Tag Archives: body

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On graduate school orientation

A colleague suggested that I write a series of reflections of what I would say to my younger academic self. Hindsight, of course, allows me to tailor advice knowing what the outcome will be, but these reflections also allow me to think about my journey to academic to something else in a way that I haven’t before. Here’s my first in the series, Notes to a Younger Self, which starts at almost the beginning as it should.

On graduate school orientation

You are going to cry after graduate school orientation. You are going to cry A LOT. This is okay. After all, this is the first time you been gathered together with all the other smart kids. You are used to being one of the only smart kids in the classes at your big state university. Now, you are confronted with all the other students who are also used to being the only smart kids.

This is what I know about you, Kelly. You feel outgunned. You want to panic. I need you to take a deep breath.

Just breathe and listen.

I know what you are doing right now. You are looking around the seminar room at all those students sitting around the gray, awkward table. You listen attentively as they describe their training and their summer adventures. You are waiting for the inevitable moment when you have to explain why you should be here too. You don’t feel like you belong. You begin to question your decision to go to graduate school. You are pretty sure that you will fail melodramatically.

I know what you are thinking. All these students seem smarter, more eloquent, better trained, and more ready than you. Many of them described European vacations, summer research, and other things that seem forever out of your reach. I know one guy will tell the group that he got married and his truck got struck by lighting. I know that you’ll be hesitant to note that you’ve been married a mere eight months. What you don’t know is that this guy is a member of your cohort, and he’ll become a dear friend. His humor offers you brief respite. Continue reading

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Pretty

This is a piece that I wrote over nine months ago that I hesitated on publishing. Reading over this morning, I am not sure why I was hesitant or what stopped me from clicking the publish button. I’ve lightly revised, but here it is.

“Pretty”

Pretty (adj): attractive in a delicate way without being truly beautiful or handsome.

It all started with a decision about a new pair of glasses. I narrowed my choices down to two frames: one roundish, large, and delicate and the other square and academic. I fell in love with the round ones. They are bigger than my current pair and decidedly retro. These frames seemed like a new start. A new way to communicate my transition from academic to whatever I want to be. These sartorial choice was a move in the right direction, so that my style reflected my attempts to get beyond me as academic. Plus, my five-year old enthusiastically loved them because of the color combination of warm brown and russet red.

Following the advice of Warby Parker, I posted a picture on Facebook to get “necessary” feedback from others. Most commenters liked them, but one of my friends noted that I was ‘too cute” for these frames.

My confidence deflated. What if these glasses made me look bad? What if I wasn’t pretty in them? I tried on the frames again and again. I polled my husband, my daughter, and my sisters via text. I liked, maybe even loved, the frames, but I worried about my appearence. What would others think?

And then I got angry. At myself. Why did I even care about what someone would think about frames? I’m the one who had to wear the damn glasses. Why did I care? If I liked the way I looked, why did anything else matter?

I’d fallen into a trap that I often set about my looks. I don’t want to be pretty until I do. My relationship with pretty is contentious at best.

I’ll be the first to note that I suck at a certain type of traditional white femininity. I have a pixie cut and visible tattoos. I switch back and forth between my glasses and my contacts.  I rock skull earrings and a smirk. I’m more comfortable in jeans, boots, or flipflops than I ever am in skirts and heels. I wear some make-up (eyeliner is required) and paint my nails (often black). The best I can hope for is cute, but I’ve been told that my “attitude” sometimes gets in the way.

Me and pretty don’t abide one another. We never have. Partially because I bought into the cultural claptrap about how girls and women have to choose smart or pretty. I can handle smart. Beauty is another thing entirely. I know this is a false choice. Yet, I still judge myself by standards of beauty that I detest. I harshly catalog my appearance dwelling on ever-shifting flaws. As a teenager, I hated my nose. I would examine it in the mirror and dwell on its ugliness. Now, my nose doesn’t bother me at all, but I’ve found new “flaws” that bug me.

Why can’t I love how I look? Love seems to far out of reach. I would settle for appreciation or an apprehensive truce.

Much of my body policing, of course, will be familiar to most women. From an early age, we learn to critique ourselves. We become our own worst critics because our bodies matter so much. Cultural value weighs on our flesh and our minds.

I bought the glasses I liked. I wear them well. This is one of my many attempts to come to terms with my body and appreciate it. I want my daughter to be comfortable in her own skin. I can’t teach her that unless I learn to do it as well.

Teaching Bodies and Embodiment

A design for a unisex bathroom sign.
A design for a unisex bathroom sign from  MyDoorSign.com

How do we make the theoretical tangible and personal? How do we show the expectations of a gendered being? How do we interrogate embodiment and the expectations beset on bodies? How do we understand our bodies as archives of the cultural and the personal? What do we learn when we turn to our archives? What do we have the ability to discern?

These are all questions that haunt me each time I teach my gender course. Showing how gender is lived becomes the primary way to push against simple views of biology or construction. What happens to bodies weighed down by cultural expectations and the reality of the flesh? The complicated mess of embodiment is essential to exploring how people live, past and present. Where does flesh end and culture begin? Can we even ask that question?

One of the ways I help students think about embodiment is to allow students to allow them to gender me. I stand in front of the class and ask them to analyze how I perform gender. The students, then, get to rate my performance of gender as a way to make the abstract theory real to them. But importantly, this exercise allows me to discuss gender habits, stereotypes, and subversion. I might appear “feminine” but the students pick up on my strategies of subversion too. Gendering me provides a mechanism to ground discussions of Judith Butler, Donna Harraway, Lise Elliot, and Joan Scott. How does my bodily performance demonstrate gender? In particular, I want them to think very carefully about the role of religion in our construction as gendered beings:

Religion defines men and women in intimate and powerful ways. But, class debates and my lectures on gender theories don’t always make these topics approachable for students. Gender emerges as something academic and distant rather than something personal and tangible. Ann Braude noted the still potent and important fact “women’s history is American religious history.” But, how can you convince students that gender matters historically and today in interpretations of religion and American culture? … My teaching approach to gender and religion has become much more personal and face-to-face. (Read more here).

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