Category Archives: Science

On Being Present

Previously published on my Tumblr page, http://a-woman-apart.tumblr.com

I briefly mentioned the book “Presence” by Amy Cuddy in my last blog post. I know that in that one I focused on the fact that I felt bad for “needing” to read a book like this to feel better about myself, but that wasn’t fair because it overlooked all of the great insights in the book. I learned a lot, and actually enjoyed it so much that I finished it off in less than a week.

In the notes that I wrote after I was finished, I summarized presence as “bringing your authentic self to a a situation”. In the first chapter Cuddy describes the struggles she endured after suffering a traumatic brain injury in a car accident, and how afterwards her difficulty with learning undermined her self-confidence. She talks about the times when she was so afraid about presenting her research that she clammed up and wasn’t able to express herself effectively. That is because, she said, that negative emotions like fear and anxiety cause us to become inward focused- we are not longer able to “be present” and really be focused on the ideas or message that we are trying to convey. Instead, we become hyper-focused on our own nervousness and sense of discomfort.

She also shares about how important authenticity is to people who are hiring other people or negotiating various business deals. People who are making decisions on whether to invest in a particular project stated that it was important for them to feel as though the person presenting the project really believed in what they were putting forth. In other words, they needed to show genuine enthusiasm for the idea. They also didn’t like to see people who seemed to be “trying too hard” or were pushy or aggressive. Interestingly enough, they said they didn’t mind if the person was a little nervous because “they’re doing something big, something that matters to them” so it makes sense if they feel a little nervous.

Throughout the rest of the book, Amy Cuddy expresses how we can reclaim our personal power and “bring your boldest self to your biggest challenges”. We can do things like practicing yoga and “power posing”, which is scientifically proven to increase testosterone (the hormone associated with greater risk taking and initiative) and decrease cortisol (the “stress hormone”). Even doing simple things like sitting up straighter and using more open, relaxed posture can increase our sense of confidence and feelings of being grounded. We can also use imagery techniques like picturing ourselves flying or just imagining ourselves performing difficult tasks with pride and enthusiasm before we go out and actually do them.

With this year coming to a close, it is common for people to be considering what kinds of “New Years’ Resolutions” that they will be making. Miss Cuddy explains why this doesn’t actually work too well for us. The goals we set are too lofty and ambitious. For example if we plan to “exercise three days a week” and we aren’t able to fully meet this goal (we only go once or twice) it tends to lead to us abandoning the goal altogether. She says that instead- and she uses herself with running as an example- that we should give ourselves small “nudges”. We should say, “Today, I’ll eat healthy” or “I’ll stretch for 15 minutes”. Those incremental changes can in the end lead to big results, without us feeling like we have resolutions hanging over our heads like a threat.

I’ve noticed that as I’ve been reading the book and trying to implement some of the principles, I’ve been experiencing less depression and more confidence. There’s a chapter in there that’s titled “I Don’t Deserve to Be Here” that goes over “imposter syndrome”. It explains how people in all sorts of careers and fields often have a pervasive feeling that they are “fake”, or that their positions in life have more to do with “luck” than with their own talents. These feelings of “being an imposter” tend to increase- rather than decrease- with every new achievement. I can definitely relate to having these feelings. Even though objectively I’m doing well in school and I’m handling my life well, the sense of “wrongness” persists. I find myself asking myself “what now?” every time that I achieve something good. The better the grade, the more I think that the teacher may have given it to me in error. Knowing that other people are struggling with these emotions- and that they have nothing to do with objective reality- I can reject these feelings and instead begin to celebrate my accomplishments. I can tell myself, “Actually, you do deserve to be here.

Advertisements

Born This Way

Previously published on my Tumblr page, http://a-woman-apart.tumblr.com/

I attended church this morning. I just felt like going for some reason, even though I knew that it would be a Mother’s Day celebration and my own mother was miles away. I felt a little sad not to have had her there. Honestly, since I had Saturday off I could’ve traveled up there, but exhaustion and other circumstances kind of caused things to fall apart a little bit.

The service consisted of worship as usual, a series of baby dedications and gifts for the newest and oldest mothers. The sermon was about the woman at the well. The pastor admitted that the woman at the well might not have actually been a mother, but she was a good representation of a woman who was ostracized, suffered from broken relationships, and yet still cared about God and wanted to be seen as something other than her circumstances. Jesus reached out to her on her level, and that’s pretty significant.

