A Toothbrush Rabbit Hole

Not long ago, I heard a duet on the radio, in which country stars Dierks Bentley and Elle King tenderly croon,

“It’s different for girls when their hearts get broke

They can’t tape it back together with a whiskey and Coke

They don’t take someone home and act like it’s nothing

They can’t just switch it off every time they feel something

A guy gets drunk with his friends and he might hook up

Fast forward through the pain, pushing back when the tears come on

But it’s different for girls.”

My response was one of cavalier and effusive self-satisfaction, roughly along the lines of:  “What a crock. You’d never fall for the notion that men and women each have such uniformly one-dimensional responses to a breakup, probably because you’re evolved as fuck, self.”

Thereafter, I never thought about that song again, until a day when I opened my medicine cabinet. I was in search of a bobby pin, but instead found the toothbrush I had given to a guy I had been dating until about a week prior.

I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. I didn’t miss Jack. I wasn’t reminiscing about our time together. It wasn’t the pang of wistful sorrow. The source of my hurt was, annoyingly, the fact that Jack’s absence was making waste of an otherwise perfectly good toothbrush.

The toothbrush I’d given to Jack was aesthetically pleasing — rare in a toothbrush — and, in my opinion, its bristles represented the ideal compromise between hard and soft. Let me tell you, as a lifelong manual toothbrush user, this kind of toothbrush is hard to come by and now, after so little use, it was going in the trash – an utter injustice.

For five miserable seconds, I was reeling. Next, I found myself amused by my own melodrama. Then, a feeling that stuck around for a while — guilt.

I should miss Jack, I thought. I should reminisce about our time together. I should feel a pang of wistful sorrow. And yet, here I am, bothered only about a toothbrush. As Bentley and King sung it, I’m supposed to be heartbroken, unable to move forward.

I knew better, but this wasn’t coming from a place of knowing or logic. This was coming from years of internalized societal pressure to express myself and my womanhood in the “appropriate” manner.

I tried to convince myself that, actually, I was torn up about Jack and was using the toothbrush as a distraction from my true emotions, as any good armchair psychologist would posit. I even tried to muster up melancholy from deep within me, the kind I had felt when I watched an elderly lady singing “Tomorrow” to her Basset Hound on a commercial for Entresto. (Tangentially speaking, advertising prescription medications to the general public, as we do in the United States, is reprehensible, but that’s another article entirely, and plus — dogs get me every time).

I’ve since climbed myself out of the rabbit hole the toothbrush sent me down, and now I’m here to remind myself and you of something that, at once, seems obvious and yet is so often not expressed in our popular culture.

Your emotional processes are valid. You are no less of a man, woman, or person based on your emotions. I am not callous. I am empathetic and thoughtful and whole, and free to be sad — or not. And you are, too.

Now is Time to Follow Scientists and Science Journalists on Twitter

Maya Angelou once said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”

 

President-Elect Donald Trump has shown that he has a quite tenuous grasp on science, at best, and that his policies will be, at best, hostile towards research and innovation. Alas, Trump offered little in the way of a policy platform throughout his campaign, so we’re left playing catch-up to understand a Trump presidency’s impact on science. That said, what we do know of Trump’s take is alarming.

 

Trump believes climate change is a Chinese hoax, tweeting in November 2012: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”

trump1

 

In his hallmark tradition of international affronts, Trump has also threatened to “cancel” (withdraw from) the Paris climate agreement.

 

More recently, in September of this year, Trump selected Myron Ebell, a well-known climate skeptic, to lead his EPA transition.

 

Trump believes the United States does not have funding for space research, because we have potholes to repair. He also believes in privatizing space exploration. In November 2015, Trump was at a “Politics and Eggs” event in Manchester, New Hampshire when a 10-year-old asked him about space. Trump said, “Right now, we have bigger problems—you understand that? We’ve got to fix our potholes. You know, we don’t exactly have a lot of money.” He continued, saying that privatization of space is “great” and “maybe even better” than government space exploration.

 

Trump’s space policy adviser Bob Walker recently suggested in an interview with The Guardian that he intends to cut budgets for NASA’s “Earth-centric science.” NASA’s Earth Science Division, which will receive an estimated $2 billion (out of a total $19 billion) in funding for the fiscal year 2017, is dedicated to researching things like hazards, weather forecasting, and climate change. An article on Vox details the complexities of such a budget slash.

 

While Trump has thus far publicly made climate change and space the primary targets of his ineptitude, he has revealed a gross (and now empowered) lack of understanding in a wide-ranging set of areas, including the internet, mental health, and water.

