The Dissertation Is My Olympics. The Olympics Is My Dissertation

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Thank goodness for the Rio Games. Just when I was falling into a rut with my doctoral work, the Summer Games begun. It’s early to feel burnt out considering I just started the dissertation journey. Perhaps defending my proposal only a few months after giving birth and then moving to the other side of the country have a lot to do with my premature burn out.

A wise auntie of mine told me recently that quitting on my PhD now would be like training hard for a marathon and stopping at mile three. She had me at the sports analogy.

With my auntie’s guidance, I gave myself the much needed permission to take this summer off with the promise to register for fall. In hind sight, I should have taken a break, A REAL BREAK, from school much earlier in the year. Instead, I inefficiently attempted to chip away at my work.

To my surprise, in the past eight months I managed to submit an abstract to the NWSA conference (which got accepted), teach a brand new (new for me) 400-level course, submit an essay to two medical humanities journals, conduct and transcribe a 90-minute interview, read a few books, analyze this FIVB video, and start a resource website for postpartum women. It’s not the most productive amount of work, considering the amount of time passed, but it’s something and I’m happy to have something.

Unfortunately, not giving myself a break—after two significant life transitions—has taken a huge toll on my ability to persevere with the dissertation. It’s work that requires so much delayed gratification and has uncertain professional and economic promises—a tough investment for a new parent. It also doesn’t help that people often find my work too abstract to sustain a genuine conversation, making it hard for friends and family to relate to why I continue down this solitary path that tests even the most resolute among us.

And just when I contemplated throwing in the towel (you like what I did there?) the Rio Games descended upon us in the most unrelenting way. I couldn’t be happier with the bombardment of Olympic news from EVERY SINGLE MEDIA OUTLET. Few people doing their doctoral work are inundated with so much “stuff” related to their research.

For the academic side of me, this Rio Olympics is especially interesting because it’s the first Games in Latin America, and it’s in a country that glorifies multiculturalism, hybridity, and mixed races as part of its national identity. Also, beach volleyball is a huge featured event partly due to its growing popularity around the world especially in regions with significant beach cultures like California and Brazil.

beach-1210567_1920The iconic Copacabana Beach, where the beach volleyball competitions are taking place, seems to be the epicenter of the sexualized representation of Brazilian women and fashion. This makes for fascinating observations on how the sport seamlessly blends into the beach/surf/bikini culture, naturalizing the heterosexiness of the players and drawing in a spectatorship different than those of other sports. (I’m talking about official beach dance entertainers.) Other really interesting things are happening in this Olympics that just scream for academic analysis include: the refugee team, the first American to compete in a hijab, commentary on the women’s Turkish beach volleyball pair competing fully clothed, the near banishment of the entire Russian team (doping related), Gisele Bündchen in the Opening Ceremony, the Opening Ceremony’s performative story of slavery in Brazil, Obama’s commentary on the cultural and political significance of the Games, the commercials celebrating diversity…There’s sooooo much!!

Really though, at the end of the day I’m binge-watching the Games because I’m so totally sucked into the glamor, excitement, and lure of the Olympics. I can discuss the inequalities of sports until the cows come home, but it doesn’t take away from my appreciation and awe these athletes and their mental and physical capabilities.

We don’t see the hours, days, weeks, and years of training that go into performing at such a high level of physical movement. We don’t always see the aches and pains or know about the athletes’ personal sacrifices and obstacles. Despite my critiques of the Games, their clichéd narratives and their unapologetic commercialization, I can’t deny (EVER) the Olympics’ amazing display of physical human accomplishment. I just can’t. Having played competitive sports through college, I only have a tiny glimpse of and resounding appreciation for what it takes to be an Olympian.

As the Rio Games continue, I’ll be glued to the TV and Internet hoping that this global event sparks the motivation I need to keep on keepin’ on with my dissertation. In a similar way these athletes trained for their moment on this global stage, I busted my ass these past several years intensively reading, researching, and writing to show my dissertation committee that I have what it takes. My “training” would be for not, if I stopped now. So let this dissertation be my Olympic debut.