Of course, though, a sermon about Mother’s Day wouldn’t be complete without some kind of contrast being drawn between women and men as caretakers and separate members of society. The pastor made reference to the biblical myth of Adam and Eve. God is said to have created everything and called it all “good”, including man, but then he observes “that it is not good for man to be alone. We must create a helper for him”. He puts Adam to sleep, and takes a rib out of his body and out of that rib forms Eve.

The pastor of course put in a disclaimer about this story. He knew that women would be groaning and thinking, “So I’m just created to help a man” and so he says that that same word “help” was used by King David to describe divine help from God. He called God his “help” so according to the pastor we as women are being honored by this divine distinction. We are God’s expression of divine assistance to all people (nice save, Pastor).

Surprisingly, this wasn’t the only seemingly sexist verse/story that he would convert into something more euphemistic. He quoted from 1 Peter 3, the passage about women needing to be submissive to their husbands, and not to treasure outward beauty over the inner beauty of a “quiet, peaceable spirit”. He placed emphasis on the part of the passage that tells women that their unbelieving/stubborn husbands can be won “without a word” by the gentle reverence of their wives. The pastor joked that “men don’t respond to words, they respond to beauty”, only, it was part serious as well, because it was a reference to that “inner beauty” that Peter was talking quite seriously about.

Finally, he quoted the verse that says that men/husbands should “give honor to the wife, [she] being the weaker vessel” so that “their prayers would not be hindered” (1 Peter 3:7). This verse, while seeming to be positive (in that it ostentatiously encourages men to take care of their wives) also has some negative connotations, the chief one being that this enforces stereotypes that women are “fragile” or “weak” as compared to their male counterparts. The pastor tried to save this from its negative implications by stating that God had actually designed us [women] to be more “vulnerable” or “weak” because “his strength is made perfect in our weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). He said that when we as women try to be “strong” and “macho” then we are actually acting adversely and contrary to our design, and we cannot experience the presence of God as deeply because we are refusing to be vulnerable and just open ourselves to him.

I’ll say this before I go on. I really admire my pastor. I think he actually did a pretty great job, considering the material he has to work with. That being said, I know some things now that I didn’t before, namely about intersex people and non-gender-conforming individuals, who are totally erased and ignored by these gender stereotypes.

If God really just made them “male” and “female”, and he is the all-powerful, all-encompassing God that he is constantly made out to be, then what about people who are born into bodies that don’t fit fully into either biological box?

Now I don’t know about all of the science behind how/why people are born intersex, but I will discuss one phenomenon here. It is that of the “chimera”, which is a word for some person or animal that is a conglomeration of other types.

Most people are aware about the differences between identical and fraternal twins. With identical twins, the twins were actually at one point a single embryo that split into two. Therefore, these twins have the same DNA. In the case of fraternal twins, each of the eggs that originated them was fertilized separately, and for some reason each off these fertilized eggs was implanted in the womb. These embryos each have different DNA and will display different physical characteristics.

A “chimera” is formed, when two separate human embryos- or fraternal twins- are fused together into one single embryo. These individuals will have two different sets of DNA that manifest in different ways.

Sometimes, the original embryos are either both male or both female. In these cases, changes to genitalia might not be present. However, one thing that can happen is that certain parts of the person’s body have one DNA, and the other parts of the bodies have others. In the case of one woman, her ovaries actually had the DNA of her “lost” twin, making it appear that her own biological children did not share her DNA at all. This nearly resulted in her children being taken away, under the presumption that she had stolen them from someone else.

Finally, if the two embryos were different genders- one biologically male and one biologically female- it is very likely that the person will have physical characteristics of both of them, such as someone having both ovaries and testes, etc.

Now, the church can’t have it both ways. You can’t say that people are “born for a purpose” and then just totally ignore a whole subset of people who are born. Though, that is why it maybe wouldn’t surprise me if the majority of doctors who do “corrective surgery” on intersex patients, many times under false pretenses, were somehow motivated by a religious conviction (though I cannot prove this at all). The idea of “fixing” a person so they fit neatly into the gender binary smacks of bigotry in all the “right” ways.

Finally, lets assume that it’s true that God did create people “male” and “female”. The idea that man was created first kind of goes against some new scientific discoveries, and here is why.

