Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The "This Girl Can" Campaign and Rhetorical Approaches to Feminist Fitness

Fitness, fatness, and my personal relationship to each have been intersecting sources of frustration and confusion for my entire adult life (and part of my childhood). This is something that I have written about on many occasions at this blog (see here, here, here, and here, for example).

When I discovered the fat acceptance movement, I thought I had my answer. In particular the Health at Every Size approach to fitness was inspiring. I was refreshed by the notion that I didn't have to hate my body to take care of it, heartened by the idea that movement and energy were more important than jean sizes and pounds lost, and motivated to change the way that I looked at my relationship to myself. I read blogs like Dances with Fat and this Tumblr on the need for fat acceptance and felt this radical departure from the typical barrage of body shaming rhetoric to be awe inspiring.

It was an important step in my growth as a functional, fit human being, and I hope that nothing that comes after this sentence disparages that movement and the work that it does. Body acceptance approaches to fitness (rooted in feminist principles) have been life-affirming and incredibly important to many, many people, and I include myself among them.

But the fat acceptance movement and HAES approaches have not been enough to fully encompass my lived experiences. This isn't to fault them; it's just that I was trying to use them to serve a purpose they were never designed to serve (I'll get back to that in a minute, but I wanted to make sure that we're clear that I'm not dissing these approaches. I love them. I support them. I promote them.)

The truth is this. I believe wholeheartedly that fat bodies deserve the same right to exist in our society and that people who have fat bodies deserve the same rights, respect, and treatment as people with thin bodies. I also believe that you don't take care of your body by hating it and that learning to respect yourself as you are is the first step to any kind of self-care.

But I also know that there are times in my life when I want to change my body. (This does not mean that I think other people whose bodies look like mine need to change them. This is a good example of the "Underpants Rule" coined on Dances with Fat).

The HAES approach didn't leave me much space to deal with that reality. Instead, I felt guilty for wanting to change how I looked, fearing that the tension with my relationship to my own body would be read as giving into (or even used to support) the damaging and conventional societal narrative of fat hatred, self-loathing, and stereotyping.

So I teetered. I bounced back and forth between the desire to change how I looked through motivations that were based in both health and vanity and fully embracing the HAES philosophy. In many ways, the mental script as I did this see-saw act fell into the two camps nicely, and it was then that I realized my personal relationship to fitness and fatness was actually an embodied example of the rhetorical perspectives that I spend my scholarly life studying.

I was stuck between a wholly antagonistic script and a wholly cooperative one. What I needed was some agonism.

Antagonism, Cooperation, and Agonism: Some Quick Definitions

I wrote a post about this a while back, but basically, our contemporary understanding of rhetoric tends to break things down into polar opposites and then force us to choose one approach or the other.

This love for polar dichotomies extends even to the rhetoric we use to talk about those polar dichotomies. You've probably seen this principle at work at every dinner party argument, every comment thread, and most newscasts you've seen.

In general, we tend to seek out echo chambers where we are surrounded by people who agree with us. These echo chambers can be useful because they give us a space to grow and develop our ideas without someone cutting them down. You can think of it like a greenhouse for planting seeds. It's an optimal environment where the temperature, water, and sunlight is controlled, creating a place where the seeds are most likely to take root and grow strong. This is cooperative rhetoric.

But some people never want to leave the green house. These echo chambers become enclaves that are isolated from and distrustful of differing voices.

On the other hand, there are situations where we intentionally create conflict between opposing voices, often pitting these discussions as a "war" or "battle." Think of news talk shows where the different "sides" of an issue are each given a spot in the conversation and spend the time shouting over one another in an attempt to drown out the other side(s) and thus "win" the debate. This is antagonistic rhetoric.

As a culture, we're not very good at handling our beliefs in a way that is neither antagonistic or cooperative. We tend to fall into habits that support one or the other. The solution to this gridlock is the rhetorical practice of agonism.

It is tempting to place antagonism on one end of the spectrum, cooperation on the other end, and agonism in the middle as a reasonable compromise, but that's not how it works.

Agonism functions when we oscillate back and forth between those two opposing viewpoints. We are practicing agonism when we spend time shifting between a cooperative mode and an antagonistic one, when we spend time alternating between believing our own argument and doubting it and then between believing the voices of those with different perspectives and doubting them. Agonistic practices operate in a never-ending loop of criticism and support. We never have to choose one pole or the other, and we don't find a happy middle between them; instead, we spend time accepting (if temporarily) the tenets of each and then rejecting (if temporarily) the tenets of each, using the knowledge that we've gained to sharpen our own understanding. The effect is that our own views come out changed, even if they don't fully match either of the perspectives that we used to hone them.

Fitness Campaigns and Rhetorical Approaches

There are many efforts to make people healthier. These are supported by governments, medical professionals, and educational institutions. We've placed an emphasis on health as a cultural value and justified it through fiscal, psychological, and moral arguments (especially when it comes to collective health practices).

Those efforts are then co-opted by profit-driven companies to sell diet products, fitness wear, and gym memberships.

The result is that there is a conglomerate of efforts aimed at motivating people to exercise, diet, lose weight, and/or be more health conscious. Often, these efforts manifest themselves as PR campaigns, and it is in these campaigns that we can clearly see the three rhetorical frameworks of antagonism, cooperation, and agonism at work.

Antagonistic Approach: Special K and the Battle with Your Body

Just about every mainstream fitness campaign is going to fit into this category, but I think the Special K example is particularly interesting because it operates under a guise of feel-good, body-positive rhetoric.

The Special K "Gains Project" features the slogan "What will you gain when you lose?" and promotes weight loss through a series of ads aimed at showing the way life can be improved once weight loss is achieved. Their efforts have been award winning and praised for focusing on the mental and emotional impact of fitness rather than the physical.

Here's an example of one of those ads:

In this video, the focus on "pride" and "confidence" rather than a number on a scale carries overtones that align with the HAES and body acceptance movements, but the slogan of "What will you gain when you lose?" and the fact that the advertised product is a low-calorie food designed to fit into a weight loss plan demonstrates that "pride" and "confidence" are things that you get only after you have lost weight.

This commercial makes that point even more obvious:

As the voice over and text promises viewers they can "lose up to 6 pounds in two weeks," it's made clear that the women are not getting on the scale and seeing positive words like "joy" and "shine" in place of their weight; they're seeing those words because the number on the scale has gone down. They only get "pep," "pride," and "spirit" because they've managed to lose weight. Before, they didn't have these things.

