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Senior editor, Longreads. Chief Semicolon Advocate, WordPress.com. Professional writer, editor, napper, and dog-snorgler. Knows you are, but what is she?

Maybe Beauty Doesn’t Have to Mean Pain

Emma Blakley helps Gabby Sporleder with her position during an advanced ballet class at Midwest Dance Mechanix in Wichita, Kan. (Jesse Brothers/The Hutchinson News via AP)

At BuzzFeed, former dancer Ellen O’Connell Whittet interrogates ballet: a beautiful but demanding art form that exacts a high price from the bodies of the women who practice it — Whittet already lives with chronic pain stemming from a fractured spine she suffered during a rehearsal.

“I think you need to be asking whether you’ll ever walk without a limp,” the doctor told me. My parents drove three hours to come get me and bring me home, and I had to relearn how to do daily tasks with chronic and acute back pain, like drive a car or put on pants. A few years later, after I had healed enough, I joined a small dance company, but the pain in my back forced me daily to take stock of my own body, its needs and limitations, and to either continue hurting it or to use it to navigate through a world without ballet. Eventually, the culture of ballet was not inclusive enough for me to stay — it wouldn’t work with my limitations, and it required me to sacrifice my time and body in the name of art. Ballet was an austere and unrelenting master to me, one that asked more of me than I could give. I have missed ballet every day since, and yet I am disturbed by what, exactly I’m missing.

But the issues with ballet aren’t only around physical injuries from misstep or overuse. The physical pain is just the obvious symptom of a deeply sexist (and not a little racist) medium that regards women as implements rather than people.

Women’s contributions to ballet have historically been the most ephemeral: They are the archetypal ballerinas, whose careers depend on the constant vanishing point of dancing, over as soon as it happens. The parts of ballet that last past the moment of its occurrence — choreography, teaching, and artistic direction — have long been dominated by men. And this moment, which offers us a chance to have a mainstream conversation about the sexism of ballet, is also an opportunity to seriously consider what ballet’s future might look like. What needs to change to make it less damaging to women, while still preserving its value and beauty? And who needs to be more included in order to effect that change?

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‘Do you like scary movies?’

Image by Nicki Dugan Pogue via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In an essay in Electric Lit, Megan Pillow Davis explores horror movies — why we love them, how we experience them in our bodies, and how they can help us deal with our own real-world traumas — like Davis’ own near-rape at the hands of a former coworker.

I watched the taillights of Daniel’s truck recede into the darkness. I thought of how Paul was the only thing that had kept me from becoming Mari Collingwood or Phyllis Stone, the girls who are raped and killed in The Last House on the Left. Daniel did neither of those things. But I could still feel a scorching anger welling up inside me. In a matter of seconds, I became not Mari or Phyllis, but Jennifer Hills from I Spit on Your Grave, the rape and revenge film that had called up old memories and given me nightmares for a month the first time I watched it. I had tried to forget about that film. But now it felt like my territory, my home. I could feel Jennifer unzipping my skin like a dress and climbing inside me. I imagined cutting Daniel’s dick off, clean as Chuck cut off the head of the coral snake. I imagined spitting and pissing and shitting on Daniel’s grave. And then, just before his truck disappeared behind a dark curtain of trees, I became Charlie. I willed Daniel’s truck to explode. I wanted his body to sear in the white-hot flame of my fear and shame and rage until there was nothing left.

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We’re Fat, Not Stupid

I wasn't about to put a cliché photo of fat headless bodies on this, so here's a photo of awesome fat model Tess Holliday being fat and awesome as she arrives at a movie premiere on April 17, 2018, in Los Angeles (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

Michael Hobbes‘ Highline story on the critical need to rethink how we understand and approach fatness is not without issue — It’d be great to see an actual fat activist who’s been writing about this for years get attention, and “obesity” is a loaded word — but the bigger issue of how society treats fat people is the most important thing, and the story is a good one. How does society treat us? Like crap, and pointing that out isn’t just about not wanting to have our feelings hurt: it’s about pointing out the very material ways fat-shaming impacts our lives, our health, our relationships, and even our careers.

This is how fat-shaming works: It is visible and invisible, public and private, hidden and everywhere at the same time. Research consistently finds that larger Americans (especially larger women) earn lower salaries and are less likely to be hired and promoted. In a 2017 survey, 500 hiring managers were given a photo of an overweight female applicant. Twenty-one percent of them described her as unprofessional despite having no other information about her. What’s worse, only a few cities and one state (nice work, Michigan) officially prohibit workplace discrimination on the basis of weight.

