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how learning I was sick got me healthy: a story about bodies and brains and love

26 Jun

Until earlier this year, I did not know that I am allergic to the overwhelming majority of the food I used to eat. I spent, then, twenty four years not knowing how to care for my body or what a healthy body feels like. I didn’t know what it meant to feel full or hungry without being in pain; I didn’t know that most people don’t get crippling stomach pain a few hours after a meal, that most people don’t wake up aching and nauseous every morning, that most people don’t spend most nights holding their distended stomachs, wondering when this round of pain would end. Surprise, Martina! That was not normal. You did not have to live like that. Who knew…

That was not normal.

Since finding out about my impressive array of food allergies a few months ago, I’ve changed my diet radically and become, it sometimes feels, the proud inhabitant of a whole new body. The effects of my lifestyle change have been huge, noticeable, and almost totally positive. First and foremost, I feel better physically; my digestion works, I’m not malnourished and bloated anymore, and I can keep food down. These are the basics, you know? But I also feel different in ways that have totally surprised me; I can focus better and longer, I no longer have severe headaches all the time (the amount of money I save on ibuprofin almost makes up for the increased cost of my groceries), I sleep so much better and I wake up without joint pain. My hair is thicker and shinier. My skin is healthier. I don’t even have seasonal allergies this year. It’s amazing what treating your body as it wants to be treated will do for you!

But as I said above, I also feel like I am inhabiting a new space. My relationship to my body has been profoundly altered by addressing my allergies, affording me a measure of peace within myself that I have never felt before. It’s like this:

As with many people, I’ve long harbored a resentment and distrust of my body. Why doesn’t it do what I want it to do? What doesn’t it look like the bodies I see in the media around me? Why does it hunger and ache and desire in ways that I do not want it to? Think about the implications of these all-too-common sentiments. What underlies them is a distinct sense that the self and the body are separate, that the body is a physical vessel for an autonomous brain. How curious a thing to think. And yet how absolutely common! Men and women alike walk around with this body-brain division playing out in our internal speech, telling ourselves (schismed as we are) that we shouldn’t want or need or hunger as we do, that we are somehow separate from the thing that is wanting and needing and hungering. How imprisoned we are by this conversation. Whatever individual form it takes, however it manifests for each individual, this is, I believe, nearly universal (though I believe women experience this with an acuteness that the majority of men don’t, unless of course those men are not able-bodied or cisgendered or are otherwise under the lens of culture in the way that all female bodies are). How sad for us as a species. My older sister and mother (both valiant survivors of eating disorders), my friends, my students… so many of us seem to tell this particular tale about the body we live in and the brain that does the living.

…that’s what treating my food allergies has taught me: that food, hunger, the need for sustenance, is not an obstacle to be overcome but a source of joy and love and nourishment.

I‘ve lived my whole life with this story about myself, that I was fat and weak and a problem. While I’ve never had an eating disorder, I would characterize my eating behavior as disordered in that eating was always a problem to be overcome, not a profoundly important act of self care and self love. And that’s what treating my food allergies has taught me: that food, hunger, the need for sustenance, is not an obstacle to be overcome but a source of joy and love and nourishment. And how surprised I’ve been to learn this lesson! Because truly, eating is more physically time-consuming now than it ever has been. I’m now (mostly) a vegan, so I find that I eat constantly to keep myself feeling full (so much green leafy vegetables! so many legumes!). Because my food allergies are complex and pervasive, I also have to think more about food than ever before; if I’m hungry when I’m out and about, I can’t just wander into a cafe and order from the menu. In fact, I’ve not been able to simply order from a menu since I was diagnosed. I have to plan ahead and eat strategically and be vigilant about checking ingredients and carry safe foods with me and all manner of other things that I never had to do before. This means that feeding myself is a lot more involved than it ever was before. This certainly sounds, I know, like eating is exactly the obstacle I one paragraph ago claimed it was not.