By setting up a rhetoric in which you have to lose weight to gain positive qualities, the Special K campaign actually puts people (and it's not really all "people" since all of the characters in the ads are women) at war with their own bodies. What's keeping you from joy and pride and hope? You! Fight it by literally eliminating parts of yourself until you reach this target feeling (by reaching a target weight).

 Even in a campaign that feels light and positive, the dominant message of self-loathing and body shame is lurking just below the surface. This antagonistic approach of pitting women against their own bodies is pervasive, and one that we see particularly clearly in most "fitspo" messaging (an approach that is bad for you if health is your actual goal). 

The Cooperative Approach: The I Stand Campaign

With messages like the ones above so prevalent, it's no wonder that the HAES campaign moved radically to the other side of the equation with their "I Stand" project. This project by Marilyn Wann was sparked by her anger upon seeing a fat-shaming (and very antagonistic) billboard campaign aimed at children as part of the Strong4Life campaign. 

In an explanation for her campaign, Wann had this to say:

It [the Strong4Life billboard] shows a fat girl (an actor!) in a striped shirt, with this slogan over her belly: ‘It’s hard to be a little girl when you’re not.’ This is not a health message, it’s a hate message. I decided to put a photo of me in the place of that girl, with a slogan that tells children of all sizes I’ll stand up to their bullies, even if it’s a big hospital system (or the first lady) who does it.
She did this by creating a truly inspiring campaign of cooperative rhetoric. As she identifies in this statement, her audience is people who feel like their bodies are not accepted or acceptable, people who have been shamed, harassed, and bullied by the typical antagonistic rhetoric surrounding weight loss and health. With the "I Stand" campaign, Wann attempts to create a safe space where people can hear a message they very rarely hear: their bodies are fine as they are.

That initial reaction sparked an entire campaign using this kind of cooperative approach, and the results are truly radical in the face of so much antagonistic promotion of body hatred.

Every message takes an overt stance against shame and fear and promotes acceptance of all bodies repeatedly. Many of the images chosen portray fat bodies in ways we rarely see them. For one, they're fat bodies that actually have heads and faces, which can be a rare portrayal in itself. Many are also shown in poses of action and movement, happily demonstrating strength and power, a message that directly counters the Special K-promoted belief that we can only feel these things after weight loss.

An Agonistic Approach: This Girl Can and Tension without Hatred

The "I Stand" campaign goes a long way toward promoting body acceptance and providing people who are truly happy with their bodies a space in which they can feel affirmed and supported.

But what about people who do not want to be at war with themselves but would like to lose weight (be it for health, vanity, to fit into their clothes better, whatever)? They are left with the work of agonistically moving between these two rhetorical approaches to fitness and health. They can spend some time listening to the antagonistic approach (and they won't have to do much work to find it; it will seek them out in the form of billboards, commercials, and well-meaning but tone deaf acquaintances at every dinner party). The message that they need to lose weight in order to be healthy and that they can only do so by fighting against their current selves is entrenched in society.

Then they can actively seek out the alternative approach put forward in campaigns like the "I Stand" project. The message of body diversity and fat acceptance is not mainstream, but it's certainly much more prevalent than it once was. By moving back and forth between these two perspectives, taking what works and leaving what doesn't, wrestling with the tensions between the two (and there are many), we can begin to come to an agonistic understanding of the interaction between fitness and fatness, health and relationship we have with ourselves.

That agonistic endpoint is nicely (and fairly uniquely) captured in the new "This Girl Can" campaign from the UK's Sport England. The creators cite statistics showing that many women are intimidated by working out as their motivation for producing an advertisement that encourages a range of fitness activities for a range of bodies. They did not use models for the ad, instead opting for images of every day women to demonstrate the accessibility of fitness.

If you haven't seen it yet, here it is:

What I love about this ad is that it isn't shying away from the physical challenge of fitness. These women are exhausted and sweaty. But they're still having fun. I also love that it shows so many different kinds of fitness. Not into yoga? Fine! Hit that punching bag. Don't want to be alone? No problem! Here's a dance class. Hate the gym? Go run through an open field.

In some other spots for the campaign, that notion of challenge and tension is even more evident. Some of the women featured briefly in the video are given more intimate explorations of their own. One of these is titled "Julie vs. Inhibitions":

Julie talks about having to battle her inhibitions in order to take advantage of the fun and fitness offered in a public Zumba class. She is having to tackle a part of herself in order to accomplish this particular fitness goal, and the video tackles that without making Julie's conflict one of war. She isn't defeating herself the way the antagonistic fitspo memes tell her to; she's working through that tension to arrive at a better understanding of herself and fitness. 

That message is summed up perfectly in this spot "Kelly vs. 'Mummy'":

Here, Kelly is a single mom of three kids who struggles to find time to go to the gym. The video shows her working out in her living room with the children including doing sit-ups with a baby sitting on her chest.

I'm particularly interested in the title: "Kelly vs. 'Mummy.'" It's clear that this is not a battle. She is not stopping her role as 'Mummy' to take on her role as fit Kelly. She has to find a way to blend the two, and that blending is not a simple compromise; it's full of tension and conflict, but it is rewarding and valuable.

In the behind the scenes look at Kelly's video, we see Kelly's weight loss transformation in before and after photos and hear her talk about the gradual nature of fitness motivation.

Kelly's discussion of how just starting fitness and then continuing to do "a bit more and a bit more" will cause your body to push you further is a great example of the agonistic approach that this campaign embraces. It is not cooperative. There is a struggle between you and your body in this particular fitness endeavor, but it is not one of hatred or war; you are not "losing" yourself to become someone new. Instead, your body becomes part of the motivation, and that tension is a productive one rather than a destructive one.

Final Thoughts

I don't think the antagonistic approaches to fitness are going anywhere any time soon. I think that the dominant conversation surrounding fitness and fatness is going to be mired in the rhetoric of war. We're going to continue to hear that our bodies are our enemies and that we must hate them to make progress.

That's a heartbreaking and damaging message, so we have a few ways to counter it. The cooperative approach of body acceptance is an important part of untangling the mess left after a lifetime of antagonistic messages regarding fitness.

But this agonistic approach is the one that I personally respond to the best. I know that tension will always exist in my relationship to my body, and the act of lived experiences (like having a baby and breaking an ankle) have only made that more obvious. The state of my body and what it can do changes over time in different circumstances; that means there is a constant flux in the way that I can enact fitness in my life.