 

Now for the reason I’m writing this article. This month, the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology’s official account tweeted a Breitbart climate-change-denying article.

science

As in the past, but perhaps now more than ever, it is up to scientists and science journalists to combat the barrage of scientific misinformation—and up to us to stay woke. So, if you haven’t already, now is the time to follow these people* on Twitter.

 

* This list includes primarily environmental and space scientists and reporters.

 

 

  • @AstroKatie: Katie Mack is a theoretical astrophysicist at Melbourne University and a passionate science communicator. Mack’s work focuses on finding new ways to learn about the early universe and fundamental physics via astronomical observation.

 

  • @PlanetDr: Sarah Hörst is an assistant professor of planetary science at Johns Hopkins University. Her work focuses on the formation and composition of planetary atmospheric hazes.

 

  • @edyong209: Ed Yong is a science writer at The Atlantic. Yong recently authored I Contain Multitudes, a New York Times best-selling book examining the microbiome. Yong is also the author of the National Geographic blog, Not Exactly Rocket Science.

 

  • @mdichristina: Mariette DiChristina is the editor-in-chief and senior vice president of Scientific American. Her work can be found here.

 

  • @Rocket_Woman1: Vinita Marwaha Madill is a space operations engineer at the European Space Agency, as well as an advocate for women in STEM. At the ESA, she works on future human spaceflight projects. She is also the founder of Rocket Women.

 

  • @scicurious: Bethany Brookshire is a staff education writer at Science News for Students. Her work can be found here.

 

  • @mcnees: Robert McNees is an associate professor of physics at Loyola University Chicago. His research focuses on general relativity, cosmology, string theory, and quantum field theory.

 

 

  • @am_anatiala: Asia Murphy is a PhD student in ecology at Penn State. She runs the website Anati’ala, which is Malagasy for “inside the forest,” where she communicates science and conservation information for lay audiences.

 

  • @elakdawalla: Emily Lakdawalla is the senior editor at The Planetary Society, and an advocate of exploration of all the worlds of our solar system. She uses the Planetary Society blog to write space news, explain planetary science, and share beautiful photos.

 

  • @TucsonPeck: Jonathan Overpeck is a professor of geosciences and director of the Institute of the Environment at the University of Arizona. Overpeck is interested in interactions among climate, ice sheets, and sea level, as well as in interactions between climate and ecosystems. He also collaborates in environmental law. Full disclosure: I am employed by the University of Arizona.

 

 

  • @cragcrest: Christie Aschwanden is the lead writer for science at FiveThirtyEight and a health columnist for The Washington Post. She blogs about science at The Last Word on Nothing.

 

  • @aaronecarroll: Aaron Carroll is a health services researcher, and contributor to The New York Times. Carroll is editor-in-chief of The Incidental Economist, a health services research blog.

 

  • @GrrlScientist: “GrrlScientist” is the pseudonym of the evolutionary ecologist and ornithologist who writes about science for Forbes. Her work can be found here.

 

  • @chriscmooney: Chris Mooney is an energy and environment writer at The Washington Post. His work can be found here.

 

  • @LeeBillings: Lee Billings is a science journalist covering space and physics for Scientific American. His book, Five Billion Years of Solitude, chronicles the scientific quest to discover other Earth-like planets elsewhere in the universe. His work can be found here.

 

  • @laurahelmuth: Laura Helmuth is the health, science, and environment editor at The Washington Post.

 

  • @borenbears: Seth Borenstein is a science writer for the Associated Press, covering climate, astronomy, and more. His work can be found here.

 

  • @ivanoransky: Ivan Oransky is the vice president and global editorial director of MedPage Today. Oranksy is also a columnist for STAT, and the co-founder of Retraction Watch, a website dedicated to tracking scientific retractions. Oransky teaches medical journalism at New York University’s Carter Journalism Institute, as a distinguished writer in residence.

 

  • @celiadugger: Celia Dugger is the science editor at The New York Times. Her work, focused on global health and development, can be found here.

The Case Against Trigger Warnings

TW: This piece may contain material that is upsetting or offensive to some audiences.

On the Origins of the Trigger Warning

Trigger warnings (TWs) on the Internet began as an earnest, potentially useful way to give audiences a heads up before delving into serious issues like rape, eating disorders, or domestic violence. This way, individuals who may not be emotionally prepared for that kind of discussion (generally victims themselves) could safely, comfortably dip out when necessary, for self-preservation. Simply, the early TW was a refreshing dose of online empathy for those battling post-traumatic stress disorder. Even so, the effectiveness of TWs for people with PTSD remains to be seen, but we’ll come back to that. Trigger warnings were assigned to a fairly narrowly defined set of subject matters, and, in fact, were borne out of the feminist blogosphere.

