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Teaching at the Winter Bazaar (March 2014); Photo by Curtis Claspell

I didn’t enter dance or academia expecting to love teaching, but I’ve found myself teaching dance and teaching college-levels classes for almost a decade now each, and enjoying both opportunities a bunch. The more I teach dance, though, the more I find it necessary to reflect on the role of the teacher, and what kind of trust she must build with her students.

Perhaps the academic classroom is so structured that this question didn’t really enter my mind until I began building a dance community that has me teaching and rehearsing multiple days a week. Being in sustained contact with my dance students, both in person and online, has been a unique experience. And it’s not that I don’t adore and benefit from contact with my college students, but there are many boundaries there that don’t exist with my dance students. I socialize with my dance students, and even party and (gasp) drink with them. They’ve been to my home, and I’ve been to many of their homes, for practices, craft nights, movie nights, and so on. We carpool to events. We’ve worn each other’s costumes for performances, and gifted each other costume items and snacks and caffeinated beverages. Very few of these activities would be appropriate for me to pursue with my college students, but I don’t feel they cross a line with my dance students. In part this is because dance in our community is a hobby (whereas one’s college performance arguably has a more “real” impact on one’s life), and in part this is because the student-teacher relationship in a dance context is often less power-laden than the student-teacher relationship in an academic context.

The interesting – and unique – thing that’s happening to me in the dance classroom these days is that I’m having to ask my students to put immense amounts of trust in me, and I’m struggling to prove myself worthy of that trust daily. Belly dance is intimately connected to body image, which for many women in American culture, is a fraught topic. One of the major reasons I perform belly dance is to challenge expectations about ideal feminine beauty. So, the first challenge I face in asking students to trust me is that I’m basically saying, You are beautiful as you are, and you will be beautiful when you dance. We receive so many mixed messages from our capitalist culture that I’m not surprised that this message might be hard to swallow.

Since I’m trying to build a community based on the radical notion that women’s bodies in motion are beautiful, regardless of one’s age or build, I have to ask my students to trust me when I tell them that they can do this. American Tribal Style® Belly Dance is particularly well-suited to making women look good when they dance, in large part thanks to the richly layered and customizable costumes. For some women, just taking that first step and signing up for a belly dance style requires trust. For others, taking classes is fine, but then baring their bellies (which I don’t require) or dancing in front of others is what’s tough. In order to encourage them to take a chance on me as an instructor, I try to cultivate an upbeat, cheerful teacher persona. I encourage questions and I never shame anyone for not picking up on a move right away, or needing to ask the same technique question again, or whatever. Shame has no place in the belly dance classroom, or any classroom, really.

(on a related note, though written in reference to the academic classroom, I agree with this professor’s statement: “Education is about students. It is about caring for them, pushing them, helping them, working with them rather than against them. Take a good long look at your reasons for being in higher ed. If students are not at the center, you are doing it wrong.”

Further, since practicing belly dance often comes with the hope of eventually performing it, I’m having to ask my students to trust me when it comes to evaluating their readiness to perform. This is where it gets really tricky. I’ve hopefully established that they can trust me to be their teacher and to build up their confidence… but now I have to objectively evaluate whether they’ve mastered a certain skill-set enough to confidently perform it on stage. Performing introduces so many variables that dancers must be comfortable with the basic movements. If that stuff isn’t committed to muscle memory, there’s so much that can go wrong. It’s never, like, catastrophic when someone forgets or messes up a move on stage, but I try to prevent that from happening because it can be unpleasant, and I’d prefer for my dancers to associate pleasant memories with dancing.

So the weird duality I’m noticing here is that I have to ask them to trust me enough that I can be responsible both for building up their confidence, and for gently criticizing their shortcomings. I try to approach this tension with an air of humility; after all, I’m not perfect either. Goodness knows I could always use more practice, and when I’m traveling to a city where there’s another certified ATS® teacher, I try to go in for classes so that I can get technique corrections or new ideas.

Hopefully my students recognize my intentions and trust me, and hopefully they understand that when I correct them, it’s all in service of building their confidence back up again when they can grasp a concept correctly. Getting us all dancing together – which takes a ton of work! – in turn builds the community. And the stronger and more loving our community is, the better we are as dancers, and as people. Seeing my dance students flourish in this community is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever experienced, and so muddling through the cognitive dissonance of how to build students up while encouraging them to better is well worth it.