The only way that I can adequately address that fluctuating tension is to have an approach that embraces it and reacts to it. For me, that's an agonistic one.

Pete, harmishhk, Virgina (Ginny) Sanderson

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Good, the Bad, and the Curious (Links!)

It's a new semester! I love the new energy and getting back to a routine, but I'm only two days in (and don't even have students back yet), and I'm already exhausted. If it's a new semester for you, I hope it's going well, and if you live in the non-academic world, then I hope you're having a great week!

Anyway, here are some things I've been reading that made me smile (The Good), cry (The Bad), and think (The Curious). If you've got anything you've been reading or writing that you'd like to share, feel free to link up in the comments.

The Good

The Pope (who is infallible, at least to some) declared it fine to breastfeed in the Sistine Chapel, so I think we're pretty much good everywhere.


This 50 Greatest Cult Movies list is a good one. How many have you seen?

Dances with Fat has a post about how waiting until we reach a certain weight to enjoy our lives doesn't make much sense. 

Viola Davis giving the NYT a much-deserved burn.

Mallory Ortberg's satirical response to this horrendous article about a man's paternity leave experience is hilarious. 

The Bad

Bill Cosby.

Damon Wayans (talking about Bill Cosby around 22:30):

The new video form the Tamir Rice shooting shows police tackling his 14-year-old sister

The Curious

The Chronicle has some advice on writing with a heavy teaching load. It's good advice, but I don't know how much of it I'll actually use. (It's not easy.)

Talking Points Memo has a discussion about how Obama's call for free community college (which, let's face it, probably isn't happening) brings up questions and difficult circumstances that we need to face:
The result is nearly three decades of the wild west of higher education funding. States spent what they wanted to when they felt like it. They made big investments when times were good and took all of that and then some when times were bad. Students suffered in the form of greater tuition and more debt, but Uncle Sam never stepped in to bring law and order.
If adopted, today's announcement changes all that. It finally creates a formal expectation for what states should contribute to help their residents afford college.
I saw this post from Nicole Jankowski about why marriage will never be fair shared widely, but I think that conclusion is a little too simple. Just because we can't get (and shouldn't strive for) a 50/50 breakdown of duties on a daily basis doesn't mean that we can't get an overall partnership that is equitable, and talking about how we do that is the only way it will happen.

New NHS guidelines tell low-risk pregnant women to avoid hospitals for delivery.

This Salon post about Scott Aaronson and the connection between feminism and "nerd shaming" (as well as the links within it (and this one on the same topic) fascinated and perplexed me.

This (I don't know how I feel, but I definitely feel):

Countess Margaret didn't really birth 365 mouse-sized children. Or did she?

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Blogging to My PhD: Stepping Into the Contact Zone (How Can We Talk About Dick Pics?)

I'm reading Identity Matters by Donna LeCourt, a book I'm really enjoying so far. In it, LeCourt talks about how her acceptance of contact zone pedagogy led to some really difficult places in the classroom.

Contact zone pedagogy draws from Mary Louise Pratt's work, which posits that the "contact zone" is the area in which two cultures overlap (often unevenly). Pratt's concept has been pulled into rhetoric and composition theory by scholars like Patricia Bizzell and Joseph Harris. Harris' article "Negotiating the Contact Zone" does a good job of summarizing much of this discussion and includes the following passage that dovetails nicely into LeCourt's work:

So far as I can determine, contact languages do not often seem to hold the sort of symbolic or personal value for their users that native languages do; they are rather born out of expediency, as a way of getting by. It is thus a little hard to see who (except perhaps for a teacher) would have much at stake in preserving the contact zone, since it is not a space to which anyone owes much allegiance.
We ask our students to adopt "contact languages" in the composition classroom because we are asking them to negotiate confrontation (and, most often, conflict) between the discourse they most commonly inhabit and the discourse of the academy. Their "home" discourse, of course, does not have the same weight or level of authority as the academic discourse, creating an imbalanced conflict aligned with Pratt's idea of a contact zone. This is a space filled with contention, grappling, and tension.  

Harris uses his conclusion to move (theoretically) beyond this kind of contact zone pedagogy:

But I am growing less inclined to valorize notions of conflict or struggle in and of themselves. I want instead to argue for a more expansive view of intellectual life than I now think theories of the contact zone have to offer-one that admits to the ways in which we are positioned by gender, race, and class, but that also holds out the hope of a more fluid and open culture in which we can choose the positions we want to speak from and for. To work as teachers towards such a culture, we need to move beyond think- ing in terms of fixed affinities or positions and the possible conflicts between them. We instead need to imagine a different sort of social space where people have reason to come into contact with each other because they have claims and interests that extend beyond the borders of their own safe houses, neigh- borhoods, disciplines, or communities.
LeCourt became similarly disenchanted with contact zone pedagogy when she realized that her success in getting students to see their subject positions as culturally inscribed and socially constructed did not always translate into them successfully moving beyond those inscriptions. In fact, she says her "students were just as likely to become more mired in their own positions" (18). Pointing out the subject positions and the way that they are constructed often had an effect that directly opposed LeCourt's goal:
Discussions often foregrounded the constructed nature of positions--for example, with comments continually prefaced by 'as a white person' or 'as an African American.' Students claimed ownership of those positions so vociferously that African American students would claim whites could never 'understand' a reading by Cornel West, or female students would tell male students they had no right to discuss an essay on women's experience. Seeing claims of positionality as a means of discussing difference did not lead to exceeding such positions to traverse boundaries. 
This is a tricky place for composition teachers. Ignoring the differences that culturally-enforced subject positions bring to our classrooms is detrimental and erases the lived experience of students while simultaneously cutting off the rhetorical power of ethos. Contact zone pedagogy is so attractive because it gives composition instructors a way to put those differences up front, pull them out of the margins and grapple with them as part of the instruction rather than as a distraction from it. But, as Harris and LeCourt are both exploring here, it doesn't always work out the way we hope. So what are we to do?

