Writing your journal article in 12 weeks: Week 5 Refining Your Works Cited

Mapping out the lit review—very messy but as long as it makes sense to the writer…

I had an epiphany one day on reading for my research: You don’t have to read enough to become an expert, you just have to read enough to write your journal article. If I were advising a student, I would tell them the lit review just shows that they know what’s out there–who the major scholars are, what approaches/case studies/theories have been used, what the big debates are. You can talk about the “state of the field” without getting hung up on every single new journal article and book that comes out while you’re writing up your research. There’s just too much material out there—you’ll never read it all. I was thrilled to see Wendy Laura Belcher emphasise that point in this chapter!

“You must abandon the hope of being comprehensive in your reading. No one is reading everything in his or her discipline or field.”

(Belcher, 2019, p. 152)

Belcher’s approach tackles the main problem my students (and I) have had with lit reviews in the past–where to start? It’s overwhelming to look at piles of notes and stacks of books and try to make sense of them. When I’ve taught my Masters students about the lit review, I’ve had them draw mind maps with big circles for the different areas or bodies of literature that are relevant for their project, and then figure out which aspects are most important to focus on in the lit review (or sometimes, to be really pragmatic, we’ll pick the strongest areas that we have the most to say about…). The mind map works for me, but approaching the lit review can still feel overwhelming. Quite a few students misunderstand the point of the lit review, and think it’s just compiled “book report”-style summaries of every relevant text they read. It’s not–but what is it?

Belcher builds upon an analogy by Kenneth Burke about academic writing being a conversation taking place amongst people, and advises us to consider our “entry point” into the conversation. I absolutely love this analogy, one because I can so clearly picture times when I’ve been around people at a conference discussing their research and I know exactly what she means by the entry point to join in, and two, because it’s so easy to explain to my students.

The most common entry point is the one that I was usually told was the only one–the so-called “knowledge gap.” In our MA dissertations, we all had to identify a “knowledge gap” that our work was filling. I’m not crazy about the knowledge gap concept because it encourages people to go for something so small and niche for the sake of originality that they can end up pursuing something that isn’t especially interesting or relevant. That said, sometimes there are actually interesting gaps in the knowledge–before the Fulbright Legacy conference/book I contributed to, for instance, there hadn’t been any work done on gender or race in the Fulbright Program, both of which are important areas that should have been covered long before 2015. Sometimes the gap is simply a case of updating the field, which is also a valuable gap–this is especially true in “New Media”/digital media research, which has to be continually updated to keep up with trends and new technologies. I just read a journal article from several years ago exploring why members of Congress were adopting Twitter–now, scholars might look at their adoption of TikTok, or compare how they represent themselves on Instagram vs. Twitter, etc.

My first draft of the lit review for this paper was all over the place. I thought the “conversation taking place” was a massive debate over the role of deliberation in democratic politics or the role of social media in political communication, and I was overwhelmed. This chapter helped me rethink the “conversation” and narrow it down to two areas–how people talk about guns (and the state of the US gun debate in general), and how members of Congress use Twitter. While it’s still related to big concepts like deliberative democracy and online political communication, it’s more narrowly focused and manageable.

I also loved the citation values section, emphasising the need to cite women, people of colour, and non-English texts where possible. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many female scholars write about the gun debate (Kristin Goss, Jennifer Carlson), but it still seems that the experts that get cited the most are white men (Robert Spitzer, Adam Winkler). I was rightly stunned by the error example Belcher mentioned–a journal’s special issue on Black Lives Matter didn’t include any black authors (Belcher, 2019, p. 162). Yikes! It reminded me of that viral photo of the “GOP Women’s health caucus” that was exclusively men sitting around the table:

BBC, 24 March 2017

“An International Embarrassment”: What America’s Gun Problem Looks Like from Abroad

Last week President Biden announced modest gun control proposals and referred to gun violence in the U.S. as “an international embarrassment.” I’ve certainly felt that it is during my time abroad–every time we see another mass shooting in the news, I feel embarrassed and frustrated by my home country. Gun violence in America feels like an intractable problem. There needs to be a deep cultural shift. It’s going to take a lot of work to convince the American people that guns are not essential to your individual freedom. Living in a place with no guns and free healthcare has shown me that this is what “freedom” actually looks like. It’s the freedom to not get shot in a road rage incident, the freedom for my kids to spend their time at school learning instead of practicing active shooter drills, and the freedom to go to the doctor when we need to without worrying about a co-pay.

