I ranted on Twitter and turned it into an infographic! Feel free to use with attribution.
I’ve read and listened to some utterly infuriating commentary this week from reputable media on sending kids back to physical classrooms. Here are some of the reasons:
- Kids are unlikely to get seriously ill.
- Rates of infection are not currently higher in school populations than the population at large.
- Screens are ruining their brains.
- Remote learning is imperfect.
- Kids are getting behind in their education.
- Kids need normalcy.
I will now call bullshit on these points.
- Yes, kids are less likely to get seriously ill with COVID but there are several things missing from this picture. Their teachers can get it and die or be permanently disabled. Several children have died. We don’t know how long (if at all) people are immune after recovery or what the long term effects are, including on kids. School staff can be in high risk categories and will be put at unacceptable risk. Kids can be silent spreaders. They can bring it home to you, and you can spread it to others before you become symptomatic. Dead or hospitalized parents are more traumatic that Zoom. Accidentally killing your grandparents–also more traumatic than Zoom school. Permanently destroying the health of their teachers and other school staff – No. Just no. They signed up to educate you kids, not die for your denial soaked facsimile of normalcy.
- When you talk about rates of infection you are essentially talking about acceptable losses. We do not have acceptable losses in the US. We have unacceptable, preventable losses. We have no plan, no tracking, no tracing. Very little testing for screening. What is an acceptable loss? A parent? A kindergarten teacher? A janitor? The principal? 4% of janitors? 20% of teachers? This is not a fucking land war. It’s a fast-spreading, unpredictable, and sometimes fatal or disabling disease that nobody should have to expose themselves to so we can all fake that everything is fine.
- Screens are not ruining kids brains. They never have. Kids are creative and social, and the internet provides myriad was for your kids to be creative and social that is developmentally appropriate for their age. Is it better than playing with kids outside? That’s an apples and oranges question. Would I love for my daughter to have a sleepover with her best friends who she hasn’t seen in more than half a year? Hell, yes. But not at the expense of lives of permanent lung or heart damage. Seriously. Get over the screen thing and educate yourself about age-appropriate games, education, and social media. Oh, and there is no diagnosis for game or screen addiction in non-adults. It’s a myth. Make some clear rules and stick to them. Don’t hobble what entertainment and social contact your kid has because you read the internet was going to rot their brains. It’s not. There are tons of websites for evaluating games and platforms for kids.
- Yes. Yes it is. Online learning has been a hot fucking mess for my daughter. It is not perfect. It is not normal. You know what else isn’t normal? A GLOBAL FUCKING PANDEMIC. Get the fuck over it. Zoom may not be your or your kid’s favorite thing but neither is killing Grandma. Just get the fuck over yourselves.
- Kids have amazing neuroplasticity. And you know what they can learn about right now, even if they are behind in useless standardized testing? The world around them. Social justice. The environment. Cooking. Art. Music. Programming. They will continue to grow and develop and learn when you stop freaking out about whether or not they will get into Harvard and just let them be kids.
- Kids need honesty way more than they need normalcy. They soak up stress and sense lies. There is no normalcy available to provide them with. They know stuff is weird and stressful and they pick up WAY MORE than you think they do. Talk to them about why everything is weird in a developmentally appropriate way. You can shelter them from the worst of the trash fire that is our country right now, but you can’t hide it. Be a grownup and figure out what you kids need to feel empowered and knowledgeable. They will surprise you.
Thus ends my current rage list. In summary STOP PRETENDING LIKE EVERYTHING IS FINE. EVERYTHING IS NOT FINE. Deal with reality as it is, not how you would like it to be, and show your kids the respect of valuing their lives and the lives of their teachers over your need to convince yourself that normal is just around the corner. It’s not.
Oh, the naive me of like two weeks ago. Okay, not really. But trauma fatigue is a thing, and we are all dealing with it to varying degrees based on 1) our circumstances and 2) our ability to deal with ambiguity and stress. I’m not going to self-own by trying to do neuropsychology, but basically, our brains spend a lot of time trying to deal with the ambiguity and stress, which has a lot of physical and psychological effects. Brain fog. Exhaustion. Insomnia. Weird-ass dreams. Aches and pains.
