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One of my “play hard” moments, on an aerial hoop at Cirque Indy.

Welcome to the next installment of my Workaholic Missives post series, wherein I talk about my philosophy behind work/life balance (or lack thereof, as some would have it).

I know it’s trite, but I try to live by the phrase “Work hard, play hard.” I like the website Get Bullish’s take on this: “If it isn’t extremely productive or extremely pleasurable, just stop. Either eat something healthy that takes five minutes, or have a huge decadent meal with friends for two hours. Either go to the gym and work every fucking muscle in your body like an Olympian, or stay home and find someone to make out with.”

Basically, the idea here is that if you’ve got limited time in which to be awesome, either spend it being as awesome as possible, or recharging as aggressively as possible. I know, the idea of recharging aggressively seems weird to some, but that’s how I’ve been exploring work/life balance in the last few years, and I’ve really enjoyed it. This blog post shares some of my strategies for making it work.

As a freelancer, I run the risk of always working. There’s always another proposal to write, a blog post to pitch, or a project to write, revise, etc. I know this is ingrained into me by academic culture to some degree (see my post on normalized weekend work at Conditionally Accepted), but I’ve also had to navigate the “you should be working more!” ethos of freelancing. Piling one on top of the other has not necessarily been that healthy for me.

Luckily, I’m all about the self-care interventions. And sometimes that means aggressive self-care: taking a weekend off to travel because I’m on the verge of burn-out, or scheduling a massage after a lunch date but right before a work date followed by rock climbing (a.k.a. last Tuesday). I take care to always meet my commitments to others, backing out only when it’s really dire, but I match that persistence with a commitment to myself as well: to engage in what is healthy and pleasurable as much as I can possibly fit in, justify, and/or afford.

The “work hard” part of the phrase means that I try not to waste time on things that are not-work, assuming that I have the energy and the mental focus to put in good work. Since I do a range of activities in my freelance life, it could mean deciding whether I have the attention span to do something related to a college class I’m teaching (lesson planning and grading papers tend to take the most focus, whereas small tasks like recording attendance are less strenuous) or whether I should do something on social media that’s less obviously related to a project I’m on, but could help promote my work in ways that might be fruitful later. It could be the difference between “work on my book proposal while I’ve got the brain power for it” and “send out inquiries about a performance opportunity for my dance troupe because those are halfway scripted already.”

The “play hard” hard of the phrase means that I take my relaxation seriously, and I try to fill it with activities that not only recharge me, but about which I’m passionate. That can be a tricky balance: for instance, I truly love dancing, but sometimes I’m just too tired from all my other stuff to really make a serious go of a night out dancing. So it might mean practicing at home a little bit, followed by watching performances by some of my favorite dancers, in order to get that creative charge going. When I’m totally worn out and can’t brain anymore, then I’ll do something low-key that I still really love, like reading a novel or spending time with someone I care about. Watching trashy TV tends to fall pretty low on the list… yes, even I have a few guilty pleasure TV shows, but I tend to combine them with social time (my life partner and I have a list of shows we’re working our way through) or with introvert time (like if I can write in my journal or knit while watching a show).

On the flip side, the “play hard” aspect means that if some relaxation or social activity doesn’t really appeal to me, and I don’t have a good reason to do it regardless, I’m probably going to turn it down. My free time is too limited for me to spend it in an activity that doesn’t serve me.

So, yes, I’m very mercenary in how I make my choices with my free time, in large part because of this need for balance that I perceive. On that note, time to make a shopping run for a dinner party, before working out, before a lunch date, before teaching a dance workshop, before spending the rest of the day working on grading and writing. Like ya do… if you’re me.

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Indy Monumental Yoga

Me being choosy with my time, at an event that combines belly dance and yoga, two activities I fiercely carve room for in my schedule.

In my last Workaholic Missives post, I described how most social engagements pale in comparison to the thrill of saving the world through education and art. That leads to a question I’ll discuss here: how on earth do I figure out what’s worth doing when I’m not working?

The answer: to be calculating and strategic and self-serving, while being up front and honest and not mean about it. In other words, to be mercenary as fuck.

I’m going with the definition of mercenary as self-serving, or doing things only when they benefit oneself, not necessarily in the sense of only doing things for money. That’s more aptly communicated by, ya know, calling someone a capitalist. Apparently the Latin origin of the word refers to someone being for hire, and while money came to be important to the definition, the idea of being in something for personal gain remains central to my understanding of it.

Since deciding not to pursue a full-time career in academia anymore, I’ve had to be more mercenary with my time on a professional level. I love academic research, writing, and publishing… but it doesn’t pay like freelance writing does (or at all, really), so I can’t devote very much time to it. I love teaching, but adjunct wages make it so that teaching isn’t the best use of my time either, so I only teach one class a semester. And so on.