Mass shootings account for a tiny proportion of overall gun deaths in the U.S. each year, but the persistence of mass shooting events does raise eyebrows in countries where the first mass shooting was the only mass shooting, because gun policy changed as a response.

  • Canada: “In 1989, a student armed with a semiautomatic rifle killed fourteen students and injured more than a dozen others at a Montreal engineering school. The incident is widely credited with driving major gun reforms that imposed a twenty-eight-day waiting period for purchases; mandatory safety training courses; more detailed background checks; bans on large-capacity magazines; and bans or greater restrictions on military-style firearms and ammunition.” (CFR)
  • Australia: “The inflection point for modern gun control in Australia was the Port Arthur massacre of 1996, when a young man killed thirty-five people and wounded nearly two dozen others. The rampage, perpetrated with a semiautomatic rifle, was the worst mass shooting in the nation’s history. Less than two weeks later, the conservative-led national government pushed through fundamental changes to the country’s gun laws in cooperation with the various states and territories, which regulate firearms.” (CFR)
  • United Kingdom: “In 1987, a lone gunman armed with two semiautomatic rifles and a handgun went on a six-hour shooting spree roughly seventy miles west of London, killing more than a dozen people and then himself. In the wake of the incident, known as the Hungerford massacre, Britain introduced the Firearms (Amendment) Act, which expanded the list of banned weapons, including certain semiautomatic rifles, and increased registration requirements for other weapons. A gun-related tragedy in the Scottish town of Dunblane in 1996 prompted Britain’s strictest gun laws yet. A man armed with four handguns shot and killed sixteen schoolchildren and one adult before committing suicide in the country’s worst mass shooting to date. The incident sparked a public campaign known as the Snowdrop Petition, which helped drive legislation banning handguns, with few exceptions. The government also instituted a temporary gun buyback program, which many credit with taking tens of thousands of illegal or unwanted guns out of supply.” (CFR)
  • New Zealand: The 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings led to the Arms Amendment Act, which banned semi-automatic firearms, magazines, and certain types of parts, and instituted a buy-back scheme.

Why doesn’t the U.S. react to mass shootings in the same way? Is it “gun culture”? Is it the Second Amendment? Is it the lobbying power of the NRA? Possibly all of the above. Historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s Loaded offers a compelling explanation for the difference between the U.S. and these countries:

“Violence perpetrated by armed settlers, even genocide, were not absent in the other territories where the British erected settler-colonies–Australia, Canada, and New Zealand–but the people of those polities never declared the gun a God-given right; only the founding fathers of the United States did that. And the people of the other Anglo settler-colonies did not have economies, governments, and social orders based on the enslavement of other human beings. The United States is indeed “exceptional,” just not in the way usually intoned by politicians and patriots.”

Dunbar-Ortiz, R. (2018) Loaded: a Disarming History of the Second Amendment, San Francisco: City Lights Books, p. 202.

America’s “original sin” of slavery is directly linked to the problems of gun violence, white supremacy, and systemic racism as they are perpetrated today. It’s an international embarrassment that needs to be addressed comprehensively–and President Biden’s reference to statistics on gun violence against African Americans is a good step in this direction.

Writing your journal article in 12 weeks: Week 4 Selecting a Journal

It’s taken a few months of reading and a few weeks of writing, but I finally have a rough draft of my article to use with the Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks workbook I started last summer! I’ve been carrying on with reading it while writing, so I’ll share my thoughts on weeks 4 & 5 before I go back through it all again with my article draft in hand.

Week 4–Selecting a Journal

Journal selection has always been a weak point for me–the academic publishing world all seems very opaque. How are you supposed to know what the “top” journals are? They say to ask your supervisors, but that was tricky for me–Phil died, Robin left academia, and my replacement supervisors were experts in different fields. Whenever I did try to ask for advice about choosing a journal, they just would ask “What journals do you read?” I don’t read any journals–I read the specific articles related to the topic I’m researching, and they come from a wide range of different journals. Looking over the citations in my PhD thesis, there is no one journal that stands out. I cited articles from 33 different journals, and only 3 of them had more than one article cited. I find articles from Communications Abstracts or Google Scholar, and go from there. The idea of sitting down and reading the most recent issues of a journal is lovely, and always recommended by my postgraduate research student advisers, but it’s just not something I’ve ever had the time to do.