I’ve posited privately that those of us cursed with an overactive imagination and a tendency towards anxiety are uniquely prepared to deal with, as it turns out, a pandemic. I’ve seen this reflected back in some of the articles and posts of fellow worriers. I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop. It went and dropped. Now I just have to wait it out and not spend a lot of time and energy freaking out about what I can’t control. Which is totally weird, since I often freak out about what I can’t control. But I know it’s not just me. I am not wasting my energy trying to deny the science or convince myself that nothing is really wrong. I guess worrying about existential realities all the time makes it easier to deal with existential realities? It’s not that I’m unbothered — I’m super bothered. This all sucks. I just don’t see the need to retreat into projection or denial to cope. Imma listen to the epidemiologists because they know how disease works and do my best to keep myself and my family as safe as we can.
My neighborhood had a sign up at the mailbox last week. It suggested having dinner on your front lawn and talking to your neighbors. We didn’t, because mosquitos, but my kid and I took a walk in the early evening. Clusters of people were hanging out in yards, clearly several households, no masks, much closer than 6 feet from one another. One of my neighbors hailed us and invited us to join them. We did not.
Why does my 10 year old understand this shit better than my educated upper-middle-class neighbors? How can anyone avoid the fact that this disease is airborne? I’m probably not the most responsible of the people I know. I still visit the grocery store occasionally and I don’t wipe down groceries and deliveries. I wash my hands for 20 seconds after any contact with the outside world and hope for the best. I wear a mask if I’m going to be shopping or picking anything up. Mostly we stay inside and when we take walks we keep our distance from others.
This does not infringe upon my liberty because it’s a safety issue. Others have said this better than me so I won’t harp. But seriously. Seriously. Working together to prevent community spread and keep our infection rate and death toll low is, to me, just a basic human society thing to do. Don’t dump your garbage in the street. Don’t pour motor oil down the sewer. DON’T ACTIVELY PARTICIPATE IN INCREASING THE DEATH TOLL IN YOUR CITY.
Every day our mayor holds an update. He talks about infection rates, deaths, and recoveries. The numbers are going up. Not creeping up–going up. Meanwhile, our governor and other public servants are forcibly opening up businesses with the threat of withholding unemployment and other benefits. As far as I’m concerned, this is state-mandated genocide. And yet people in my community are trolling the comments, claiming that the death toll is inflated (it’s not) and the mayor overreacted (he didn’t). I find this so frustrating.
Here’s a funny thing about systems theories. They are widely adopted in business and economics. Economists understand the interconnected nature of cultural systems, psychological systems, ecological systems, and financial systems. And yet. This drive to free Americans from the tyranny of trying to save our own fucking lives is predicated on saving the mythical beast that is the economy. Milton Friedman, champion of unfettered, unregulated capitalism as Utopia famously wrote, “The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.” Meaning that corporations bear no responsibility to the multiple ecosystems inside and outside their constructed boundaries, only that they must grow profits indefinitely for the benefits of shareholders. This ignores the more common folk wisdom of don’t shit where you eat. This Randian thinking has lead to the fiction of trickle-down economics and the eventual marriage of white supremacy and American exceptionalism to some particularly weird interpretations of Christianity (that seem to avoid the whole “being rich is bad” and “blessed are the meek” and “judge not” bits) with a dash of gun-nut culture, paranoia, and nourished on a steady diet of Fox News, Infowars, and OAN.
As I observed a couple weeks ago, for some people it seems to be easier to distort reality than to deal with it. When the sources of information with which you are surrounded (or surround yourself) feed you this steady diet of being the center of the known universe, I guess it’s pretty hard to pull back and take a look at the bigger picture, in which a microscopic organism is actually much, much bigger than you.
That doesn’t mean that I understand the people engaged by the latest round of enthusiastic astroturfing and hijacking of reality. I mean, I kind of do? It took me a while to really grapple with bearing some of the collective responsibility for the harm done by white women and white feminists. I, too, was raised to think I was a good person, and as a good person, I couldn’t say or think racist things. I was super wrong, and I had to go through the phases of being defensive and dismissive, and then trying to prove to POC I was “woke” (God I’m so sorry for being insufferable), and then eventually learning to lean into my discomfort and responsibility and educate my own damn self. I’m sure I have many layers left to unpack. But it’s not like I haven’t fucked up and had to own up to harm before, so there’s that–I just had to do it on a more global scale. It hurt, but it was necessary. So I guess I transitioned from White Guilt to maybe white responsibility, or at least the beginnings of it. There is a term for this in Transformative Learning Theory. It’s called the “disorienting dilemma.” It means that when adults, though education, are forced to re-evaluate their fixed identities and behavior, it can be psychologically disturbing. If your pedagogy is informed by this theory, you have to scaffold the learning process to allow for the emotions that come up. I think of this in terms of a psychological container – a set of norms and rules in my classroom that allow for respectful expression of difficult emotions and reactions.