LeCourt identifies the source of this block in the way we perceive identity, even if we readily admit (in theory) that identity is a construct and one that we inhabit with multiplicity:
identities are too often acted upon as if they were authentic and unified within the cultural categories by which we explain our experience to ourselves and others. While we may wish to enact these multiple subjectivities in favor of other kinds of discursive action, the way we perceive identity frequently prevents such an intervention into culture
In other words,  you may be intellectually aware of the fact that social conditioning has led to your identification with particular groups and that your experiences are actually a multiplicity of those groups. I, for instance, recognize my subject position as a woman, as a wife, as a mother, as a teacher, as someone who grew up in poverty, as white, as heterosexual, etc. I can even recognize that the way I experience those identities is socially constructed. But when the time comes to "intervene into culture" by voicing my experiences from one of those positions, I often feel that identity in a way that is more visceral than that theoretical understanding allows.

When I am discussing something like the public breastfeeding debate, for example, my identity as a mother no longer feels socially constructed and like a splintered part of my many intersecting identities; it feels all-consuming and essential, and I speak from that space passionately.

We have to grapple with difference if public rhetoric is to have any meaning. As LeCourt says "a unitary public is no longer viable" and if rhetoric is to have any use it must "highlight what those positions might be by providing opportunities where difference is no longer marginalized under a false concept of a unitary consensus about social norms but becomes a possible site of rhetorical action."

And the internet has done that, right?

It has given people the opportunity to have a public voice without the censoring power of an authoritarian screen. No longer do you have to pitch your story to the editor of a powerful magazine to get it told; you can start your own blog and tell it without any censorship at all. We've found niches and tribes and communities for slivers of identity that would have seemed unfathomably small. If you want to read a blog about Wiccans who knit or new mothers who do sex work or tech geeks who drink herbal tea, you can do it.

It's a beautiful thing to have such access to these communities, and one that was virtually impossible even just twenty years ago. You can find the people who are like you easier than you've ever been able to before, and because of that you can find just what it is you are like in ways that you may have never even recognized without the aid of a community to show you the way.

But just as this highlighting of identities in LeCourt's classroom caused some unexpected consequences, we see the same thing happening in the larger public. We become so entrenched in those identities and so emboldened by our community membership that we stop trying to see things from other perspectives; we shut down conversations rather than engage in them. We create echo chambers where we only hear voices that agree with us.

Today, Salon shared an old post on their Facebook page about a woman who contacted a man's mother after he sent her an unsolicited picture of his penis. (I promise I'll make the connection in a second; I know that was a jarring leap.)

The Facebook comment thread on that post does an excellent job of illustrating the type of problems we're discussing.

Several men in the comments are angry that a man sending a picture of his penis to a woman who didn't want it and then calling her a "prude" for asking him to stop is called "rape culture" in the article.

Commenter Nathaniel Raddin said:
"I wonder what girls would think if guys started doing this? Honestly do you think most of the naked photos going around online are dudes sending pics? I think guys need to start treating girls the way they treat us honestly, if you talk to me in public and I don't want to hear it I am going to scream 'rape culture', if you flirt with me and I don't like you I am going to scream 'rape', and when I girl sends a naked picture you should send it to her mother and post it on the internet to shame her. Cause I am sick women screaming 'rape' when they don't like the attention, and then wearing almost no clothing in public and being mad when someone notices."
Commenter Brad Downy explains:
"She's on a dating site and when this guy makes an advance in a manner she doesn't like, it becomes "perpetuating rape culture"? Yeah, riiiight. Some women respond to that sort of direct approach, others do not. Calling her a "prude" is not a nasty reaction to her rejection. She should have just moved on instead of turning this guy's bad manners into some sort of political statement. It's ridiculous."
While you can go read through the thread for yourself for more examples, there's definitely a trend of men coming forward and calling this woman's response an overreaction. There are some people (both men and women) who try to take these comments to task. They try a variety of rhetorical strategies.

Many take to name calling and dismissal, but some attempt to create a "contact zone" of sorts by creating hypothetical situations in which these men could find some empathy and understanding. Commenter Jeremy Selenfriend, for example, tells Brad that this would be the equivalent of a man "whipping it out" at a bar just because a woman was flirting with him. Many women ask men to consider what it would be like to get constant pictures of penises and threats of violence sent to them.

Several other men get angry at these types of comments and use their position as a man to make their objection more powerful. For instance, Bob Bates says "A perfect response to a bully. Out them. No one should ever have to say 'knock it off' twice to unsolicited idiot nudes.What the FUCK is wrong with some of you guys? Don't make me come over there and rip up your 'Man Card.'"

But none of it seems to work. As I'm sure will not surprise you in the least, there are no "ah-ha, you've changed my mind about this!" comments anywhere in the thread. This is the most frustrating part of the internet: it seems to be a rhetorical dreamland, a utopian agora where ideas can be shared and minds can be enlightened, but instead it mostly turns into inane argument where no one is going to change their mind (see this hilarious argument over how many days there are in a week as a prime example).

Much like a classroom operating under the direction of contact zone pedagogy, a Facebook comment thread puts difference on full display. There is no upholding the illusion that we all exist in a consensus. Conflict is inevitable and often embraced.

But we also don't get anywhere. Despite the fact that numerous women are saying that these unsolicited pornographic pictures insult them, there are still several men saying that this is just a way of "making an advance" in the dating world. Not a single woman is coming forward to say "Yeah. I love a good unsolicited dick pic," but the men defending this action are so entrenched in their subject position that they don't notice, and the fact that there is more than one man making that argument emboldens them and gives them a community to fall back on. It's the reason that pick-up artistry is so disturbing. Creating a community of people who share a discourse gives strength to that discourse. In many cases, this is a fantastic way to give voice to the marginalized and draw attention to perspectives that have often been ignored and erased from history, but that same strength in community can also create bubbles around already privileged (and sometimes abhorrent) positions.

And that's what I think is happening in the dick pic argument. There are enough men sharing the perspective that this kind of behavior is okay that they can effectively shield themselves from the rhetorical acts of those around them. The men and women taking a variety of tactics to demonstrate the problem with their view can't get through that bubble. The dick pic supporters are so entrenched in their subject position (one of culturally-constructed notions of masculinity, patriarchy, and sexuality) that they are using that subject position to shield themselves from other perspectives. In fact, I think that part of what has them so angry in the first place is that the woman who sent the picture to the man's mother drew attention to the fact that we inhabit multiple subject positions simultaneously. The man was also "son." By pulling his mother into the conversation, the victim of the dick pic assault shattered the illusion that we can inhabit only one space at a time, and since that illusion brings a lot of power and comfort, we don't take such realities lightly.

