Mirrors

This morning I am listening to the rain and working on a book chapter proposal. My goal for the morning is to complete a draft of this proposal so I can then shift gears and work on grading and recommendation letters for students this afternoon. Ideally, I’d do research and writing every morning, but that can’t always happen. So I am savoring this opportunity along with a mug of hot tea.

So why, then, am I blogging here instead of working on my proposal? It’s already 9:00! I have actually found that sometimes, I can wake up and immediately get started with my writing. The ideas are there, just waiting to be formulated into interesting and meaningful sentences. Other times, though, I need to think, to free-write, and to mull over ideas as a sort of warm-up. It’s almost like a physical workout, except it’s my mind that needs the stretches and the slow aerobics. So, for today’s writing workout, I am going to write out a few thoughts on the topic of mirrors. This topic doesn’t relate to my heart disease research at all, but I think that’s why I’m turning to it now.

Mirrors are everywhere. In homes, in public restrooms, in our cars, in stores, even in unsuspecting places like storefront windows and puddles. Some mirrors provide us with reflections that seem quite accurate, according to the mental picture we have of ourselves. Others seem to distort. Whether it’s the angle of the lighting, or simply the construction of the mirror itself, sometimes we see ourselves and think, “wow, I look GOOD today,” while other times we cringe and immediately start adjusting our hair or clothes — or we just think it’s a lost cause. I know that both women and men do this, though often women seem a little more susceptible to the mirror-check. But in all of these cases, we are seeing ourselves as reflected in an external object.

I’ve found that some mirrors are more flattering than others. For some reason, the mirrors at certain family members’ houses always make me look nice. I don’t know why, and perhaps I’ll never know why. Maybe they’re squeaky clean? Maybe it’s the right level of lighting? The mirror in the bathroom at school can be flattering, but only if one of the fluorescent lights in the bathroom isn’t working.

I’ve realized that mirrors aren’t just physical objects. They’re also people. By that, I mean that we often look to the people around us to validate or support our sense of self. Our identities are largely constructed based on social interactions and the perceptions of others. We define ourselves based on our familial and social roles: daughter, son, wife, husband, student, teacher, friend. We are always someone in relation to someone else. Even for the most independent individuals, our identities to some extent necessarily presuppose relationships.

As a result, the people with whom we engage often serve as mirrors that can reflect our best and worst selves. Quite literally: if a friend is upset by something we’ve said or done, we can see his or her reaction and realize that we need to reflect on our words and actions.

But beyond the literal, immediate reflections of ourselves in others, there are also other ways people can serve as mirrors. Through the things they say to us and the way they treat us, the people in our lives can either build us up or bring us down. They can either make visible our every flaw and imperfection, or they can highlight our skills and virtues. They can remind us of our goals and push us toward being the best we can be, or they can make us feel as if our goals are meaningless and our efforts trivial.

Sometimes, it’s just in a subtle word or barely perceptible attitude. But the words and actions of the people around us are powerful mirrors, whether we realize it at the time or not. I’m not saying that we should just surround ourselves with people who will offer endless compliments, but I do think we should generally be aware of how the people in our lives make us feel. If talking with or spending time with someone consistently makes you feel as if you’re looking at yourself in harsh, fluorescent lighting, then maybe that relationship needs to be reevaluated. On the contrary, if spending time with someone leaves you feeling confident, energized, and refreshed, then that’s a relationship worth cultivating.

We should also be conscious of the role we play as a mirror to others. Through kind words, encouragement, and support, we can help the people in our lives to see themselves in the best light.

Getting to the Heart of the Facts

I hesitatingly call this post my ‘triumphant return’ to blogging. The extent of this triumph will be determined by how consistent I am with my posts. However, I miss writing regularly, and I think this space offers me a good opportunity to consistently get out ideas for a limited audience. So, on this sunny morning in February, I’ll begin by returning to a guest blog post I was thrilled to have published back in July 2014. In this post, I discussed my skepticism toward many health books and articles published for the general public. Such publications often misconstrue scientific evidence and distort the facts in order to promote a narrow view of a specific topic — such as dieting, food selection, and risk factors for heart disease.

I mentioned personal experience in this post: the fact that back in 2013 I learned I had high cholesterol. Not many people learn they have high cholesterol while in their 20s, and largely that’s because medical guidelines have not encouraged people to get their cholesterol checked until they’re much older — perhaps in their 40s or 50s. Women, specifically, have traditionally been viewed as having a low risk for heart disease, and young women are often considered the least susceptible.