I’m not the only alt-ac scholar who’s had to disentangle herself from the lure of academic time sucks with an eye toward self-serving career goals. But I also apply this attitude toward my non-professional life, which is where things get sticky.

Invitation to hang with friends at a bar? Facebook event involving a signing/reading/viewing? Dinner party? Drum circle? Those all sound lovely, but what do they do for me? Since I am not, in fact, a machine (or an ice queen, as rumors might suggest), then an event’s “what it does for me” might be as simple as “helps me relax.” Also acceptable answers include “I get to reconnect with friends,” or “I get to practice dancing,” or “I get to interact with a topic I work with professionally but in a low-key environment where I don’t have to be the one presenting/leading/teaching it.”

Not everything I do is work-related (surprise, I know), but I consider almost everything I do through work-related lenses, applying the same mercenary filters to assess how an activity benefits me or helps me reach a goal. Spelling it out like this can make me sound calculating, but hopefully it also helps the people in my life understand why I do what I do. And maybe it helps others like me feel less alone and outside the norm.

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A selfie as I’m on my way to teach (while undoubtedly juggling a billion other tasks in my head).

For the second installation in my blog series on being a workaholic, I’d like to talk about my lack of social life.

If you know me IRL, you might be thinking, “What?! Jeana, you have a thriving social life, what on earth are you talking about?!”

And… to a degree you’d be right. When there’s an event or a group that I prioritize, I’m there. For example, I’m dedicated to promoting the belly dance community in Indianapolis, so I’m teaching classes two nights a week, spending other nights rehearsing or performing, and so on. I help run a local sex-positive meet-up group, so I’m visible in that community. And so on.

Except I don’t actually have that many personal social commitments. And I prefer to keep it that way.

Part of the way I experience being a workaholic is an intense commitment to, and inflation of the significance of, the causes which are important to me. So it’s not just that I’m an educator, it’s that I’m saving the world through education. I’m not just a sex educator, I’m saving the world through sex education. My research and writing and teaching and blogging and dancing and art are all part of my mission to bring progressive thought and acceptance of non-heteronormative sexuality/gender and bodies of all kinds to the rest of the world.

I have the fervor and zeal of a new convert, and in some ways that’s true: since turning away from academia and pursuing an alt-ac career, I’ve felt newly infused with a sense of purpose and a drive toward relevance. Getting a PhD was fun, but I wasn’t overly concerned with improving anyone’s life but my own for the majority of that process. Now that I’ve hopped on the alt-ac bandwagon, and become more of an activist in sexuality circles, though, I’ve become rather outspoken about the need for more education (sexuality and otherwise) in pretty much every aspect of life. And it fills me with a righteous sense of passion and indignation and must fix this now.

Hopefully this doesn’t sound naive, but I truly believe that educational opportunities and communication skills and tolerance for diversity can help save the world. So when someone asks if I have time to hang out, time during which I could be blogging or preparing a lesson plan or conducting research or networking at a sexuality professionals meetup – all converging toward this glorious end goal of saving the world – of course the answer is no, I don’t have time to hang out.

Be right back, saving the world.

It’s cool to get coffee with you a couple times, but I have more important things to do.

Gotta cancel that lunch date… it’ll be my only time to blog today. And so on.

It’s a harsh reality of my world that most people aren’t as interesting to me as my work is. There are exceptions, of course, since I’m not a total hermit: the people I make an effort to stay in touch with, to include in my life, to see somewhat regularly. But the majority of the people I encounter, while lovely individuals, simply do not hold my attention in comparison with (or rather, in competition with) my work.

I do this mental math every time I receive an invitation to a social event, whether it’s a group thing or a one-on-one hangout. I hate to admit this publicly – or at all – but it’s what happens in my brain.

If this is the price I pay for helping to change the world through education, well, I’m kinda okay with that. I try to train the people in my life to not take it personally. Not sure how much success I’ve had, but ah well… since this is is Workaholic Missives post I can point people toward it in the future, right?!

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Me, in front of my bookshelf. Because my books are part of my workaholic lifestyle.

This post marks the beginning of a new blog series I’m writing, titled Workaholic Missives.

I’m writing this series because:

  • I’m a workaholic
  • I don’t think being a workaholic is necessarily a bad thing
  • I don’t have the time to explain to every individual in my life what this is all about
  • Hence it’s easier to blog my thoughts on being a workaholic, and send links to everyone I know

Granted, that last sentence is a bit flippant, but only in the sorry/not sorry sense that seems trendy these days.

Honestly, I love being a workaholic. I think it’s enriched my life, and made my time in academia as enjoyable and productive as it could be, given how exploitative an institution it is. I derive a profound sense of value from filling my days (and let’s be honest, nights, because I’m writing this at 11pm on a Sunday) with work.