And yet. And yet my brain is surprisingly free of the negative speech with which it used to be inundated. And yet I find myself feeling joy when I sit down to a plate full of food. And yet I feel satisfaction when I rise, sated, from my now-empty plate. And yet the voice in the back of my brain — the slick and insidious Martina who would slink to whisper in my ear after a meal that I was worthless and fat and that my longing for food betokened a deeply flawed character — has lost what once seemed its indescribable power to make me feel horrible, wretched, despairing. And yet I do not desire the foods upon which I used to binge. And yet food now seems not like a drug with which I can momentarily dull psychic pain, not like a way to fill some psychic hole within me, but like a tool to bring pleasure to my mouth and energy to my body. And yet I eat when I am hungry and stop when I am full and do not feel ashamed to experience those physical states. And yet I no longer wear my body like a costume awkwardly hemmed for a different woman, but like a custom made gown that fits my me like a well-loved glove.

When I committed to feeding myself respectfully and with kindness, when I committed to accepting my body for what it is (a body without the enzymes necessary to digest milk and eggs, among other things), I had to also accept the other things that my body is (knobby-kneed, prone to bruising, freckled and spotted all over, graying, among other things).

How strange, and what a gift. How profoundly surprised I have been to discover this new relationship to my body. I am not saying that I never feel bad about my body. I pessimistically believe that there is no way to live in this world without feeling conflicted about one’s body — there are too many systems that exist solely to encourage that experience for anyone to be wholly untouched by those messages. But I am saying that in taking on the grand project of Getting Better and Learning How to Take Care of Myself, I reoriented my notion of my body, of my self, and of the role that food — nourishment, sustenance — played in that relationship. When I committed to feeding myself respectfully and with kindness, when I committed to accepting my body for what it is (a body without the enzymes necessary to digest milk and eggs, among other things), I had to also accept the other things that my body is (knobby-kneed, prone to bruising, freckled and spotted all over, graying, among other things). And when my body accepted my kindness and returned to me kindness of manifold greater amounts (no more stomach pain, no more blinding headaches, among other things), the positive feedback loop was established and, without trying, a kind of love between myself and my body blossomed until, as true love can often do, the difference between my body and my brain or myself no longer seemed clear. How lucky I feel, now, to have gotten sick.

What often surprises me most when I talk to people about my allergies or my diet or my relationship to food is their shock that I would be able to give up such delicious things as cheese and omelets and hamburgers. More people than I would have believed have said to me some variation of, “if I were you, I think I would just eat those things anyhow. I mean, how can you give up ice cream?” And certainly I understand this sentiment at least in part; yes, I have looked at gorgeous displays of sumptuous cheeses and glistening avocados and thought, “my how I miss those tastes.” But I have not eaten them, because as delicious as I remember those fleeting tastes to be, the physical pain is what I remember most. And out of respect for my body — out of respect, that is, for my self — I do not desire those things that cause me pain. Those people, then, who have said that they would rather the pain of eating than the momentary discomfort of abstaining seem to me caught in the greatest lie of all, the lie I lived in for my whole life: that food is about pain, about a constant seesaw from pleasure to pain and back again, and that if food is delicious, we ought to be punished for enjoying it. They seem almost to accept the pain as deserved, as their comeuppance for the crime of pleasure or desire. But my body forced me out of this lie and so no, I don’t crave cheese or pineapple or rice the way I thought I would because the experience of comfort within my body — physically and psychically — is greater than any desire. Because food now is about joy and nourishment and energy and fuel and satisfaction, not about whether my physical self conforms to some narrow delineation of a Good Body. I might not be free from societal narratives about my worth, but I feel that I can now see my fetters and, in seeing them, am now aware that it was never my body holding me down, it was the shackles of those cruel myths about my body that trapped me, helpless, in a cycle of self-loathing and self-recrimination.

Learning that I was sick … forced me to accept that I did not deserve pain.

So getting sick taught me to love myself, as cliched and simple as that sounds. Learning that I was sick — not just in my body but in my relationship to my body — forced me to learn what health looks like, feels like, lives like. It forced me to listen to my pain and take it seriously. It forced me to take seriously that I needed to care for myself. It forced me to accept that I did not deserve pain. It encouraged me to enjoy the feeling of health and satisfaction. It brought me to a new kind of respect for the way these human forms work. Ultimately, it made me love the body I live within and no longer think about my self as separate from that body. So this is a story about the body and the brain and the love that unites them. This is a story about pain and pleasure. This is a story about food.

in which I will brook none of that nonsense

18 May

Fair warning to all sad, sorry young men trolling the streets of my city: if you cat-call me (as one unfortunate boy discovered the other day), I will not take it.

