Wrapping my head around “representation”

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve tried to practice being mindful of how all of my hobbies, relationships, and experiences – especially the media I consume – make me feel. I’ve also gotten quite reflective since I’ve landed a job and life that is so fulfilling and rewarding, and I’m still trying to look back to identify where everything went right for me to get here. While I’ve been sorting through all of this internally, the world around me has been telling me to pay attention to underrepresented groups, a topic that can get quite loud and political. At this point I’m sure it seems like there is no focus to this article, but at the crossroads of these three experiences I’ve uncovered a truth I now use to guide me: the power of representation.

Let’s start with my hobbies. I am a television/movie/book ADDICT. I have been since I was a kid. My ability to gauge people’s feelings and the mood of the room always seems to be in overdrive (probably unsurprising as a woman and child of divorce), and consuming these mediums gives me a break from the stress of doing that constantly with the people in my life and instead tune in on people that don’t need anything from me. As a girl, I wanted to become a pretty lawyer like Elle Woods. As a teenager, I was self-conscious of getting good grades, and instead wanted to be invited to parties and liked by boys like Peyton Sawyer. The media I enjoy most now? The Mindy Project, Booksmart, Pen15, Shrill, Black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat, anything written by Leigh Bardugo… these all feature women and girls in a way that is so much more realistic and complex than what was available 10 years ago. In my pursuit of being more mindful, when I turn off the TV or put down a book I like to check in and bring my attention to how that experience made me feel about myself. I am never walking away from these thinking about how much I should really lose that 5 lbs I’ve put on or wanting to post a quick selfie on social media to make sure I still feel accepted by my peers, and there have definitely been shows that have done that to me!

I don’t think I’m alone in being influenced by the media (e.g. every advertisement ever). This morning I watched a story on CBS Sunday Morning about Bob Moore, a man who quit his job working at gas stations in his 50’s to start Bob’s Red Mill with no mill-related experience. He did this because he checked out a book at the library – about a man who purchased and rebuilt an old grain mill with no mill-related experience. For Christmas my mom received a DVD box set of China Beach, a show from the 80’s about a young brunette Army nurse that she used to watch. We watched a few episodes together and learned that the main character was the only girl in a family of five brothers. My mom watched this as a 17-year-old brunette and the only girl in a family of five brothers. She joined the Army after high school, then a couple of years later left and started a successful nursing career.

Certainly television and books aren’t the only things that direct people’s life decisions. Like I mentioned earlier, I’ve been reflecting a lot on which parts of my life brought me to earning a PhD in a field where less than 30% are held by women, and how I’ve gotten so freakin’ lucky to be in a career I like so much. Well, it turns out I have had A TON of women in my life who pulled me up, advised me, and gave me permission to pursue things because I saw someone who looked like me doing them.

I watched my mom go to nursing school, move around the country, and take care of us. I never questioned whether or not I could handle moving to a new place on my own to pursue an education. My undergraduate research advisor introduced me to what a PhD was as a junior chemistry student. Nobody in my books or TV shows were talking about getting a PhD and no one in my family had gone to graduate school. I didn’t consider it and certainly didn’t know where to start until she encouraged me to go, because I honestly didn’t know it was an option for me. I then spent five years studying under the first female organic chemistry faculty member at my university. The biggest lesson I learned from her was how to be a woman in a professional setting often dominated by men. She spoke up, questioned, criticized, gave her opinions, promoted herself, owned up to her mistakes, advised younger women faculty and just overall did what needed to be done without apologizing, tip-toeing around people’s feelings, or being timid. These people were sign posts that gave me visibility to what “people like me” could do. Now in my next chapter, my supervisor and executive director are both women. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I seek out and follow these role models.

