The problem with ‘clear my plate’ reasoning

Last summer, when I began the work of considering what self-care would really look like for me, I set a small goal for myself:

I wanted to figure out how to read a novel in the middle of a messy house.

It seems like a laughably simple goal, yet it’s been anything but easy. I’m not good at sitting amidst The Things That Need To Be Addressed and ignoring them for the sake of my own health or wellness or relaxation.

One of the things I’ve noticed during my exploration of my own self-care practices is my tendency to rely on clear-my-plate reasoning. It looks something like this:

I can’t ______________ until I’ve ________________. (i.e. I can’t paint until I’ve cleaned out the basement.)

Or inversely:

Once I’ve _____________, then I can finally ______________. (i.e. Once I’ve prepped all of my classes for the next three weeks, then I can finally get back to writing my novel.)

Clear-my-plate reasoning is a false type of restriction, where we convince ourselves that random household or work tasks should always take precedence over something done purely for our own pleasure.

In my own world, this reasoning also relates to anxiety about pacing myself. As a professor, one of the places in where this often comes up for me is grading.

Let’s say that I get a stack of 50 essays to grade one day. In my head, I’ll say: Okay, Jessica, pace yourself. Grade 7-8 essays a day for a week, and you’ll be home free! So Day 1 arrives, and I think, “I’m going to grade my 7 or so essays, and call that good for the day. I’ll trust my strategy, and pace myself, and relax a bit when I’m done.”

Day 1 goes okay, but then Day 2 comes along, and I start to get twitchy. According to the schedule, I should just grade 7 more essays. That’s what I allotted for the day. And yet, who could possible just lounge on the couch and read a novel when she has 36 essays sitting there, HOVERING OVER HER HEAD LIKE AN OMINOUS AND JUDGMENTAL CLOUD?!

So then comes the crooked bargaining. I think to myself, ‘Wouldn’t it be better if I just plowed through my work that first day or two, and then I could just really be done with it and finally, truly relax with it off my plate?”

This twisted reasoning paves the way for an ugly, no good, very bad plow-through day, during which I attempt to clear my plate of the big task at hand, but also inadvertently/predictably manage to:

1. Get completely out of whack.
2. Work too many hours and stay up too late.
3. Get cranky.
4. Make my family’s day harder.
5. Eat junky convenience food and skip the gym so as to not hamper my productivity.

Yes, I finish the grading in fewer days, but not without a physical and emotional cost. And here’s the kicker: the plow-through-to-relaxation approach never pans out. What happens instead is that come Day 3, I get the notion to plow through some other big ‘should’ on the horizon, so that maybe (for real this time!!) I can relax once the weekend arrives. (Spoiler alert: this never happens. Saturdays and Sundays pile on a whole bunch of new and different tasks to my to-do list.)

The ‘shoulds,’ they just keep a’coming. In some ways, I feel like I’ve been plowing through most of the last five years of my life.

The truth is, it will be a long, long time before my ‘plate’ might actually be fully clear for any extended period of time, especially given the fact that I’m an early-career professional in academia and I have a large family consisting of many little people (toddlers, amirite? Whose idea was it to have two in the house at once?!) At this particular point in my story, the “personal life” faucet and the “professional life” faucet both seem to be endlessly running, pouring a never-ending flow of ‘shoulds’ into my life in a stream that sometimes threatens to drown me.

owl quote 4But an “unclear plate” doesn’t change the fact that I must allot time to rest and recharge. In fact, it is in those moments where the “shoulds” grow so high in number and become so daunting that I probably most need to find an outlet to relax.

I have to learn to accept that there is not a perfect window that will open up days from now, allowing me to guiltlessly relax courtesy of a lack of a “should” (or 20) hovering over my head. If it will ever happen, self-care must happen now, amidst the stacks of dishes and the dust bunny colonies beneath the dresser and the five dozen library books scattered around the room and the never-ending mountains of laundry. The equation needs to change to:

I will allow myself some time to ___________, because it’s essential to a whole, healthy, balanced life.


It’d be easy to blame other people or cultural expectations for the difficulty that I face in allowing myself to relax even when there’s work to be done, but I’ve come to realize that a fair amount of the pressure I feel to be dutiful comes from nowhere but my own head. Sure, my own thoughts are weighed down by the stories our culture tells about a woman’s work and her obligation to her family and her home. But sometimes it’s just me, refusing to put my own interests first, despite a supportive husband, completely indifferent kids, a non-judgmental mama, and girlfriends who would never criticize me for a stack of messy dishes or piles of laundry on the couch. (And on my bed. And on the guest bed. And in laundry baskets all over the house.)