Paradoxically, as the number of larger Americans has risen, the biases against them have become more severe. More than 40 percent of Americans classified as obese now say they experience stigma on a daily basis, a rate far higher than any other minority group. And this does terrible things to their bodies. According to a 2015 study, fat people who feel discriminated against have shorter life expectancies than fat people who don’t. “These findings suggest the possibility that the stigma associated with being overweight,” the study concluded, “is more harmful than actually being overweight.”

Come for the excellent story, stay for the excellent (and sometimes heartbreaking) photos — representation matters.

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Mind Your Mindfulness — You’re Playing Right Into Their Hands

Image by Surian Soosay via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

In a depressing yet blistering essay for The BafflerMiya Tokumitsu skewers the isolating, anxiety-producing vortex that is life in our late-stage capitalist society. Question every trend: even “mindfulness” — what could be more innocuous than mindfulness?! — has a seamy neoliberal underbelly.

Occasionally, the contradiction of punitive, intrusive “wellness” becomes too ridiculous to bear and cracks under its own weight. One oft-mentioned catalyst for the recent teacher strike in West Virginia was a proposal to mandate the monitoring of teachers’ bodily movement via Fitbit just as the state government moved to limit pay raises and school funding. Capitalism will deplete you, while letting you think you have the means to improve your lot. Indeed, it will attempt to force its therapy on you. In the case of West Virginia’s top-down Taylorist wellness crusade, the state authorities clearly overplayed their hand; far more common are employer-sponsored initiatives, whether packaged as mindfulness training or meditation classes, that have been inserted into our working lives to help us talk ourselves down. Mindfulness—a state of hyper-awareness tempered with disciplined calm—has become the corporate mantra du jour. By encouraging increasingly put-upon employees to assume tree poses or retreat into an om in the face of frustration, corporate overlords mean to head off any mutinous stirrings before they have a chance to gain momentum. Even if CEOs themselves occasionally adopt these regimes with apparent sincerity, mindfulness serves the companies’ bottom lines first and foremost because it is fundamentally anti-revolutionary. “It’s hard not to notice how often corporate mindfulness aligns seamlessly with layoffs,” Laura Marsh writes. “Employees need a sense of calm too when their employer is flailing. Those productivity gains—an extra sixty-nine minutes of focus per employee per month—count for more when the ranks are thinning.”

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An Accident Compounded By Injustice

a large lake is surrounded by trees with green, yellow, and orange leaves. The sky is blue, with no clouds.
Photo by easchiff via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Wendell Lindsey is serving a life sentence in a Texas prison, convicted of murdering his 10-year-old daughter in a fake drowning. He’s consistently maintained his innocence. As Jordan Smith uncovers, investigating the incident and trial for The Intercept, there’s a lot that suggests he might be telling the truth — or at least, that the case was never as cut and dry as the prosecution made it out to be.

I’ve been writing about wrongful convictions for 20 years, and I’ve done a lot of reporting on junk forensics, but this was the first time I’d encountered a case in which the science of drowning was called into question. A year after Nadel first contacted me, I can now say that of all the cases I’ve investigated, Lindsey’s ranks among the most dramatic and confounding I’ve seen. There is certainly junk science, and plenty of it: Self-professed experts in the mechanics of drowning were unequivocal in backing the state’s contention that the only way Lindsey’s daughter could have drowned that day was if Lindsey had forcibly held her under the water until she died.

But that’s not the only thing that went sideways. There was a lackluster police investigation built on a foundation of flawed assumptions. There were witnesses with serious credibility issues — chief among them, Lindsey’s estranged second wife, Linda, who painted an elaborate picture of Lindsey as heartless and capable of murder. As it turns out, she was a serial bigamist who was never legally married to Lindsey, and a private investigator had tied her to at least two fake Social Security numbers. There were allegations that the local medical examiner’s office changed its manner of death determination in order to satisfy police, a bumbling defense attorney who managed to make the case even more convoluted, and prosecutors who carried on an injudicious relationship with Lindsey’s surviving daughter after she testified at trial on behalf of the state.