Ok cool, Alex – you’ve been influenced by watching other women. Nobody is surprised. WHAT IS THE POINT OF THIS ARTICLE? My point is that coming to this realization during a climate that’s drawn our attention to underrepresented groups has made me hyper-aware of where I may have ended up if none of these characters in the media or the people I followed were white women with a similar background as me and a life I wanted to integrate into my future. Before I got to this realization, I used to listen to people around me question initiatives like affirmative action and agree when they brought up points like how unfair it would be to admit someone to a university with slightly lower test scores just because they came from an underrepresented group. I get the point now – without positive representation of people who look like and relate to you, these are opportunities that would never cross your mind as an option to pursue. Bob Moore had his milling book, my mom had the army nurse from China Beach, I had my female advisor introduce a PhD to me, and now a black girl has Bo Johnson from Black-ish to expose the possibility of medical school for her.

This realization has completely shaped the way I see the world. Our personalities, careers, character traits, and expectations of what we can achieve are guided by the people we look up to in both our lives and in the media. No, I don’t have a PhD and a good job because I worked hard. I’m here because I worked hard AND followed people along this path who supported me and exposed me to these options. It’s not hard to understand why white men get defensive when it’s implied that they’re only successful because of their race and gender. White men make more money and climb higher in their careers on average because they worked hard AND followed people along the path who exposed them to these options. People from other groups aren’t less successful on average because they don’t work hard. They’re less successful on average because they work hard BUT the people they look up to often aren’t reaching the same achievements, so they either aren’t considering themselves capable of reaching loftier goals or may have no clue where to start to get there. Surprisingly, the book “Hillbilly Elegy” about a white man in Appalachia was actually one of the most influential presentations of this idea for me, and I would highly recommend checking it out.

This recognition has made me very appreciative of my own personal sign posts, empathetic to those who don’t see or can’t access the same paths, and motivated to help bridge this gap where I can. While I’ve focused mostly on careers, this concept also applies to the hobbies we adapt, the way we treat people, and the way we treat ourselves, like the nutrition decisions I discussed in my last post. I only have my own experiences to draw from, so if you’re interested in getting introspective about who the sign posts were along your path, I’d really enjoy hearing about them and how they influenced your perception of your abilities if you’re willing to share with me.

Let’s talk nutrition

Let’s be very clear – I am not a nutritional science expert. However, I am a person who has been looking for the “magic diet” since I was a chubby 12 year old going through puberty. I am also a person who has been trained to sift through the scientific literature, assess the credibility of a source, and pull out the digestible information (pun intended). I’m always learning new things and evolving my decisions, but I believe I’ve reached diet guidelines that have helped me tremendously, and I hope they’ll help others.

Before I dump the information I’ve learned, I want to explain why this is important to me. My home state of WV is one of nine U.S. states with a >35% obesity rate. It wasn’t until I moved to Chapel Hill, NC that I realized how incorrectly informed I was about what a healthy diet meant. I thought anything labeled “fat free” was a food I could eat all the time. I thought ordering a wrap instead of a sandwich would help me lose weight. I thought a chewy bar and gatorade were snacks for healthy, active people. I thought diets were something you did for a couple months to lose weight, and then you’d go back to your regular life as a skinnier, happier version of your former self. I thought ordering a yogurt parfait at McDonalds was the pinnacle of health and self-control. I thought a healthy diet meant steamed broccoli and an unseasoned chicken breast.

Moving out of WV to a county with a 20% obesity rate exposed all of these misconceptions I had the longer I was there and witnessed the diet choices the community around me was making. I started looking at the nutrition facts of my food more closely. Why did I think a wrap was healthier if it has more calories than two pieces of bread? Why is there sugar added to literally everything I buy? Why did I think avoiding fat food but eating foods high in sugar was a healthy diet? The more I paid attention, the angrier I became. Why was the only source of information my community had about proper nutrition from a questionable food pyramid and TV commercials? These ads told us eating Special K for every meal was a legitimate way to stay thin and that Hamburger Helper was an affordable, nutritious dinner for your family. Don’t get me started on how angry this Reddi-wip commercial makes me. What makes me the angriest and saddest is when I see someone I love trying so hard to improve their health by following this misguided information we were fed by the businesses who profited rather than legitimate nutritional research. The only people who have the privilege of learning how to best feed themselves and their families are those who can afford a nutritionist or have the time and ability to distill the research? Nothing about this adds up, I have strong feelings about it, but I’ll move on.