Where does that leave us, rhetorically? I share Harris' and LeCourt's frustrations with contact zone pedagogy in my own composition classroom, but even more than that, I become frustrated with the way that attempts at embracing difference play out in our daily public interactions. I believe in the power of conflict and difference as a way to learn, grow, and thrive as human beings, but it's a potential that seems constantly squandered even in spaces where it is theoretically understood and embraced.

Pictures: Peggy Reimchen, Kathryn, Tim

Monday, December 22, 2014

Blogging to My PhD: Are We Still Living in a Tidy House of 'Remedial' Education?

Today I'm reading a couple of landmark essays on developmental writing by David Bartholomae: "Inventing the University" and "The Tidy House." It's the latter that's really resonating with me and my work as a developmental writing instructor working decades after he published these words:
"Basic writing has begun to seem like something naturally, inevitably, transparently there in the curriculum, in the stories we tell ourselves about English in America. It was once a provisional, contested term, marking an uneasy accommodation between the institution and its desires and a student body that did not or would not fit. I think it should continue to mark an area of contest, of struggle, including a struggle against its stability or inevitability. 
Let me put this more strongly. I think basic writing programs have become expressions of our desire to produce basic writers, to maintain the course, the argument, and the slot in the university community; to maintain the distinction (basic/normal) we have learned to think through and by. The basic writing program, then, can be seen simultaneously as an attempt to bridge AND preserve cultural difference, to enable students to enter the 'normal' curriculum but to insure, at the same time, that there are basic writers."
Bartholomae is suggesting that we (a "we" in which he includes himself) have fallen into a binary trap. We are so invested in the categories of basic/normal, remedial/mainstream, developmental/credit-level that we work to retain them even as we are working against them. That is, our job is to move students out of the "lower" categories and into the higher ones, and it is work that we take very seriously and are very invested in achieving, but first we must work to ensure that the categories stay rigidly in place so that we can do that work. We are, in some ways, creating our own problem to solve. 

By coincidence, I also read this New York Times article from last week today: "Raising Ambitions: The Challenges of Teaching in a Community College." 

The article is very good, and as a community college teacher, I found myself nodding along with much of it. The overview of the breadth of community college impact as well as the diversity of the student body and the challenges instructors face as well as the rewards they receive are all presented powerfully. 

But I came across a part of it that stuck me and kept bothering me:
"Professors at elite four-year colleges can trust that students share a bank of references, that they will understand principles of critical inquiry, that they will appreciate conceptualization for its own sake. None of this can be assumed at a community college, where 'the idea of academic discourse is completely foreign,' Melinda Karp, assistant director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University, said. 
To introduce and make uniform the expectations of college, LaGuardia and some other two-year colleges across the country have recently begun requiring new students to take a freshman seminar, which is aimed at connecting students to faculty members in their majors. Beyond that, its purpose is to guide students toward the habits and styles of thinking that college, and by extension, adult life, demand."
The line, in particular, that was piercing me like a splinter is "its purpose is to guide students toward the habits and styles of thinking that college, and by extension, adult life, demand." 

The implication here is that our students have not entered "adult life" until they have picked up the habits and mannerisms that a college environment will provide them. This is directly linked to the preceding paragraph's discussion of community college students lacking even the "idea" of academic discourse. 

In this particular article, we're drawing that distinction between four-year college students and community college students, but we play some version of this game at just about every level of the academic hierarchy. When I was in a four-year college setting, it was played by demarcating some students as "honors" students prepared for "tougher" classes and therefore more sophisticated discourses. Within the community college, it's played by demarcating some students as "college ready" and others as "developmental" (or "remedial"). 

I'm not arguing that these categories have no use. Indeed, I was one of those "honors" students, and I very much enjoyed the benefits of getting to take interdisciplinary coursework that was only offered to students within the Honors College. I teach "developmental" students, and they often are unprepared to be successful in the college-level classes and need preparation those endeavors. These categories are not without meaning or utility, but they are, as Bartholomae explained 20 years ago, a little too comfortable. I share his belief that these labels should be "an area of contest, of struggle." 

And I think that, as educators, we have less and less incentive to introduce that struggle and contest over these labels. After all, there is mainstream panic about a potential education bubble. There are constant news stories and speculation on whether college is even worth "it." 

By falling into our old stand-bys of binary oppositions, we have an easy way to demonstrate that college is indeed worth "it" because "it" becomes adulthood itself. Those who have successfully demonstrated their adherence to the academic discourse pass out of a category of "non-adulthood" and into one of "adulthood," out of "unprepared" and into "prepared." 

But that's ridiculous. I have students in my classroom who fought in Vietnam. I have students who have children, grandchildren, and occasionally great grandchildren. I have students who have retired from entire careers, students who are incredibly skilled in highly specialized fields, and students who are well-versed in cultural texts that are important to them. I have students twice my age. And every single one of my students comes into my classroom with discourse fluencies that I do not have, discourse fluencies that have served them well in many environments, often environments that I would not be able to successfully navigate.

Am I really supposed to look at these students and tell them they are not "adults" unless they can pass the arbitrary standards of the class I've put in front of them? Unless they can write in multiple paragraphs and identify topic sentences? Unless they put their commas in the right place? It is these tests and not their service or employment or personal experience or history that makes them worthy of the label as "adult," which is shorthand for "real, contributing member to society"? 

I can't do that, and I won't try. 

My students (even the ones fresh out of high school who roll their eyes when I assign reading and play on their cell phones every time I turn my back to them) are adults. I teach adults. Treating them as if they are children is a disservice to them, but it is also a disservice to me. 

By pulling upon that wealth of knowledge and experiences my students bring to the classroom, I can create a space that is rich in opportunities for learning far beyond those I can craft on my own. It is the understanding that my students bring something to the table that makes my classroom work. 

Still, those labels persist, and I have to wonder if Bartholomae's insistence that we are as invested in maintaining them as we are in moving students through them isn't right. This, as Bartholomae points out, makes our house a lot tidier, but I'm not sure that stuffing all the dirty laundry in the basement is really helping the cause.

Photo: David Gallagher

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Can I Talk About Race Without 'Whitesplaining'?

I received an invitation to speak at a diversity conference as a result of this blog. In particular, the organizer read some of my blog posts about white privilege (like "The Silences I Don't Hear" and "I am Not Trayvon Martin's Mother," both of which were personal reflections on my position as a white woman raising a child of color.) I accepted the invitation and am looking forward to putting together a presentation that weaves together some personal narrative with some current events, including how my St. Louis neighborhood reacted to some of the Ferguson protests as a way to talk about white privilege. 