But – and this is what I’ll explore in the series – being a workaholic takes its toll on other aspects of my life. I might feel personally fulfilled, but people who feel they have some right to my time feel shortchanged. My relationships (family, friends, romantic) have often suffered as a result of my workaholic attitude.

I have a mixed reaction to this. On the one hand, why would I waste time on someone who doesn’t get my values and doesn’t appreciate me for who I am? I’ve dated far too many people who’ve been initially attracted to my independence and drive, only later to condemn me for being too independent and too driven, hence threatening or not invested enough in the relationship or whatever. Those people clearly were not for me. On the other hand, I get that there’s more to life than work. The time I get to spend with loved ones is limited, since our lifespans are limited. I derive a different sort of pleasure from emotional and social interactions than intellectual/work ones, and I know that I have to get better at finding a balance.

It seems that ambivalence is my natural state, so I’m digging in and exploring it. If you’re a workaholic, or have a workaholic in your life – particularly of the academic flavor – then perhaps this blog series is for you. Stay tuned for the next installation, on why maintaining relationships is especially tough.

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The Librarian by Guiseppe Arcimboldo. For those of us who feel like reading and writing makes us who we are.

I’ve blogged about taking my writing in different directions, and now I’m beginning to plan to make it happen. It’s a little scary, to say the least.

During an anxiety-driven rant on Facebook about goals and how my relationship to them is changing, I managed to solicit a great deal of solid advice on relating to goals from my friends. With their permission, I thought I’d share these quotes, in a crowd-sourced type of inspirational blog post.

While I was angsting about feeling like I need to set goals – which is quite likely a holdover from my academic background – my friend Tracie had this to offer: “Setting goals is overrated! You don’t need to know the final destination, you just need to know the next step.”

In another vote for not letting goals take over your life, Linda wrote: “I agree with ‘What’s the point of goals?’ My newer motto is ‘Be here, NOW!’ Eckhart Tolle knew what he was talking about in his book, The Power of Now! The universe has my back & I am an open channel for all the wonderful things in store for me (that I don’t even know about yet!). Feeling philosophical today.”

My friend and sex educator colleague Kate McCombs shared: “I am enjoying detaching from intense ‘goal setting.’ Recently, I’ve been deeply enjoying The Desire Map, which is a book about identifying your core desired feelings and using those as your anchors instead of external goals. I’m actually teaching workshops on it next year. Let me know if you ever want to chat about it.”

Mental health professional and friend Kathy Slaughter offered: “Life is happening all around you right now. The short-term may just need all you have to give, which could be clouding your long-term view. Also, one of my favorite quotes when I can’t see where I’m heading: ‘There is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.’ Sometimes success comes because we just keep walking, taking the next thing as it comes.”

My friend Michael agreed with Kathy: “What Slaughter said. And being too hard on yourself can be just as counter-productive in the long run. Life changes. We have to adapt. I’ve had this happen a couple times in big ways. It’s ok if we don’t find ourselves coming out of a change & automatically know what to do. Sometimes I think part of life is figuring that out as we go some, and giving ourselves the space & the understanding to do so…But I would hardly say you have no goals or direction, in the short time I’ve known ye.”

Part of the reason I’m so obsessive over goals is that I find it helps me manage my stress. Coming from a different perspective, my friend Carrie contributed: “I do fine with goals, but I find *picking* goals very stressful. It’s why I like long term projects more than short ones; all the intermediate steps are goals but I’ve picked them already, so when one is complete I can just go to the next, no debate required.”

The weird thing is that I’m finding *not* having goals to be stressful… almost as though there’s something missing in my life now that I’m shifting careers and life goals and all that stuff. I long for having something concrete to devote myself to (though look how well it turned out last time, right? for more on my change of heart about academia, see my post series over at Conditionally Accepted).

But whenever I start to feel like I’m incomplete or not good enough on my own, because I’m not setting or meeting enough goals, I get reminders that I’m a whole person, a worthwhile person, merely by virtue of existing. As my dance colleague Alima wrote: “I actually just had a conversation yesterday about this. To be mindful of the opportunity and desire for growth is great but there is a Buddhist proverb that might give you some comfort ‘to desire always leaves you wanting, detached from the now. To be fully present in this moment, not desiring but simply being, gives you complete freedom and happiness’…you’re perfect as you are!”

What I’ve learned is that I don’t need to have everything figured out in order to move forward. Getting started on something new may not feel like moving forward, and may thus cause cognitive dissonance to the side of me that’s accustomed to being super goal-oriented… but that’s okay. The more I learn to embrace the uncertainty of life, the better I’ll be able to cope with the inevitable changes and upsets that’ll occur. And, if nothing else, I have wonderful friends to help me through these transitional times.