Here are my golden rules I use to guide my decisions about what I eat:

  • Working out is necessary for a healthy body, but your diet is how you lose weight. I went a long time thinking that if I just went to the gym every day, I could eat whatever I wanted. This is not true. See reading material 1, 2, and 3, though I’m sure there are better sources out there. In fact, I’ve found that when my eating has gone off the rails, it’s way too overwhelming for me to work on my eating habit AND my exercise habit at the same time. I end up adapting neither. Everyone should work towards a goal of regular exercise, but that is a related though separate conversation to dieting and losing weight.
  • The best diet is one you will keep. I got burned many times by drinking SlimFasts as meal replacements or forcing kale salad down for a couple months, just to bounce back and put on double the weight I lost. Is this new diet of yours one you’d want to eat for a long period of time? (Insert cliché about lifestyle vs. diet). This is a personal decision everyone has to make. For me, I know I value quantity over quality (small snacks throughout the day rather than big meals has also given me so much energy, but I can save that gushing for another post). I’m very strict about what I eat during the week so I can indulge (mindfully) for a meal or two over the weekend. Eating mostly the same foods every day changing only a few ingredients every week is enough variety for me. My lunches need to be as close to grab-and-go as possible, otherwise I’ll stop preparing them and start eating out. A life without cheese is no life at all. What components do you need to look forward to eating your meals?
  • A food diary is a necessary step for calibrating your diet. I have lived by MyFitnessPal for a decade now. I use it to create a mock day, then I see what I need to tweak to keep everything in check. Don’t forget to look at the nutrition page!!! This tells you how you’ve done on macros and your nutrients (it’s so difficult to get enough calcium and iron!). Nutritional research is notoriously difficult to draw definitive conclusions from, and the MyFitnessPal app is certainly not the nutrition bible. However, I think it’s really helpful to realize what you thought was a healthy day of eating was actually giving you double the recommended sugar and salt, and not enough fiber or protein to keep you full. Often I’ll try to log every day for a week or so and then won’t use it again until I feel like I need to recalibrate.
  • Avoid processed foods. The further away a food is from its original state, the more the ratios of its original nutritional content are skewed. For example, drinking apple juice rather than an apple gives you all of the sugar, but only a fraction of the fiber that would’ve satiated your appetite. The research has found that processed foods generally have this effect – we’ll eat more of them before we’re satisfied. Not only that, but processed meat has been pretty seriously linked to cancer. It takes much less time for me to find an appropriate diet that is in the correct nutritional ranges if I minimize processed foods.
  • Vegetables, vegetables, vegetables – eat them often. The majority of my meals are just vegetables. I mean actual vegetables, not a bunch of romaine with a dressing that won’t fill anybody up. Roast them, bake them, steam them, put them in a smoothie, eat them raw. Eat a variety. You don’t need a time-consuming, fad cookbook to show you how to make healthy meals. Step 1 – Buy vegetables. Step 2 – Eat them. None of this is new information, but somehow adopting this made everything else fall into place for me. Applying a little salt, fat, acid, heat mentality makes vegetables very tasty with minimal effort. I also always try to have a sweeter vegetable like onions as well. My fat and acid change depending on the cuisine I’m in the mood for (e.g. Mexican – cheese, salsa. Italian – olive oil, a wine-based vinegar. Thai – coconut, rice vinegar.) It takes an incredibly small amount of salt to bring out all of these flavors, so use it to avoid the bland vegetables we usually associate with eating healthy.
  • Fruits and vegetables are not created equal. Fruits have a ton of sugar. They’re tasty and you can and should eat them every day. You should not eat them as often as vegetables.
  • Red meat is a sometimes food. There’s quite a bit in the literature about the health concerns associated with red meat. I save red meat for when I go out to eat, which means I usually end up eating it maybe 1-4 times a month.
  • Added sugar is an almost never food. There is absolutely no nutritional benefit to adding refined sugar to your foods. It is insane how they squeeze this into so many of our staples. It’s impossible to avoid completely when eating out, but I work hard to keep my weekdays refined sugar-free. I don’t feel comfortable with artificial sweeteners because they fall under the highly processed category for me, but the data isn’t conclusive, so that’s a personal decision.
  • Animal products are generally a sometimes food. I fully support a plant-based diet for helping our planet and many of the health benefits. However, I personally choose to adapt a “mindful meat-eater” approach. I’m still working to reduce my animal products, but I’m generally happy with where I’m at.
  • Moderation is key. I don’t think added sugar or animal fats will kill you in the same way I don’t think carbs killed us during the Atkins craze. When it comes down to it, I think a red, yellow, green light strategy is best, which is basically the idea behind the Noom app developed by behavioral psychologists. For example, vegetables are a green food, no added sugar nut butters are a yellow food, and red meat is a red food.