I don't consider myself a race "expert," and I am certainly not trying to make a career out of talking about race and racism. However, race and racism do bleed into my profession as a community college writing instructor, which I've also reflected on many times. I am the mother of a biracial child, the wife of a black husband, and the teacher of many students who are racial minorities. If I didn't spend some time thinking about race and racism on a regular basis, I would be shortchanging people I love and to whom I have responsibilities to uphold.

But those responsibilities involve changes in myself, not in them. I'm reflecting on race and racism not because I need to understand them, but because their presence in my life makes it impossible for me to ignore how much I need to understand myself and my place in a larger cultural narrative.

I wish I could say that I know I would do this level of reflection and work toward dismantling racism in my own cultural training if I didn't know these people, but part of me fears that I wouldn't (something I reflected on in this post). It's not that I only think racism matters if it is directed at someone you personally know and love, it's simply (or maybe not simply at all) that privilege's most insidious factor (in my opinion) is the way it shields itself from view. There was a time in my life when I didn't know I had white privilege, and I don't think that it's any coincidence that that time is exactly aligned with a time when I didn't regularly speak to any non-white people.

It was with these reflections and that invitation to speak in my mind that I read this really great article from Brit Bennett: "I Don't Know What to Do With Good White People."

In it, Bennett weaves together personal experience, historical context, and critical analysis to explain, in part, her frustration with white people who claim to be allies constantly wanting praise for their contribution to the cause of anti-racism:
Over the past two weeks, I've seen good white people congratulate themselves for deleting racist friends or debating family members or performing small acts of kindness to Black people. Sometimes I think I'd prefer racist trolling to this grade of self-aggrandizement. A racist troll is easy to dismiss. He does not think decency is enough. Sometimes I think good white people expect to be rewarded for their decency. We are not like those other white people. See how enlightened and aware we are? See how we are good? 
Over the past two weeks, I have fluctuated between anger and grief. I feel surrounded by Black death. What a privilege, to concern yourself with seeming good while the rest of us want to seem worthy of life.
I hope that I have not been one of these "good" white people, but I suspect that I have. Maybe I'm being one right now, by writing this. Maybe I'll be one by speaking at a conference on diversity. I hope not, but I certainly know that I haven't always gotten it right when it comes to thinking and talking about race and racism. I've made mistakes. I've ignored voices I should have heard, and I've talked when I should have been listening.

I've been thinking a lot about how to get it right, how to do better, and there has been a lot going on to give me reason to pause and reflect.

There have also been two high-profile incidents of people seeking "cookies" for doing anti-racist work in my recent social media feeds.

The viral picture of a young black boy hugging a cop during the recent protests has been criticized for being a staged event orchestrated by the child's white mothers.

Even more recently, a picture and story from Leigh Anne Tuohy (the real-life mother from the film The Blind Side) made the rounds after she confronted two black boys in her restaurant who were talking in a booth to prove to her friend they weren't up to no good. As this post from The Belle Jar points out, sharing this picture and story smacks of a kind of entitlement and self-aggrandizement that should be completely antithetical to its stated purpose:
Black people aren’t things. They don’t exist just so that white people can make a point about themselves. These are two real kids who not only had to endure this woman’s microaggressions but have now had their image splashed all over social media – the Facebook picture alone has 150,000 likes and over 12,000 shares. Step away for a hot second from this white woman’s narrative, and think about how those teenagers must feel – having their privacy invaded, having assumptions made about them based on their race, and now having a white woman use their images to get praise for herself.
She updated her post when one of the boys from the picture responded on Instagram to explain that the story went down a little differently from his view, and it was largely awkward and misrepresentative of his situation.

There are many ways that white allyship can go wrong. Here's a post from Resist Racism talking about an incident in 2008 where a Kent State student received notice from the FBI. Her piece on her experiences of being called "a white bitch" and her fight against "reverse racism" had garnered the attention of white supremacists. The need to turn anti-racist work into a discussion of how "all people experience racism" is a problem:
This is just one of the arenas in which white people demonstrate their inability to relinquish their dominant position. So even when they want to do anti-racist work, they replicate racist behavior.
Here's another post from Spectra Speaks that was really eye-opening and made me reflect on how I present my white ally status:
I learned very quickly that being a “white ally” had nothing to do with how I, as a woman of color, needed them to show support when it mattered. Shoot, it was in a conference room of “white allies” that I found myself on the verge of tears (of anger and frustration), my voice shaking as I tried to explain to a privileged white gay dude that doing community outreach to people of color for a program that claimed to be advocating for diversity wasn’t a “distraction.” The “white allies” in the room sat back and watched the carnage as I pushed, and I fought, and I fell back, defeated. Then the “white allies” came to me after the meeting was over and denounced their brethren — “privileged white guy, he needs to do a lot of work on himself.” Apparently, being a white ally meant reminding women of color that they weren’t “those kinds” of white people, that they had our backs, just only ever in private, conveniently away from any of the actual emotional work involved in standing up to racism.
More recently, Spectra Speaks published another great post along the same lines. In this article, there's a call for white allies to stop unfriending other white people over their racist Facebook posts specifically because the emotional work of engaging them needs to be done and is an excellent place for white allies to step in:
I need you to step up in a major way, and leverage the connections you DO have to address ignorance with conversation and interrogate white privilege with compassion. Because I will not do this. I cannot do this.

And with that, I get to the heart of the two things that have really been twisting and turning for me in this conversation: the first post's point about not seeking cookies for reaching a very low bar of decent human action and the demand that white allies take on their fair share of emotional work when it comes to battling racism.

The thing that's really important to me is that when I talk about white privilege, I'm talking to other white people. That doesn't mean that people of color "shouldn't" read what I write if they want to (and tell me when I'm getting it wrong), but they are not the audience I have in mind when I speak on this topic because I don't have anything to teach a person of color about racism. I'm the one learning in that equation.