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In my wrap-up post on the dietary aspects of the Whole30, I discussed what I ate for 30 days, how it made me feel, and so on. I stand by that post: I would definitely recommend the Whole30 as an eating plan for people who are looking to diagnose food allergens, kick the sugar habit, try something new that involves eating a ton more fruits and veggies than you might already, and so on.

But then there’s the matter of weight loss. I’m conflicted about addressing this topic in public webspace for various reasons: I feel like as a scholar and educator it’s not always appropriate for me to talk about my body (but where does that line fall?), and I also don’t necessarily want to display my body-image insecurities out here for all to see. However, I blog about topics like weight commentary and thin privilege, as well as why over-sharing when discussing one’s body at all can be a political issue. Here, I guess I’m going with a compromise that makes me comfortable: I’m not saying exactly how much I weigh, and I’m not posting pictures. So here goes.

There’s no good way to say this. I lost 6 lbs in 30 days. And, upon weighing myself one week later, I found that I’d lost another pound, even while reintroducing foods like wheat, dairy, sugar, and alcohol (not daily, but almost).

I’m feeling conflicted about two main aspects of this:

  • I have a small frame. I’m only 5’6″ or so. Was it healthy for me to lose that much weight in such a short time? I said to various friends who expressed concern about me getting too skinny on the eating plan, “Oh, I’ve probably only lost 2 or 3 pounds. I wouldn’t want to lose more than that… if I lost 10 pounds I might look sickly or too skinny.”
  • I still look at my body and think to myself that I could stand to lose a little more weight – or at least redistribute it, such that there’s less fat and more muscle (and yes, I’m aware that muscle weighs more than fat, so I’m not opposed to the numbers on the scale going up). I guess this is less of a weight issue than a body composition issue, a matter of how I perceive my silhouette when I look in a mirror.

Let’s unpack these thoughts. I am unsure what to do about the fact that I’ve had two responses to my body on the Whole30 that are pretty much diametrically opposed. I mean, I can’t have it both ways, right? “Is this too much weight loss” vs. “gosh I wouldn’t mind losing some more” is… a strange dynamic to recognize in oneself, to say the least.

I stand by my statement that I’m not currently “too” skinny. I’m not unhealthy. I’m incredibly active and if my body supports this much activity, then things are fine on that front. But… how long til I reach that point, if I keep eating along Whole30 guidelines even as I reintroduce foods that were until recently off-limits? There have been times in the past when due to other life factors I was unable to eat enough to maintain a healthy weight. I don’t want to go there again (as awesome as it felt to finally have a body composition that was societally rewarded by fitting into cute clothing and presenting as “attractive” without having to feel like I was hiding weight-related flaws).

This is just… such a mindfuck. I don’t think I have serious body dysmorphia issues, though the back-and-forth in my head might indicate that I should look a bit more critically at my self-image. I don’t suffer from disordered eating, and I have never really struggled with that, unlike a lot of other women (and men, too). I’m trying to focus on being comfortable with my body as it is now, and that seems to be having some positive effects on my self-esteem. But I can’t seem to shake the fear that I’ll stop doing the Whole30 and go back to eating like a normal American (well, my version of it anyway) and then regain all the weight I lost, which would somehow be a terrible, traumatic event.

I do not like to catch myself thinking these thoughts. I try to have a realistic attitude toward body acceptance, and I try to promote it among others. I go out of my way to mention the body acceptance I find among belly dancers, for example, and I try to embody the feminist ideal of not putting myself down while encouraging others to embrace their bodies, no matter what shape or size.

I guess I’m putting this post out there in an attempt to be transparent about my thought processes regarding body acceptance, food, eating, and weight loss in our culture. I worry that it’ll come across as a humble-brag along the lines of “whoops, lost all this weight when I didn’t mean to, lol” which isn’t my intention. On the one hand, our relationships with our bodies are very private, and no amount of reinforcement (good or bad) from others will change that; but on the other hand, our bodies are often objects of public comment (both reinforcement and ridicule) and the opinions of others often do matter. What we do with our bodies should be no one’s concern but our own – but where do those boundaries end? Do our families and lovers and friends have a right to be involved with our body care and maintenance? Especially when our physical (and emotional) health can directly impact them?

There may be a follow-up post; there may not be. It’ll depend both on what sort of response (if any) this post received, and how I feel after figuring out where to go from here with my dietary choices.

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This post is a smidge more personal than most of my blog posts here, but I figured this would be the best place for me to discuss my recent eating habits in a larger cultural context since it’s easy to link people to (moreso than my Facebook, which I tend to keep pretty private) and since, well, I do study this stuff as a scholar. Just not usually my involvement in it.