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Me performing an American Tribal Style® Belly Dance solo(photo by Curtis Claspell)

Me performing an American Tribal Style® Belly Dance solo
(photo by Curtis Claspell)

If you haven’t already, go read Part 1 of this post in which I discuss various issues such as the multiethnic/multicultural origins of belly dance, why belly dance has political implications in both the West and the East, and why this is a complicated topic that shouldn’t be handled in a simplistically ignorant and racist way like the original Salon post author did.

Now that you’re caught up, let’s turn to the distinction between cultural appropriation and cultural borrowing. I’m aware that there’s a large body of scholarship out there on this topic, but here I’m relying more on work on privilege.

As I established in my first post, cultures come into contact and borrow from one another. It’s just what they do. Ask any anthropologist, folklorist, or historian, and we’ll tell you that cultures are dynamic rather than static. We’ll tell you about the concept of “invented traditions,” which really applies to every tradition, since they all had to start somewhere. From engagement rings to Thanksgiving dinner, every tradition a culture has got its start at a definite point in time, and from then on accrued meaning and significance to that culture, sometimes to the point of people not being able to imagine life without it. Belly dance is, as you might’ve guessed, an invented tradition. Why it became so meaningful is simultaneously kinda arbitrary (why do some art forms thrive while others don’t?) and also revealing as to the values of these various cultures.

In my mind, the questions we as Western belly dancers should be tackling are: where does belly dancing fall in the borrowing-appropriation spectrum? How does Western (and perhaps, PERHAPS white) privilege play into this? And how can we respectfully listen to the claims of others while defending our rights as global citizens to partake in art forms that appeal to us?

First, I think it’s important to note that appropriation occurs within a power imbalance. There are few components to this:

  • When the transferred item or genre is sacred and it is taken out of that context and put into a secular one, we’re probably looking at cultural appropriation, not borrowing. See: appropriation of Native American cultures. (related: Jezebel has a pretty good take on this issue, specifically using Native American examples)
  • When the borrowing culture operates on stereotypes of the original culture, stereotypes that are detrimental and affect real people’s lives, we’re probably dealing with cultural appropriation. See: blackface.
  • When the borrowed-from culture is a minority that remains powerless politically and voiceless culturally, and thus no reciprocal exchange is possible, we’re looking at appropriation. See: depictions of Gypsies/Roma.

Now let’s look at Westerners who belly dance and see how these criteria fit. First, belly dance is not sacred in most of the contemporary and historical cultural contexts in which it originates (whew, lotta qualifiers there, see how complex this phenomenon is?!). Belly dance is a social dance, performed in various situations by different groupings of people, from informal women-only gatherings, to wedding parties, to formal entertainers in dining establishments. So, I don’t feel there’s any evidence that Western belly dancers are polluting something sacred here.

Do Western belly dancers promote stereotypes of Middle Easterners? Possibly. A lot of art involves highly refined aesthetic forms, which do carry the possibility of stereotype and caricature. But that’s one big reason I’m drawn to American Tribal Style® Belly Dance – it’s syncretic on purpose. We’re not trying to emulate any single tribe or culture out there; we’re making our own urban tribe, coming together as a community on our own terms. Our movements borrow from Spanish flamenco and Indian classical dance as well as Middle Eastern folkloric dances. Our costumes draw from disparate cultures as well (including our own – there’re a ton of fabulous body mods to be seen in ATS, from tattoos to piercings), so we’re not mimicking any one existing culture. So tribal and tribal fusion dancing helps me navigate this facet of the issue; I’m not sure how other belly dancers handle it.