But as its usage has evolved and expanded over time, it’s been rendered, at worst, condescending, infantilizing, and anti-intellectual and, at best, meaningless. Trigger warnings have infiltrated an ever broader scope of subject matters, they’ve popped out of online forums and into university classrooms, and the definition of “trigger” itself has become a catch-all for things that may cause discomfort and/or not align with our belief system. These days, the TW is doing more harm than good.

Overkill

Many opposed to trigger warnings have argued they’re a grand, exhausting exercise in political correctness, an attack on the final remains of our oh-so-endangered (Gasp) FREEDOM OF SPEECH! A) Yawn. B) How many people who make this unoriginal, misguided argument could accurately define “freedom of speech”? That’s rhetorical. We’ve got bigger fish to fry.

I’m not bothered by TWs because of their PC nature, but rather because I believe—assuming they ever were—they are no longer serving their intended purpose. And in the meantime, they are stifling our ability to have complex conversations about difficult subjects.

In their well-intentioned quest to protect the emotionally vulnerable, they have, at once, politicized mental health and  protected the easily offended from critical thinking.

Let’s take, for example, academia.

Dr. Mark Neumann is a professor at Northern Arizona University’s School of Communication. He believes some students use triggers warnings as a means to “[…]object to hearing something they disagree with, something that might challenge their world view.” “I’m not here to insulate you from ideas,” he says, “Faculty don’t choose course material because they’re trying to harm or upset. They choose material because they believe it illustrates a point worth making and discussing. It’s a disservice to students to create an environment that’s entirely comfortable.”

He offers up a report on trigger warnings, published by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) last year. The report, he says, is representative of his own views.

The authors write, “Institutional requirements or even suggestions that faculty use trigger warnings interfere with faculty academic freedom in the choice of course materials and teaching methods.” They question the ethics and effectiveness of taking away a level of autonomy from educators.

The AAUP report reads:

There are reasons, however, for concern that even voluntary use of trigger warnings included on syllabi may be counterproductive to the educational experience.  Such trigger warnings conflate exceptional individual experience of trauma with the anticipation of trauma for an entire group, and assume that individuals will respond negatively to certain content.  A trigger warning might lead a student to simply not read an assignment or it might elicit a response from students they otherwise would not have had, focusing them on one aspect of a text and thus precluding other reactions.  Trigger warnings thus run the risk of reducing complex literary, historical, sociological and political insights to a few negative characterizations.  By calling attention to certain content in a given work, trigger warnings also signal an expected response to the content (e.g., dismay, distress, disapproval), and eliminate the element of surprise and spontaneity that can enrich the reading experience and provide critical insight.

Some discomfort is inevitable in classrooms if the goal is to expose students to new ideas, have them question beliefs they have taken for granted, grapple with ethical problems they have never considered, and, more generally, expand their horizons so as to become informed and responsible democratic citizens.   Trigger warnings suggest that classrooms should offer protection and comfort rather than an intellectually challenging education.

Under this far-reaching, broadly-defined idea of a “trigger,” students are given permission to opt out of discussion for the sake of comfort. “Being unwilling to confront some other idea that isn’t your own—that’s not PTSD,” says Neumann. There is a distinct difference between those suffering from PTSD and those who are opposed to new perspectives, but he fears the culture of TWs has blurred the line.

Worse yet, TWs allow students to leave class simply because they can. A friend of mine observed this in a graduate-level course at NAU. His professor provided a trigger warning for a conversation about rape. “Half the class, mostly skater bros, left. They started laughing as soon as they got into the hallway,” he says.

Neumann says, “I don’t know what students are going through, or what their past looks like, but memory is very associative, and I cannot try to anticipate for a class of 375 students what will be triggering to any one student. It could be a song, a smell, any number of things. Nobody is saying, ‘Well, fuck the people who have PTSD,’ but mandating a policy on [trigger warnings] opens the door to a lot of things. The spirit of trigger warnings is empathy, but what’s the scope of that? That’s where it becomes a problem.” Essentially, TWs could very well be accidentally inviting willful ignorance into institutions meant to represent the very antithesis of ignorance.

Some faculty, however, do use TWs voluntarily in the classroom. Aaron Hanlon, an assistant professor of English at Colby College, contributed an opinion piece to the New Republic wherein he argued that both students and professors need trigger warnings. Faculty across the nation remain divided on the issue.