I also feel like, as fucked up as the Ph.D. process is in so many ways, it also kind of cracked my brain open and forced me to see into the innards of things. My brain developed some capacity it didn’t have before. I’m not smarter. I just went through this intense re-training of how I examine the world and myself and process information and that helped me do that zooming out thing, independent of how I’m feeling at any given moment. If I can do anything lasting for my students, it’s supporting their innate ability to see the bigger picture and helping them learn to communicate it.
A couple years ago I had a student ask me why anti-vaxxers were a thing. I’m getting very similar questions now, often with that comparison. My answer about the anti-vaxxers was this: Becoming a parent utterly terrifying because for the rest of your life the most terrifying thing you can imagine is losing your child. And there is no way you can completely guarantee that it won’t happen. You have to live with your inability to completely protect them for the rest of your life. It is AWFUL. As an anxiety-prone person I was uniquely NOT prepared for this. It knocked me on my ass for several years. Eventually, I grew the capacity to not fixate on that fear but to also not deny it. I suspect that anti-vaxxers find comfort in believing that they are helping their children survive more than the rest of us sheeple, thus temporarily relieving the crushing existential fear. Of course, this involves building and moving into a citadel of misinformation that actually puts their children (and vulnerable children) at considerably higher risk. But the projection acts as a crutch, and there is enough misinformation out there to live comfortably in that citadel as long as your kid doesn’t get measles or FUCKING POLIO.
So anyway. When my students are once again asking me why white ppl are ignoring basic science in favor of whatever the hell it is they think they are fighting for, this is the explanation I think about. It’s the closest I can get. I studied defense mechanisms via fatphobia on the internet for my dissertation, and there was a lot of, “well you’re going to die before me because diabetes and laziness” with the unspoken coda being “so I’m safe from worrying about an untimely death for a little while”.
The current madness, however, has taken shape and been propagated much, much faster than most of this stuff. The American psyche is already fertile ground for paranoia and projection, but I’m pretty sure some other actors have been surfing this wave, much as they did during the last Presidential election.
I guess I wanted to believe that we were better than this. I know sociologists and historians and cultural theorists and multi-disciplinary weirdos like me will look at how the world has coped with COVID-19 and try to figure out why South Korea and Germany and New Zealand managed to avoid a significant death toll while the US and the UK and Sweden shat the bed. I’m sure we will argue about it for decades. But I wonder if exceptionalism has something to do with it. I wonder if there are aspects of culture that prepare people to cope with our extremely limited control over our environment in a way that seemingly similar cultures do not. Or maybe we just had more and less competent leaders. That is certainly a thing.
Here’s my final point in this ramble. The economy is not really a thing. It’s people. The ruling class in America has been burning incense and making sacrifices a deified ideal that is really just this hollow, fake, golden calf that they believe exists as an independent entity to which we must sacrifice, in this case our elderly, poor, prison population, and interred immigrants. Just ask Dan Patrick. But it’s just people. Shareholders only really exist when we think of money as an entity. Take away that ideology, and it’s just people, making stuff, trading it, and living their lives. The sooner we can break free of this batshit crazy illusion, the better.
The coronavirus has taken over all our lives, one way or another. I’m extremely fortunate to be able to keep working by teaching from home. My husband works from home. My daughter is also home and doing some schoolwork for the remainder of the semester. So I’m teaching 6 zoom sessions a week, plus meetings, plus doing most of the homeschooling, plus child-rearing and trying to manage her trauma and my own. It is a lot. But I am insanely lucky and privileged.
I have a lot of thoughts and a lot of feels. I’ve been through periods of trauma before. I was in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. I remember the giddy numbness that eventually faded into jumpiness and fear. But I’ve been home by order of our city since the middle of March and the giddiness and dissociation has started to wear off. What’s left behind is sadness and rage.
The sadness is for all the pain people are experiencing. For the people dying without their loved ones and their loved ones not being able to be there for the dying. I’ve been at a deathbed, and it is a traumatic but also sacred experience. I’m sad for the health care providers, caught in a tug of war between public servants and a financially and morally bankrupt industry and a toxic, dysfunctional government. So many have already died. All of this makes me deeply sad.
The rage is about the sheer idiocy that is pervading our government, and the idiocy of the people who are protesting or flouting basic safety measures that don’t go nearly far enough. I write and think about systems theories, a lot. I wrote this piece about systems theory and the environment and human limitations almost two years ago. I’ve been thinking about it.