Are Middle Eastern dancers helpless and voiceless in this debate? Obviously not, as the original Salon blogger has demonstrated. I hope this doesn’t sound too flippant, but it’s a public part of their culture that they display at home and abroad – if it had been secret, or spiritual, that might have been different. It’s not like we wrested it from their innermost sanctuaries and profaned it by bringing it out into the open. Instead, representatives of these various Middle Eastern brought the dance over to the U.S. (and other countries) when they immigrated here. They shaped it, and continue to do so. They get some of our stuff (like language) and we get some of their stuff (like dance). Is there still a power dynamic? Unfortunately, yes. Orientalism is alive and well. We’re still wading through the effects of colonial powers in the Middle East and the rest of the world. That stuff ain’t fun. But I don’t think learning about another culture through dance is the most offensive thing out there when it comes to navigating these tensions.

…Which brings me to my final point. If you are completely oblivious to the fact that your engagement with another culture could potentially be causing harm (even if it’s simply perceived harm, like emotional upset, without a “real” physical component), then you are operating from a place of privilege. I know privilege can be a sticky topic, but I like these two web comics which demystify it without shaming or blaming. I also have written about privilege and its gendered dynamics here, and how good intentions can still cause harm here.

Okay, back to the intersection of privilege with cultural appropriation! I really like this Everyday Feminism blog post about navigating privilege, in which the author states: “We have a responsibility to listen to people of marginalized cultures, understand as much as possible the blatant and subtle ways in which their cultures have been appropriated and exploited, and educate ourselves enough to make informed choices when it comes to engaging with people of other cultures.”

So, because I recognize that I come from a place of Western privilege and white privilege, I have to acknowledge that maybe my actions are doing harm to others, but that harm is imperceptible to me. I have to admit that I could be wrong, and I have to be open to listening respectfully to the views of those who feel that they were wronged. I have to understand that the negativity is likely not about me personally, but rather the systemic injustices that I happen to benefit from, and which are being repeated in my blithe borrowing without acknowledging the historical circumstances that shape the exchange. G. Willow Wilson asks Western dancers to keep in mind that, when performing belly dance, they have a moral obligation “to look that privilege steadily in the face.” I think that’s a great starting place. But so is a reasoned and researched examination of the issues at stake, which I have tried to provide in this blog post series.

Even with all these factors to consider, I don’t think Westerners performing belly dance is the most egregious form of cultural appropriation out there. I think it is a borrowing and an exchange more than an appropriation. I think there is room for critique, and there is room for positive change. I think the original Salon author is entitled to her feelings (because an important component of recognizing one’s privilege is recognizing that you don’t get to tell other people what they have a right to feel), though I also think she misunderstands the diversity and complexity of belly dance both in history and in contemporary times.

While most belly dancers are, I believe, already engaging with these issues, I’m hoping that it opens the wider public up to these kinds of discussions. I hope they look beyond the harmful “harem girl” fantasy associated with belly dance – harmful to all women, regardless of skin color – to get a sense of the dance’s richness, variations, and textures. Further, I hope that Western dancers will be a bit more thoughtful about what we borrow, and how, and from whom – and also what we give back.

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Photo by Curtis Claspell

Me, a “white” belly dancer      Photo by Curtis Claspell

By now there’s been a fair bit of comment on that infamous Salon post, Why I Can’t Stand White Belly Dancers, but I thought I would add my perspective as a folklorist and a (white-ish-I-guess) belly dancer.

One of my first reactions was along the lines of: um, are there no “white” people in the Middle East? How are we defining whiteness? Do Jews (which would include my ancestors) count? This response by Yessenia emphasizes the arbitrariness of ethnic categories, pointing out that a lot of well-known belly dancers might look like white impostors, but they’re actually of Lebanese, Egyptian, or Turkish descent.

As a folklorist, and as someone who’s actually done some research on the history of belly dancing, I know that this form of expressive culture – like many others – is transnational. Cultures have always come into contact and have always exchanged folklore, whether stories or dances or foods. This isn’t to say that there’s no power imbalance in the exchange (there usually is), but rather that this phenomenon is as old as humanity itself.

The ridiculousness of saying “X ethnicity shouldn’t practice Y art form” has already been mocked in The Washington Post. Besides, there have been Western influences on belly dance, so it’s sorta ours too. As Nazneen points out in her blog post A “brown” dancer responds to “Why I can’t stand white belly dancers,” contemporary belly dance “was shaped by Mahmoud Reda, an Egyptian dancer who popularized Egyptian folk dance for the stage by blending it with Western ballet. (Interestingly, he was inspired by the likes of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, by his own admission).” Determining the true origin of an expressive culture form is a knotty problem, as folklorists know, so I always like to remind people of how complex these questions are.