I will instead stop my bike, ask you to please explain precisely why you think it’s acceptable to speak to me that way, and spend the next five to seven minutes schooling you on just exactly how sad and sorry you are; the bigger the audience, the better, because if you think that you can shame me for being a woman, then I’d very much like you to be as shamed as possible in as public an arena as possible. If you shout at me on the street, I will shout back because you are putting my body on display and expecting my silent acquiescence. If you think that my female subjectivity makes my body forfeit, then you are, in this case, sadly goddamn mistaken. I’m not interested in that game, so I’m going to shout and lecture and belittle you — I am going to get in your face — I am going to make you look at my eyes and not at my tits — I’m going to make a big goddamn scene — I’m going to crush you with my intellect and my voice and my power so that what is now on display is your pathetic misogyny, not my body.

I am decidedly not your “baby girl.” You seem to be unclear about why that’s an insulting thing to call me, a grown-ass woman, so let me explain; by calling me “baby girl,” you are attempting to reduce my subjectivity to the kind of small, manageable size that allows you to overpower me, to disregard my personhood, and to ignore my humanity. By calling me “baby girl,” you elide me. That’s not to say that the term baby girl never be one of endearment or kindness, but if you’ll recall, I don’t know and therefore cannot endear you. If I gave you permission to speak to me in that way, it would be a different matter but, hey! I didn’t, so shut your mouth. I am no one’s baby, I am not a girl, and, more importantly, I am not the kind of woman who allows herself to be spoken to in that manner. Should I repeat myself? I’ll repeat myself: if you call me out on the street, expect that I will speak back. You want a monologue, but you’ve damn well walked into a dialogue, and now we’re going to have a conversation. It’s not as much fun when your victim talks back, is it?

I apologize for the fact that we live in a culture that trains you to think that you can somehow enhance your masculinity through that kind of behavior, but my sadness will not diminish the righteous fury of my talking back. I am sorry that you’ve been led to believe that you will be bigger, better, and more manly if you belittle women. I’m sorry that your own male subjectivity means you’ve been locked into unequal, unjust networks of power. Your personhood is just as restricted as mine by these systems and that means that misogyny is a goddamn tragedy for the both of us. But you still have more privilege than I do, straight white man, and thus it is your responsibility to actively work to change those systems. You are a beneficiary of your privilege, but you don’t have to be a signatory to my oppression. If you want to actually prove yourself to be a person of worth, then you will join in the fight against this kind of bullshit instead of actively engaging in it.

And to the other men, standing around embarrassed and silent while I yelled at your friend? You are tacitly approving of his behavior by not taking a stance against it. Call him out, don’t let him save face, don’t put up with that bullshit. Because I’m about to bike away and then it will be up to you to take the next step. Do you want to be men of quality, or do you want to be passive supporters of inequality?

In sum, young sir, you picked the wrong bitch to mess with.

Follow-up #1
Follow-up #2

Sunday afternoon thought break: tattooed professors

18 Mar

I’m knee-deep in end of the term business — papers and exams and grading and fun! — but I’m taking a break to ponder tattoos and academia.

Why would you ponder that, Martina? Good question, blank computer screen onto which I’m projecting the thoughts of my potential readers!

The answer is: because I just scheduled a consultation for my next tattoo. The plan is for the first line of Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” to be inked onto the inside of my left arm, just below the elbow. And I’m pretty damn excited about it. But there are those who are not so excited about tattoos, especially visible ones, and their impact on one’s potential future employment. So here, in no particular order, are my thoughts on the matter.