But the authors of the AAUP report write, “The classroom is not the appropriate venue to treat PTSD,” a medical condition for which TWs are an “inadequate” and “diversionary” response. Perhaps then, the Internet is no better of a home for TWs.

The Psychology

In clinical psychology, trauma triggers refer to anything that causes a person to experience flashbacks from a traumatic event in their life. Triggers will often cause people to again feel intense emotions that they felt at the time of the original trauma. Trauma triggers are associated with PTSD sufferers.

Trauma triggers are, by definition, rare. A 2001 study in Biological Psychiatry found that while trauma is a common human experience, developing PTSD from it is far rarer. The authors surveyed 2,181 adult subjects, finding that 89.6% had experienced a form of trauma, but just 9.2% developed PTSD. That said, among survivors of sexual assault, PTSD is markedly more common, but many rape survivors who meet the symptomatic criteria for PTSD immediately following trauma will recover from these symptoms within months. A study in the Journal of Traumatic Stress examined 95 survivors of rape or attempted rape, and found that while 94% met criteria for PTSD roughly two weeks after the trauma, that number dropped to 47% by roughly three months after the trauma.

“So what if a comparatively small portion of the population suffers from PTSD? It takes so little time and effort to throw out a #TW. Just because they are few doesn’t mean they don’t deserve protection!” I hear you, empathetic Tumblr user I made up. I really do.

But a famous study by the Institute of Medicine found confronting trauma triggers is more effective than avoiding them. In fact, avoidance of triggers can actually exacerbate symptoms of PTSD. Moreover, making trauma a central part of one’s identity—something TW culture may aid in—has negative effects on mental health. In other words, hypersensitivity to triggers may very well be more harmful to a PTSD sufferer than helpful.

Miri Mogilevsky disagrees. Her opinion piece for Daily Dot details how she, as a trauma survivor, engages in complex, but positive ways with trigger warnings online. She doesn’t always use them to opt out of reading triggering material, but rather to emotionally prepare herself for the material. Mogilevsky resents the “You must be exposed to triggers in order to overcome them” argument against TWs, believing it is arrogant, ersatz concern for a survivor’s well-being. She feels TWs help put her in control of her own mental health.

Mogilvesky writes, “In my experience, most survivors of serious trauma—the ones that get triggered by things—are either already accessing mental healthcare, are unable to access mental healthcare, or have tried it and found it unhelpful. Please stop with the condescending advice to students to seek mental healthcare ‘instead’ of asking for trigger warnings.”

Neumann responds, “Suddenly now she’s the spokesperson for [PTSD] because she has anecdotal examples? I’m sorry, but I don’t buy it as the end-all-be-all.”

Her story does capture perfectly what the trigger warning was intended to do. It’s functional. I get it. I like it.

But the problem remains: Trigger warnings have become so widely used and in so many contexts that they currently cause far more problems than they solve.

So what’s your point?

Trigger warnings have outlived their original intended function and, subsequently, their greatest potential for good. A friend asked me, “Is over-sensitivity a crime? Isn’t life shitty enough? Why can’t we live life in bubbles?” I wondered, too. Is it really a problem if people are extra sensitive? Does long-term exposure to difficult subject matters really make us healthier, more open-minded, more free-thinking people? In short, the answer is yes. The general consensus of the scientific community is that empathy is a function of exposure.

In the case of the skater bros leaving class simply because they were given permission to, the TW was detrimental. Here, exposure to a meaningful conversation about rape might have otherwise incited some empathy.

So, how do we handle triggers? Some have suggested that instead of using “trigger warning” we use “content warning.” I’m not so convinced that a small shift in semantics would settle this one. But I’m also not convinced that saying, “Life’s triggerin’, baby, and that’s the way it’s gonna be” would settle it either. It might just be time to re-evaluate the meaning and function of  trigger warnings by untangling the increasingly intertwined meanings of the words “triggered” and “offended.”

On Mastering the Fine Art of Self-Love

Within the last few months, I’ve had a couple of self-love-related encounters that moved me to write this piece.

The first was a conversation with a former friend, and the second was a New York Times Magazine article titled, “How ‘You Do You’ Perfectly Captures Our Narcissistic Culture.

At a stop light in the car with my friend, I completed a thought by saying “That’s one thing I like about myself.” An upside to being in therapy for so many years is that I have a keen sense of emotional intelligence. I love that about myself. But I digress.