So for those who somehow missed the memo, I spent the last month doing the Whole30. It’s basically an eating plan that’s designed to help you figure out dietary allergens/triggers, reevaluate your relationship with food, and generally be healthier. This means that for the last 29 days, I consumed no

  • Grains (wheat or otherwise, including quinoa and corn which aren’t technically grains but ya know)
  • Dairy (except for ghee, which is okay for some reason)
  • Sugar (except what’s found in fruit)
  • Legumes (peanuts, soy, other beans… sad face, I’m a legume-lover!)
  • White potatoes (sweet potatoes okay, thank goodness)
  • Alcohol
  • Added sweeteners/preservatives/flavor agents (things like MSG, sulfites, carrageenan)

What did I eat? A lot of locally raised protein (eggs, chicken, pork, beef, occasional seafood), a lot of fruits and veggies, and a lot of “healthy” fats (olives, olive oil, avocados, coconut products like coconut milk and coconut oil, and nuts/seeds in moderation). There’s a whole long description in the book It Starts with Food that accompanies the Whole30 about why we should be eating these things, why it’s silly to avoid fat, etc. I won’t get into that here unless people are curious about it.

I wasn’t expecting a miracle. I mostly decided to go on the Whole30 to support family members who were doing so, in an attempt to get a leg up on their health issues. Plus I occasionally like to go on a health spree, and this seemed like as good a health spree as any other.

My results? I slept better (which is a big deal, as I sometimes  grapple with anxiety-induced insomnia). There were fewer nights on average that I had trouble falling asleep in the past month. I had way fewer stomach-aches than usual. I think I’d kinda gotten used to them and forgotten that it’s not normal to have stomach-aches on a daily basis (again: stress is a factor, and perhaps some mild dietary allergen/trigger that I hadn’t pinpointed yet because it wasn’t major enough to cause a reaction that was serious).

Interestingly, I couldn’t kick the afternoon snack habit, though I did manage to ditch the afternoon sleepies. I used to get these bizarre bouts of fatigue between 3-5pm most days of the week where it was all I could do to keep my eyes open. It didn’t seem to be related to sleep deprivation, so the best I could pinpoint was that maybe intense fatigue was a symptom of my seasonal allergies? But now those sleepy times are gone, so I guess it was something dietary. You’re not “supposed” to want or need snacks on the Whole30, but I found myself needing them. Maybe it has to do with the fact that I work out at least once a day, sometimes twice. Teaching dance and directing a troupe keeps me pretty busy, I guess.

There were times when I felt I wasn’t getting enough nourishment, possibly because I have trouble eating tons of animal protein. I tend to default to vegetarian when left to my own devices, so being told that I have to get protein from animal sources (rather than relying on dairy, soy, or legumes) was a tad frustrating. Still, I feel I made the best of the situation. I will be very happy when I can reintroduce these foods and rely on animals less (for one thing, it’s expensive, since I prioritize local and/or organic meat).

I definitely feel/look leaner, though I haven’t weighed myself yet (you’re not supposed to weigh yourself during the 30 days). I didn’t miss most things that much. I would get occasional cravings, especially during my period, but otherwise I felt fine. I guess I’m used to being disciplined… I ran a marathon and completed a Ph.D., after all!

Do I really buy the rhetoric of our bodies having a “reset button” that Whole30 allows you to push? Not necessarily. My experience was in some ways similar to that of their projected timeline, and other ways quite different. I didn’t get the sugar hangover/headache/withdrawal symptoms that so many people do, possibly because sugar hasn’t been a part of my daily diet for some time. I already ate pretty healthy, so I wasn’t really expecting drastic results. I do feel better, though, and I think that people who don’t normally cook every meal and know their way around food labeling practices would really benefit from giving Whole30 a shot. Although, as this one blogger describes her Whole30 experience, the restrictive tone of the program can be off-putting to some.

Social scientist brain is encouraging me to note the effects of this eating plan on my social life. I’ve been in pretty serious hermit mode with the beginning of the semester, so I haven’t had much social life to speak of. The handful of times that I’ve been out at bars, I’ve been content sipping soda water with some lime squeezed in. I’ve baked desserts and bread for people and watched them eat it without feeling too left out (though I don’t think I’d want to continue that practice indefinitely… I miss being able to taste what I bake!). It’s been a bit of a struggle to make sure I’m cooking good meals for my household, as my partner likes a lot of the foods that I haven’t been eating… but I think we reached a manageable compromise. Anyway, it’s easy enough for me to throw together some orzo, butter, and parmesan as a side dish and then just not eat it.