The thing that has always gotten me isn’t the cruelty that is so obviously from a place of trauma and fear. I don’t approve of cruelty and believe it should be stopped whenever possible, but I understand how trauma can turn into psychotic projection, and how society creates an environment for it.
What gets me is the casual cruelty and dismissal that is so common and mundane. I can wrap my head around someone telling a fat person they should kill themselves because the source of their pain is so obvious. It’s abusive and not helpful or generative, but it’s a clear demonstration of projected trauma. I have a much, much harder time with this binary, cause and effect, self-centered, casual cruelty that causes people to rearrange reality so they don’t have to feel uncomfortable. Right now I see it everywhere and it’s making me miserable and angry.
Austin’s mayor got ahead of the curve (for Texas) and put in place rules for social distancing and shutting down non-essential services. We have had relatively few deaths for a population of a million. Cases are rising faster now, however, because it seems that many people can’t understand the basic trajectory of a contagious untreatable disease. You get it. You spread it to others before you get symptoms. They spread it to others before they get symptoms. People die.
I have some theories about this blindness. Particularly because the people protesting and calling health measures fascism are mostly my age or older and white.
White people are totally centered by American society. We grow up seeing people who look like us achieving the pinnacle of success in every field and sector of society. When we suffer, it’s tragic. When the other (black, latinx, disabled, gay, etc) suffers it must be because they have done something to make it happen.
This is a grossly distorted view of reality. Humans are not the primary system on this planet and our little genetic differences in appearance matter not at all to organisms like viruses and bacteria. Our constructions of societies and languages and countries and tribes matter not at all. And we are not the most intelligent system. The earth is. The earth is a system that is vastly more complex and intelligent than people on our very best day. Intelligent doesn’t mean conscious. And I am starting to doubt how important consciousness is to our survival as a species after all, since we seem to be using it to rationalize doing really, really stupid shit.
We are tiny organisms that are part of a much, much larger ecosystem. Population control via disease is a basic tool in nature’s toolbox. As many scientists have said, it was only a matter of time.
But white men (and women) have been living in an imaginary world where we are the masters of nature and our primacy in society is due to some assumed superiority of mind or spirit. And suddenly, we can’t escape the reality that we are very, very small in the scheme of things. We are helpless in the face of this virus, and we have a very small, very disruptive set of things we can do in the short term to keep from dying off in the millions.
White people can’t deal with this basic existential reality because we have been raised on exceptionalism. We breathe it, eat it, see it constantly in media ane art, and are constantly reminded that we are uniquely connected to the best of what humanity has achieved by our whiteness. So now there are protests and conspiracy theories (I particularly love the one about Bill Gates engineering the virus – because of course, it has to be a white man wreaking havoc on our species – it can’t be a non-sentient hyper-intelligent system we have no control over).
So faced with the existential terror of a death we cannot project or blame on someone other we create fantasy worlds where the virus is a hoax and people are not dying by the thousands every day and our president isn’t lying and stealing supplies from destitute hospitals full of workers who are dying while trying to save our lives. Where governors and mayors who are trying to save lives are actually Nazis trying to steal our personal liberty (whatever the hell that is) and where going to church won’t result in countless deaths over months as community spread creeps through our communities.
I don’t know how to cope with this. There is no Schadenfreude if these morons get sick, because by the time they do they will have infected hundreds of innocent people who are just trying to survive. They will orphan their kids. They will kill their parents. All because they can’t handle being small. This virus reminds us that we are tiny. I believe in God, and I believe that I am loved by God. But I don’t believe God loves me more than they love the ants I have killed by pest control or the Arctic animals losing their habitats. God doesn’t love me more than the black families who can’t get decent health care because of racism and exposure to toxic chemicals and stupid white people who refuse to pay attention to scientists. I am not loved more than the ant, or the person with darker skin than me, or the undocumented immigrant, or the endangered species. My God is the Universe, and they don’t play favorites with humanity.
I’ve been yelled at online by multiple people in the last few weeks who say I’m a terrible teacher because I question authority and that z-paks cure the virus and that black people are high-risk because they make bad decisions and our mayor is actually Hitler because face masks. And then I see the same bullshit said from the podium of the white house and from national news and retweeted over and over again. And I think, huh. If having consciousness means we can distort reality to the point that we do nature’s job for her and reduce our species’ population by millions, is consciousness really a sign of advanced evolution (or God’s favor), or is it a failsafe for Nature? Are the limitations of our ability to understand that we are not actually the center of God’s creation what will keep us from destroying it? That is terrifying and sad.