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Facebook Isn’t the Same as “The Internet” Except When It Is

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, second from left, poses for a selfie with the crowd following wreath-laying rites at the Heroes Cemetery to mark National Heroes Day Monday, Aug. 27, 2018. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

Davey Alba‘s BuzzFeed investigation into the ways Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s government uses Facebook to spread propaganda and destroy political opponents is a frightening look at what happens when a tool created by a bunch of developers in California becomes the go-to news source for a country 7,000 miles away.

Just how ubiquitous is Facebook in the Philippines?

In 2012, 29 million Filipinos used Facebook. Today, 69 million people — two-thirds of the population — are on Facebook. The remaining one-third does not have access to the internet. In other words, virtually every Filipino citizen with an internet connection has a Facebook account. For many in one of the most persistently poor nations in the world, Facebook is the only way to access the internet.

Which is pretty much how Facebook wants it. Maria Ressa, the CEO of the news website Rappler, told BuzzFeed News that during an April 2017 meeting with Facebook, she mentioned to Mark Zuckerberg that 97% of Filipinos who had access to the internet also had Facebook accounts (which was true at the time). Zuckerberg frowned, Ressa recalled. Then he asked: “What about the other 3%?”

Facebook’s Internet.org effort has floundered embarrassingly in more than half a dozen nations and territories. But in the Philippines, the social media capital of the world according to global media agency We Are Social, Facebook rushed into a culture that unquestioningly assimilated it.

“We were seduced, we were lured, we were hooked, and then, when we became captive audiences, we were manipulated to see what other people — people with vested interests and evil motives of power and domination — wanted us to see,” de Lima wrote to BuzzFeed News. “It was a slow takeover of our attention. We didn’t notice it until it was already too late.”

Neither did Facebook.

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A Mystery Shrouded in an Enigma Wrapped in a Snazzy Tie and Smothered in Inherited Wealth

Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Perhaps your answer to the question “Would you like to read 7,000 words about Tucker Carlson?” is, like mine, “What did I ever to do you?” If that’s the case, we are both wrong: I refer to you the Columbia Journalism Review, where Lyz Lenz‘s interview-slash-profile-slash-philosophical inquiry into the “why” of Carlson is a rollicking good (and infuriating) time and a pointed look at how badly people who are manifestly winning — at politics, at finance, at life — still want to claim they’re underdogs.

Yet Carlson insists he, too, was motivated only by the needs of a growing family. He maintains that if someone handed him $5 million he wouldn’t have gotten out of bed. (And he’d be easy to believe, if he wasn’t, in fact, worth over $8 million, and hadn’t himself stood to inherit enough to keep him in a rotating series of beds until retirement.)

But it’s the story he’s sticking to. He had to do what he had to do. He didn’t have a choice. He has kids. DC has terrible public schools. His hands were tied. So, in addition to his staff positions, he took freelance jobs. He didn’t want to disappoint his family.

“I think this is true of almost everybody unless you happen to inherit a bunch of dough at a young age.” Carlson sounds cavalier as he says this, like the plight of sending kids to a private school in DC is the most relatable thing in history. I wonder about my own career in media. If providing for my kids was my only goal, I’d be back in my marketing job. Which reminds me, I need to check my bank account to make sure I can afford back-to-school shoes and after-school care.

I wonder which one of us is supposed to be the liberal elite media.

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Let Them Eat Pancakes

a stack of four pancakes. there is a pat of butter on the top and maple syrup dripping down the side.
Photo by Michelle W. (CC BY 2.0)

At the Chicago Tribune, Christopher Borrelli introduces us to busboy Othea Loggan. Othea Loggan started working as a busboy at Walker Bros. Original Pancake House in 1964, and he works there as a busboy still — the most senior employee at a restaurant with an unusual number of long-term staff. In ’64, he made minimum wage; now he makes slightly more, with no benefits. Management is loyal to its bussers, but you can’t actually pay bills with job security.

Winston Brown, another busser (for the past 38 years), taps his chest and a red light glows through his white coat — “I’m on dialysis,” he says. “Medicare only. We make just enough to pay bills — sometimes. When I started here, there was one Walker Bros., this place, and now there are seven of them. And what do we get? We get to pay our rents.”

Any savings?

He laughs sardonically.

Loggan doesn’t complain.

