Upcoming: Research Seminar on Exchange Diplomacy

On Monday 1 November, I’m going to be giving a research seminar on Public Diplomacy and Educational Exchange. Colin Alexander, editor of “The Frontiers of Public Diplomacy,” has organised a 9-part series of seminars based on the edited volume, with each author discussing their contribution. It’s a free online event, 16:00-17:00 GMT, and all are welcome!

Register through Eventbrite to get the seminar link:

What I’m Reading: Rising Strong

“When you try your best but you don’t succeed…”

Coldplay’s ‘Fix You’

After I was rejected in 2018 for a dream tenure-track postdoc fellowship in my favourite city, this line from “Fix You” went through my head for longer than I’d care to admit…It perfectly captures the shame of not being good enough. I honestly felt like I had tried my best, which made the rejection very painful.

For the past year or so, I’ve been applying to lots of jobs, both inside and outside of academia. Every time, I’ve been rejected without ever being invited to an interview. It stings a little, especially when I thought I had a good shot, but I’ve gotten used to it. When we were on holiday in Somerset a few weeks ago, I got invited to interview for a lecturer position that I’d nearly forgotten about–it was a full-time, permanent, Grade 8 role. It was interdisciplinary and very exciting–an awesome job that I didn’t expect to be shortlisted for. I applied anyway because it’s like the lottery–you have to be in it to win it.

This time, I prepared harder than ever. I looked up all of the panel members and took notes on their research interests and roles. I looked at their research groups and saw where my work would fit in. I read the Vice Chancellor’s statement on Black Lives Matter and watched videos about their reciprocal mentoring initiative, which I loved. I looked through their student life and support pages, and was really impressed with their values–you can tell they appreciate the fact that students have a life outside of the university. I worked hard on my presentation, practiced it with a timer several times, recorded myself and watched it back, edited my notes.

On the day, I was extremely nervous and did all of my “power pose” and breathing tricks to calm down (thank you Amy Cuddy!). When it actually was time for the interview, I knew I’d prepared as well as I could. My presentation went well, but the actual interview questions were harder. I could tell that I hadn’t made enough of a research agenda, especially in terms of a funding plan, but to be honest, without an affiliation for the past 2 years, I don’t even know where to start with funding. I need a research funding officer to walk me through the process, and I need time and space (aka childcare) to come up with research ideas and write up proposals. Proposals also require some background research (preliminary lit review), and I don’t have the time or journal access I need to do that. It doesn’t help that I’ve been sleep deprived for two years, either. When I work through these issues, I feel like I’m making excuses, and I worry that the underlying truth is that I’m just not good enough and I just haven’t tried hard enough.

A couple of days later, I got the rejection call while I was on the school run, picking up George and chasing Paul around the playground. Getting feedback in public was not ideal, and it was especially annoying given the fact I’d been carrying my phone around with me constantly with the ringer on for the past 2 days. I kept it together, and I managed not to cry until we got home. Richard took the boys over for me and I followed the advice in Emily and Amelia Nagoski’s Burnout to “feel my feelings.” I just sat and cried. It wasn’t even about this specific job–although that was disappointing and I had gotten my hopes up for it. I cried because it was yet another rejection in a long string of rejections. I cried because, to argue with Paolo Coelho, it felt like the universe was conspiring against me. If this isn’t the right path, if I’m not doing what I’m meant to be doing, then what am I supposed to be doing? If I’m not meant to have an academic career, why did the universe allow me to go this far–passing my PhD viva without corrections, getting articles and chapters published, presenting at conferences–but not get a proper, full-time, permanent job now? If something better is meant for me, why is it taking so long?

Friends and family were quick to send comforting words, and I distracted myself with a busy weekend (food festival, visiting friends, church). I also read Brené Brown’s Rising Strong, which had been sitting in my to-be-read pile for just such a time as this…

Rising Strong is the follow-up to Daring Greatly, both in terms of Brown’s publishing timeline and also in actual practice. Daring Greatly inspires you to put yourself out there–take a chance, apply for that job, open yourself up to a new relationship, etc. Unfortunately, being that brave can/will result in a crash, and that’s where Rising Strong comes in. It’s about picking yourself up after failure.

Brené Brown outlines a 3-stage process based on emotions and storytelling: the Reckoning, the Rumble, and the Revolution. The first stage is about thinking through your emotions–not just feeling your feelings (although that’s crucial, too–instead of numbing them), but also questioning them. My reckoning with the job rejection news happened right away–even as I was reacting to it, I knew I wasn’t actually that upset about that particular rejection. It was about linking my self-worth to my accomplishments and feeling worthless. It was about being embarrassed that had been made redundant two years ago and still hadn’t found a job. It was the shame of not being good enough to get a job. Good enough to get a PhD (seven years ago…), but not good enough to do anything with it. Sylvia Plath talked about this feeling in The Bell Jar–being good at winning scholarships, but struggling with the real world outside of school.

