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Backbends: another reason belly dance and yoga go together. Photo by Paul Patton, from Bloomington Belly Dances 2013.

Backbends: another reason belly dance and yoga go together. Photo by Paul Patton, from Bloomington Belly Dances 2013.

I’m in the middle of a 30-Day Challenge at my local hot yoga studio (the goal is to do 30 consecutive days of yoga), and it’s not only thoroughly challenging me, but also inspiring me to reflect on the different things I get out of yoga and dance.

With dance – specifically, American Tribal Style® Belly Dance – I’m kinda at the top of the local food chain. I’m a certified teacher of the style, and I run a troupe, and we even get paid to perform (sometimes). I’m deeply honored that my students trust me to be their teacher. I love this dance form, and I love finding ways to challenge myself, up my game, and improve my technique.

But for the most part, for me to view dance with new eyes, I need to play in another sandbox (or dance style). I’ve been doing some of that too recently, which has been more rewarding than I can really put into words right now. Still, the feeling persists: when it comes to dance, I’m a pretty okay dancer. The things that challenge me are things I’ll eventually get a handle on. For the most part, I’m competent at it.

With yoga, though, I feel like a complete beginner every time I unroll my mat. It’s very humbling, and I love it. I fall all the time in balancing poses. I can’t do a handstand or even a headstand yet. My warrior lunges are frequently shaky and need correction.

I am grateful to have yoga in my life right now, in part because it feeds into my desire for a healthy body, in part because it helps calm my jittery anxious mind, and also in part because it serves as a contrast to my “yep, I got this” attitude as a professional dancer. When I do yoga, I’m reminded of how much I have yet to learn… and the fact that it’s okay to be a perpetual beginner. I think it’s good for me to have a regular practice that involves both mind and body that is explicitly NOT about achievement, goals, and status. Because while I love building the local tribal belly dance community (which relies on me promoting myself as a competent teacher/performer hence all that achievement/goal/status stuff coming into play), I like having other modes of exploring what my body can do.

I doubt it’s just me, either. I would hazard a guess that a lot of people could benefit from having parts of their lives where they funnel their achievements, and other parts where they aim simply to show up, be present, and enjoy. I know I’ll be both relieved and sad when this 30-Day Challenge is over, but hopefully I’ll carry forward this experience of enjoying humility.

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Me in the Carmel Public Library, looking thoughtful (as I feel now). Photo by James Moriarty.

I’ve been talking about this idea to a handful of folks, and now I’m implementing it: I’m taking a real summer break. This has some implications for how I comport myself online and in the rest of life, so thought I’d explain those here.

Like many scholars, I’m a highly-driven, passionate, disciplined person. This can have its downsides, though, like when I work myself into stress-induced illness or don’t make time for the relationships that are important to me. I went straight from high school to undergrad to grad school, and since starting grad school I did “everything right” to try to get a job as a professor, which meant spending almost every waking minute on activities that would enhance my CV. Even after finishing my PhD, I remained in “production mode”: doing extensive research, publishing, and presenting while also adjuncting and freelance writing.

In other words, I’ve never really had a break or a vacation since starting grad school. Even on trips, I had an article to be working on. Or a conference proposal to write. Or a syllabus to finish. Or grading, grading, grading.

This summer will not be the true break I wish it were. I am not going to be doing absolutely nothing (in fact, I fear I am incapable of doing nothing unless forced to by circumstances outside my control). I am going to be nurturing my dance community, visiting my family, maintaining friendships/relationships, and doing freelance writing to bring in some money, because hey, one of the downsides of adjuncting is that there’s no guarantee of summer employment and it’s not like you can claim unemployment either. Like many, I feel that contingent work has begun to make the rest of my life feel contingent too.

Since reflecting on normalized weekend work in academia, I’ve been facing the real prospect of burn-out. What’s the point of working so hard for so little reward, I wonder. I’ve enjoyed the decade+ journey of becoming a professional in my field but I’ve spent 3 years on the job market only landing local contract teaching gigs (which I do find fulfilling; they’re just not full-time work hence not long-term sustainable). I love what I do, but do I love it enough to keep doing it when it takes an obvious toll on the rest of my life? When I find myself writing so many qualifications, so many “yes, buts” when I describe my experience, how am I to deal with this deep ambivalence, this weariness over a layer of hurt/frustration? (Curious why academic rejection seems to hurt so much more than other kinds? read this crowd-sourced list for some insight)

I am taking to heart some of Rebecca Schuman’s suggestions about how to recover from academia, including the notion that making space to de-tox might help. And that might involve limiting contact with the kinds of people and pressures that academics normally encounter. If I can’t afford to travel to more than one or two conferences per year, do I really need to be seeing ads for them? If I can’t justify time to work on unpaid academic writing projects because I’m either working on paid writing to bring income to my household, or domestic tasks that I voluntarily take on because I’m not the breadwinner so I feel I should… do I really need to be seeing those CFPs? That sort of thing. And, if I am being honest with myself, I want to be happy for my colleagues that are succeeding in academia, but it just makes me feel bad about my own failures. There, I said it. It’s shallow, and it’s selfish, but every post I see from a recent graduate about getting a job reminds me that I’m lingering in adjunct-land, which is not what I had envisioned for myself. And wondering why they got the job and I didn’t is unproductive, since I won’t ever know.

We all know that the academic job market is cruelly arbitrary, lacking in transparency, cult-like, and drawn-out to the point of making planning the rest of one’s life an absurd impracticality. Describing the hiring process to non-academics makes it sound ridiculous beyond words. Knowing these things makes me feel somewhat better about my “failure” to get a job, but still. I feel pretty crummy about my situation and I’m trying to change that.

To that end, I’m going to remove many of the academics I follow from my Twitter and Facebook lists, unless you’re more on the post-ac/alt-ac side of things, or unless I follow  you because you’re a friend first, and an academic second. It’s nothing personal, and I may restore y’all once the fall semester starts and I’m feeling excited about the course I’m teaching, and once I’m doing… whatever it is I’ll be doing in the fall in addition to teaching. Which is hopefully something I’ll figure out this summer.

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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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