  1. If my tattoo is really the thing that keeps me from getting a job, they probably wouldn’t have liked me as an employee anyway. It’s highly unlikely that the kinds of places that are strictly and officially anti-body art would even be an option for an academic like myself. I mean, this Jew-with-a-gay-mom-who-writes-about-abortion-and-the-apocalypse thing that I’ve got going on pretty much takes me out of the running for working at a school like Missouri Southern State University or George Fox University. And no love lost there for me!
  2. The question is whether institutions without formal rules banning tattoos will nevertheless be biased against me if I have tattoos. Good question. People are judgmental about a whole lot of things, especially bodies. But if I can successfully cover my wrist tattoo (can and occasionally do!), then I think the middle of my arm should be easily concealable. And truly, I think that the face of my field is changing such that a tattooed English professor isn’t really a concern for most.
  3. The further question is: what will my students think. Easy answer: they’ll think whatever the hell they want to think. And I’ll still be the one who gets to grade them at the end of the term! Blamo: teachers have the power! But really, studies have shown that many students actually respond positively to tattooed faculty, so I’m not actually concerned about it. Plus, I try not to show off too much of my body to my students as is, so they might never even see the new piece of work, and since I’m a curvaceous woman, they’re probably more likely to be fixated on (ahem) other parts of my body than my arms.
  4. The truth is, it’s my damn body and I’m going to mark it and decorate it and dress it and love it however I damn well please. And adding this piece of artwork to my arm is a way to mark, decorate, dress, and love myself that feels sanctified and right. So I’m going to do it and when I look at it, I’m going to love myself, and that is worth the time, the money, the pain, and whatever judgment I might get. I truly don’t understand why I shouldn’t honor my life’s progress and process in a physical way. I like making manifest what is otherwise intangible; I like the idea of writing my life onto my skin, inscribing upon myself my joy and sadness and triumphs and failures. I like when Margaret Cho says that she “love[s] heavily tattooed women” because she “imagine[s that] their lives are filled with sensuality and excess, madness and generosity, impulsive natures and fights. They look like they have endured much pain and sadness, yet have the ability to transcend all of it by documenting it on the body.” I like documenting. So I’ve chosen, for the second time now, to document in flesh and ink and word and color. Good.

Those are my thoughts, inarticulate as they may be.

But what I really want to know is this: what do you all think? Are you tattooed and, if so, what has been your experience wearing your skin out into the world? Do you want tattoos, or want to add to your collection? If so, why? What do they mean to or do for you? And of course, if you’re not so hot on tattoos, I’d love to know why that’s so!

Update: in case you’re reading this (and aren’t a subscriber to the blog) and are wondering “did she do it?”, then check out this follow-up post to see the low-quality picture of my beautiful new tattoo!

disclaimer: this post is full of words

15 Apr

So today has already been a really surprising day and, given that this blog is meant to help me explore all aspects of my situation as a grad student / instructor, I’m going to babble on here for a while in an attempt to process the morning and help me gain some perspective.

This quarter, I am TAing a course called American Novel Part I. This means that I attend the class (three days a week for an hour) and usually sit with my mouth shut unless the professor looks to me for an opinion, clarification, definition, etc. I have office hours by appointment for students who need help with their papers (which I will later grade). It’s a pretty low-key gig.

But this morning, at 7:15, with my hair still wet from my shower and my coffee not yet prepared, I got an emergency email from the professor asking me to step in and lead this morning’s class. At 9am. Without any notes or direction. About James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, a 400-some-odd page novel. Ooft. So I had a little over an hour to get dressed, eat some breakfast and guzzle some coffee, and prepare discussion questions for a class of 30 undergrads, many of whom appear (in the previous discussions of the novel) to absolutely hate this book.

So what did I do? My usual procedure for days when I have to teach goes something like this: Panic. Be unable to choose an outfit. Fret needlessly over hair, makeup, clothes, etc., while trying to convince myself that yes, the students will look to me as an instructor and not a peer and no, they will not rise up against me in a cyclone of hipster glasses and backpacks. Spill coffee on myself. Get nauseous. Run over and over my notes, hypercritically cross-referencing every possible point with myriad textual examples. Nearly miss my bus. Stumble into class clutching my notes. Nervously laugh a few times. Joke with the students. Remember that I’m actually kind of good at this. Teach class. Promptly collapse with an incredulous after the last student has left the room. Marvel at the fact that the students didn’t immediately peg me as an impostor and mock me openly. It’s a pretty effective pedagogy, don’t you think?

