the circumstances surrounding writing my dissertation and getting my PhD, it looks awfully familiar:

  1. I was recovering from stress-induced sickness, drug side-effects, and emotional upheaval.
  2. I was terrified I wouldn’t be able to get a job and start paying off the massive debt I had accrued and would run my family’s finances into the ground.
  3. There was no roadmap for success and I had no experience trying to get work as a qualified PhD.
  4. People say stupid shit like, “so you’re going to go to school forever” or “what are you going to do with a PhD in that?” or “Academia is really competitive” (Thanks, Captain Obvious).

So basically, my mental and physical health took a big hit due to crazy high stress, which made me have to take steroids (which are hormones), which further screwed up my mental and physical health. And I was transitioning to a new career/life phase and had no bloody idea what I was doing. Um.

So why am I thinking about this right now? Because many of my graduating students are freaking out about what life is going to be like on the other side, while getting hazed by their elders for not knowing what they can’t possibly know yet. I’ve found myself giving them very similar advice to what I was given a lifetime ago about post-performance letdown. We get all amped up for this one big moment, and then (if you’re a singer) you go eat a big meal, drink a bunch of wine, and fall facedown in your bed and wake up the next day wondering why everything is awful. I had a shrink who was a musician, and he said we need to be as deliberate and gentle with ourselves after a big event as we are before.

I do not always take this advice, but I dispense it freely and try to remember it when I’m facing the end of a cycle. So students, if you are graduating have fun, celebrate, and then remember to work some extra self care into your routine after the excitement is over, because that is when shit often get real. Take naps. Go running. Anything to compensate for the endorphin crash. Post graduation I ended up working out almost every day because I could literally burn off my anxiety that way. Netflix binges are totally cool, but make sure you are doing something that keeps your body running optimally because that will help your mind. I also ended up increasing my medication, and decreasing it after things leveled out. This is totally okay.

While using PPD as a diagnosis for post-graduation yuck is technically incorrect, it works symbolically. You have essentially birthed a new version of yourself. That self is insecure, unsure, excited, and exhausted. So set up some mechanisms and safety checks now so you can check in with yourself later and evaluate how you are doing. Life change is hard, and some people can be dicks when you are feeling vulnerable and worn out. Take care of yourself and don’t let the assholes get you down.

Kids These Days: Why “Get off my lawn” is not a viable position for GenX

I have had multiple conversations with fellow Gen-Xers over the last few years about Millenials; some students, some peers. We seem to fall into two categories on this topic: Millenials are amazing, or, Millenials are the worst, get off my lawn!

I am disappointed with my demographic – GenXers with a lot of privilege.  I am also disappointed with myself. Like many of my generation, we pushed at the boundaries of what was considered “good” work and meaningful life. We created new industries, new technologies, and new ways to connect and relate to each other. We didn’t start the post-modern crisis, but we were the first generation born into it, and it shapes the way we see the world, still. Just as many Boomers have difficulty seeing beyond a deconstructive viewpoint on any system (for fear that it will create dominance and control) we have a really hard time seeing beyond our entrenched, non-joiner-ist, post-modernism. As a result, many of us opted out. We opted out of public service, leadership, and the responsibility to push our society forward. So while we recognized how uninclusive 2nd Wave Feminism could be and rallied around pluralism, sexual freedom, and intersectionality, Roe v. Wade, one of the hardest fought battles of the generation before us, was eroded and degraded on our watch. This happened at the expense of those that fought to be included in the bigger tent of 3rd Wave Feminism: women of color, sex workers, poor women, gay women, and trans women. Those of us with privilege may have defied social norms, but we did not challenge laws. Not the way we should have. Far more of us should be in Congress, and in the Governors’ offices, and in the courts.

Every generation has its strengths and failings. But there has been a reckoning, and many of my cohort are failing the test. For example, instead of doing the painful business of interrogating our sexual experiences, we deride the #metoo movement and call our younger sisters and brothers weak. I’ve cringed to watch men of my generation act as apologists for peers who have been called out for sexual harassment, assault, and abuse. And I’ve been enraged by women my age who have done the same. I’ve confronted the callousness of some of these conversations, and I’ve seen others do so increasingly.

