Theses, writing, weight-loss, and sweet metaphors

Today in class, my new American Studies thesis students were challenged to answer this question, how will doing a thesis change me as a person and affect my life?

They came up with a  lot of good answers. They talked about confidence, work ethic, intellectual achievement, playing to their strengths, and managing their time. When it came to me to tell them what I believe the answer is, I told them something like this:

The thesis is a learning experience on a large scale. It’s yours, you own it entirely. You are the captain of your own ship, and as a result your successes will be yours and so will your failures. The way the thesis will change you is that when you are presented with a seemingly insurmountable task, whether it’s related to career, personal life, family life, romance, projects, or journeys, you will be able to look at it as a whole and know that you are capable of doing the work to get where you need to be. You won’t doubt yourself. When you’re presented with something that, at the outset, seems near impossible, you will push forward. You will know to break it into manageable pieces, work on it everyday, slowly and steadily. Even when you’re tired, and fed up, you will always see the forest beyond the trees and you will always trust that you will get there. The thesis will teach you that you have every bit of will, and grit, and motivation you need to do whatever you set out to do.

Large scale research and writing is very difficult. There’s a reason why not a lot of students sign up for majors that require work of this nature when they’re undergraduates, and there’s a reason why the students who do are exceptional. There’s a reason why when they write this thesis, which is, for many, their first major research and writing project, that they work closely with TAs, professors, advisors, and each other. Part of what makes this a valuable experience is knowing that they can fall, they usually don’t. But if they get lost, or need a hand – one will be there. We joke about this – “help will always be given in thesis class to those who ask for it.”

I did my first large scale (or it looked large at the time) writing project in IB2 (12th grade). It was called an Extended Essay and it’s basically a miniature version of an undergraduate thesis. I then wrote an undergraduate thesis, and capped it off with a master’s thesis. While I was doing that I started helping other people write. I love helping other people write.

Research driven academic writing might seem dry and sad to a lot of people, but I believe it provides one of the most poignant, useful metaphors for getting through life I have ever encountered, which brings me to my point.

As of today I have lost 80lbs. When I started losing weight the idea that I would ever get to 80lbs down seemed impossible. Even from my current vantage point, there is still so far to go. Starting a weight loss project where I decided to set about losing 200lbs (half my starting weight) was scary, it was scary because I didn’t know if I could do it. I didn’t know if I had the physical capacity or, perhaps more importantly, the emotional and psychological wherewithal. I knew all the data about dieting and about massive weight loss, that it often doesn’t work, and many dieters don’t make it past 10%, many people never reach their goal, and many people end up gaining to weigh more than they did at the beginning. Losing weight is socially, emotionally, and culturally stressful. At the outset, in the first 20lbs (which came off quick, but were invisible) I interrogated my choices a lot, I questioned whether my motivation was good enough, whether my choices were noble rather than being selfish or, perhaps, not even mine.

However, in the last 60lbs, I’ve learned so much about myself, and my motivations. I’ve learned that my motivations are complicated and are in a perpetual flux. I’ve learned that this is a project, it is a large, seemingly daunting project, and I’ve learned that in order to get where I want, and achieve what I set out for I have to be committed. While there are days were I don’t count calories so closely (or count them but don’t worry about them) every day is in service of the larger project. Not only the physical elements of weight loss (the eating, the working out) but the emotional and psychological parts. In order to get up everyday and want to keep doing this, I have to know that I am capable.

Losing large amounts of weight is so much like writing. It’s so much like writing that everyday gets easier because I realize more and more that this difficult thing is just like the difficult things I’ve done before. The difference between success and failure is patience, commitment, grit, and knowing that no matter what happens as you go, it is the process that is valuable. When you’ve finished a thesis, and smack it down with the familiar thump of a 100 pages, when you hold it for the first time as it finishes printing and it’s warm and smells like toner, it’s finished and and while it still needs to be graded, and (you hope) read – your relationship with it is finished. Everyday, every mile, every pound I lose feels like a page of a thesis. Meeting a micro-goal is like finding that book you really need, or writing a literature review that you don’t fucking hate.* Weight loss for me is a writing process, it’s a story about my body that I am wholly in control of, it requires my dedication and motivation, and requires that I not let other people derail my ideas, or hijack my work. This isn’t about other people’s ideas, this is my project and I’m writing it with my body. Every success is my success and while I undeniably have excellent people around me to support me, when it comes down to it, it’s mine. When my feet hurt so much I can barely walk, when I’m so bored of eating the same weird foods, and when all I want is just not think about it, I’m the person who has to. And I do because I’ve written, I’ve written long, complicated things, I’ve watched students follow wild trains of thought to magnificent conclusions, and because the body follows the brain.