My experience dispelled those long-entrenched assumptions, and those who know me have heard me talk about cholesterol and food choices quite often. It’s hard not to discuss something I feel so passionately about, especially when I see books published to a national audience that explicitly contradict evidence that I know, from medical research and personal diet modification, to be true.

While my focus in that post was on health information aimed at the general public, it’s equally important to examine the clinical side of things. In other words, what happens when someone needs to seek medical guidance not from a published book or a website, but from a doctor or or other medical professional? One would assume that seeking such help would lead to the proper diagnoses, treatments, and lifestyle modifications.

However, my attention has increasingly been drawn to research that discusses the problems inherent within our healthcare system, particularly in relation to gender. I want to share an article on gender bias in women that I came across this past week. A lengthy, revealing read, this article explores some of the ways that women’s legitimate health concerns have been dismissed by medical professionals because of biases and faulty assumptions about women’s health.

I know from my own research on heart disease that women complaining of symptoms such as chest discomfort, shortness of breath, and nausea, have been sent home by doctors who told them to take some antacids or just to relax.

That’s the thing — women are seen as simply complaining. Often our symptoms go without the proper medical attention or treatment because, essentially, we are being told that our own knowledge of our bodies is not sufficient or authoritative enough to warrant the proper medical intervention.

Campaigns like the AHA’s Go Red For Women initiative have sought for over a decade to reverse these attitudes and inform both medical professionals and the general public of the facts concerning heart disease — namely that women can and do acquire heart disease at rates comparable to those of men, and further than young women are often susceptible as well. These public health efforts have also sought to empower women to “speak up” to their doctors and convince them that there is in fact something wrong. Women are encouraged to “know their bodies” and intuitively recognize that something is wrong, and in turn, to use this intuitive embodied knowledge to fight back against doctors who do not give them the needed treatment or care.

The article on gender bias argues, quite convincingly, that efforts to empower women in such ways are problematic. The author concludes, with a healthy dose of sarcasm, that it’s easier to empower women “to recognize their symptoms and seek help without fear of judgment. But that’s just a way of saying that individual women need to compensate for the health care system’s biases: that they should know their risk of heart disease better than their doctors do, should be able to identify the symptoms of a heart attack more readily than their doctors can, and should demand care—and be prepared to fight for it—in spite of their doctors’ tendency to dismiss them. Call me crazy—hysterical, even—but I don’t think you should have to feel that empowered just to receive proper medical treatment.”

This passage calls attention to the ways in which empowering women to “speak up” to their doctors may help treat the symptoms of systemic gender bias but in fact does not address the cause. We can spend endless time and money encouraging each woman to advocate for herself, but until we do more to address “lack of access to preventive care, the gender bias in medical research and education, the psychologization of women’s ailments”, those efforts may not be as effective as we’d like.

Of course, the solutions to these problems require a concerted effort among many stakeholders, including medical schools, health insurance companies, and the general public. But the confluence of misinformation circulating among the general public combined with persistent gender bias leads me to conclude that the one strategy that will help address — if not solve — these issues involves a collapse of the boundaries between specialized knowledge and non-specialized knowledge.

recent controversy surrounding access to scientific papers reveals the problems inherent within this division. This article opens with the provocative question, “Can anyone actually own knowledge?” While few would argue that we should ban the sale of books and instead make every text freely accessible to everyone at any time, the fact remains that there is a distinct division between academic knowledge — articles and publications generated by professors and advanced researchers — and general knowledge dispersed among the average person. Why is this the case? Partly, it’s because academic knowledge is often jargon-heavy, and these articles require both a specialized working vocabulary as well as a hefty math and science background.

But partly, it’s also because it’s so much easier to read a news soundbite (“Researchers now show that you can AND SHOULD eat beef every day!”) than to engage with scientific abstracts. We’re always on the lookout for that easy, digestible nugget of information that we can quickly dismiss if needed or else store away in our minds for future use. We’re so overloaded with facts, or myths masquerading as facts, that our tolerance for sustained interaction with any one of these ideas is often quite low unless it directly and immediately relates to our lives.