And the origins of belly dance are pretty complex. Quoted in The Atlantic, Dr. Ruth Webb, an expert in performance during antiquity, states: “with regional variations, something like Raqs Sharqi seems to have been known throughout the Mediterranean and certainly flourished in Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean before the arrival of the Arabs in the 7th century.” Very old. Multiethnic (even pre-Arab, by some accounts). You get the idea.

And yet because of the Salon author’s focus on essentializing and universalizing race/ethnicity, she misses a valuable opportunity to critique the colonialist, imperialist, and orientalist problems with belly dance in both the East and the West. Autumn Ward’s response to the piece cogently points out: “For Egyptian women from the Muslim Arab cultural majority, dance is simply not a respectable profession, so dancing professionally is not an option. This is a firmly entrenched cultural attitude that predates current conservative politics by centuries.” In other words, Egyptian society has made it unacceptable for women (and in many cases, men – read some Anthony Shay!) to take up belly dancing without being accused of also being a sex worker. This is a problem of local politics/beliefs, but then outsiders are blamed for wanting to perform a dance because they aren’t held to the same standards? Hm. This is my skeptical face.

G. Willow Wilson also points out some of the political implications of Westerners borrowing belly dance when she writes: “When you shimmy around a stage in a hip band and call yourself Aliya Selim and receive praise and encouragement, while the real Aliya Selims are shortening their names to Ally and wondering if their accent is too strong to land that job interview, if the boss will look askance at their headscarf, if the kids at school are going to make fun of their children, guess what: you are exercising considerable privilege.” There is a hostile, anti-Arab, anti-Muslim sentiment in many parts of the West right now, and belly dancers should be informed and possibly even active about these topics, just as we educate ourselves about the cultures framing the dance when it’s performed “over there.”

On the whole, I agree with professional dancer and Middle Eastern scholar Asharah‘s take in her essay, I’m A White Woman and I Belly Dance, in which she writes:

“What this article wants to be is about imperialism and power. It wants to be an article about the domination of the ‘West’ over the Middle East. It wants to take a jab at the exploitation of Western powers (read: British, French, and American) of the Middle East and its people. It wants to be an article about Orientalism. It wants to be about white privilege in the United States.  All of these topics are valid and should be discussed…But, as a means for bridging gaps of understanding between the Arab world and ‘white people,’ it fails. It fails because of its own racism, sweeping generalizations, and bigotry.”

Bingo. As artists and world citizens, we ought to be open to discussions about the political implications of cultural borrowings. But as belly dancer and artist Tempest writes in her post Nobody’s Right If Everybody’s Wrong, what tends to happen in these discussions is people stating, “it doesn’t matter who you are/where you come from/what you say/how you say it: you are wrong, so shut up. Which doesn’t empower or help anyone.”

I agree that there does need to be room to address the grievances raised in this debate, and obviously it’s not my place to tell someone that they’re wrong to be offended and that their feelings aren’t valid. As far as how to productively have that kind of conversation, well, that’s coming up in Part 2!

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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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As someone who wears the “blogger” hat quite frequently, I always wonder how much sharing constitutes oversharing. Does my audience really need to know if I’m feeling cranky and bloated because I’m on my period, or that I made yet another batch of jam with farmers market berries, or that I’ve been lifting weights for X number of consecutive weeks and I’m happy with the results? On a less formal level than blogging, do I write about these things on my Facebook, to keep my faraway friends and family appraised of how I’m doing?

After giving it some thought, I’ve decided that yes, I’m in favor of what might be considered by some to be oversharing. There are both personal and political reasons for this.

On the personal front, I was raised in a household that was very tolerant of difference. We held (and continue to hold) some rather non-conformist values, and I was exposed to multiple cultures at an early age (it helps when your mom is an art teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District, working primarily with mentally handicapped high-schoolers). As my parents took me and my sister on various trips, we wandered through art museum after art museum, and later ventured to Europe. It became incredibly obvious that what is considered polite or appropriate varies by subculture and by region. This awareness of how arbitrary social norms are influences me to want to challenge them on principle, to push people to see if they realize whether their responses are due to socially conditioning or individually held values (as though it were easy to distinguish between the two!).