Part of self-care for me means learning to sit amidst the mess. To let the ‘shoulds’ wait a few hours. To stop looking at my surroundings as tasks to be accomplished, but rather as a space for rejuvenation. To remind myself that the voice in my head telling me what I MUST do is a figment of my imagination. To stop perpetuating the myth that a woman is most valuable when she is a martyr for her family.

Slowly but surely I’m getting more comfortable doing this. One surprising benefit that has kept me motivated is seeing my sons see me relax. It’s been a good reminder that I am their primary example of what a woman does, and how she takes care of herself, and what she’s responsible for, and it’s high time that I give them a more balanced, humane picture, while securing myself a more balanced, humane existence in the process.


Ever watchful,




The Magic of a ‘Mostly’ Mindset

As a college professor, I’m privileged to get nice, long breaks throughout the year — a month off between December and January, a week for Spring Break in March, and three months off over the summer. (Of course I use the word “off” loosely — plenty of writing and reading and course planning and even extra teaching gigs happen during those months. But by ‘off’ I mean that these are time periods where I mostly don’t have to go anywhere if I choose not to and have a lot of extra flexibility with my schedule. Call them ‘work-in-my-bunny-slippers’ days.)

As someone who loves to plan and set goals, these breaks stretch out before me full of beautiful, pristine possibility. At the start of my most recent winter break, I worked and worked on a Master Plan (capital M, capital P) for how I would use those 4 precious weeks to simultaneously relax and kick butt in every possible area of my life.

Modest goals, right?

Once the plan was in place, I came bounding out of my room, paper in hand, waving it eagerly. “I’ve got it!” I said to my husband. “I’ve made my Master Plan for winter break.”

Without missing a beat, my husband said, “Oh, you know there’s nothing I love more than your Master Plans!”

If you don’t know my husband, it’s fair to say that he’s the sarcastic type. His comment about my plan was about as true as the time when he we were about 14 hours into a 21-hour road trip and he told me, “The only thing I love more than Delilah’s radio program is Delilah herself.”

Okay, to be fair, he had good reason to be skeptical of my Master Plan. I do have a tendency to think big, to make overly ambitious plans, and go all in, occasionally dragging my family along kicking and screaming. I mean, why dive gracefully into life, when you can go for a full cannonball and splash all your loved ones in the process?

Historically, I’ve been an all-in, all-or-nothing kind of lady, drawn to the extremes in most aspects of my life.

My two approaches to meals: I can either cook completely from-scratch food for every meal and snack OR let my family live on frozen or boxed meals for an entire semester.

My two approaches to exercise: Exercise for 75 minutes every single day taking no days off OR let my gym pass go 3 months untouched.

My two approaches to creativity: Write a minimum of 1,000 words every single day OR don’t dabble in creative writing for a year.

Sound familiar to any of you?

In all of these scenarios, the first part describes a coveted Master Plan. The second part describes its inevitable failure. The truth is that I just don’t live very comfortably in the middle of these extremes, which stems from strong perfectionist undertones. Growing up, I considered this to be a sign of a strong work ethic. A point of pride. If I couldn’t do something 110%, 24/7, than it wasn’t worth doing at all. More recently, I’ve begun to conceptualize perfectionism as a form of self-harm.

As I began the work of redefining goals for my body and my life and making the move toward self-care , I knew that I’d have to loosen up on this tendency of mine. Because frankly, it’s not healthy or sustainable, and it sets me up for a fair amount of crashing and burning. When it came time to really begin taking care of my body, my mind and my spirit, I had to let go of the absolutes, and the unsustainability of the always/never thinking that can so often define our approach to wellness, wholeness, or balance. Statements like:

I’ll NEVER eat after 7 p.m….

I’ll ALWAYS go to the gym before breakfast…

I’ll NEVER eat gluten or sugar or drink soda or wine….

I’ll ALWAYS meditate before bed…

Even if these sentiments are rooted in good intentions, the nature of the always/never approach is inherently flawed. This type of polarized thinking doesn’t factor in the most precarious variable that complicates even the best-made plans: real life. Our plans and best intentions are affected by the weather, by broken down cars and traffic jams, by family emergencies and unexpected work crises, by emotional funks, by other people falling through on their commitments, by lost e-mails, by forgetting our laptop chargers, by children who’ve had a hard day that can only be cured by seven extra bed time stories, by ravaging flu bugs (side note to the universe: please, don’t let that random example be prophetic!)