I have taught the youngest and oldest of the Millenial cohort. I have never seen evidence of the accusations lobbed at them by my increasingly curmudgeonly peers. They are not narcissistic, entitled, lazy, or hyper-sensitive. I’ve seen those traits in students my own age or older far more frequently. I’ve also sadly watched my cohort be inflexible, judgemental, and belittling towards our younger sisters and brothers. I’ve had to check those same traits in myself. As if we weren’t belittled, judged, and misunderstood by the generations before us! As if we never thought, “I won’t treat young people the way I’m being treated.” But judgment is a comfortable place to sit. It requires no effort; no movement. It also assumes that we have nothing to learn, which is absolutely ludicrous.

The world is changing faster than we could have imagined in our most dystopian nightmares. We grew up knowing that the world our parents created for us was supposed to be an idyllic utopia of social equality, but was instead fraught with injustice, instability, and massive contradictions. We puzzled our way through, and eventually made our own sense of the world, partially through creating new systems of connection (because the internet) and partially through our unwillingness to subject ourselves to the paradigms which with we were presented. Eventually, we flourished. We are parents, business owners, and creatives. We are good at horizontal connection because we found both pre- and postmodernist assumptions about hierarchy to be innately flawed.

Now we are middle-aged. Many of us are comfortable with the lives we have built for ourselves, and uncomfortable when younger people point out how we continue to uphold oppressive systems through our inaction. This is not a good look on us. We need to listen and learn from the generations who did not have to resolve the post-modern conflict but instead grew up in an increasingly interconnected and global world. They innately understand that we live or die together as a species, not just in our little groups. My students are so culturally and racially diverse that I doubt it even occurs to them to be frustrated that they have to compete with others of multiple races, cultures, and identities. It’s how the world is.

Gen-X has a role to play. We can be translators and mediators between younger people, with whom we share some cultural and social experiences and older generations who are really struggling to understand the explosion of identities and terms for people they never knew existed. When a millennial calls out a baby boomer for not being intersectional enough in her feminism, we can do two things: opt out in frustration, or build a bridge between the world we reacted to, and the world we created.

I am as late to the plate as the vast majority of my demographic, but I’m willing to take up the challenge. Listen. Be a bridge. Lead from compassion instead of defensiveness. And take on the biggest challenge of aging with fervor – humility.

Kids these days: A series

I’m going to start a new series of musings on my experiences with the cohort of students I teach, sometimes in contrast with how I see others react to them. This happens on the national stage, in academia, and amongst my colleagues. I am increasingly concerned about how we treat, talk to, talk about, and judge young adults. We seem to be moving from a youth-oriented culture to a youth-deriding culture, and I’m not loving it. I have deep affection for my students and a great deal of empathy for their struggles.

This seems to come into conflict with messages I get from other middle-aged to older adults about the failings of these young people. Why so judgy? Why must we assume that young people have nothing to offer, that we should disregard their interests and values, assuming that ours are superior?

We’ve been watching Brene Brown’s videos in my classes and having some discussions about them. I have a whole slew of mixed feelings about her work, but she’s compelling and as someone from a quantitatively biased background, makes a really compelling case for humanizing the study of emotion. One of her favorite phrases is “wholeheartedness,” which she uses to describe the quality that people who can deal with vulnerability and stress and shame have. It’s part resilience, part empathy, part humility, as close as I can see. I am not an un-neurotic person, but when it comes to teaching, I believe I am wholehearted. I want nothing more than to give these young people a fraction of what they give me. I want to offer them some of the support and acceptance and encouragement that I wish I’d had from adults when I was their age. And I want them to feel seen and appreciated for all their badassery. Most of all, I want to learn from them. I want to leave the world to a generation that is less defensive and closed-minded and judgemental than the ones who currently seem to find them so lacking. We don’t need more of that right now, we need a whole lot less of it.