Here is what a regular weekday looks like for me courtesy of MyFitnessPal:

My kale fruit smoothie is a blender full of kale (no stems), a cup of almond milk, 1 banana, 1 apple, a can of crushed pineapple in 100% juice blended then split into 5 portions. I freeze it in mason jars then let it thaw before I eat it every day. I vary my roasted veggies weekly to keep things from getting boring, but here’s a regular weeknight dinner for me that I prep on Mondays and eat throughout the week.

I chop all my veggies and toss them in olive oil then I roast them in the oven. This is split into 4-5 portions. I buy Herdez salsa in the international aisle because it doesn’t have added sugar.

On an average day, this is my nutrition info.

My weekend breakfasts are usually turkey sausage, a scrambled egg, and a Van’s whole grain waffle. My weekend lunches are normally a tuna or smoked salmon packet with hummus and vegetables. We like to make pasta with roasted veggies and turkey or chicken for dinner on Sundays, and then Friday and Saturday dinner I don’t calorie count, but try to mindfully indulge.

My diet is constantly evolving as my lifestyle changes and I learn more information, and these guidelines have resulted from years of trial and error. I am far from perfect – I literally just ate half of a donut as I started writing this! However, when I slip up now, I at least feel like I’m making an informed decision. I’m no longer reaching for the sugary granola thinking this is as healthy as I can get. While my guidelines may not be the guidelines you choose to follow, I hope this highlights the importance of questioning what you assume is healthy and making informed decisions about what we put into our bodies.

I’m grateful for gratitude journaling

I’m a huge fan of the deconstructed notebooks like this one that make writing on both sides very accessible. See the collection here at StudioOh!

It’s October 2019 and I’ve now graduated with my hard-earned PhD, moved in with my loving partner, started a fulfilling new job, and adopted an adorable furry friend. It’s been busy and hectic, but I finally have a chance to catch up with some of my friends at a birthday dinner. One of my best friends meets me at the restaurant early so we can catch up on our own a bit first. It’s a lovely evening of socializing and reconnecting with my friends. Then I get a text message from my friend afterwards saying she’s sorry things are so stressful for me right now.

Wait…. what?

It doesn’t take much reflection for me to realize why I gave her that impression. In the brief time together before the rest of our friends arrived, I unloaded on her about the logistics of a car accident I’d been in recently, extra work I’d been given at the office, and an unintentional slight from a friend that I was still processing. We hadn’t seen each other in a few weeks and had maybe 15 minutes of quality time together before the group arrived, and these were the pressing items I needed to update her with before the clock was up. Her surprising empathy was no longer surprising at all.