Despite my darling control-freak tendencies, I’ve discovered that I can’t actually control the universe and live in a world of absolutes. And so it was that I learned to embrace the magic of ‘mostly.’ This word featured heavily in the goals I set out for myself in the new year: drink mostly water and tea, eat mostly foods I prepare at home, move most days, etc.

owl quote 3.jpgAs opposed to the stark reality of always/never thinking, a ‘mostly’ mindset gives us permission to trust ourselves a little bit more. It allows us to lean in more closely and listen to the quiet needs of our bodies and our minds and our hearts. It lets us factor in each day, with all the beautiful and brutal (or brutiful, as my pretend BFF Glennon would say) components that complicate and enrich  our messy/lovely lives.

A ‘mostly’ mindset can also prevent needless panic. After being super mindful of what I was eating this winter break, I went to a campus event last week that had catered food, and I felt an unexpected a wave of anxiety. The offerings were richer, more processed, less fresh than I’d been eating. I felt like I was giving up control over something that I had been really intentional about for a long time. And then I remembered my mostly mindset. It was just one meal. One food-related choice among hundreds of others that week, which had been mostly healthy and whole and balanced.  And so I proceeded to enjoy a dinner that I didn’t have to make myself on dishes I wouldn’t have to wash afterwards.

Of course there are things that shouldn’t be done mostly. I shouldn’t show up to teach class mostly dressed, or only mostly complete my annual tenure review materials or mostly drive on the correct side of the road. But for so many other things, including the way we move and how we nourish ourselves and the ways we seek out comfort, mostly can be a very balancing mindset.*

This winter break I abandoned my Master Plan, and took a more relaxed, intuitive approach to how I should best fill my time and structure my days. Instead I made most of my own meals, went to the gym most days, was mostly silly and playful during my time with the kids, and filled in the rest of my free time with mostly historical romance novels featuring ornery rakes seeking the redemption that comes from the love of a good woman.  And you know what? I’ve never felt more rejuvenated heading into a spring semester. I’d call that more than mostly a success.

Ever watchful,


*Some people talk about an 80/20 approach to diet, but since I’m adverse to both diets and quantifying things, and also because this philosophy is often linked to models and actresses (which seems like a surefire path to feelings of inadequacy,) I’ll stick to the magic of mostly.

Why I reconceptualized weight loss as a side effect, not the goal

If you know me personally, you know I love to-do lists with clear cut goals.

I love the pleasure that comes from completing an accomplishment I’ve set out for myself, and the satisfaction of crossing a task off of a paper to-do list.

In fact, I’ve been known to pad my to-do list with low-hanging fruit, just to get a few cheap hits of accomplishment. You know, adding on such strenuous tasks as:

  • Read through my to-do list
  • Wear socks on both feet
  • Use the bathroom today

Sometimes, if I’ve completed something that was somehow left off of my to-do list, I write it on there after the fact, just so that I can cross it off with a brightly colored highlighter.

I’m a goal setter down to the core and it’s a quality that serves me well in my professional life, but when it comes to how I approach my own body, things become trickier. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in recent weeks considering the following question: How can I set goals for my physical self while remaining body positive?

During January, lots of people are setting goals for their bodies in terms of New Year’s Resolutions, and a lot of times they end up sounding something like “I want to lose 25 pounds” or “I want to drop down to a size 6.”

In fact, this is a very difficult time of year to maintain a body-positive mindset. Ads scream at us from every corner of the mediasphere, reminding us that who we were is bad, but that a better us is possible, with the proper gym membership/laser hair removal treatment/fat reduction service….

“New year, new you!”

“Are you ready for a brand new you?”

“It’s all about being a better you!”

I’m surely not immune to this way of thinking. Somewhere in the back of my brain I know exactly what weight/size I was in high school, exactly what weight/size I reached after the birth of each of my four children, and I know my current weight/size (hint: this trajectory has mostly gone up!)

Like many others, I have that box (or 3) in the basement of too-small clothes that I hang on to just in case.

I’ve sobbed postpartum tears about baby weight that wouldn’t budge and struggled with how to continuously reconfigure what self-confidence means to me in an ever-fluctuating body.

For better or for worse, 2015 stretched my thinking about my body beyond vanity and additional weight, and presented me with several unexpected health hurdles, including multiple bouts with kidney stones and a burst ovarian cyst (I’d recommend neither, for the record.) The silver lining of these painful experiences was that they got me reflecting on the current state of my body, how I feel physically, and how I’d like to feel.

I wanted more energy.

I wanted to feel more vibrant.