The other advice I’ve received, this time from a fellow early career academic who had far more publications than I did, was to aim for the top journal first, then use peer-review feedback from them to improve the article and submit it to the next one on the list. I used this advice and submitted my paper to the Hague Journal of Diplomacy, which rejected it but gave me very helpful feedback to improve it, and I then submitted it to Place Branding and Public Diplomacy, which required another round of revisions, but did actually publish it. So, to some extent, the advice to aim high did work–but the initial rejection was very painful and I couldn’t face reading through the comments again to make the revisions. After a few months of putting it off and giving up on publishing that article, I opened up to a couple of friends about it and sent the feedback to them, which I highly recommend. It was much easier for an outsider to make sense of the recommendations than it was for my overwhelmed, bruised ego to figure out where to begin!

Belcher acknowledges this “top journal” advice and explains why it’s a bad idea–because the “top” journal in your field is probably not the journal that best fits your article, and it makes the “best” journals very slow and competitive. Belcher emphasises finding the right fit for your work, to save time and improve your chances of publication.

This chapter provided better guidance and mentoring re: journal selection than I’d ever received in grad school. After reading through the chapter, I spent some time browsing recent issues of journals on the library website and reading “About the Journal” pages. I ended up with three potential journals to submit my article to, complete with formatting instructions and notes on what they want from authors. I particularly liked Belcher’s advice to consider the implications for submitting your article to that particular journal. What does it mean for the article, in terms of emphasis, tone, formatting, use of jargon? What does publishing in that journal mean for your career? Does it take your publications list in a certain direction? For me, publishing in a well-regarded communications studies journal like Discourse & Society would help balance out my publications in the Journal of Trans-Atlantic Studies and Place Branding and Public Diplomacy. I’m trying to shift my CV over towards political communication to make myself more marketable (and it’s also where my heart’s always been–my MA was in political communication).

One Year Covid-versary

The empty shelves of our local Sainsbury’s
Not a great picture, but one of the last “normal” pictures I have–Our friends’ wedding on 14 March 2020, which is probably the last event that anybody there went to. The boys wore adorable tweed suits, and they haven’t been dressed up since. Our lovely friend Bekah is holding 7-week-old Paul, and that was it for other people holding him until he started nursery last month!

We’ve been lucky in so many ways–we haven’t gotten covid-19, everyone has stayed healthy, and several of my friends and family members have already been vaccinated. My husband’s job is stable and he’s enjoyed working from home, and I’ve appreciated having him around to help with the kids and housework. I’ve been frustrated to be unemployed and I’m worried about my future, but I know that if I’d been working during this time, it would have been a nightmare to juggle a new baby and homeschooling.

The biggest loss for me has been not being able to see my family in the States, especially not being able to introduce Paul to them. Part of the fun of having a baby is sharing them with your friends and family–passing them around, showing off cute baby clothes and, as they get older, playing with them and hearing the hilarious stuff they have to say. It goes super fast, too, and Paul hasn’t stopped growing and changing just because the world shutdown. For instance, clothing was considered “non-essential”, but it quickly became essential for us when he outgrew the 0-6 months sizes I’d prepped before lockdown. Initially I had hoped to visit my family in October 2020, and now I’m just hoping to see them this year. Some days I feel quite hopeless and wonder how big Paul is going to be before he meets anybody–but we’re ready, we’ve got flight ticket money and our passports, so as soon as we’re allowed travel, we will!

I don’t know if there was a “typical” lockdown year for anybody, but we did take part in some of the trends and passed on others. We’ve done lots of walking and hiking, because there’s nothing else to do. I didn’t make sourdough, or banana bread, or binge watch boxsets (apart from Tiger King, but we savoured that over a few weeks, so it wasn’t bingeing). I didn’t learn guitar or French, though I’ve had a go at both with George. I didn’t get fit or gain the covid 19–I’m one jeans size smaller and 2 lbs heavier than I was when I went into lockdown at 8 weeks post-partum, so I guess that’s breaking even. What did I do with my time? I taught George his reception and year 1 curriculum, and I made several thousand snacks. I did hundreds of loads of laundry and dishes. I grew green beans and strawberries and corn, and far too many zucchini. I did a month-long daily yoga challenge and mostly stuck to it. I read self-help books and listened to Brene Brown and Michelle Obama podcasts and tried to “sort myself out”–but I’m not sure it worked. It’s hard to “do the work” when the daily stresses of life are undoing it at the same time!