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“Coming Out” About (In)fertility

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I haven’t been keeping my fertility challenge a secret per se. I have, however, for the past three years struggled negotiating the elusive “outside world” in relation to my frustrations, disappointments, and fears trying to conceive, which have wreaked havoc on my sense of self. More often than not, it has been easier (and felt safer) not to share these pains, pushing me further into isolation.

As an academic, I study health and disease narratives, politics of the body, and feminist discourse yet I’ve feared writing about my personal experiences that intersect my research interests. It has taken me three gynecological surgeries (one from IVF), 70+ needles (and counting), countless pills (steroids, estrogen, progesterone, baby aspirin, prenatal vitamins, letrozole, clomid, metformin, valium, antibiotics, etc.), and too many bloody months to finally write myself out of this silence.

Taking pen to paper (and fingers to keyboard), I started writing a nonfiction story about my IVF cycle last fall. It morphed into a meditation on what it felt like being a reproductively challenged woman in this society, a reflection on my late mother, and a realization that I no longer recognized the relationship I had with my body. On a whim, I submitted an abstract to (and got accepted to talk at) this medical humanities conference in Iowa where I shared my story and discussed the politics of fertility challenges as a larger social issue. This was my first “coming out” to people I didn’t know.

It felt really good to share.

In my breakout session many women shared their fertility stories, which was heartening. Some women were still grieving their miscarriages, job loss because of a pregnancy, and isolation despite several decades passed. Others were feeling “the pressure” and felt conflicted about their decision to pursue demanding professional careers. We all craved a safe space to openly talk about our concerns beyond select friends and family. The group supported my assertions that there simply aren’t enough conversations (public and private) about, and support for, fertility challenges.

A woman I met at the conference just tweeted this blog post to me about unique (and not so unique) fertility challenges in academia. From her, I learned that this week is National Infertility Awareness Week. While I dislike the term “infertility” or its classification as a disease (it’s too final, stigmatizing, and pathologizing), I love the idea of raising awareness about fertility challenges and engaging more people in a nuanced conversation.

Although each woman deals with her fertility challenges differently, the Internet seems to offer general lists, guidelines, and tips on how to help support the women we care about. Here are a few. A Google search will yield more.

These lists are a bit crass but they cut to the chase. Personally, I rather share lists of what have been unusually difficult and unexpectedly comforting (beyond the obvious) rather than a “to do” and “don’t” list.

These lists are far from exhaustive, but here goes.

Unanticipated difficulties:

  • Knowing no one else in their early thirties enduring IVF or other aggressive fertility treatments is a psychological mind f*#k.
  • It was easier to give needles to myself than have my partner do it. I don’t know why.
  • Every medicated month, I’ve had disruptive hot flashes, emotional turbulence, chronic headaches, and/or fantasies of wanting to punch irritating people (often troublesome students I teach).
  • Not knowing why I’m not getting pregnant (despite ovulating, having balanced hormones, newly cleared fallopian tubes, and good general health) has been a hellish liminal space. Okay this one might be kind of obvious.
  • Trying to become a mother rehashes the pain of loosing my mother (over a decade ago) to breast cancer.
  • With more medical intervention and involvement, the emotional pressure and expectation of getting pregnant swell. Reoccurring periods become increasingly devastating. This has been hard to manage at school and work.
  • I really hate feeling pitied. If I sense another’s discomfort or pity, my instinctual reflex is to ease that person’s awkwardness by minimizing my own experience and pain, and moving onto other “lighter” conversation. This has been incredibly counter-productive.
  • Trying this hard to become a mother tests my feminist and liberal sensibilities about how I measure my self-worth and define the meaning of family.
  • People tend to be better at responding to difficult events (like loosing a parent) than difficult non-events (like not becoming one). This has been isolating.