Writing a thesis changes you in that you learn that if you need to write, if you want to write, you sit down and you write.
It affects your life because you learn that if you want to do something, you look at it as a whole, you think about what’s it’s really made of; the research, the skills, the time, the process, and you make a plan and you follow through with that plan.

*Unclear that this is even possible.


Some of you may have noticed…

Maybe it was the thesis stress, maybe it was the allergies, maybe it was the smaller, but not small dress I bought, maybe it was the threat of spring looming on the horizon bringing with it intolerably short shorts and mostly naked undergraduate girls…

Whatever caused it, yesterday I reached breaking point.

Some of you may have noticed, I am fat.

I’m not “pinch an inch”, “could serve to lose a few pounds”, or “chubby”, “tubby” or even “festively plump.” I dwell on the plus size of plus sizes. Usually I don’t talk about it, except to make one of my no fail jokes [Look, I didn’t get this body climbing stairs and avoiding cupcakes.] I figure if I don’t mention it, you all won’t notice. You won’t notice how much of the sofa I take up, how I fill up my chair (or one of those wretched little desks), you won’t notice my thighs, or back rolls, or double chin when I’m laughing. You’ll instead notice my voice, or my smile, or my bunny front teeth, my excellent hair perhaps, or how handy I am with liquid eyeliner.

I also know this is not the case. I live in the same media frenzied world as everyone else. I know that despite everything I’ve achieved, or how well I get dressed in the morning or just how good I am with the liner, I am still fat. At the end of the day a fat girl is just a fat girl. Everyday is battle against homeliness, against looking matronly, maternal or pregnant. Everyday I walk around Washington DC, and I am aware that when people look at me, they see a fat person. I have all the stereotypes of what fat people are like hovering around me; we’re lazy, unmotivated, uninspired, miserable, out-of-control, we’re not confident, and we’re rarely sexy. Yeah – would you believe that is exactly that set of characteristics that got me where I am in life. I am 100% a successful student, friend, person, intellectual, artist and writer because I’m an lazy, unmotivated, miserable fat fuck. Funny, that.

Usually, I’m pretty confident about my body. I have the rare good fortune that I didn’t “get fat”. I started out pretty fat, and stayed fat. There isn’t a moment in my memory when I wasn’t fat. My appearance now is the logical conclusion of all my other appearances. That said, something happened the last few weeks (I do NOT want to talk about it.) that threw me a curve ball. So, after a week of panicked mega-dieting (I’ve lost 6 lbs since last Wednesday, when I’m on it, I do not mess around.) frantic waddling on the treadmill and treating my closet like a collection of burlap sacks, I went online last night and googled “fat positive”. For the first time since high school, I needed someone else, a total stranger on the Internet, talking to not me, but fat women everywhere that my body is okay. It worked, looking at pictures of other people, women, my size, larger and littler made me feel like it was okay. That I could get up today and get dressed and feel okay.

I am in love with the Internet. Why? because in a split second last night I could begin a process to put to bed a lot of hurtful feelings I’ve been dealing with all week, for this I’m very grateful.

The excellent website I stumbled onto was



Things I Learned From My Mother

I made a dress today. To be more specific I made a black evening dress for the CCT (my graduate program) Prom. In the weeks leading up to today I have often thought I’d like to just find a nice dress and buy it, but part of me knew I wanted to make a dress. I had seen a dress in my mind and I wanted that dress and no other for the event.Whenever I complete any project like this, one that goes from vision to completion through my own ingenuity and commitment I think of my Mother.