And this kind of storytelling is where the Rumble comes in. The story you tell yourself about the event in question is the SFD (Brown borrows Anne Lamott’s term “shitty first draft”). My SFD was that I wasn’t cut out for academia, I had wasted my 20s and half of my 30s, and I would never find a proper job because, at the end of the day, I just wasn’t good enough. The SFD is full of confabulations–“lies, honestly told” (p. 81)–and conspiracies. Rumbling with it is about working through what the actual facts are, what your assumptions are, what’s going on with other people in the story, and what’s underneath your own response to the event.

So what actually happened?

I interviewed for a job and didn’t get it.

Nothing more, nothing less.

It’s not a reflection on my self-worth, or even on my ability to ever establish myself in academia.

It was one job, one interview, one department, one panel.

There are other jobs, both inside and outside of academia, and I need to have faith that I will eventually find the right fit somewhere.

My job search history sounds terrible in my mind (only 2 interviews in 3 years), but if you compare it to dating, it makes more sense. I can see that I just haven’t found the right one yet and I need to keep believing that something better is out there. It’s like going on an unsuccessful first date in 2018, having some rejections on dating apps, and then having another unsuccessful first date in 2021, and deciding you’re never going to meet anyone and you’re going to die alone. If somebody presented that timeline to me, I would tell them to put themselves out there more, or stop looking and just try do to more of what they love to do.

The final stage, the Revolution, is about re-writing the story and creating a new ending. Obviously, I want the ending of the story to be that I finally get a career (preferably in academia, but I’m open to other possibilities). It’s supposed to be based on the learnings from the Rumble, so I suppose mine is the realisation that I am actually good enough, I have actually already been a lecturer and I can be one again. I have a PhD and publications and experience that they can’t take away from me, no matter how long I’m a sleep deprived stay-at-home-mom who hardly ever gets to write anymore.

The Rising Strong process has also reinforced the importance of self-compassion, and the need for me to go back and re-read Kristin Neff’s Self-Compassion. If a friend was going through the job search process and struggling like I am, there’s no way I would ever say or think “You’re just not cut out for this.” I would comfort them, commiserate with them, make them a cup of tea, and remind them of all of their best qualities. I would tell them to keep trying and reassure them that the right job is out there, and it will come at the right time.

Now I just need to practice talking to myself like that!

What I’m Reading: The Alchemist

In an effort to tackle my TBR pile (which is quickly becoming a TBR bookcase), I finally read The Alchemist. Having heard Paulo Coelho on Oprah’s Super Soul Conversations and seeing the book referenced in a lot of self-help/psych content, I picked the book up at a charity shop ages ago but I never got around to reading it. I picked it up just after finishing Daring Greatly–Brené Brown mentioned The Alchemist and I can definitely see the link between her work and his. The above quote captures it well. They’re talking about vulnerability, and the great lesson is that being vulnerable (opening yourself up to the possibility of pain/suffering) is less painful than the avoidance of vulnerability (keeping yourself closed off and armoured up).

The most popular quotation from The Alchemist, though, is the concept of the Law of Attraction.

I’m not sure how much I believe it or buy into it. I think I used to–when things were going well, it was easy to believe that the universe was helping me succeed. After the past year and a half, though, it’s a much tougher idea to accept. Yesterday morning, for instance, I faced a school closure and a journal rejection, and it felt like the universe was conspiring against me ever establishing a career. Brené Brown talks about the inner voice “gremlins” of shame and self-doubt, and they were very loud yesterday. I was disappointed and frustrated to miss out on my (very limited) writing time, and the gremlins just shrugged and said “It doesn’t matter anyway–even when you do have time to write, it’s not good enough to get published.” Why bother? Why keep putting myself out there and getting hurt by rejections? What’s the point? If I’m not good enough, I’m just wasting my time and everybody else’s time. The gremlins make a very strong case.

The response to the self-doubt/shame gremlins is this quote above–the idea that failures and set-backs are temporary moments on the path to your goal. It’s a common message throughout the self-help/psych world and, although people talk about it, they rarely operationalise just how you go about getting back up that 6th, 7th or 8th time. People talk about the importance of perseverance–Oprah was fired at 23 and told she wasn’t a good fit for TV, Harry Potter was rejected by 12 publishers, Stephen King’s Carrie was rejected 30 times and his wife got it out of the trash and convinced him to keep trying. These are lovely stories rolled out to inspire, but what if they’re the exceptions that prove the rule? At what point do you cut your losses and walk away? (And my losses in pursuit of an academic career are massive–mortgage-sized student loan debt, years of not working a proper job and contributing to retirement savings, etc.). Paulo Coelho would have you believe in yourself, but what if you actually aren’t good enough? It’s like the people on American Idol/Pop Idol who dream of being the next Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey, and they’ve been told their whole lives how great they are (by loving friends/family), but then they sing in the audition and they can’t carry a tune in a bucket. They are heartbroken and/or in denial when the judges reject them. I don’t want to be one of them, getting up over and over with no hope of success.

How do you know whether you’re a fired Oprah or an American Idol reject? And if you really are a fired Oprah, how do you find the inner strength to get up the 6th, 7th or 8th time?

“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).

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!

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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!