I’m a firm believer in respecting other people’s boundaries, whether we’re talking about giving consent for intimate acts or social interactions. And yet I see no reason to artificially enforce cultural norms that are arbitrary to the point of being silly. Don’t get me wrong, my parents raised me to be polite – but I will bring up politicized issues like the way women’s bodies are treated in our culture, from advertising to fat-shaming, at every opportunity. I will also include my own personal experiences in these conversations. If that kind of oversharing offends you, well, you’d better own that and tell me so, because I’ll respect your boundaries – but you need to be self-aware enough to set them in the first place.

This leads us into my political reasons for oversharing. I hinted at them above, when listing activities that some people might not care to hear about, whether thinking they’re extraneous or icky. What did all those descriptions have in common? They relate to bodies: eating and cooking bodies, menstruating bodies, exercising bodies. As I’ve discussed over at, dualism is an insidious Western mentality that separates minds from bodies, valuing the mental over the physical, the rational over the passionate, and the masculine over the feminine. By talking so much about my body and related activities, I open myself to various kinds of criticism: that I spend too much time in the physical world and not enough in the mental realm that as an academic I’m supposed to inhabit; that I am shallow; that I am vain. The gendered dimensions of dualism make it clear that women are more likely to be aligned with the body than men are, resulting in our devaluing and degradation.

So I share about my life in a small gesture of resistance to the prevalence of dualism. I share about my life in order to say yes, I’m a woman, and yes, I happen to be extraordinarily intelligent, but I do not neglect my physical existence, and if you have a problem with that, well, you should work on those unconscious biases of yours while I’m over here busily (and happily) living my life.

There’s another reason that I share, sometimes to the point of oversharing. I’m painfully aware that people like me did not and do not always have a voice. Very few written records of historical women’s daily experiences exist. Those that do are, in European history at least, overwhelmingly noble (as not many lower-class women could read or write). Other people at the margins of society – gays and lesbians and transfolks, people of color in white-dominated societies, and so on – have also been voiceless and powerless in many situations, throughout many centuries. This makes me angry. I know that our oppressions and struggles are not equal or symmetrical, but I’m angry nonetheless. I’m angry that our experiences get lost and neglected because literacy and education are not yet considered universal human rights. I’m angry that history was written by the victors, most of whom were wealthy, Christian, heterosexual, monogamous, cis-gendered, neurotypical, European white men. I’m angry that even with the wealth of information at my fingertips thanks to the Internet, I still won’t be able to learn about what women’s lives were like in historical periods when men’s lives, and the lives of the rich, and the religious upper castes, were the sole ones being documented.

As a folklorist, I believe in the transformative power of personal narratives, those stories we tell based on our experiences. I want to see everyone’s lives documented. We all have stories, and those stories are treasures.

As a feminist, I want to see women, women’s lives, and women’s experiences and stories valued at least as much as those of men. I want to see that for all oppressed peoples no matter why they’re being oppressed, whether it’s skin color or religion or social class or sexuality or gender identity or nationality or (dis)ability.

So I share about my life. Sometimes I overshare. I broadcast it to the world, documenting it on the screen and in pen and ink. Maybe these small acts of resistance matter as such, and maybe they don’t, maybe they border on solipsism and narcissism. But I share because I know there are people like me living right now who cannot. Because if I’d been born perhaps one century ago, and definitely two or three centuries or more ago, I would not have been able to document my life.

Again and again, I return to the feminist slogan “the personal is political.” And yet I long for a day when it will no longer be useful. Perhaps documenting lives, even to the point of oversharing, is a step that will help us imagine that future.

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Here is the CFP for the International Conference of Young Folklorists, “Theoretical Frames and Empirical Research,” that will take place in Vilnius, April 15-17, 2012. I’ll still be a visiting Ph.D. student in Tartu, Estonia at that time, and it’s only, hm, an 8-hour bus ride or so, so I’m in!