Rumbult, similarly, says management “does a lot, but we could always use help.” In a sense, their major benefit is a feeling of job security. With new hires today increasingly less likely to stay at a pancake house long, Ray Walker says his loyalty to his aging bussing staff has only deepened. His father, Victor, who started Walker Bros. with his uncle Everett in 1960 (franchising the business from an Oregon pancake house chain), hired Loggan. He says he probably treats Loggan a little better than the rest of the staff, but hesitated to go into detail: “Others would want to know what they’re not getting.” For instance, the company took out life insurance on Loggan (payable to his wife); Ray says that for years he’s set aside about $50 a month for Loggan, as an informal retirement fund (subject to a 30 percent penalty for early withdrawal).

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Take Two $275 Herbal Supplements and Don’t Call Me in the Morning

An interior view of a goop pop-up shop in Newport Beach, CA, 2017. (Photo: Alex J. Berliner/ABImages via AP Images)

“Why do we all not feel well? And what can we do about it?” asks GOOP, Gwyneth Paltrow’s much-mocked wellness empire. The answer might be “Visualize your aura and shove a rock into your vadge for good measure,” but it might also be “Get the medical community to realize how badly it’s failing women.” At The Baffler, Jessa Crispin wonders about the “curious feminist logic of GOOP” and how the internet is decentralizing and democratizing medicine, for better or worse.

This is, of course, the same internet that tells women their children’s autism is caused by vaccines and that Goop uses to distribute its theory that walking barefoot on the grass helps realign the electromagnetic fields of the body. It’s also the same internet I turned to when I was vomiting up the iron supplements the doctor prescribed for my chronic anemia. He refused to give me anything else, other than the suggestion to “eat more spinach,” but an online forum told me about the easily absorbed nettle tea, which I have been using effectively to control my anemia for years. It’s also the same internet that told me I had scabies or syphilis when really I had an allergic reaction to my soap, and the same internet that tells me my coffee beans carry a toxic mold and are slowly killing me…

Viewed against the sobering backdrop of Western medical history, the Goop turn in female self-treatment can be seen as more than just another jaded journalistic narrative about delusional women and their soft-headed disbelief in science. In important respects, it is also an attempt to wrest control and authority back from a medical community that has mistreated women for centuries. A male-dominated medical world is no longer the authority on the female body—I am, with the help of online message boards, Goop newsletters, and random Google searches for things like “why is my discharge like this” or “how do I get rid of wrinkles” or “can a person eat nightshades and not die.” We could be regressing, then, to something like the oral medical tradition of the medieval midwife, where knowledge is come across sporadically, where anecdote is given as much credence as experimentation, and the knowledge base is decentralized.

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Graduate School is Wonderful and We Are All Very, Very Happy

Image from the lecture "On writing a dissertation," available on the European Graduate School's YouTube Channel.

Andrea Long Chu, a doctoral student at NYU, was a teaching assistant for Avital Ronell — the German and comparative literature professor recently found responsible for sexually harassing one of her former students. Ronell’s suspension prompted a letter of support for her from other prominent academics, including Judith Butler and Gayatri Spivak. (Butler has since walked back her support). Chu isn’t having it, and she says so in a brilliantly written, pointed piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

It is simply no secret to anyone within a mile of the German or comp-lit departments at NYU that Avital is abusive. This is boring and socially agreed upon, like the weather.

Stories about Avital’s “process” are passed, like notes in class, from one student to the next: how she reprimanded her teaching assistants when they did not congratulate her for being invited to speak at a conference; how she requires that her students be available 24/7; how her preferred term for any graduate student who has fallen out of favor is “the skunk.”

Process: Wild things live in this word. These stories come from sources who strongly wished to remain anonymous, fearing that to have their names attached would threaten their chances in an already desiccated job market. But even if this was just gossip, I would believe it. When it comes to the American academy, I trust raw, red rumor over public statements any day of the week.

Her scathing remarks are not just for Avital Ronell, though. They’re for the entire academy.

A culture of critics in name only, where genuine criticism is undertaken at the risk of ostracism, marginalization, retribution — this is where abuses like Avital’s grow like moss, or mold. Graduate students know this intuitively; it is written on their bones. They’ve watched as their professors play favorites, as their colleagues get punished for citing an adviser’s rival, as funding, jobs, and prestige are doled out to the most obedient and obsequious. The American university knows only the language of extortion. “Tell,” it purrs, curling its fingers around your IV drip, “and we’ll eat you alive.”

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