The point is, when this friend reacted by rattling off a jarringly charged monologue (“This is why you and I are different–I would never just say that. I would never just say ‘That’s why I love me.’ That’s such a self-centered thing to say. I’d never say that,” and so on, and so forth) I recognized, almost immediately, that I’d triggered something in him. For a guy who lived by the rules of crippling repression, self-love was unspeakably–viscerally–offensive. No amount of it could be healthy.

Months later, I would read some prescriptivist vitriol in the form of a NYT Magazine article by Colson Whitehead.  His thesis: The appropriation of black culture into popular culture has brought on a most-unfortunate trend of “braggadocio.” He writes:

“Classify your antagonists as haters […] and your flaws are absolved by their greater sin of envy. Obviously, the haters have other qualities apart from their hatred, but such thinking goes against the very nature of the hermetic tautophrase, which refuses intrusion into the bubble of its logic. The hated-­upon must resist lines of inquiry, like ‘Haters are inclined to hate, but perhaps I have contributed to this situation somehow by frustrating that natural impulse in all human beings, that of empathy, however submerged that impulse is in this deadened, modern world.’ To do otherwise would be to acknowledge your own monstrosity.”

Thinly veiled racism aside, Whitehead’s piece ignores some fundamental logic. Firstly, that it is, in fact, very possible for someone to hate you without reason. If you’re in need of a painfully obvious, stomach-churning hypothetical here, just imagine a black person saying to a neo-nazi that perhaps they “have contributed to this situation somehow.” Irrational hatred is alive and well.

Not only that, but in the digital age, many of us have unprecedented, uninvited access to irrational hatred. If I ever need to be reminded that I have acne and cellulite up the wazoo (neither of which I’m particularly embarrassed about), I’d just post a thoroughly hash-tagged selfie on a publicly viewable Instagram account. And now that we’ve established that we’re often legitimately blameless when it comes to hate, there’s Whitehead’s second, even larger, error. He doesn’t acknowledge that not everyone who has ever referenced a “hater” is utterly deaf to any and all forms of criticism.

For me, the value of blocking out a vast majority of uninvited criticism isn’t that it allows me to believe I’m flawless; it’s that it allows me to have a healthy sense of self. By ignoring the words of people like that guy who told me I was an egomaniac at a red light,  I allow myself the head space necessary for healthy, productive self-love – and self-improvement – in a world that sometimes actively, irrationally wants me to hate myself.

In short, my rules on self-love: You need it. You shouldn’t be ashamed of it. And, fair warning, this one takes lots of practice:  Only give credence to the criticisms of people who love you, have a healthy sense of self-love for themselves, and have no reason to tear you down. In the words of my dear friend and self-love queen, Wil, “You have to be aware of who and what you are, and sometimes, that means taking criticism – but it also means being aware of your strengths, taking pride in them, and learning which criticism to take and which to ignore. You know yourself better than they do.”

And with that, I wish you the best of luck in your self-love journey, bitches.

Until Next Time,

Emily

Building Self-awareness, and a Road Bike

My friend and I decided on a whim that together, we could build a bike. This experience has taught me more about myself than I could have ever imagined. Below is an abbreviated list for building self-awareness and a road bike. Take it as a call to action, to teach yourself something you were sure you couldn’t. (Yes, I’m talking to you.)

Our work in progress
Our work in progress

Most skills come with a learning curve.  My building partner and I often become incredibly manic late in the night, long after the sun has set and Flagstaff’s more sane residents have gone to bed. The other night I  just pulled into my driveway when I got a call from her saying “Come back to Hilltop. I found a mountain bike in the trash.” We lifted the admittedly beaten up bike out of the trash and spent hours stripping it for parts. More specifically, for the brakes. Excitement was palpable in the living room that night. Then we were ready to talk about installation, so my partner did a little Googling. Turns out the recycled V brakes wouldn’t work on my caliper-fitted frame. We had to scrap the whole thing. There was a time not long ago when this would’ve felt very much like defeat. Yet since starting this project, “defeat” feels more like an exhilarating, if steep, learning curve.

Have patience. Timing is everything. When we had the old brakes striped off our curbside find, we were both very obviously itching to install them on our frame, but we just couldn’t without the right parts. So we had to wait. When you’re feeling a little manic, that can be a hard pill to swallow. It is easy to think, “But we want it NOW!”  Calling it a night is the only way to proceed when you have hit a wall. It helps restore energy, perspective, etc. Timing is everything. Take breaks, and trust that things will eventually fall into place.