I wanted to feel more balanced and well-rounded.

I wanted to feel more often like I was doing things for the right reason, (not out of anxiety or guilt or a lack of time or planning.)

And so in the last month or so, I began the work of slowly reconceptualizing my lifestyle. Doing this was as much a mental task as it was a physical one, with as much thought given to why I do what I do (or don’t do) as to the actual behaviors themselves.

Because I wanted this new lifestyle to incorporate a body positive mindset (keeping a hold of the notion that my body is deserving of all good things, as is), one of the most important tenants of the journey was to conceptualize weight loss as a possible side effect, not a goal in and of itself.

owl quote 2.jpgTo reconceptualize weight loss as a possible side effect rather than a goal allows us to avoid the suffocating morality that emerges when we start measuring the worth of bodies by numbers: the number of calories in a single serving of almonds, the number of calories burned during a run, our (bad) current weight or our (good) future weight. I’m moving forward with the assumption that for me, weight loss will be a byproduct of mindful living. Of slowing down and really listening to the needs and cues of my body.

Motivated by a sense of how I want to feel (not how I want to look or what I want to weigh), I’ve set out some body-positive goals for myself, goals that are focused on wellness and intuition and paying closer attention to the needs of my body than ever before:

  • Make most of my food at home, made from mostly real food.
  • Drink mostly water and tea.
  • Do something just for myself most days (reading time/crafting time/meditating/etc.)
  • Find time for intentional movement most days.

You’ll notice no “goal weight” or measurement here, no dress size I am seeking like a pot of gold at the end of a torturous, fat-shaming rainbow. No list of evil, forbidden foods. Just some lifestyle changes that have already resulted in some positive side effects in less than a month: more energy, better sleep, improved mood, strengthened muscles, and yes, some weight loss.

That’s not to say that this work has been easy; it’s already been physically and psychologically challenging. Not to mention it’s made my kitchen perpetually messy. (Okay, okay, too many of you have been in my house for me to try and claim that my kitchen has ever been anything but perpetually messy, BUT I have managed to take it to a whole new level.)

It may seem like a subtle shift, but de-prioritizing weight loss as the central focus on a path toward wellness has made a huge difference in how I approach the choices I make. I’ve taken out the moral component that’s often so embedded in these lifestyle changes. I’ve mostly shaken the toxic “good version of me/bad version of me” mindset, and am mindful to talk more kindly to myself when it does creep up. Because I’d be lying if I said it never does.

These new lifestyle goals don’t fit neatly on a to-do list, which is okay with me, because even though they can’t be quickly accomplished (and indulgently ‘crossed off’ with a bright pink highlighter), this also means that they’re more difficult to fail. And as far as New Year’s ‘resolutions,’ go, it’s hard to beat those odds.

Ever Watchful,


P.S. For more interesting feminist and body-positive New Year’s Resolutions, check out this roundup. I personally love the one that says: “I resolve not to strive for unattainable universal popularity.” Woah. This provides some interesting food for thought for this chronic people pleaser! (But more on that in another post….)

Toward body positivity and radical self care

It was an article on eyebrows that finally made me snap.

Skimming through my social media feeds a few weeks ago, I did a double take at an article with a click-baity headline that said: “15 mistakes you’re making with your eyebrows.”

Fifteen mistakes. Even in a best case scenario, if I figure I’m duplicating 7-8 mistakes per brow, that still seems like a LOT of mistakes to be made on a very small section of my body.

(Which, by the way, I attend to maybe once a month. This neglect may qualify as my “16th eyebrow mistake.”)

Beyond my myriad eyebrow failures, a quick search for the word ‘mistakes’ on Huffington Post‘s healthy living section pulls up links to articles eager to inform me of countless mistakes I’m likely making with my brain and body: 20 mistakes I’m making with my teeth, six mistakes I’m making with exercise, nine sleep mistakes, seven healthy eating mistakes, eight sunscreen mistakes, seven sugar elimination mistakes, five lip liner mistakes, nine happiness mistakes, eight stretching mistakes, and six weekend health mistakes, just to name a few. (Or 100, if you’re keeping a tally.)

And unfortunately, thanks to internet algorithms that track my every online move, the very fact that I clicked on these judgmental headlines for the purposes of this critique increases the likelihood that my social media outlets will feed me more of the same content.

Unfortunately for many of us (women especially), the nature of viral media content and its related advertising models reward sensational headlines and ‘listicle’ formats that promise a better, more beautiful body and life in just a few quick steps (and with the help of a few brands featured in strategic product placements throughout the articles, of course.) These “mistakes to avoid” articles tend to focus on the negative, because fear and insecurity fuel web content just as they have always fueled the larger advertising industry.