Where do I want us to be at the 2 year mark, 23 March 2022? Hopefully I’ll have been able to travel to the States already by then, and have some kind of real job by that time. I want to keep some of the habits we’ve formed, like gardening and going for walks in parks rather than just shopping for entertainment, but I can’t wait to go to museums and National Trust and English Heritage sites again, too. I’m looking forward to going to Ikea on a rainy day, and sitting down in coffee shops instead of “takeaway only”. I’m looking forward to browsing in a bookshop or a library, because buying books online is great and cheap but it’s just not the same experience as browsing shelves. I’m looking forward to Paul’s Christening at church someday, with our friends and family there, especially my mom.

So much has changed in the past year, it gives me hope that even more can change over the next year, too!

Replacing Erasmus+: Wales’s New International Learning Exchange

Wales may have voted for Brexit in 2016, but it looks like Welsh higher education didn’t want to leave Erasmus+ and turn its back on exchange diplomacy.

The Welsh Government and Cardiff University have developed a new exchange programme for Welsh universities that will “fill the gaps Turing leaves.” There are several key differences between Erasmus+ and the UK Government’s new Turing Scheme, and this new programme addresses the major points of contention around reciprocity and categories of exchange. While the Turing Scheme funds only UK students to go overseas, the New International Learning Exchange facilitates travel in both directions–its first four years are projected to fund 15,000 participants from Wales going abroad, and 10,000 foreign participants coming to Wales. This is a smaller scale than Turing (which proposed 35,000 participants in its first year), but Wales is a much smaller country–and it’s still eligible to participate in the Turing Scheme, too. The Welsh scheme also facilitates youth coming to Wales for work, like Erasmus+, which the Turing Scheme does not include.

“Kirsty Williams, Wales’ education minister, said: ‘We have been clear that international exchange programmes, which bring so many benefits to participants, as well as their education providers and wider community, should build on the excellent opportunities that the Erasmus programme offered.

‘We owe it to this next generation of students and learners to have the same opportunities previous years had.'”

Richard Adams, Wales sets up its own Erasmus programme, The Guardian, 21 March 2021

I’m so glad to see this development–hopefully the UK Department of Education will learn from its devolved counterparts and address these gaps to create a two-way, long-term Turing Scheme that covers more than just UK students. Only then will it adequately replace Erasmus+.

Back to work: Proof that Childcare is Infrastructure

Today was my first day of having George at school and Paul at nursery and it was amazing. I wrote 1,761 words of my discourse analysis. I read an academic journal article and took notes. I did some freelance proofreading work. I took a walk and listened to the Obama-Springsteen podcast. I did two loads of laundry, caught up on dishes, and made a lovely lunch that I got to eat while it was still hot. When the boys got home, I was thrilled to see them and have dinner together, instead of being exhausted and counting down the minutes to bedtime. So productive and happy—despite running on 4 hours of sleep.

During my darker moments of this past year, I’ve been having serious doubts about pursuing an academic career. Without any time to write, I began to doubt that I even had anything to contribute. I applied for academic jobs and got rejected every time and just felt like the universe was telling me that I’m not cut out for academia, that there are too many applicants for too few positions, that I’m just not good enough to compete.

But today, when I finally got to sit down with a clear head and a cup of coffee, when my laptop wasn’t being used for distance learning and Numberblocks, it just flowed. My writing was as good as it ever was, and I was back in the zone.

All of my thoughts about academia might still be true—I might continue to get rejected and have to pursue some other path. But after today, I feel so much more confident and more hopeful than I have since being made redundant mover a year ago.

That mental health breakthrough and surge in productivity came down to just a few hours of childcare. Childcare is essential infrastructure. I’ve been so glad to see Warren and Biden pushing for affordable and accessible childcare, and I hope that other parents who’ve struggled in lockdown can get the support and respite care they need, too.

World Book Day

Willy Wonka and Violet Beauregard

This week George was asked to share his favourite book with his class on Zoom for World Book Day. We had a hard time narrowing it down, so I thought I’d share a top 5 here, with brief recommendations. I’m intentionally leaving out the big names that were in the top 10–-Julia Donaldson, Roald Dahl, Michael Bond’s Paddington series—because nobody needs a recommendation for those. My friends with kids will recognise some of these titles, because I love giving kids books!

20344136

We found this book at a charity shop in Skipton and we absolutely love it. It’s so darkly funny and cute, and it has a good lesson about the importance of eating your food!