Further thoughts on becoming

becoming

  1. any process of change.
  2. Aristotelianism. any change involving realization
    of potentialities, as a movement from the lower
    level of potentiality to the higher level of actuality.

http://www.dictionary.com/browse/becoming

Teaching upper-division traditional undergraduates after teaching adult undergraduates for the first six years of my teaching career has been a rapid but fascinating transition. Adults are more experienced, more fixed in personality, and generally more mature. They are also not students by identity; they are procuring an education for some specific reason. To them being a student isn’t a transitional identity on the way from child to adult.

I loved teaching my adult learners. I discovered very quickly that teaching people around the same age and phase of life as me meant taking a humble approach. Nobody calls bullshit faster than a fellow GenXer.  I saw myself as a facilitator of learning, a knowledgeable peer, within a system that demanded some kind of performance report (grades) but where I encouraged my students to be critical customers of what the institution was selling them.

I was also told by my older colleagues that to be informal or vulnerable with traditionally aged undergraduates was to cede all authority and power and risk disaster. This was one of the reasons I shied away from applying for these positions. But needs must, and upon graduation, I realized that I just needed a damn job and I would have to face the unknown.

When I was very suddenly (and at the last possible minute) offered a full time teaching load at a public university, I had to get over myself and jump in. I flailed around a bit at first. Fun fact: people 20 years younger than me do not get my cultural references or laugh at my lame jokes. I was unprepared, as the process of getting me integrated into the university’s systems and thus gaining access to basic materials took literally up to the moment I started teaching my first class.

But I decided that I would not stray too far from the approach that had proven so successful in my career so far. I stayed humble. I was honest about struggling to catch up. I asked for student feedback. I paid close attention to what seemed to engage my students and what caused them to tune out. If anything, over the last two semesters I have become far more authentic than I was at my old position. I give impassioned speeches about things I think are important. I try to be as real and authentic as possible. I make space and time for my students to talk about issues that affect them. I give them room to figure out how they feel (first) about what we are learning and then what they actually think. Not what they should think.

I’ve learned that these young people are far more aware, awake, and stressed out than I was at their age. My mostly femal and non-white students have faced both structural and personal hurdles that I can only imagine. They are generous with me and each other, and they blossom under the smallest bit of care.

There is a discussion in education about the moral failings of adults who never learned to be human. That the mad dash to the top of the hierarchy, which has been mostly only available to a small percentage of elites and incredibly high performers, has led to a moral vacuum in our society. This has led to generations of leaders who don’t know how to be human, only how to win.

My students are some of the even smaller population of high performers from modest backgrounds. They carry the pressure of their communities, their families, the internal pressure to meet expectations they are not even aware they have internalized, and all of this at a time in their lives when they should also be living. Having relationships and breaking up and making mistakes and learning what it means to be human and flawed.

I have intuitively realized that this vacuum is forming within them, and have fit my classes, and to some extent myself, to give them a few moments each week of becoming instead of achieving. I talk about my flaws. I remind them that every time I point out passive voice in thier writing that I speak from years of trying to stop doing it myself. I tell them that I don’t care what they remember from my class, as long as something captured their imagination and led them to consider some experience or conundrum from a new perspective. I don’t care if they remember which theorist did which study, I care if they understand how history and society and colonialism and privelige and oppression will always be preserved and propogated through science if continue to believe that scientists are purely objective by nature.

When I was a singer, the most memborable, transcendant moments were when instead of me singing the music, God sang the music through me. When I stopped being the focus and became the vessel.

Teaching is not exactly like that, but it is a highly intuitive process, where I have to constantly remember to get out of my own way and get out of my students’ way. To help them trust their inner urgings and encourage them to find their voices. When I feel the energy and help shape it into something that is welcoming and safe and accepting of vulnerability. If for just a moment one of these exceptional people can feel a connection to who they truly are, rather than what they hope to do, I’ve witnessed something sacred. I might not know it’s happened, but I get an email or a visit a week or month or hour later and find out that something clicked and they moved into themselves more fully.