I’ve gotten some… hm… less than supportive reactions from people around me, though. My eating has been called “strange” and someone has said that I look like I’ve “withered” away. People, I am dancing 6 days a week, doing yoga 2-3 days a week, and doing strength training 2-3 days a week (with some hula-hooping thrown in, too). I couldn’t do all this stuff if I was wasting away. With the exception of days where I literally have trouble putting enough calories in my mouth to sustain my level of activity, I’ve felt pretty energetic and good throughout most of my Whole30.

The accusation of eating “strange” food stings a bit, but oh well. If eating mostly plant matter and animal protein is strange, I shudder to think what passes for normal in this culture. And here we reach my food soapbox, with me sounding all prejudiced and judgey and stuff. I don’t like to come across like that, but I have some pretty strong beliefs about food and health, and most of them go in the exact opposite direction that mainstream American eating practices do (I know that there are a lot of identity issues here, such as class and ethnicity, that make it hard to get access to “healthy” foods, or that do not put high value on them in cultural context – so I don’t mean to sound as though all those people making “bad” food choices are ignorant or uneducated; I know there are a lot of social forces at work here, which I don’t have the space to address in a single blog post, so I’ll just note that they exist and move on).

And here’s where the personal and the social intertwine: I’ve noticed from my personal experiences that people don’t like being confronted with choices that are radically different than their own. This also tallies with my cultural studies, where difference is stigmatized and punished. When someone eats really, really healthy, it makes people who eat unhealthy feel self-conscious. I don’t view my dietary choices as being inherently judgey, but people tend to think that I’m judging them when I eat healthy and they don’t. This is related to the larger issues our culture has with food: we have a twisted relationship with food, where we have received so many conflicting messages with it that we don’t know whether it’s nourishment or consumer product, celebration or deprivation, something to be endured (especially if it’s healthy! oh the torture!) or something to be enjoyed. I’ll go Freudian for a moment and toss out the thought that there’s a lot of projection going on here: people project their own insecurities about food (and, attendantly, body image) onto others, since they don’t have good ways of communicating about and coping with the conflicts about food in their own lives. Or not, I could be wrong about this… but if you’ve ever made a change for the healthier in your life and received a bunch of push-back from people who haven’t made the same commitment to being healthy, you’ll know what I mean.

(on the note of push-back, my friend Adam just posted a link to this great post about feeling like an outsider due to the desire to eat healthy… yep!)

I’m going to wrap this up, and discuss weight and body image in a subsequent post. So I’ll go ahead and publish this now, on the morning of Day 30 of my Whole30, and return after I’ve weighed myself and thought about that a bit.

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Before I launch into this post, I’m going to publicly proclaim my intent to write at least 2 blog posts per month. Hopefully this will motivate me to follow through on that intention. I manage to find a little time to relax here and there, so in theory I could make the time to do it. And goodness knows I’ve got plenty of thoughts rattling around in my head that could be transformed into blog posts. So there’s that.

In the rest of this post, I’d like to discuss a distinction between being and doing that I’ve noticed, in terms of self-esteem but other things too. A post by Samantha at Not Your Mother’s Playground caught my attention and helped me articulate some of these thoughts.

Titled On Being Amazing, the post discusses why it’s tough to hear “But… you’re amazing!” in difficult times. In particular, this passage really resonated with me:

I’ve noticed that in times of despair people will often reach out to me, offering their words of comfort. These internet hugs are lovely and certainly appreciated – at least for the intentions behind them, but they can also fall flat when presented like this:

“Don’t feel sad. You’re amaaaaazing!”

I have learned how to take a compliment over the years. If you think that I have done something to warrant being told I’m amazing or awesome or insert compliment here, I will certainly take it. I will blush and I will be genuinely grateful. However when it’s used as a blanket response to “I’m sad or angry”, it’s a lot harder to digest.

I agree that this sort of statement can sometimes  feel dismissive, as though by accomplishing all this amazing stuff I somehow shouldn’t get bogged down by anxiety or depression, or I should be smart enough to think my way out of it, or something. This comes dangerously close to the “but why can’t you just choose to be happy” advice given to people dealing with mental health issues that, while often well-intentioned, is dangerous and thoroughly misunderstands what it’s like to deal with mental illness (see this fantastic blog post by Naamah_Darling for a deconstruction of this rhetoric).

I also think that this tendency to conflate being and doing (you’ve done amazing things so you are an amazing person) can be dangerous for another reason: it makes the parts of one’s identity blend together in a potentially judgmental way. For a long rant on the ways we in Western culture tend to conflate various aspects of people’s identities – especially when they pertain to sex – see my post on the adjacency effect over at MySexProfessor.com (basically, the laws of sympathetic magic plus stigma and pollution, condensed and written about in non-academese with sexuality as the primary topic). People who engage in certain acts are thought to be a certain kind of person, and those sorts of judgments often lead to hostility, stereotyping, and violence.