Since so many of these articles and stories have revolved around social media, I think it's important to remember that many white people have no friends of color in their social circles at all. A recent article in The Atlantic revealed that three-fourths of white social media circles contain no racial diversity:
In fact, fully three-quarters (75 percent) of whites have entirely white social networks without any minority presence. This level of social-network racial homogeneity among whites is significantly higher than among black Americans (65 percent) or Hispanic Americans (46 percent).
Now, my social media feeds do contain diversity in many ways. I am lucky enough to know people who come at the world from a variety of perspectives, and it's one of the reasons I love social media. While I do have friends representing multiple races in my feed, it is still mostly white. It's not by design, but a good chunk of my Facebook friends are high school acquaintances from my nearly all-white hometown. Another good chunk is from my graduate school experience, which is also overwhelmingly white.

What this means is that when I share a link on Facebook, I'm mostly talking to white people. When I hit publish on this blog post and then link it to Facebook, it will mostly be white people who see it. I think that when I go to this conference and speak on white privilege, it will mostly be white people in the audience.

And that's important to me because I am not an expert on race and racism. I do not have personal experiences that let me know what it is like to be a racial minority and experience systemic racism. I do not have the authority to be an expert on this topic, and I don't want to try to claim it.

What I do have a lot of first-hand experience with is getting my own bubble of white privilege burst. I went from living in a rural town without any racial diversity to living in a very racially diverse urban environment. I went from being one of those people (like many of my friends on Facebook) who would hear about the Eric Garner or Mike Brown or Trayvon Martin case and think "surely he did something to provoke this; no one just kills someone without reason" to understanding how narrowly that view was looking at the issue and how much that line of thinking was contributing to the problem.

I know that I don't have all the answers, but I do hope that I'm asking some of the right questions. I also hope that when I go to give this talk, I do the part of the work that I need to do and detract from none of the work that I can't do.

I'd like to end with these posts I've been reading lately on how to be a better ally:

"So You Call Yourself an Ally: 10 Things All 'Allies' Need to Know"

"12 Things White People Can Do Now Because Ferguson"

"This is a Really Helpful List on How Not to Be a Good Ally"

Photos: Steven Shorrock, Justin Lynham

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Blogging to My PhD: The Intrinsic Desire for Identity, as Illustrated by Buffy the Vampire Slayer

I'm reading Dana Anderson's Identity's Strategy: Rhetorical Selves in Conversation. Anderson spends a good deal of the introduction to this book preemptively defending his practices and project in the face of postmodernism. He notes that a "pronounced effect" of postmodern perspectives has been "the virtual abandonment of 'identity' as a valid theoretical concept" (5). Identity is, at best, something that we can ignore as a non-issue and at worst a canard that distracts us from the real concerns of rhetorical and philosophical inquiry.

Anderson, though, notes that the impact of identity and belief in it has not faded with identity's theoretical validity. Common sense and observation demonstrate that we depend on identity in a very practical sense (whether we "believe" in its existence or not). I may very well have no authentic or core identity. Postmodernism may very well mean that I am so unstable and constantly changing as to be no "I" at all, but I still called upon an identity to write these words, and you are still imagining a me when you read them.

Not only that, but we care about identity. It isn't just a convenient placeholder that lets us wrap our minds around individual moments of communication. It is something we invest in, put time in, and commit to both in our independent lives and as a collective culture.

As evidence, I'd suggest a quick view at the current New York Times bestseller list for nonfiction. Here we find Unbroken, Wild, Dick Van Dyke's My Lucky Life in and Out of Show Business, The Andy Cohen Diaries, Amy Poehler's Yes Please, and Lena Dunham's Not That Kind of Girl.

We are hungry for stories about people becoming who they are (or who we see them as), about the transformations that people undergo throughout their lives. We place value in these narratives, and Anderson believes it is because "narratives about conversion are more than just interesting stories about identities in transformation. They are stories of transformation that would transform us as well" (57).

We look for models for our own identities. We seek out inspiration in becoming. We want a sense of self, but it is always bound by a sense of others. This is why postmodernism cannot displace the practical function of identity even if it discredits the technical definition.

Anderson illustrates this by turning to the very influential and incredibly dense Kenneth Burke. I'll illustrate it by turning to the also influential and phenomenally entertaining Joss Whedon.

More specifically, I want to talk about Season 6, Episode 8 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: "Tabula Rasa."

In this episode, Willow is in a fight with her girlfriend Tara because Willow has been using magic to manipulate the people and things in the world around her, including Tara herself. Willow promises not to use anymore magic, but she has trouble keeping her word and instead decides to cast a powerful spell to make Tara forget about the fight and the promise. When her spell gets out of hand, she ends up erasing the memories of all of her friends and herself. They wake up in a magic shop with no sense of who they are and no memory of their former lives.

While this would be an unfortunate situation for any group of people to find themselves in, it is particularly dangerous for this group of monster-fighting friends.

What's important is that as soon as the group realizes they  have no memory or sense of self, they immediately start to seek out identities.

The first place they turn is the environment around them. Willow notes that they're surrounded by "weird stuff in weird jars" and "weird books with weird covers," finally coming to the realization that they're in a magic shop and that magic is probably responsible for their predicament.

Giles, the patriarch of the group, rejects their surroundings as a helpful clue. Upon hearing himself speak with an accent, he notes that he "appears to be British, and a man" then he feels his face and notes "with glasses." He is seeking his own corporeal being for a sense of self, but he comes up short, sarcastically saying, "well that narrows it down considerably."

With these quick, simple scenes, the characters have demonstrated one of the main problems of identity: it cannot be sussed out by our own physical presence or our surroundings. We have no sense of self just because we inhabit bodies and spaces. The sense of identity comes only once we start forming relationships with other people around us. We know who we are when we can identify what makes us like and unlike others.

The gang immediately start exploring these identity-forming possibilities even though in this case it's a ludicrous proposition. No one knows who they are. How can figuring out a potential connection to someone else possibly help? Nonetheless, that's precisely what they start doing.

When Spike starts speaking and realizes he's also British, he and Giles jump to the conclusion that they are related: father and son. Spike then says that he must hate Giles because he chose such a young "trollop" to date (Anya, whom Giles was leaning against when they awoke). Anya then notes that she's not a trollop because the ring on her finger (which is actually a sign of her relationship to Xander) demonstrates that she and Giles are engaged. Within moments, these people have started concocting a world that is completely fabricated. They yearn for firm roles that explain their connection to the other people around them.

At some point, they think to look for official identification. Xander finds out that he is "Alexander" Harris, which results in him being referred to as "Alex" for the rest of the memory-less time. Anya mispronounces her own name. Spike believes that he is "Randy" because he finds the name written in a coat that he doesn't know he's only wearing as a disguise.