But for some reason, today was different. I got the email, realized what I had to do, and made it happen. There was no panic, no horrible feeling of my stomach rising up out of my ears, no nervous sweating or frantic laughter. Instead, I made a few notes, got myself dressed and fed and out of the door, and ran what I have to (not so humbly admit) might be one of the most dynamic class sessions that we’ve had in this class so far. Now, I have nothing against the professor, whom I think is wonderful and asks great questions and creates a really positive classroom environment. But I think that these students really rose to the challenge I gave them (which went like this: Hi, guys. I have no notes and nothing prepared. So you all are going to have to really work today) and responded well to my particular instructional style. They laughed with me. They really discussed the questions I brought up and raised issues of their own. They respectfully and ethically disagreed with each other, with me, with the novel itself. They acknowledged and held the moral ambiguity of the characters and the novel’s position within American literary history. They discussed the (very) troubling racial tropes that Cooper uses and the ways that Cooper  was trying  to challenge certain prevailing ideas about race in his time and the limits to Cooper’s ability to navigate these difficult waters and the ways that we, from our contemporary subject positions, need to read these issues. It was kind of great, and they all stayed with me, attentive and alert, until the end of class.

So what does this tell me? Well, I think that the lesson of the day is that if I carry myself with integrity, confidence, and humor, it doesn’t really matter what I wear or how close in age I am to my students; they are going to respect me and respect my class as long as I show them that I respect myself, respect the class, and (most importantly) respect them as experts in their own right and treat them like adults. All in all, though I am sufficiently exhausted and more than a little overwhelmed by the morning, I feel like this was a rise-to-the-occasion, sink-or-swim, watershed moment in my pedagogical maturation and I am exceedingly happy about the road forward.

minifesto: why all of this then?

11 Feb

My name is M. I’m a Ph.D. student in English at a large Northwest college. I think clothing, fashion, appearance, etc., matter. I probably think too much about these things. So yadayadayada, why bother writing a blog?

The truth is, I read a lot of blogs and mine them for inspiration, support, and advice. But there wasn’t anyone I found who quite looked like or dressed like or lived like me and, well, I wanted to explore why it was that I looked, dressed, and lived like me. I wanted to examine and discuss the particular world in which I live. So what is that world? Well:

babyfaceKiddos, I am young. I’m in my earliest of twenties and, well, that makes me often roughly two years older than some of my students. Four at the outside. And sometimes they’re as old or older than me. That’s a weird position to be in. And moreover, I look pretty damn young, so I’m not fooling anyone with blazers and pantsuits, which no one in this part of the country wears anyway.

goofball — I am a bit of a firecracker. I’m energetic and silly and usually willing to make some kind of fool of myself (which is fortunate, because I’m likely to) and definitely willing to go out on a limb and probably about to say something uncouth or ill-advised. And I’m a redhead. So I have to tone it down for the classroom so that I can maintain some semblance of control or authority.

hourglass — How do I put this: I am not a small lady. I am not quite a lady of great size (sidebar: once shopped at a clothing store that used the labeling small-medium-large-women of substance. Love!) but neither am I the kind of waifish beauty I see tripping lightly across the floorboards of my most favorite blogs. I’ve got to dress to flatter my figure without letting the, ahem, goods spill out on my lap.

pricepoint — Grad school is subsistence level living, kiddos. And though I grew up without a lot of wealth and am therefore acclimated to this lifestyle, I’m also trying to balance my love for fashion with some ethical practices. What does that mean? Well, I spend a lot more money on food than on clothes because El Boyfriend and I shop primarily local, organic, and seasonal. It also means that I only shop used and make exceptions only for certain items (like my beloved workhorse boots, which I spent six months trying to find in good shape used until I finally broke down and bought new on super-saver clearance), gifts (gift cards ahoy!), and artisan or locally made goods.

So what does this whole minifesto of fashion restrictions and special needs mean? Here’s the deal: my sartorial choices need to reflect my age, personality, body, pocketbook. Moreover, they need to help me project power, intelligence, and charisma so that I can convince my students, peers, and (let’s be honest) myself that I belong at the level of academia I’m at. I hope that by writing this, by peering at myself with the same curiosity and interest I focus towards all of y’all, by investing my time and energy into my appearance, I’ll come to some greater comfort and composure about it all.