For these reasons, I think it’s important to uncouple the being and doing parts of people’s identities, even while recognizing that there are some links, but those links need to be put into context. I’m a firm believer in actions speaking louder than words, for example; so if someone says they’re my friend, they’d better be there when I need them (and I’ll do the same). I always try to make sure my actions are consistent with my values. Stuff like that.

Otherwise, let’s think very carefully about how we conflate being and doing when it comes to personhood. I’d love to hear about more examples of this phenomenon if people want to leave a comment!

Photo by Jane Bradley

Performance at Bloomington Belly Dances 2011. Photo by Jane Bradley

On a rare night out, I went to a club with a couple of friends and enjoyed some time on the dance floor as well as off it. The music was largely EDM (electronic dance music, for those not familiar with the folkspeech of its fans) and dubstep, which is both fun and difficult to dance to, because of the interesting way that the rhythm and other sounds interact in the music.

As someone with over 14 years of dance experience, I can navigate a dance floor pretty competently, no matter what the genre of music is. But I got to thinking about how we dance when in uncertain situations, like with unexpected types of music or an unfamiliar environment (maybe when a stage is uneven) or other variables.

To me, it really comes down to form and intention. By “form” I mean posture, technique, and how exactly we choose to structure our movements. At the very least, I endeavor to have excellent posture when I dance, and also when I’m not dancing. I spend a lot of time with my laptop, so I try to make sure I’m not hunching too horribly during those hours. Posture conveys confidence, and good posture is the foundation of a solid dance technique that is both safe for you as a performer and more conducive to creating compelling experiences for the audience.

Since the only style of dance I’m teaching right now is American Tribal Style® Belly Dance, I think about posture a lot in those terms. Having the proper posture is what frees up your spine and hips  to undulate, lift, and drop. It’s really amazing what adjusting your posture can do for your dancing.

So, even when I have no idea what the hell is happening with the music I’m dancing to, I check in with my posture a lot to make sure my chest is lifted, my hips are tucked, and my arms are appropriately angled, strong, and elegant. In theory, good posture is itself a thing of beauty, and a dancer could simply stand in good posture for long moments and still hold the audience’s attention, having in that moment transformed herself into a statue-like thing of beauty.

Intention is the other part of the equation. Intention means moving when you mean to move, and being still when you mean to be still. It means directing your gaze in order to direct your audience’s gaze (it always amazes me how linked the two are!). It means giving each movement your full attention so that no motion is ever wasted or extraneous. It means sometimes being minimalist, and sometimes being a whirlwind of activity…but whatever you are doing, you’re doing it on purpose, with an intensity that comes from being in the moment.

When a dancer manages to incorporate both form and intention into a performance, it can be stunning. If a dance is simple in terms of form, but fully developed in terms of intention, I’m guaranteed to love it. Doing things the other way around is more of a gamble. This is one reason I’ve always felt lukewarm about belly dancers who learn the choreographies of others to perform; I feel like it’s harder to be as fully invested in intentionally dancing when the moves aren’t originally your own, and when you’re having to remember something that came from someone else. But this could also be a symptom of the fact that I really dislike memorizing things. And there are certainly a number of talented, beautiful, compelling dancers who perform the choreographies of others, so I don’t mean to disparage them here. This is more of a “this is what works for me as a dancer” post, and I’d be curious to hear the thoughts of others.

Of course, as a folklore scholar, I’m tempted to add more terms and themes to the discussion. For instance, I frequently tell my folklore students that we can identify a genre by looking at four elements: content, context, form, and function. So in an intellectual sense, I don’t think that form and intention alone are adequate to helping us understand what’s going on in a creative performance. But as a dancer, and as someone wanting to keep it simple for my dance students, I’m going to stick with form and intention for now.

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In my Introduction to Folklore class yesterday, we talked about food, leaving me, of course, super-hungry after class. I ate a delicious vegetarian dinner, belly danced for an hour, and then had some leftover homemade butternut-squash pie from Thanksgiving.

One of the main points we discussed in class was that food preferences are both individual and cultural. Certain flavor combinations are found only in specific regions or among certain groups, and those flavors are often considered “normal” – until you run into what another culture thinks is tasty, and you’re usually in for a shock (case in point: Estonians put pickles and ketchup on their pizza; I’m normally pretty open-minded about food, but I was both disgusted and offended by this practice).

Sometimes, no matter how you’re raised, there’s just no accounting for taste. One person’s comfort food is another person’s gag-inducer. Sometimes we try other cuisines and find them more palatable than what we were raised with, but other times people don’t bother to venture far from what they grew up eating.