I’m really excited about the topic, because it’s something I tackle in my dissertation. To that end, I came up with a paper proposal (with an unwieldy but descriptive title, sigh) that I’d like to share:

Where the Empirical Meets the Theoretical: Merging Quantitative and Qualitative Approaches to Fairy Tales

Culture is patterned—so numbers and relationships between them matter—but culture is also multilayered, complex, symbolic, and subjectively experienced. Because culture, and especially expressive culture, can both be measured and felt, our research needs to incorporate both. In this paper, I explore how quantitative and qualitative approaches to fairy tales best help illuminate their various meanings. Drawing examples from my doctoral work on gender and the body in classical European fairy tales, I demonstrate how shifting between theoretical and empirical lenses enhances the research process.

The international tale type ATU 516, “Faithful John,” provides an excellent case study for an analysis that utilizes the intersection of empirical and theoretical frames. “Faithful John” is a highly canonical fairy tale with a male protagonist, appearing in classical collections such as Basile and the Grimms as well as ethnographic collections from various Indo-European-speaking regions and beyond. By counting the body nouns and adjectives that appeared in four versions of the tale, I was able to empirically ground an interpretation that was also theoretically informed by feminist theory, masculinity studies, and folkloristics. Additionally, I moved between close and distant readings of the texts, drawing insights from a broad study of men’s bodies in 233 tales, and then applying those findings to the narrower sample of ATU 516 texts discussed in this case study. Ultimately, my goal is to show how folklorists can benefit from combining quantitative and qualitative interpretive methods, fusing the empirical and the theoretical in our research regardless of the topic.


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Now that I’ve finished my dissertation, I feel that I can begin to blog in earnest.

Yes, it’s only a first draft, and yes, no doubt there’ll be revisions, but getting all those words down on the page was an important step in ushering in the beginning of the end. And even though I have academic papers to be writing for conferences and publications, having a first draft done frees up a lot of mental and creative energy for this kind of writing.

I’ve always loved writing. Yet I find myself strangely hesitant to commit words to paper in this blog. It’s taken a bit of pushing to get myself to make this first post-dissertation post. Reminding myself that writing is something I do whether I’m publishing it or not has helped. Reminding myself that this isn’t writing for a grade or for an editor has also helped – this blog is my venue to share my thoughts (scholarly for the most part) with the rest of the world. Reading this irreverently funny blog post 25 Things Writers Should Stop Doing has also helped give me the kick in the pants I need to start committing words to the screen NOW instead of the day after tomorrow.

So, since I mentioned finishing my dissertation at the outset of this post, I wanted to briefly discuss one of the issues to which I devote a full chapter of my diss: dualism. I explain what dualism is over at, linking it to gender identity and sexual stereotypes, but there’s a lot more to be said about dualism.

In particular, I’m really fascinated by mind-body dualism, especially its gendered dimensions (in most  Western philosophical constructions, men=mind while women=body). I found evidence for this in my study of classical fairy tales, in which women were more likely to be linked with body description adjectives, particularly those evaluating beauty and those having to do with skin, while men are more likely to shed their bodies through physical transformations in the tales I evaluated. It seems clear to me that fairy tales contain elements of gendered mind-body dualism, and this is possibly one reason for the enduring popularity of fairy tales in the West: they reinforce existing cultural paradigms, and are thus perceived as important and pleasing.

There’s probably more I could’ve done with dualism in my dissertation, but I really had to wrap the thing up at some point. I would, however, like to see more research done on gendered dimensions of dualism in the future. For example, @kinseyinstitute linked to this article on placebos, which gives a number of instances in which the “mind over matter” attitude works wonders. Some of these cases studies were gender-specific, as when “Fertility rates have been found to improve in women getting a placebo, perhaps because they experience a decrease in stress.” I would be really curious to know how placebos hold up when filtered by gender, since they represent such an interesting aspect of the mind-body relationship; do placebos tend to work better for men or women under certain circumstances? Does it matter whether women perceived themselves as more embodied than men do, according to dualistic doctrine? Or is gender not even a factor in the effectiveness of placebos? Perhaps dualisms are prevalent in some elements of our lives, but not others?

Anyway, hopefully this is the first of many blog posts to come. We’ll see if I can maintain momentum!

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