Sitting on my desk is a picture of my parents at their wedding. It was taken on a sunny March afternoon in Harare in the 80’s, and they both look effervescently happy. I keep the photograph on my desk for two main reasons: firstly, I am very close to my parents, and I barely ever see them because they’re in Africa and secondly, because they way they both look, but particularly my Mother is a constant reminder of how I strive to live my life. My Mother’s choice of wedding outfit, though certainly not traditional, is remarkable in every possible way. It consisted of a tea-length, pencil style bright blue dress, simple with a scoop neck, a pair of white high heeled pumps and a white hat. Pinned on the dress is a corsage and she is speckled with bits of white confetti. (My Father is similarly simply dressed, in a black suit and tie, button hole and more confetti.)

The simplicity, elegance, grace, innovation, disregard for convention, and personality in my Mother’s wedding outfit is everything I want every day of my life in everything I do (and of course, I everything I wear.)

I do not hesitate to think of my Mother as an artist, and when people ask what she does, that’s what I say. It is so much more than that. She has ideas about clothing, furniture, painting, bags, jewelry, knitting, crocheting, beading and every possible incarnation of art, craft, and visual manifestation you can imagine and somehow transfers those ideas into amazing, beautiful objects. She’s been doing since well before I was born. As a child I remember her telling me about sewing a dress for a job interview and when she got the job, going home and sewing dresses to work in. My Mother sense of how clothing works, both technically and visually is inspiring.

She always told me, “it doesn’t matter what you wear, it’s how you wear it.” And truthfully, she could go out in a trash bag and a pair of black heels and make it look great. Anytime anyone has ever told me I can wear things that other people couldn’t pull off, I am exceptionally flattered because I learned that from my Mother.

There have been times where I’ve found my Mother’s sartorial endeavors to be questionable at best, but I think this is primarily due to the fact that few 17 year old children see eye-to-eye with their parents with regard to fashion choices. Even now, there are moments when she and I are out shopping (for her) that I offer my opinions or dare I say, advice. She almost always listens to me, but I think mostly, it’s a matter of her humoring me – she knows that anything I know about style I know because of her. Despite this my Mother enthusiastically encouraged me to design my own clothing, from the time I was a small child she would help take party dressed out of my imagination and into real form.

She never questioned my choices when I was a teenager wanting nothing but black lace and velvet in a tropical climate. Even now, whenever I am at home the most wonderful place to be is at my Mother’s kitchen table surrounding by beads, fabric, ribbon and a myriad of amazing designs waiting to turn into projects.

I try and keep things my Mother has made over the years around me all the time, they are the things that inspire me everyday. To not be afraid to think up ambitious projects and to be willing to take risks. While I really strive to embody those goals in my projects, it’s also something that deeply informs the way I write and approach my research. A defiant willingness to buck convention, embrace new ideas, take on difficult and challenging material, to not be afraid of failure and always be able to learn as I’m working.

Snow Survival.

Last night it began snowing in Virginia. Instantly, everyone in the Northern VA/DC area began panicking. Racing to the grocery store and buying toilet paper, bread and milk.

This morning, in order to get Sonora to the train station (Union Station) I went out in the snow. I got up at 7:30, at 8:00am, I shipped out, all bundled up into the snow.

I walked a mile to Sonora’s apartment, a mile back to the metro, and then to and from my apartment building.

This is what I learned on my epic trek:

Coat. I was really happy I got my peacoat out.

Curbs. I don’t know if any of you have ever fallen on a curb in normal weather, but in snow, curbs are trecherous little beasts. I fell on a curb, nearly slipped into a gutter and lost my foot. I took curbs…very carefully.

Buddy up. Greet and smile at people who are snow trekking with you, a nice man on highway 29 prevented me from falling over, and we then walked together, so we wouldn’t fall.

Mittens. Mittens are better than gloves.

Also…there is nothing to be afraid of, as long as you’re wiling to tread on foot, almost anyone – including someone as awkward as me, can master the snowy fortress.

Take that, you icy bastard!