This was from a brilliant independent bookshop in Chapel Allerton that specialises in children’s books, The Little Bookshop. (They’re still doing online orders in lockdown—I got some books for Paul’s birthday and they arrived super fast!) I just love putting on my pirate accent for Pirate Pete and his parrot. There are 3 Pirate Pete books and we love them all!

Richard found this one at an independent bookshop in Ambleside, and I read it to George on the Lake Windermere ferry and instantly loved it. It’s so funny and clever, with great illustrations and a lovely message about kindness.

Jonny Duddle’s pirate books are bestsellers but I couldn’t leave them out—I just love them! Great illustrations, darkly funny rhymes and awesome lessons about NIMBY-ism and prejudice.

George actually picked this one as his favourite book to share, and I love it, too! It’s another charity shop find—it was a Scottish BookTrust gift and the 2011 winner of the Roald Dahl Funny Book prize. It’s very clever and funny, a great choice for fans of pirates and/or cats (we love both!).

Vaccine Diplomacy and Global Inequality

I’ve seen a few opinion pieces recently about “vaccine diplomacy”, how countries are using the COVID-19 vaccines as part of their foreign relations. The term “vaccine diplomacy” is uncomfortable and unethical–it seems incredibly wrong to use a much-needed medical resource as a bargaining chip. The world has been pinning its hopes for a return to normalcy on the development and distribution of vaccines, but global inequalities mean that a few countries have millions of surplus doses while “some 130 countries in the world haven’t done any vaccinations at all.” (BBC). Ahead of the G7 summit, Boris Johnson pledged that the UK would share its surplus vaccines with the developing world through Covax. Emmanuel Macron announced that 5% of France’s vaccines would go to poorer countries, and directly tied this move to diplomatic interests. “It’s an unprecedented acceleration of global inequality and it’s politically unsustainable too because it’s paving the way for a war of influence over vaccines…You can see the Chinese strategy, and the Russian strategy too.” China and Russia were quick to share PPE with poorer countries last year, when supplies were scarce, and they’ve already begun sharing vaccines, too. The US has contributed funding (it was one of Biden’s first moves as President), but is waiting for its own population to be vaccinated before donating surplus vaccines. This cautious approach is understandable, but might be shortsighted. As a recent New York Times op-ed put it, “Poor countries will remember who came to their assistance, and when.” It’s important for the US to look like part of the solution and live up to new President Biden’s rhetoric.

Sharing the vaccine is a way for wealthy countries to generate some goodwill, but beneath this veneer of altruism there is also basic self-interest at play. The pandemic will not be resolved anywhere until it is resolved everywhere. Vaccinating on a global scale is the only way out of the pandemic, and it requires unprecedented levels of international cooperation and, crucially, investment.

Covax is the largest effort in this area, aiming to guarantee fair and equitable access to the vaccine for every country in the world.

Unfortunately it is underfunded, despite contributions from wealthy countries that have made headlines. In the recent G7 leaders’ statement, they “reaffirm [their] support for ACT-A and COVAX…” yet “collective G7 support totals $7.5 billion.” That’s not nearly enough. It’s tiny compared to the amount of money that the billionaire class has made over the past year. According to a recent Oxfam report, the world’s 10 richest men became $540 billion richer during the pandemic. Some of them are contributing to COVID-19 recovery–the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which was already active in vaccine programmes before the pandemic, contributed $1.75 billion. But others are not contributing on that scale, further highlighting the inequalities that increased their wealth while billions around the world became poorer–and the G7 countries could certainly do more.

There are also concerns about the effectiveness of COVAX, given that it is not aiming for universal vaccination. Even if it were to be fully funded, it may not go far enough.

“...even if the Covax plan works, it’s only designed to cover 20% of each nation’s population – far short of the herd immunity expected in wealthy countries.”

Covid vaccines: Boris Johnson pledges surplus to poorer countries at G7, BBC, 19 February 2021

COVAX is certainly the right idea, but it needs even more international cooperation and financial commitment. Resolving the pandemic demands major restructuring and reform, on a global scale. This piece in the BMJ recommended a number of international institutional reforms aimed at more equitable governance. “The shared disaster of the covid-19 pandemic has drawn attention to the many regressive realities of our world, each one calling for immediate reform in the governance of global health. Without such measures, the unfair, extractive, and regressive patterns of the past will continue to plague the present.” Learning these lessons could help us face future pandemics and confront other shared problems, like climate change. While the wealthy countries have a duty to take the lead in terms of funding, they should also ensure equal participation and include voices from every country in the process of solving this global public health crisis. As former Under-Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Tara Sonenshine wrote in The Hill last week, “COVID-19 presents a rare opportunity to return to “soft diplomacy” and seeing the world as a global community with shared problems and shared solutions.”