In my 2014 guest blog post, I argued for careful scrutiny of the claims made about health and disease in public discourse. Now, though, I want to go further and argue for a sustained engagement with specialized knowledge that allows us to bypass the soundbites and instead directly assess medical and scientific information on its own merits. In practice, this means that we should seek out texts that are written not for the general reading public but instead for other healthcare professionals. Yes, some may be incomprehensible, but others are actually quite accessible with a little more time and effort.

I know this is a huge proposition, especially since we often do not have time to even finish that book we’ve wanted to read for months (or years). But I’m not suggesting that we all race to the library to read biology textbooks or start frantically downloading PDFs of medical research articles. Rather, I think we should all try to build more specialized texts into our general reading practices. We should also become fact-checkers and never take a news story at face value. More broadly, we as a society should evaluate the boundaries between academic knowledge and general knowledge, and push toward greater public access to leading research in the areas of health and medicine, in particular. By promoting educated dialogue, perhaps ultimately we can debunk inaccurate health claims and dispel pernicious biases that threaten to undermine our health.

 

Response to the graphic novel, Cancer Vixen

I haven’t seen a recent update on this topic, but apparently (as of last year), plans are in the works for an HBO adaptation of Marisa Acocella’s graphic novel, Cancer Vixen. The adaptation would star Cate Blanchett.

I’m curious to see if these plans materialize. For now, I’d like to re-post a discussion I wrote on an old blog of mine, several years ago, when I first read Cancer Vixen. 

A few questions I have now, after revisiting my initial thoughts on this book (which I’ve since reread), are: 

(1) How is the experience of reading a graphic illness memoir different from reading a text-only illness memoir?

(2) How do texts such as Cancer Vixen function rhetorically? In other words, what work do they do within society (aside from offering an aesthetic reading experience)?

My discussion of Cancer Vixen from spring 2011:

A graphic novel chronicling Marchetto’s battle against breast cancer, this story immediately captured my attention and kept me interested throughout. During the past year or so, I’ve read quite a bit about breast cancer culture and the rhetoric of breast cancer awareness campaigns, so reading a memoir by a woman who had the illness was quite a change of pace.

I found myself thinking back to books such as Pink Ribbon Blues, by Gayle Sulik, and Pink Ribbons, Inc., by Samantha King. Both of these texts critique the corporate consumerism that has become attached to breast cancer awareness. Moreover, these works and others have assessed the “cult of survivorship” and cheery optimism that pervades breast cancer culture, rhetoric that celebrates the power of the individual will to conquer cancer and emerge victorious. Military language and metaphors pervade such rhetoric.

After reading such works, I picked up Cancer Vixen expecting to find numerous examples of such rhetoric and metaphors. While I found quite a few — notably the narrator’s references to the designer shoes she wore to Chemo, reiterations of the need to be optimistic in order to defeat cancer, multiple instances of warfare metaphors — I finished the book feeling more impacted by the power of the individual memoir rather than the bountiful opportunity for critique of the dominant breast cancer culture.

I honestly think that my reaction largely stems from the medium of the graphic novel. Had I read a textually-dominant memoir, I may have reacted differently and focused more on the themes that resonated with the larger culture. Maybe? I don’t know. It’s just a thought.

But I do know that the graphic novel powerfully evokes emotions and empathy as much or more than other novels on equally serious and emotionally-charged topics. I don’t want to forget how I felt after reading this book (and after being brought to tears on numerous occasions) because I feel my reaction isn’t singular or accidental. I think graphic novels intend to connect with the reader on such a level, and the sequential art that defines its pages works toward achieving such an outcome.

Right now, I’m in the middle of reading What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images, by W. J. T. Mitchell. I think his idea of images having desires and demands of their own is influencing my thoughts about what the graphic novel desires from the reader. I think it desires an emotional connection, for sure. Perhaps validation that the story being told is true and worth telling.

As a visual illness narrative, this book depicts the body (particularly in this case, the female body) using both words and images. This combination is what draws me to graphic novels because I want to explore how the verbal and the visual co-create meaning in a narrative format. I look forward to comparing this novel with others – and particularly other illness memoirs – to explore connections between the verbal and the visual in the context of personal narrative.

Welcome!

I intend this blog to be a space for discussing all things rhetoric, writing, research, and teaching… with an occasional health discussion or recipe as well.

My posts will be brief and often include a response to a book or article that I’m reading. I’ll sometimes post links to interesting websites and online collections that other researchers in medical rhetoric and visual rhetoric might enjoy. I’ll also post websites or resources that could be brought into the writing classroom.