Pleasantly surprising acts of comfort:

  • The number of friends offering to help me with the medical stuff: needles, doctor appointments, post-operative care, research, etc.
  • Male friends and family doing research and asking specific questions about my procedures to better understand what I’m going through. All of them did one and/or the other.
  • People asking how my partner is holding up and asking how to support him.
  • Frequent or spontaneous calls, texts, and check-ins from friends on the most “ordinary” days recognizing that regular days are often challenging.
  • The number of women (mothers and non-mothers by circumstance or choice) sharing their own fears and vulnerabilities about fertility.
  • People matching my vulnerability by sharing some of their own (fertility related or not). This has been a helpful way for me to remember that we all have “stuff” going on.
  • Telling fellow grad students and departmental faculty. They have been a surprising and most welcomed support system. It’s also a huge relief and source of inspiration to be around people who embrace my desire not to separate the personal from the academic.
  • Those who sincerely ask questions (medical details, emotional state, how they can help, or whether I wanted to punch anyone that day, etc.)
  • My reproductive endocrinologist giving me hugs. Frequently. And letting me cry on her shoulders.
  • People who ask how I am, then ask how I really am after I tell them “I’m fine.”

In the spirit of National (In)fertility Awareness Week, I’d love to hear your thoughts stories, or questions. Sharing is caring after all.

And because all health campaigns need celebrity spokespeople…

 

For more information visit:

Eat Local Challenge Part 2

Farmers' market photo courtesy of NatalieMaynor

Eating locally-grown food is appropriately called a challenge because it’s admittedly more difficult to do than I anticipated.  For one, I’m a picky eater with limited time to grocery shop and prepare food.  Fortunately I enjoy fruits and most vegetables, both of which are easily found in the “locally-grown” category.  What’s not easily found around me are sources of protein and grains.  In fact rice, a local staple isn’t even grown here in Hawaii.

Another reason why this challenge has been challenging is because I didn’t do my homework on where I can find the local version of foods I eat.  Take chicken for example.  I just assumed Whole Foods or the local farmers’ market would have local chicken available.  Well they don’t.  Rumor has it that, it is possible to buy locally raised chicken but I never took the time to find out where to buy it, when the vendor is open, how far would I have to drive to pick it up, etc.  Same goes for eggs.

I also didn’t psychologically prepare to give up foods that simply might not be available to me.  This is a big one because the idea of food restriction doesn’t come easily to me.  I’ve rarely felt the need to restrict anything I enjoy eating.  (My exception was when I couldn’t eat wheat for a few month because I was having mild reactions to it.  It was miserable.)  Depending on your relationship with food, this aspect of the eat local challenge may not be an issue.

My last and biggest obstacle with this challenge is I failed to get my fiance on board.  He’s easy going enough that if I came home with a bag full of locally grown produce (which I did last Sunday) he’ll eat it and won’t ask about the Tater Tots.  But I need more support than that.  It’s important that he helps me stay on track when that loaf of french bread from California is saying “wouldn’t I taste good with Nutella?” or when I’m too tired to cook, the frozen pizza all of a sudden looks like a healthy option if I bought the vegetarian one.  It didn’t take much to convince my fiance that this challenge would be good for us.  But it’ll take much more effort convincing him to care enough to take action with me.

Needless to say, my performance with this eat locally-grown food challenge isn’t going so well.  But I’m still committed to it for the long haul, especially since I’ll be feeding an entire family one day.  I want to make sure our healthy eating habits start now.

On the flip side, there’s limited (if any) evidence to show that an imported tomato (or grape, or zucchini) is more nutritious than one grown within a 100 mile radius from your home, however, economically it’s better to keep those dollars within the community.  Purchasing locally grown food also means there’s less need for preservatives and genetically modified organisms designed to ripen on route to your grocery store.  Local food is also less likely to be produced from large factories containing lots of processed ingredients, refined sugars, sodium, and trans fats.  So in that sense eating locally produced food is healthier.

So I have lots of homework: 1. Find out what’s actually available around me; 2. Figure out the accessibility of these vendors; 3.Assess how willing I am to modify my lifestyle; 4. Propagate pro local food information into my fiance’s head!

A friend once told me “I’ll only eat what I feel comfortable killing.” Under this parameter, the only meat she ate was fish.  Sharing her sentiment for respecting the food we consume, there’s something encouraging and “feel good” about eating food purchased directly from the farmer who grew it or better yet the food we’ve grown ourselves.  Anything to encourage me and others to eat more fresh produce is a plus regardless of whether the jury is still out about if it’s actually healthier apple for apple.