The value of handiness. Those who know me well know that I will happily call myself the least handy person on the planet. I don’t own tools, and, up until recently, I didn’t see the value in knowing how to use them, primarily since I’m surrounded by plenty of people who do. In fact, when I agreed to this project, a friend asked, “So you’re basically building your own bike?” I sort-of-seriously joked, “No, Bea is building my own bike for me.” I’m pretty secure in my other skills, so why learn more? Here’s why: Tools rule, if you can use them. Few things in life have made me feel more self-sufficient than an allen wrench. I can still lean on others who are handier than I when necessary (see my next point), but there’s something to be said for using your own two hands, logic, and creative problem-solving to get a job done.

The precarious balance of independence and codependence. The friend who I’ve been doing this with, Bea, is truly fierce. She’s the type of person who can teach herself anything. I knew this to be an incontrovertible truth after taking two semesters of physics with her. She loves bikes, is the proud owner of a sweet vintage Schwinn Varsity, and thought the best way to teach herself more about bikes was to build one. I jumped on board because being in her presence this summer gave me a mild case of bike fever. While Bea leans towards total independence, I lean towards total codependence. I’m inclined to ask for help, even when I sense it’s something I could figure out on my own, given time and the internet. For example, I once had the option to pump my own front tire to 100 PSI. Not fully confident in my own ability to intuitively gauge what that felt like (despite having the rear tire to compare it to), I opted to wait until we saw our friend Elson the next day. Bea, on the other hand, is inclined to run herself into the ground with a task that requires a helping hand. This is evidenced by the time she painstakingly spent close to an hour trying to remove the seat post from my bike with nothing but a $7 adjustable Stanley wrench and iron will. No amount of human force applied to that particular wrench was going to loosen that rusty nut, but she refused to accept that it wasn’t happening. Between the two of us, I’ve seen the light. A balance of independence and codependence—and knowing which battles to pick—is pretty imperative in life and friendship.

You are capable. I often pigeonhole myself as someone with a very narrow, limited set of skills. Sadly, I think most of us do this to ourselves, knowingly or unknowingly, at some point. I can write about science with more precision and finesse than most people, have a knack for remembering verbatim quotes, and I make a mean chicken parmesan, but I tend to believe that’s roughly the end of my resumé. This simply isn’t true. While I fully accept I can’t be good at everything (e.g., rudimentary algebra and painting), I’m finding I can be good at more than I thought I could . Learning a new skill is rewarding, if you open your mind to it. You just might surprise yourself.

Life Hacks: Your Period

During my monthly cycle last week (I know, this is objectively the best start to any sentence, right?), I found myself eating a banana with the belief that it’d quell some minor cramps. The potassium remedy for period cramps is one I’m sure we’ve all heard at some point in our post-pubescent lives, but why? Is there even any science behind the banana, or is it mere placebo folklore? These questions prompted me to do a little research of my own and, subsequently, to share that research with you, dear readers and friends.

So, borne out of an isolated banana-related incident, I bring to you, “Lady Life Hacks,” a three-part #realtalk series on the science and mythology of your period, your orgasm, and your masturbation. There’s far too much mystery surrounding the vagina, so I hope to mitigate some of that over the next few weeks by exploring how some lady life hacks work, myth-busting some commonly heard untruths, and answering the all-important question: How can I treat my vagina, kindly and safely? If you have specific “hacks” (i.e., tips, tricks, or advice) you’d like me to cover, please send them my way via email, at emilyrlitvack@gmail.com. Anonymity guaranteed, of course. Don’t be shy (I won’t), and I look forward to hearing from y’all.

On that note, let’s talk about your period.

Legit Hacks*, verified and explained:

*Tragically, no hack can alleviate all period-related pain, but at least totally may prevent or reduce it.