Here, we begin to see the interconnections between food and value systems. People express their identities through the foods they both choose and refuse to eat. Whole families and ethnic groups declare their affiliation by what (and how, and when) they eat together. The allocation of food labor – which remains thoroughly gendered, even in this day and age – tells us still more about what people value, and how they express those values through their eating preferences.

I love food, and I love talking about food, so I really tried to reign myself in while in class, so that my students could reflect on their families’ Thanksgiving traditions. I was quite pleased when my students were able to verbalize which aspects of their family meals were traditional and which were variations or innovations. A surprising number of students recounted how That One Random Dish (Like Oyster Dressing) Become Traditional Because An Elderly Male Relative Likes It Even Though He’s The Only One (again, I’m seeing gendered patterns; is it any surprise that eccentric whims are tolerated when people in positions of authority demand to have their way even if no one else likes what they want?).

I didn’t talk much about food and religion with my class, in part because it’s not my specific area of study, and I didn’t really prepare a lot of material on that topic since we had plenty to discuss anyway. Besides, I figured that they’d just had Thanksgiving, so those food traditions would be fresh in their minds.

But it turns out that despite the fact that I don’t identify as religious, religion has influenced my food preferences in one major way: I don’t really like pork.

Yes, read that sentence again: I don’t really like pork. And I can’t pinpoint any logical reason why. Except for religion. Even though I’m not religious.

Bear with me for a moment (or, ya know, a paragraph or three). My mom’s side of the family is Jewish. Not really in the religious sense, but more in the cultural sense: we celebrate the main Jewish holidays by getting together with our family and preparing the appropriate foods, but we don’t go to temple or pray much. It’s more about the communal and family aspects of the religion.

My family is also composed of serious foodies. So we never bothered keeping kosher, in part because there were just too many tasty things out there to eat. My mom and dad each traveled through Europe in their college years, and so they would eat whatever was available to them. I ended up doing the same thing, because while I feel strongly that treating animals ethically is important, it’s also important to me to be a gracious guest at dinners, to be able to try new things while traveling, and to have an easy way to get enough protein and iron and other nutrients because I live a very active lifestyle. So while I’ve dabbled in vegetarianism in the past, and I still cook many delicious meals with minimal or no meat, I consider myself an omnivore these days.

So, religion enters the equation because while we ate plenty of shellfish and other non-kosher foods, pork didn’t cross the dinner table too often. This was also a matter of personal preference, as both of my parents find that pork can easily dry out, even in the hands of an experienced cook. So it just wasn’t something we ate very often. It became a habit to substitute other meats, and this even extended to (dare I utter the holy word?) bacon. Yes, BACON. I grew up eating turkey bacon. Most everyone who learns this about me pities me. I don’t think I had much in the way of real bacon til I was an adult, adrift in the world on my own.

Since leaving home, I’ve experimented with cooking with pork products, and I find that while I tend to enjoy bacon (duh) and other cured pork products like prosciutto and sausages (especially from Smoking Goose!), plain ol’ pork doesn’t do it for me. Loins, chops, you name it, I’ve tried it. Once in a blue moon I enjoy ribs or pork belly. But my poor partner (who’s from Texas if that tells you anything) keeps asking me to cook pork and I keep responding with things like, “I’ll think about it… ooh, look, wild-caught salmon is on sale!”

To the friends who have fed me pork in the past (especially my Philly friends, who fed me pork from a local pig that was raised sustainably!): don’t worry, I’m sure I enjoyed that meal (yes, especially that one). It’s just that I don’t seek out pork as a main course unless I’m in a very particular mood.

What I really mean to say in this long-winded excursion through my personal and family life is that our food preferences are acquired largely unconsciously, through means not of our own making. A religion that I do not identify with except in terms of cultural practices caused me to not be exposed to a certain food, which I do not really care for still today. The texture/taste preferences of my parents – who exposed me and my sister to a TON of food, both domestic and exotic – influenced my own feelings about how food should taste, look, feel, and smell. These factors, so far out of my control yet so essential in shaping my identity, have indelibly marked me, even as I, a fully-grown individual, can consciously make changes to and adapt to new environments.

This is what we study when we study food: the role of culture in molding individuals, who do their best to mold culture right back. Many of the forces shaping our lives are out of our control, if we’re even conscious enough of them to think of them in those terms. And yet, as the study of folklore shows constantly, individuals creatively draw upon cultural traditions as resources in the struggle for self-determination, self-expression, and even survival.

When I say that I don’t really care for pork, I’m making a statement about myself that is larger than myself. Analyzing food is an entry point to humanity through the lenses of the individual, the society, the family, religion, ethics, gender, social class, ethnicity, nationality, and much, much more. It’s kind of amazing that what we put into our mouths yields so much rich information.

And now I’m hungry again.

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