Eat Local Challenge Part 1

Local fruits sold at Whole Foods

Going green has become the new black.  Not only is sustainability trendy, it’s a necessity if we have any desire to leave the next few generations a world they can live in.  For today’s post I’m going to pick on one particular issue under the larger umbrella of disastrous crimes against mother earth.

Food consumption in America.

This issue is tricky because we all need to eat.  Modern conveniences has afforded most of us food accessibility and food options beyond imagination.  We are free to pursue careers and work jobs outside of a one acre radius from our homes because we no longer spend our days tending and harvesting crops for our family and community.  I acknowledge the value  and role in which modern agricultural practices enable the lives we live today.

However, what’s the price of this lifestyle on our environment?

Our nation’s hearty appetite for cattle means that more land is used to raise beef.  More cattle means more methane released into the atmosphere adding to the greenhouse affect.  According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations,

…the livestock sector generates more greenhouse gas emissions as measured in CO2 equivalent – 18 percent – than transport. It is also a major source of land and water degradation.

Livestock reportedly uses some 30% of the world’s land surface.  Meat production also requires energy and water.  The Sierra Club asserts that,

16 pounds of wheat and up to 2,500 gallons of water are necessary to produce one pound of grain-fed beef. Cattle production also consumes large amounts of fossil fuels – about a gallon of gasoline per pound of beef – and produces water pollution.

Grains, fruits, and vegetables are environmental culprits as well, especially when we eat out of season and out of region produce.  Non-organic produce uses harmful pesticides and chemicals in the soil and on the food itself.  Also, shipping that mango to New York from the Philippines leaves a significant carbon footprint, adding to greenhouse gases.

Buying local reduces your carbon footprint

The Eat Local Challenge

Kanu Hawaii, a local non-profit dedicated to sustainability and community compassion launched an “Eat Local Challenge” today with the goal of getting 2,000 Kanu Hawaii members to eat locally-grown food for seven days (September 26 – October 2).  Alternatives to this challenge included eating local for a day, allocating 10% of your food budget to local foods, learning about candidates views on food policies for the upcoming election, and organizing a local food only potluck among many other ideas.

I’m taking on parts of this challenge (eating locally-grown foods for a day and allocating 10% of my grocery budget to local produce) to help reduce the environmental impact of living a modern life.  Eating locally will also help me eat more healthy, which I’ll talk about in the follow up post.

So far I’ve been grocery shopping once.  I’m happy to report everything I bought, except for free-range chicken was 100% locally-grown.  I didn’t buy much though.  Just a mango, half a pound of ahi, fresh salsa, buk choy, flat beans, and apple bananas.  This is also what I plan to eat tonight.

It was challenging to buy food for the week.  Considering where I live (Hawaii), it was disappointing to see how little food I could buy with these restrictions.  Luckily organizers of this Eat Local Challenge have put together resources on where to buy locally and have also partnered with various restaurants to highlight where in their menu, locally-grown produce is being used.

What do you think of the Eat Local Challenge?  How easily could you pull it off?  If you’re already doing something similar please share your thoughts and tips.

Happy eating everyone.

High Heels: The Good, the Bad, the Sexy

My Favorite High Heel Shoes

My favorite pair of high heel shoes is an elixir for feminine transformation: Stitched together by thin black leather straps, small silver clasps, and four inch tall plastic heels.  Slipping on those stilettos instantly lengthens and slims the appearance of my legs, hoists me up to a 5’9” stature, and jolts me with a boost of confidence.

Of course, something this good has its down falls. Impractical and often painful to wear, high heels come with a dose of side effects.  However, this hasn’t fazed many women (and some men) from slipping on those sexy shoes.  Perhaps its benefits outweigh the risks, but how well do we know the risks?

A 2010 British study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology found that among the female participants who regularly wore high heels, their Achilles’ tendons were thicker and their calf muscles were 13 percent shorter.  These findings may explain why women who chronically wear high heels (compared to those who don’t) might experience discomfort wearing slippers or flats.