  • The banana. It only seemed logical to address this one first. Simply put, bananas do help alleviate pain from muscle cramps, including the cramps from a contracting uterus (which, you guessed it, is a muscle!). For adult women, nutritionists recommend 4,700 mg of potassium daily, and since just one banana contains around 420 mg of potassium, bananas pack a quick electrolytic punch. The science of your bod’s need for potassium works like so: The plasma membrane (essentially, the barrier between a cell and its external environment) of all animal cells contains sodium-potassium pumps, which use ATP-derived energy to pump sodium ions out and potassium ions in, so as to maintain a crucial and delicate electrochemical gradient. Arguably, potassium’s biggest job in your body is to maintain electrical activity. So, muscle cells, which tend to have high electrical activity demand, are particularly susceptible to malfunction when supply of potassium is low. Throwback to high school biology! The point is, if you’re not getting your recommended daily potassium intake—and many of us aren’t—eating a banana may strengthen your uterus in the fight against period cramps.
  • Cut out the coffee. And the Diet Coke, and the chocolate, and whatever else you’re jonesing for, if you can. Or at least consume in moderation. Your body will thank you for it, because caffeine is, in fact, bad news for your menstruating uterus. Caffeine causes vasoconstriction (narrowing of your blood vessels) and raises tension levels, aggravating cramps even more so. Caffeine may cause the vessels that nourish the uterus to tighten up more than usual. Plus, it has dehydrating effects and can worsen headaches and fluid retention (a.k.a. god-awful bloating) during your period, so try treating yourself to a little H20 therapy next month instead.
  • Yoga. It seems counterintuitive because, like, I don’t know about you guys but my instincts tell me to fetal position the shit out my period, but apparently the yoga hack is legit. Here’s why: When you get your body up and moving, it increases blood flow to muscles via vasodilation (expansion of blood vessels). More oxygenated blood supply to muscle tissue = less pain. In other words, yoga is going to have the opposite physiological effect on your menstruating body that coffee will have. Also, if you can bring your heart rate up a little by means of exercise, your body will release endorphins, which counteract the pain caused by prostaglandins (hormone-like lipid compounds) that give your uterus the signal to contract. Cardio exercise will work in just the same way if you prefer it, but something about downward-facing dog seems a little less intimidating than the elliptical when you’re tryna shed and push out your thick uterine lining, you know? This sweet article offers some suggestions for period-friendly yoga poses. Friends of mine have reported that yoga is particularly good for lower back pain during menstruation.

Pure Myth:

  • No sex on your period! Not really sure where this one comes from, actually, but it’s totally, 100% untrue. You can have sex during your period and live to tell the tale. Also, if you’re cool/comfortable with period sex, it can alleviate pain in the same way any other type of exercise might. Cheers to aerobics, ladies!

Anything else you’d like to talk about? Hit me up via email, or on Twitter, @emilyrlitvack.

Until Next Time,

Emily

Body and Soul: Discoveries from Two Weeks in a Walking Boot

On the afternoon of July 4, 2004, I was sitting in the waiting room of a hospital in suburban Seattle, Washington. I’d taken a nasty tumble down the stairs while vacuuming bits of soil left behind by my then beloved pet tortoise, Cookie. All said and done, the incident left me with a very caricature-y hole in the dry wall between flights of stairs, a few screws to repair the fractured growth plate in my right ankle, and a way-cool purple and pink striped cast.

On the afternoon of July 4, 2014, I was hop-stepping through the door of my friend’s house, sporting a not-way-cool walking boot to his backyard barbecue. A little less than two weeks earlier, I had a surgery to remove the screws from my ankle. Traditionally, that kind of hardware can be and is left in the body for life, but they were rubbing up against my tendons and causing pain fairly regularly, so my orthopedic surgeon gave it the go-ahead.

While my 11-year-old-self didn’t have many thoughts on the matter beside “I’ll be damned if anybody tries to sign this masterpiece of a cast,” this time around, the minor surgery led to some major discoveries. They are as follows.

First and foremost, I have a surprisingly emotional relationship with my body. About a week into my recovery, I accidentally caught a glimpse of the area surrounding the incision while coming out of the bathtub. And there it was: a massive, deep purple bruise. When I later showed my friend a photo, he said it looked as if a ballpoint pen had exploded on the inside of my foot. I was flooded with emotion I didn’t even understand, and began weeping. Through the tears, the scientist in me desperately needed to logic through why I’d react so strongly to a bruise. I realized I wasn’t particularly grossed out or scared—I felt profoundly guilty. 

I couldn’t believe what I’d done to my body, which was always so good to me. So good, in fact, that when I get a common cold, I instinctually assume I’m dying because I’m not used to feeling unwell. My body had always done its job dutifully and with such quiet grace, and that bruise made me feel like I put a hero through the wringer.

And that realization led me to another: While I don’t consider my body “me,” the two of us have an incredibly intimate, powerful symbiosis. Reversing course slightly, my father, who is recently in remission from bladder cancer, once wrote me a frustrated email about how good health is the key to good living. This was shortly after I forgot that he’d asked me not to use his bathroom, walked in, and saw a jarring array of pill bottles and adult diapers. He followed in after me, but was too late. “Not much dignity in any of this, huh?” he quipped, with an uncomfortable smile. My father eats well, exercises almost daily, and doesn’t drink or smoke. My point being, there are of course instances in which preventative measures aren’t enough to ensure good health, but I remember thinking how lucky I am to have my health, and how badly I wished I could share it with him.