My daughter understands how community spread works and she’s 10. My students, on the cusp of adulthood, are arguing with their parents and grandparents about staying home while finishing natural science degrees from one of the best universities in the country. It’s not getting through.
I’m out of thoughts. I hope that somehow people come to terms with our smallness and start doing everything we can to slow the spread of this disease so we can make better decisions about how to live as a species on this planet in the future. But for now, I’m just sad. Here is a song that helps me connect to my sadness and to my kinship with all those suffering right now:
I have a batch of student graduating and with that comes the existential dread of what adulting will be like. I usually ask my Ethics class to come up with questions for me to answer the last week of school. I’m going to post some of my better responses here for posterity.
Question: What is up with not being motivated? Can I make myself more motivated? (paraphrased)
Answer: Motivation is a big issue, and there’s no easy fix. I’ve been highly motivated to do lots of stuff in my life, and some of it worked out and some of it didn’t. I’ve also had motivation issues with really important things that I eventually trudged my way through.
I believe we have an inner voice (or a bunch of them) that guides us, but sometimes that voice gets drowned out by other stuff like an obligation, financial reality, the need to be accepted or admired, etc. Also, what makes life meaningful changes as we age.
If one topic keeps you really in the zone (interested, time passes quickly, challenges are exciting instead of daunting) and another makes you exhausted and miserable, you might explore the former. That said, I’ve endured some stuff I mostly hated (dissertation review, for example) to get where I wanted to be, but my overall goal got me through. I’ve also had the same activity be amazing in one context (school) and totally and utterly awful in another (running a business).
We are creatures of impulse, and sometimes too many impulses pull on us at once. Sometimes it helps to write down or visualize what we want and what the barriers are (and what we are spending time on instead). Try to do this with curiosity, rather than self-judgment or guilt. I’ve used mind maps, spreadsheets, and journaling to concretize my ideas – whatever worked at the time. I’ve also worked with coaches a few times and therapists a lot.
Finally, I think the best decisions are when your heart, brain, and body are all on the same page (and this includes friends, partners, jobs, pretty much anything that has a big impact on your life)
Body – Do you feel energized and have stamina when you’re engaged with the activity (person, etc)? Do you feel balanced? Or do you feel wiped out? Do you end up relieving stress in ways that wear you out more? (staying up too late, drinking alcohol, or my personal favorite, too much coffee)
Mind – Does it make rational sense to pursue this avenue? What are the long and short term pros and cons?
Heart – Do you feel fulfilled, safe, joyful, peaceful, excited? Or fearful, angry, competitive, or insecure?
No career/person/etc is 100% perfect. I’ve had 4ish careers, and all of them had great things about them and suck things about them. It’s really about the balance. As a teacher, I have to fight really hard to carve out time for my family and physical/mental health (because of that 24-hour semester thing), and academic politics are just stupid. But in return, I get a lot of control, the opportunity to be creative and to continually learn and improve. For me, teaching is a career that’s max on fulfilling and min on the suck parts.
That’s especially important for me because the combination of being a recovering perfectionist and a highly competitive person can really mess me up. Teaching, ultimately, is not about me so I can let go of the need to compare myself to others. Someone will always think I’m amazing (even my first semester 8 years ago when I sucked) and someone will always think I’m totally lame (no matter how much other students like my classes). I find this strangely freeing. In some ways, it can be helpful to work against type. Make of that what you will. And watch Hannah Gadsby’s Ted Talk – she talks about this too.
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.
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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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).
- They are also used for public shaming (#bbqbecky, #permitpatty), and in some extra crap cases (#gamergate) violent, damaging, bigoted attacks.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- So behaviors that can seem mob-like or bullying online, when used to highlight things like social inequality, can be powerful tools.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- #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.
- 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.
- Conclusion – we need better hate speech laws and better laws to govern internet behavior. The end.
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.
- 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.
- 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:
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:
- Your life has changed forever and that throws your self-concept into question, especially if it wasn’t built on being a mother.
- You are seriously sleep deprived, dehydrated, exhausted, and tired of a tiny person being attached to you in some way all the time.
- 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:
- I was recovering from stress-induced sickness, drug side-effects, and emotional upheaval.
- 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.
- There was no roadmap for success and I had no experience trying to get work as a qualified PhD.
- 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.
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.