For those of us who wear high heels fewer than five days a week (which the women did in the British study) we face other risks.  Any shoe that elevates our heel changes the angle of our ankle joint making it unstable, decreasing its range of motion, and increasing our risk for falling or getting an ankle sprain.

According to Nicole Sullivan, a physiotherapist specializing in optimal movement strategies and sports medicine, high heel shoes disrupt a person’s walking pattern, or gait.

“Narrow shoes like stilettos don’t allow for splaying of the foot.  Its position is not optimal for absorbing ground reaction force (shock absorption from walking), which then impacts the knee, hip, and lower back,” say Sullivan.

What about those comfortable high heels?

Do you like the heels with a roomier toe box and a wider, softer, and moderately elevated heel?  According to a Harvard study published in The Lancet, these comfortable high heels may help reduce the risk for falls, ankle injuries, and feet deformities but has the same, if not increased, harmful effects on our knees.

High heels compromise the ankle’s normal function, forcing the knee and hip to compensate in order to maintain stability.  An earlier Harvard study published by the same author found that on average, there was a 23 percent greater force on the patellofemoral joint (where the knee cap joins the thigh bone) when wearing high heels versus going barefoot.  Prolonged pressure across this joint from extended high heel use may even contribute to degenerative joint changes.

Regardless of how comfortable our heels feel, if our shoes are elevated, stress is added to our ankles, knees, hips and muscles supporting them.  Many women tend to wear these wide heel dress shoes for longer periods of time and especially for work.  For this reason, comfortable high heels – while giving mercy to our feet – are equally, if not more risky, to our joints.

According to Sullivan, findings from all three studies could have been stronger because each study had only 20 participants and thus they were not conclusive.  Nevertheless, these studies can offer additional insight to how high heels can impact our body. “I wouldn’t say never wear high heels but people should try to wear shoes that allow for their most natural gait pattern and allows for comfort.”

Tips For High Heel Lovers to Protect you Feet and Legs: (From physiotherapist Nicole Sullivan)

  • Roll a tennis ball under your calf. Sitting on your buttocks, bend one knee and stretch out the other leg in front of you.  Place the tennis ball under the straight leg so your calf is resting on it.  Gently move your leg so the ball is rolling up and down the length of your calf.  Switch legs.
  • Calf stretch. Face the wall, put right toes against the wall, while your heel is on the ground.  Lean into the wall until you feel a gentle calf stretch.  Hold for 3-5 minutes. Switch feet.
  • Avoid regularly wearing any shoe impairing your natural or optimal walking stride.

Target Heart Rate Changes for Women?

According to a New York Times blog, Well, researchers announced a new formula to calculate target heart rates specifically for women.  According to the blog post,

The commonly used formula subtracts a person’s age from 220. But based on the data collected in the Chicago study, the right formula for calculating a woman’s maximum heart rate is a little more complicated: 206 minus 88 percent of a woman’s age.

In the short run these findings are only important for women who workout or train in heart rate zones, using heart rate monitors.  In the long run, trainers and sport exercise experts will look at this new formula and adapt workouts accordingly.

Unless you’re a competitive athlete where it’s important to train in various aerobic thresholds, this new formula provides little contribution for the average exercising woman.  Exceptions would be for women who are recommended to exercise with heart rate monitors due to medical conditions.

As fun as it is to calculate and monitor your training zones, all this math is unnecessary to work up a good sweat.  There are enough barriers to getting women to workout such as time, money and confidence.  Making the physical experience of exercise more cerebral with new formulas convolutes the goal of movement.

206 – 88% of a woman’s age is another one-size-fits-all type of formula which won’t fit all women.  If you’re doing an aerobic exercise and you want to make sure you’re reaping aerobic benefits let me share a tip my exercise physiology teacher rigorously researched and preached to our class.

Do the “talk test.” While you’re jogging, walking, Zumba-ing, you shouldn’t be able to talk to someone with ease but you should be able to talk to them.  Sustain that moderate level of talking difficulty and you should be in your aerobic target zone.  Clearly a trained marathon runner would need to run faster than a couch potato the same age to benefit from aerobic training, which is another reason why I find this generic formula problematic.

If science and technology are important aspects of your exercise experience, you may find this blog post interesting.