In cultures like the United States especially, we are bombarded with hundreds of advertisements and thousands of brand exposures every single day, and the central message of many follows a simple formula:

Step 1: Convince an audience member that something is wrong with his or her body, and that this ‘problem’ will result in social or professional embarrassment.

Step 2: Tell the audience member that your product can cure the ‘problem’ that you identified, preying on his or her insecurity.

Step 3: Make billions. (Even hundreds of billions, at least in the case of the global beauty industry, which is projected to make $265 billion in revenue in 2017.)

Despite my many years of engaging with feminist media studies, I’m still not immune to this deluge of messages, but I believe that three interrelated concepts can help us navigate this endless barrage of negativity, and I’ve decided to use this blog as a space to reflect on them: body positivity, self care and media literacy.

Body Positivity

I hadn’t heard the term ‘body positivity’ until I was in grad school in my mid-20s, but I can assure you that the philosophy would have come in handy a heck of a lot earlier. Put most simply, a body positive perspective acknowledges that our bodies are capable and deserving of all good things as is, and that physical traits (such as waist size, bust size, or pant size) have no correlation with our worth as human beings.

A body-positive mindset reminds us that there is no future or past version of our bodies that is more or less deserving of love or capable of success.

A body positive mindset reminds us that there is no future or past version of our bodies that is more or less deserving of love or capable of success.A body-positive mindset reminds us that happiness, friendship, romantic love, success, contentment, and sexual pleasure are available to us in our current bodies, and that these realities do not require a physical transformation in order to manifest.

We need body positivity because of the billion-dollar industries built on the premise that you will feel ashamed of your natural body and pay money for products that promise to alter it. Marketers are banking that very early in life we’ll climb aboard the hamster wheel of self-loathing and spend our lives running and running and running our way to a better version of ourselves that might finally be capable of happiness and satisfaction.

Body positivity isn’t just for larger bodied people. It’s for people of all shapes and sizes, of all social economic backgrounds, of all sexualities and abilities. It doesn’t come naturally for me or for many people I know (my women friends, especially), which is all the more reason I want to spend some space here reflecting on what a body positive worldview has to offer.

Self Care

Very few people in my life are very good at self care, myself included. In posts to come, I’ll talk about my own struggles in this area. Between the ages of 25-30 I pushed myself in every conceivable way possible, and though I ended up where I wanted to be (raising a houseful of kids with my husband and in a tenure-track teaching position at a university I love), I did not arrive how I wanted to be. I felt spiritually deflated and physically dull after five years of unreasonable pushing.

Some girlfriends and I recently embarked on a summer of radical self care, because that’s what it’s become in our fast-paced world, particularly for those of us with families and budding careers that need nurturing: it’s a radical act to slow down, to check in, and to do something solely for your own wellness or development. I’ve far from mastered the art of self care, but I’ll extend that work here on the blog, sharing with you some of my own insights as to how I continue to try and reconnect with myself, and to explore what it really means to take care of myself as a woman, a professional, a wife and a mother.

Media Literacy

Though I teach a wide variety of college classes in a communication studies department, media literacy is the learning objective that unites all of my classrooms. It’s the heart of what I do as a teacher and a writer. To be media literate is to think critically about the messages that we receive through a variety of channels (including TV shows, films, advertisements, music, social media, and more.) Media literacy doesn’t just ask us to describe what we see in the media, but also to think about the social, cultural, historical, economic, and political context that helps explain how we have arrived at this current moment in time. As a feminist media scholar, I’m particularly interested in how gender, sexuality and bodies are represented across various types of content. My own interest in body positivity and self care is deeply rooted in the media messages about identity that we’re exposed to each day, and so media literacy will be a recurring theme throughout my posts here on the blog. Specific responses to popular shows, ads, music videos and more will also be part of my work here.

This project is a way for me to expand my scholarly thinking in a more popular format, to connect my teaching with my social media use, and to connect my personal life with my teaching life. I’m excited to get started, and hope you’ll join me on the journey. And in the meantime, try to take it easy on your eyebrows. They’re doing the best they can.

Ever watchful,


P.S. Interested in reading more on the relationship between marketing and shame? See The Smithsonian for a great recap of how marketers created embarrassment around body odor (one of hundreds of such examples from that era.) The Power of Habit is another fascinating read for many reasons, one of which is its exploration of how marketers used embarrassment and shame to shape consumers’ personal care habits.