Recovering from surgery this month put it all into perspective even more so. My body has always served me well in our relationship, and I owe it the same respect and good care. I treated my ankle to copious ice, compression, and elevation. When the boot came off before bed, I’d crawl or hop around the house to avoid bearing weight. I very carefully inspected my bandage every morning for suspicious oozing. (Happily, no such secretions). I didn’t wind up having to take a single one of my prescribed Percocets for pain, and by the time I came in for a follow-up appointment at the surgeon’s office, I was deemed the “world’s easiest patient.” I like to think it’s mostly because I am lucky to have one of the world’s most cooperative bodies.

The holes left behind from now-absent screws in my ankle will have mostly filled in with bone by this time next month, but I intend to respect my body’s hard work and cherish my health long after the scar tissue has matured and my subtle limp returns to a strut.

Google’s $50 Million ‘Made With Code’ Calls to Solve Silicon Valley’s Lady Deficit

After going public with its dismal, if unsurprising, diversity record, Google put its money where its mouth is last week when it launched a $50 million initiative to get women in coding. As it stands, only 17% of Google’s tech jobs a la software coding and engineering variety go to women employees, but the company intends to offset Silicon Valley’s lady deficit by cultivating interest in coding among women.

Bracelet I coded through Made With Code
Bracelet I coded through Made With Code

The company kicked off its Made With Code initiative by hosting 150 high school-aged girls at an event in New York City and rolling out madewithcode.com, an interactive website aimed at getting young girls to try their hand at coding. The site features some projects, one of which lets users design a personalized bracelet using the visual programming editor Blockly. As a twenty-something microbiologist who knew full well that this project was primarily meant for tween and teen prospective coder girls, naturally, I had to try it. The Blockly interface was a little yawn-inspiring—I imagine even for a 12-year-old—but giving girls access to some purposeful computer science is a net-good. As a friend interested in coding pointed out to me, “It’s meant to teach you the logical flow of coding, before you get into syntax.” Plus, Google partnered with New York-based company Shapeways to ship users their 3D-printed bracelet for free. Pretty rad of you, Googs.

Suspecting that Google wasn’t spending this much on printing plastic bracelets alone, I dug into where the money is going exactly. My findings: This is essentially a three-year commitment from Google to fund programs that get women interested in and give them access to coding. 

So far they’ve partnered with Girls Inc., Girl Scouts of America, MIT Media Lab, and SevenTeen, among others. They have committed to paying for 1,000 women take three-month courses at the web-based program Code School. An article on International Business Times online says, “The school’s CEO, Gregg Pollack, said Google will distribute the scholarships ‘strategically at the conference and inside the community,’ to women already working in the tech industry. ‘But what this does mean is thousands of people interested in continuing their path with programming will have the ability to do so free of charge.’ After promotional codes for the initial 1,000 scholarships are given out, Google said it will issue ‘thousands’ more on a promotional basis. Google set up an online form that women can use to apply for the program.” Gizmag reports that a portion of the Made With Code millions will go to rewarding educators who support girls taking computer science classes through Codeacademy or Khan Academy. 

In the United States, only 18% of computer science degrees go to women, and while certainly some of the reason for that is our country’s willful neglect of cultivating female interest in comp sci, I’d say interest is only a small part of a fundamental industry problem. I think its intentions are good and it’s a valiant first effort to address the problem, but Made With Code, very simply, can’t and won’t change the dude-bro nature of tech on its own.

Women are not proportionately represented in the tech industry because their interests aren’t being cultivated, but also largely because they face substantial setbacks in Silicon Valley, i.e., once you give women the resources to code, you need to hire them to code.

Like, for starters, the elephant in the room: Made With Code is a pretty bold and massive undertaking by Google, but why aren’t they first and foremost committing to working on their internal diversity? I would have liked to see the company say “We think 17% is a shitty percent, and we’re gonna work towards getting it to 25% by the year 20-whatever” or something along those lines. Who Google employs is entirely in Google’s control, so I’m having trouble understanding why that didn’t happen immediately after they released their employee data last May.

Big problems require big solutions. Made With Code is a commendable start to getting ladies in tech, but I’m holding out for more deliberate, industry-wide initiatives that focus not only on women’s interest and education in tech, but on their outlook for employment, because it doesn’t matter how much interest I have in an industry if I still can’t get my foot in the door. Eyes on you, Silicon Valley.