There are numerous scientists that have come to the conclusion that all fetuses actually start of as-

Wait for it-

FEMALE.

Apparently, as a fetus is developing in the womb, during the early stages it is biologically female, and only begins to develop the characteristics that are indicated by the “Y” chromosome- male characteristics- later on. This was considered the reason why males also have nipples, and also a possible reason for gender dysphoria in men, which ultimately leads many of them to transition to a female identity (we still don’t know a lot about what causes female gender dysphoria or even about female sexuality).

Actually, I balked at the idea of fetuses starting out female, but then I realized that the very nature of how the chromosomes work tends to lend itself to that conclusion. Women are XX. Men are XY. Why isn’t it the other way around, with men being YY and women being XY?

(See what I did right there?)

Anyway, the Bible isn’t really the first one with crazy creation myths, and I think as long as we realize that these are myths, then we can stop basing our entire lives and identities around them. I don’t believe that women were made out of the first man’s rib anymore than I believe that the Goddess Athena burst out of Zeus’s head, fully developed and fully armored. Even so, because I’ve just been inundated with these ideas and concepts for so long, it’s difficult to imagine anything else. I am so grateful however for NPR, the Discovery Channel (when they’re not showing nonsense) and the Internet because I can actually be exposed to real scientific research that shows that we’ve just been spoon-fed these illogical stories from birth and have been brainwashed to believe in them.

Also, there are a number of studies showing that male and female brains might not be as dissimilar as everyone is saying. I started reading a book that I got from Half Price Books called “Gender: Psychological Perspectives” by Linda Brannon and it seems to support the notion that gender is partially a social construct. How much of a construct it is is open to interpretation.

As feminists we get to talk a lot about “fighting the patriarchy” because that’s what our society is, a patriarchy. However, as Betty Friedman pointed out in her most popular book, some societies are matriarchal. If male dominance was an absolute thing, totally immutable, then we wouldn’t have those matriarchal cultures. In those cultures women rule, and men actually cut their genitals because of “menstruation envy”. If the patriarchy was totally “natural”, we wouldn’t have some cultures where goddesses are central.

So yes, “God doesn’t make mistakes”. If he “forms the bones in the womb of her who is with child” then he must’ve been aware of that when he/she/it created intersex people. Or LGBT/non-gender-conforming individuals, who are also influenced by factors in the womb beyond their control. We are “born this way”. I didn’t used to believe it, but now I’m willing to argue with anyone who says otherwise.

I’ve changed a lot since even 2 years ago. To be honest I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of gender identity though. I am cisgender, but I remember when I was first exposed to a transperson (it was Chaz, Cher’s son) on TV I asked my mom if God was okay with people doing gender reassignment surgery. She said, “No. He doesn’t even want you wearing the other gender’s clothes, much less changing your body” and she also indicated that if some people changed genders and then dated people of their former gender (FTM dating F) then they were homosexuals and that wasn’t allowed either.

Now I realize that that’s not how that works- transgender women are women, transgender men are men. If a transgender man dates only women, he’s straight. If he dates only men- even if his biological gender was female- then he’s gay. Same (but reverse) with transwomen. Also, not everyone fully “transitions” but that doesn’t make them any less a member of the gender that they identify as.

I know it sounds really stupid but watching all the LGBT-ers on YouTube helps a ton with perspective as well. My pastor rightfully pointed out that “the ultimate hope of each person is to be fully known, and fully loved”. I know that my church has a lot of love in it, but we can’t just totally erase a group of people to avoid either having to accept them or to avoid throwing them out. Christianity at its core is not a religion that supports different sexualities and gender diversity.

Sometimes, it feels like you have to choose between being Christian and being LGBT and I think that’s really sad for people who really want to hold on to their faith. I don’t think that the road forward is going to be easy for anybody. Personally I think I  am starting to see Christianity as more of a guideline and not an absolute instruction for my whole life. I can take the parts that I agree with, and then discard the parts that aren’t relevant to me in society today.

I know that sounds a lot like “buffet religion” but then who are you to judge me? Who are you to tell me in what way I can worship and in what way I can practice my faith? Even Paul said that each person “to his own master stands and falls” (Romans 14:4). If there is a God of judgment, then He will judge me at the end but in the end I know I can’t turn my back on people that just need a friend, because they don’t fit into the gender binary, or they are married to someone of the same sex, or they have piercings or tattoos or anything else superficial.