There is nothing better. There is nothing more sacred to me than moving closer to who I am and helping these amazing young people remember what that feels like, before it’s been too many years to recall.

This is what it is to have a calling.

 

The Process of Becoming

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“No mud, no lotus.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

I am in a very different place than I was at this time last year. Last year, the momentary high of finishing my PhD had worn off and I was terrified that I would never get a real job and consign my family to even more financial strain as my student loans came due. It sucked, and evolved into depression and panic attacks, mediated only by a lot of time at the gym and meds.

This particular week last year I was booked to speak at SXSW Interactive on behalf of a political group I had been working with. It was exciting, but I was hit with some of the most profound exhaustion I have ever felt. SXSW is like the Ironman of conferences, and I had a platinum pass, which meant I could go to EVERYTHING. Instead, I went to as much as I could, but spent a lot of time sleeping and guzzling coffee to get through one more session. The FOMO was insane. I later figured out I was having some mild anemia, probably a result of too many steroids (thanks, Austin spring). The repeating rounds of oral and injected steroids did not fucking help.

After it was over I crashed super hard. I had one job interview until I was hired at my current institution in August. I had no idea how to run my life, what opportunities to pursue, or how to pull myself out of a deepening emotional ditch.

A year later, I am teaching my second semester as a full-time lecturer at a major institution. We didn’t have to move, I make twice as much money as I did as an adjunct and I have great benefits (which means our income is that much higher). My kid is now eight, which is insane, and we have a pretty good life. I’m pretty happy and I’m doing something I know I’m good at and I get a lot of appreciation for it. From my students, who are the ones who matter.

But teaching full-time to 10x the number of people I was used to for the last 7 years is a huge adjustment. The first semester was this terrifying and exhilarating marathon. I didn’t have huge expectations for myself other than getting through and not fucking up too badly. It turns out I did really well and formed the beginnings of a good relationship with my students, who spread the word and now I have a whole lot more students.

So I was blindsided by how hard this semester has been. I am starting to realize that the reality of lecturing is still a bit on the contingent/adjunct side of the equation (in spite of the fact that I currently teach full-time) and that fucks with my sense of safety and worth.

Also, 120 students is a lot harder than 90, it turns out, if you don’t know to adjust your workload. I’m learning. Managing TAs can be tricky. Some just fit, and others take some real work. I’ve never really been someone’s boss before, even in this limited sense.

I’m teaching two courses that I taught last semester, and they are going great. I’m also teaching my first course in my PhD knowledge area, and that has been harder. I think I was butthurt by the fact that I didn’t know All The Things and had to learn a lot from the textbook alongside my students. I finally sucked it up and realized that I really know a whole fucking lot of things, and that means I can frame the new stuff I learn in a really fluent and dynamic way. Duh. Really, I should just be enjoying filling in some of the gaps. The very nature of a PhD is these huge looming gaps always following us around and telling us we don’t know enough. Also, the one textbook I read in HD in my PhD was painfully badly written, so I only retained the stuff I thought was really important. The book I’m using in my class is fantastically written, so I can provide thoughtful commentary instead of having to slog through it. I should really flip both of my writing flags, but who the hell has time to record two lectures a week? Me at some point, I guess.

So I did the damn thing, and I did it well, and now I’m looking at the long haul and wondering some things:

  • How do I replenish my mental, emotional, and creative energy? I feel valued by my students, no lack of fulfillment there, but it’s a whole lot of energy out and I haven’t figure out how to recharge my batteries yet.
  • How do I navigate the tricky political waters of a gigantic school with a million competing silos and a nebulous path for teaching professors? I’ve given this a lot of thought, but not a lot of time and energy. I missed 4 days of classes from being ill (not that I don’t teach when I’m sick goddamn it) and barely have time to sleep and eat, let alone strategize and network and show up at the stuff where I could meet the right people.
  • How do I meet bare minimum requirements for health? I’m eating slightly better than last semester. But running on caffeine for performance energy has a high cost and I need to, again, figure out some better ways to get my body and mind rested.
  • How do I keep my research alive in some form? I have determined that I may not have the constitution for regular publishing, at least as I currently have been trying to do it. I spent a good chunk of my life being told why I suck by people I don’t respect, and I’ve hit my lifetime limit. Getting some papers rejected while I was in school (while having to take all kinds of bullshit during the PhD process) was just the fucking end. Ideally, I would love to find someone with whom to co-publish studies, but the whole no time/energy thing is inhibiting that search.
  • I still have a lot of intellectual fire, and I want an outlet for that. I’ve been thinking about a podcast, or trying a poetry slam, or…something? I’ve become a pretty decent speaker when I’m talking about something about which I feel really passionate. It happens the most in my Ethics class, but I have my moments in all of them. How can I develop that? How can I get my writing voice back? Is blogging where I should put that energy, or should I try a vlog or podcast? Inuhno.

What do I want to talk/write about?

  1. Online psychology, particularly online discourse.
  2. Mythological and symbolic imagery in our culture, particularly tv and movies.
  3. Patriarchy’s dying gasps.
  4. Education and how to make it suck less.
  5. Why the internet isn’t always evil.
  6. Fatness and what hating on it does for people.
  7. Mental illness, stress, and resiliency.
  8. The ethics of teaching.
  9. The psychology of teaching.
  10. What does social cohesion look like in our era?
  11. Pushing back on generational hazing.

I don’t know what I am building yet with all this, or what I will build, or if I have already built something of immense value and I keep being all future oriented and not paying attention to what I’m doing/is happening right now. Probably the latter. My therapist said I was looking at success through a patriarchal lens (money, prestige, structural dominance) rather than a matriarchal (connectedness, healing, strength of bonds). She’s right. I’m a matriarchal badass. Maybe I need to sit with that and take the summer to just chill the fuck out. Float around. Write. Sleep. Record some lectures. Watch my kid be a kid for just a little while longer.

Is internet addiction a thing?

It’s complicated. (this was originally written in response to a student discussion)

The conference I attended last summer had a keynote speaker whose work is on gaming addiction. Essentially, gaming addiction affects the same part of the brain as gambling addiction. As with gambling addiction, a person can participate in the activity on a regular basis and not be addicted, while another person will be.The deciding factors in gaming addiction from a behavioral perspective are 1) Can you control the behavior? and 2) Does the behavior have a significantly negative affect on your life?

One of the problems with understanding this issue is how freely we use the word “addiction.” I am not addicted to chocolate unless I can’t stop eating it, I’ve drained my bank account buying fancy chocolate, am experiencing negative health affects, and my chocolate consumption is affecting my relationships. But often we say, “I am addicted to chocolate!!!” when we really mean, “I really like chocolate.” So when we talk about the compulsion to engage with social media, the compulsion alone is not addiction, it’s just a reaction–one that we should perhaps be conscious of, but not a harbinger of chocolate or internet related-doom.

As a internet researcher and heavy user of internet technologies, it is clear that we don’t have many examples or visible research on healthy self-regulation of social media consumption. This makes it hard to decide when to limit ourselves. As noted, we get a dopamine hit when someone says something nice or likes a post. We also can experience a cortisol reaction from a negative post, depending on our personal history and how direct and violent the wording is.

All this is to say, yes, social media can be problematic, especially if you have impulse control issues (which means all adolescents), but it is yet another expression of human ingenuity and frailty, like many inventions that came before.

So long time no write

So, I got a job. An awesome job. That is consuming my life in the best possible way. I am a full time lecturer at a major university, and I teach upper division human development classes and one leadership and ethics class. I get to do all the stuff I like, but way more of the time, for more money, and fabulous benefits. It’s all kind of crazy. I’m almost through my first semester and am planning for spring. I will be back to posting soon, as I’ve felt the need welling up, and I have many things to day. So many things.