When Dawn despairs that she doesn't have a wallet, Buffy points out the necklace she's wearing that proclaims she is "Dawn." Buffy is also without identification, but rather than let this point of uncertainty further deter her from placing herself in the reality that is quickly being constructed around her, she makes the bold decision to name herself. "I'll name me . . . Joan." When Dawn says her name is "blah," Buffy gets defensive, feeling like she needs to defend an identity that isn't even hers.

Buffy and Dawn begin bickering, which leads them to (correctly) assume they are sisters.

Moments later, they are bombarded by a vampire attack, but since they didn't know vampires existed, they don't react too well. Buffy stumbles upon her natural slaying abilities, and then notes that she knows why she's "the boss" because "Joan's like a superhero or something."

The rest of the episode revolves around the back and forth sway between humor and suspense as the characters try to figure out who they are while avoiding certain death. Eventually, Xander steps on the crystal at the center of the spell, and they all get their memories back instantly, leaving them in some awkward positions.

The thing that I want to focus on is the way that the characters so fully took on their newfound roles. Giles, calling himself "Rupert," gives "Randy" a hug goodbye because he feels it is his fatherly duty. Anya and Giles actually kiss passionately since they believe they are engaged.

I'm calling them by the names that they have during the rest of the show, but is that right? In those moments, wasn't that "Rupert" kissing "Ann-ya"? Wasn't "Randy" surprised to learn  he was a vampire? Wasn't "Alex" impressed with his ability to fight to protect his girlfriend Willow?

While there are several hints to their previous personalities throughout the episode (Anya, ever the capitalist, has to protect the cash register; Giles senses a disappointment in Spike; Buffy takes the lead and makes a plan), who's to say what these characters would have done if they had never gotten their memories back? Maybe Rupert and Anya would have had a glorious marriage. Maybe Alex and Willow would have lived happily ever after. Maybe Randy, the vampire-with-a-soul, would have had a long and happy life of crime fighting. And if anything would have disrupted this newly constructed reality, it would have been someone external announcing that they had made the "wrong" connections. Without someone else coming into the equation (or the physical remnants of someone else in the form of pictures and documents), they would have no way of disrupting this narrative.

In many ways, we're supposed to feel amused and a little frustrated that these characters are not behaving like their "real" selves, but in such a short period of time (mere minutes after awakening), they have already started constructing completely separate selves.

This is all the more important when we consider this episode's place in a series that frequently plays with identity and authenticity. We learn elsewhere that Willow has a vampire version of herself in another dimension. Xander is split into two different versions of himself in one episode. Buffy runs away from her friends and takes on a different identity as a waitress named "Anne." Later, Buffy has to choose between two competing versions of reality: one in which she's the vampire slayer and another in which she's a patient in a mental institution suffering from a severe psychic break with reality.

Perhaps most telling of all is the existence of Dawn. Dawn appears in the show out of nowhere: a fifteen-year-old sister who we have never heard of or seen in five seasons. The other characters treat her as if she is a normal member of their world, but it is jarring to the audience who "knows" better. It turns out that Dawn is a key made out of energy that was put in human form for Buffy to protect. The monks who transformed her created an entire history full of memories, personality traits, and--above all--human relationships.

When Dawn finds out that she is a key, she understandably freaks out, questioning who she really is, but the others assure her that she is real because of who she is to them. It is her status as daughter, sister, friend that make her a person, not her genesis or even the veracity of her memories.

If Dawn could become a real person simply because those around her accept and respond to her various relationship statuses, so too could "Rupert," "Randy," "Joan," and "Alex." The Buffy-verse has already established that it is not the "truth" that makes the person who she is, but the connections to those around her.

I think that this episode does an amazing job of illustrating the very problem that Anderson is fighting against in her introduction. The postmodern condition tells us that identity is fluid and ever-changing, and the characters in Buffy definitely illustrate that instability and malleability, often to a terrifying degree. However, we also see that identity--even as unstable and explosive as it may be--matters. These characters seek it out and want it so badly that they will construct entire realities to create it.

If identity is not the truth, then we can never find the truth because identity is all we have to find a way to look in the first place.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

I'll Never Be "North of Vag"

Now that I'm six months out from my ankle break, I'm finally starting to get back to my previous workouts. I was making some pretty good progress with weightlifting before the injury, and I'm excited about getting back to it.

Since it's also now winter break, this seems like a good time to make a concerted effort to get back into things. I went to this blog post from Samantha Menzies to make a plan for next week. In this post, she uses an adaptation of the 5/3/1 program (and details some pretty impressive results from it for herself).

As I was printing out the sheet with the amount of weight I needed to lift for the program, I was asking my husband (who also lifts) what auxiliary lifts he thought I should do for each day. He said that he had the official 5/3/1 book on Kindle and handed it over so I could skim through it and see what I wanted to do.

The book, 5/3/1 by Jim Wendler, has a lot of helpful advice. I skimmed through the parts that had already been summarized in Menzies post and then started reading about the auxiliary lifts. As I moved ahead to the next chapter, I noticed it had an odd title: "North of Vag (N.O.V.)"

Consider me . . . suspicious. 
Now, Wendler admits that he can't "take credit" for this gem of a term; that honor goes to his "good friend" Jim Messer, who sent him an email about how great the 5/3/1 program was and now he has "moved somewhat north of being an utter vag."

Wendler muses on this and notes that "many people seem to be moving and staying well south of vag." Then he "started to contemplate how one stays in the Northern Hemisphere of the Holy Holes." 

Elsewhere, he gives some advice about conditioning, specifically running. You need to make sure that you make time for running and other conditioning because this should be a life priority when you "live in the Land of the Vag." By all means, you must get out.

Wendler also gives the sage advice to just "[s]top all the things that make you a pussy and steal your energy. Get your life back." 

I won't be reading any more of Wendler's book since it is clearly not for me. I will never be "North of Vag." I will, I'm quite certain, be squarely in the "Land of the Vag" my whole life. I will never, by his estimation, be able to "get [my] life back." This is it for me. All vagina. All the time. 

I'm not sure why Wendler felt like it was a smart economical move to sell a weightlifting program that immediately cuts out half of the human population, but I do know that living in the "Land of the Vag" has not stopped me from doing plenty of things that I think are pretty fucking amazing, including squeezing a 9-pound child out of my body using only my own muscles, and it sure as hell isn't going to stop me from squatting or bench pressing. 

Photo: Milestoned