This is an aha moment for me. I should be able to use my portion of a 15 minute conversation to talk about good things going on in my life. I contemplate for a moment the things I should have told her, and realize I am actually struggling! Is this what I bring to every conversation with people? I can certainly come up with big, broad, general things that make me happy – great friends and family, a great relationship, my health, etc. However, I can’t seem to list anything more specific. I start to realize that maybe I should practice coming up with smaller, definitive things going on in my life so that I’ll be better prepared for the next conversation.

This is how I sort of independently stumbled upon a scientifically proven practice called a “gratitude journal“. After this enlightenment, I picked up a journal with one previous five-page entry where I had mostly gone into detail about my current anxieties that I hadn’t picked up since (probably because that exercise left me feeling more anxious) and tried listing three things I was happy about that day. My first entry was pretty brief:

  1. My German friend is planning a trip to visit me in NC in the Spring.
  2. My partner gives me the space to feel my emotions and sort through them even when I make mistakes along the way that frustrate him.
  3. I finally came up with something to do on my birthday that I was looking forward to.

I’ve now been writing in my gratitude journal regularly for three months. My entries vary greatly in length, content, and importance, but they consistently make me feel better after I list them. This exercise made me realize how often my subconscious is repeatedly listing the stressful things going on in my life and how that affects my anxiety, my mood, and the stamina I have to get through the week. Jotting down things I’m currently happy about has made a HUGE positive impact on my mental health, which has increased my productivity and overall happiness.

In hindsight, it’s not surprising at all that this exercise has been so helpful. Many of the pop psychology books I read end up with a similar underlying message about the power of mindfulness – aka taking stock of your subconscious thoughts so you can practice directing them away from places you don’t want to waste all of your energy. My gratitude journal is a form of meditation (a scary or silly word for many that I’m sure I’ll devote a future post to) that trains my mind to keep my daily life in a more realistic perspective. As much as I’ve benefitted from a gratitude journal, I’m sure my poor friends who had to listen to all of my complaining are just as grateful.

New year, new day planner

I am quite particular about many things, and my day planner is no exception. While I greatly value functionality, I have a hard time shelling out a lot of money for a posh, customizable day planner. Therefore, I have tried quite a few different planners and styles that are less than $20 over the years. In the end, there was one.

The Paperblanks 12 Month 2020 Midi Week-at-A-Time Planner in Black Moroccan

Please meet the Paperblanks 12 Month 2020 Midi Week-at-A-Time Planner. I actually stumbled upon this planner at a bookstore in Germany while I was on vacation. I was in need of a new planner, so I bought it thinking it would be a unique souvenir and figured learning the days of the week in German could be a fun new skill. Well, I did not retain any German vocabulary at all, but I did land on a very functional planner that I have now repurchased three times (in English).

I use blue ink to record work meetings and deadlines, orange ink to record personal events, and black ink to fill in my smaller tasks in between each of these.

The section for each day has enough lines that I can roughly plug in meetings and tasks according to the time of day they’ll be occurring. Friday-Sunday are chunked together on a separate page so I can also plan out my weekends. There is a section for weekly notes where I can jot down tasks that I need to remember to account for somewhere in my schedule that week. There is a glimpse of the monthly calendar in the corner so I can stay oriented to how quickly future deadlines are approaching. And if I haven’t sold you yet, there are also monthly calendars in the front that I use regularly for planning out longer projects.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be a planner that I’ve been able to easily walk into Staples or Target to pick up when I’m approaching the end of the year. Every year I locate it from a new seller on Amazon and cross my fingers that when I open it up, I’ll see my handy accessory that’s grown to be a necessary cog in keeping my life running smoothly. It’s small enough to bring along with me without any hassle, and the sturdy cover means I’m never dealing with folded or damaged pages after a trip in my purse.

While my online calendars now do most of the heavy lifting in planning out my weeks and months, I still need a physical planner for keeping track of the smaller tasks that need done each day. Excuse me now while I check off “website post” and move on to “get back to work” from today’s list.