The Toxic Positivity of Instagram Motherhood

Ever since Instagram changed its format to include more “suggested” posts and hiding previously viewed posts, I’ve been seeing more “motherhood” (for want of a better term) posts. Lots of postpartum “inspiration” (prompting either weight loss or the “body positivity” I mentioned in my last post), lots of “it’s tough but so worth it”, and lots of “the kids drive mommy to drink” jokes (incredibly problematic for anyone who’s actually had alcoholism in their family!).

The most common thing the algorithm throws at me, though, is toxic positivity. In the Instagram “motherhood” world, it’s all about cherishing every moment because they are fleeting. It’s about celebrating being a “Mama” even—or especially—when it’s hard.

No, when you feel like that, seek help! Reach out to a friend, family member, partner, or find a therapist. Find some support, whether it’s arranging childcare so you have some respite or just venting to a nonjudgmental listener. Don’t put that weight of your emotional well-being on your baby—when they become independent or ask for Dada, your world will collapse!

Instagram motherhood is pretty all-consuming. Even when they challenge that idea and recognise that mothers might want something more, it’s presented as being “allowed” to want more, as in the post below:

On the one hand, yes, that’s true—mothers should have their own dreams outside of motherhood. Nice message for moms who might feel lost or unsupported in their dreams. On the other hand, try swapping out “motherhood” for “fatherhood” in this post. It’s darkly hilarious to think that a man would feel guilty for wanting more than fatherhood, that he would need to hear that he’s “allowed” to have dreams that are just for him. And that dissonance is what bothers me about the pseudo-inspirational content on Instagram. It seems lovely until you stop scrolling and pause to think critically about it.

Here are some parenting-oriented Instagrammers that post great stuff:

Hilariously honest parenting stories with some politics and relationship humour mixed in
I discovered Pregnant Chicken before having kids—brilliant resource for real, trustworthy information and it’s seriously funny
Mom blogger Oakley is genuine and lovely, sweet without being saccharine.

What I’m Reading: The Body is not an Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor

Oh my. This book is short but dense and very rich. It’s like cheesecake.

It’s like a self-help book grew up and became a political manifesto.

Activist and author Sonya Renee Taylor was a guest on Brené Brown’s podcast back in September and it was brilliant. Their conversation was so full of “Aha!” moments. One that’s really stuck with me was the observation that we celebrate biodiversity as a concept in nature yet we shame differences in human bodies.

“…what’s interesting is we believe that in so many other areas of the natural world, and we don’t believe it in the human world, and that’s the thing I find fascinating. We believe it about trees, we believe it about dogs, and cows, and grasses, the variety and nuance of all of those things. We expect there to be millions of different kinds of trees.” (Sonya Renee Taylor)

“In order to have a thriving world, a thriving ecosystem that works in harmony, we need variance. We recognize that. We know that innately. And yet, because we are so far away from our own sense of inherent knowing of our enoughness, we’ve constructed a world where that’s not true for our bodies.” (Sonya Renee Taylor)

Brown, B. (Host). (2020, September 16). Brené with Sonya Renee Taylor on “The Body is Not an Apology” [Audio podcast episode]. In Unlocking Us with Brené Brown. Cadence13. https://brenebrown.com/podcast/brene-with-sonya-renee-taylor-on-the-body-is-not-an-apology/ 

As a former science team nerd who loved biology, this blew my mind. There’s excitement about the differences we see in nature–when scientists discover a new species, they catalogue how and why it’s unique, and there’s no “shaming” or “othering” involved. Why can’t we be like that about humans?

I was very excited to finally read the book when the 2nd edition was released last week and I’ve nearly finished it already. It’s hard to summarise, but I would say the central takeaway is that it’s about loving (not just accepting) our bodies and other people’s bodies, and recognising that there is no hierarchy of bodies. There is no right way to have a body. We all have one–it is the one thing that unites us all. The political implications of understanding this are massive–if we love ourselves and others, it stands to reason that we must love (not just “accept”) those whose bodies are different from our own. We must work to eradicate racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, etc. Loving our bodies also means taking power away from what Taylor calls the Body-Shame Profit Complex–the massive transnational industry that profits from our desire to change our bodies. Consumers are constantly being told their bodies are wrong, either directly through advertising or through the erasure of different kinds of bodies in our media. The default is a young, thin, white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied person, and the further away from that default you are, the less likely you are to see yourself in the media. This is something we’ve discussed a bit in my Critical Issues in Media Theory module, but this book has inspired me to read up on it further. The book also takes it further–it’s not just an interesting point in a media theory textbook, it’s a call to action. Taylor’s work is revolutionary in its call for a different world, one where the hierarchy of bodies and the Body-Shame Profit Complex are dismantled and people can live in their bodies unapologetically.

The book also incorporated the concept of compassion–it surprisingly linked to & built on Kristin Neff’s Self-Compassion that I’ve written about previously. I loved this passage about what body shame does to us:

(Taylor, 2021, p. 80)

One of the more painful but necessary exercises in the book is to think about the origins of our body shame–the times we were “berated and abused by others,” as she mentions here. Taylor gives examples of children being teased or overhearing parents’ concerns about their child’s weight, etc. Thinking back over my own experiences, I can vividly recall an incident when I was in 1st grade, age 6, when my classmate Kendra referred to me as fat and I remember being stunned and not understanding why she would say that (it didn’t have anything to do with what we were talking about), but also feeling ashamed and embarrassed about getting called fat–even at age 6, I knew it was an insult. There was also a time in 3rd grade when a little boy on the playground made fun of my “chubby cheeks” and I slapped him across the face. I’ve always been self-conscious about my “chubby cheeks”–reading up on hairstyles for round faces and what I can do with make-up and contouring and the right shape of sunglasses to wear–all to fix this flaw that some random little boy drew my attention to when I was 8. It was also when I started journalling, and it breaks my heart to read over my first journal entries about dieting and exercise plans, written in the messy scrawl of an 8-year-old. I came up with food rules like “No hot dogs”, which is actually pretty nutritionally sound advice. But I wish I had spent that time playing, reading, drawing, writing stories, etc. instead of designing diets that didn’t work and tracking my weight and measuring my waist and thighs and upper arms. I can look back now with compassion and love, and tell myself that Kendra and that boy were just projecting internalised body-shaming messages they picked up from parents/media/society, etc. If it hadn’t been my weight, bullies would have found something else to make fun of. There was never actually anything wrong with me.

The concept of radical self-love is what sets this book apart. It’s not the typical “body positivity” content you see on social media–the “brave” make-up free selfies, the bikini pics that show off stretch marks and “flaws”, etc. To be honest, I’m so tired of that content. It’s very common in postpartum Instagram posts–so “brave”, so “real”, showing the world that your pregnancy belly doesn’t disappear overnight, and women celebrating their “tiger stripes”. I don’t like this kind of thing for several reasons:

  1. Suggesting that showing your body off on a public Instagram page is “brave” implies that those who don’t engage in that kind of content are not brave. I’m not “scared” or “ashamed”–I just don’t want to post pics of myself in my underwear, and I wouldn’t have done it before having a baby, either! There’s nothing “brave” about wearing a bikini–I’ve literally never worn one in my life at any age, weight, pre-/post-baby, and I don’t think that makes me a coward.
  2. The Duchess of Cambridge also showed the world that your bump doesn’t instantly disappear after childbirth–but she did it fully dressed. Not necessary to bare it all. Also, the trend of showing this “real” side off on social media just proves how invisible the postpartum experience is in the media–people know what a pregnant woman looks like, but not what she looks like after the baby arrives. If television and movies accurately portrayed it, mothers wouldn’t feel compelled to engage in these posts.
  3. I had stretch marks long before having kids. They happen during puberty, another time in your life when your skin has to stretch quickly. Men have stretch marks. They are not tied to motherhood, and linking them with motherhood just body shames women who have stretchmarks but haven’t had kids (i.e. what’s their excuse for having this flaw?).

Taylor talks about how her editor became a radical self-love convert after working with her on the manuscript. He even suggested using the cover photo, which Taylor initially was hesitant about using. Admittedly, it’s not the kind of book I would have picked up—it sounds like the kind of body positivity stuff I don’t like, and that cover photo made me think it was referring to a different kind of “self-love”… But the book isn’t about that, or about a self-serving “body positivity” trend. It’s so much more political and transformative than that!