On Monday morning, the first day of EdJoWriWe, whilst on the bus to campus, I retweeted a great quote from feminist superhero Audre Lorde: ‘caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare’. Little did I know the growing resonance this quote would have over the course of the day.
Doing a PhD means being in an environment that is incredibly competitive. We’ve all read the frightening articles about poor mental health in PhD students. However, I find it hard to take in the many implications that suggest doing a PhD necessarily requires being depressed / stressed / anxious in order to succeed (otherwise you’re not working hard enough *imposter syndrome alert*), or that by doing a PhD you will inevitably succumb to despair. Depression in academia is a real, massive issue and I don’t want to belittle that, but I also want to advocate the right to embody and express a valid ideal of PhD studenthood that prioritises self-preservation. In fact, defiantly exerting your right to ‘self-preservation’ whilst in the firing-line of ‘everything is doomed’ rhetoric is, I think, a political act.
On Monday, we had an afternoon session discussing the process of getting published with academics and editors of Forum. Very helpful and valuable, but inevitably a bit tense. Nothing makes a PhD student pale and sweaty quite like the unique combination of the words ‘career’, ‘REF’, and ‘CV’. This session was followed by a de-stressing workshop and tai chi session - the irony was not lost on many of us. How did the EdJoWriWe masters know we’d need to de-stress after discussing the importance of publishing at length, eh? Well played, EdJo masters, well played.
This sequence of events made me think about the way I deal with stress. My self-preservation is performed through exercise. And actually, the more my thoughts on this germinated throughout the day, I realised it’s of absolute utmost importance to the way I manage PhD life. My favourite thing to do is galavant up hills in the wind and rain like a mountain goat. Nature is great. We live in EDINBURGH, people! - a capital city with a extinct volcano in the middle. I am like a dog that freaks out if it doesn’t get its walks. This seems to me such a basic source of happiness for humans that so many people just misunderstand. I just frankly refuse the idea that doing a PhD means you have to be unhappy. That you must suffer and have no life in order to do it ‘properly’. And therefore, I will protect my exercise habits like a possessive mother bear, and you will have to prise it out of my cold, dead hands (probably while half way up Arthur’s Seat). This means sometimes choosing this self-preservation OVER work - (gasp) - because in the long run it’s the best thing to do.
I’m not going to rehearse the usual, sometimes wish-washy, stuff about how you should try to fit in some exercise as part of a healthy lifestyle. Instead, I’m going to tell you exercise is an integral part of my being, one of the most fundamental building blocks of my daily life, and how this is caught up with the realities of my life: being a PhD student and being a woman.
It’s very much connected to the sexism I deal with as a woman (even in my position of relative privilege - white, european, middle-class, in endless higher education - which I’m also always aware of when talking about sexism) both in life and in university settings. Sexism that a lot of you will also handle, whether you’re entirely aware of it or not. Men as well as women. Exercise is a technique of survival (in the most first-world-problem sense of the word), then, when living in a sexist world. Lorde connects the frivolous to the political and as women in public, and academic settings, we are often encompassing situations that are fraught with subtle gendered and class implications.
Being a confident and unashamedly animated woman can unsettle people in academic situations. Last week someone was rude to me at a talk and I’m pretty sure it was related to this. Unfortunately the same sexism in society that fuels the ridiculous diet industry as well as phenomena such as ‘manspreading’ also exists in academia - it all centres around women trying to not take up space and being made to feel ashamed for taking up space that they have a right to - verbally, metaphorically, even physically (i.e. being ‘fat’). This is why women put down their work before giving seminars or before asking questions in talks (‘I may be wrong but…’) more than men. For me, this type of issue goes hand-in-hand with the ongoing female pressures of life. How do I cope with this repression of my right to space? THE GYM!!! Now bear with me - my gym has awful adverts that imply women only go to gyms to wear skinny jeans and men only go to gyms in order to get these women - but gyms are also very flexible spaces for women. In a gym, you can take up as much space as you like, you can fling yourself about like a sea lion and be your best visceral, sweaty, embodied self. (This recent advert sums it up https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aN7lt0CYwHg). Lifting weights and doing strength training is very empowering. You can exert physical strength in gyms which always transfers for me into feeling strong and centred in daily situations where I may encounter sexism.
Sara Ahmed, another feminist superhero, recently updated her excellent blog ‘Feminist Killjoys’ with a blog post entitled ‘Living a feminist life’ - the same title as her new book. She talks about how being a feminist is a daily way of being rather than some abstract set of ideals that floats above our actual, lived realities. Exercise is one way I live a feminist life, as a PhD student. And so, in line with Ahmed’s definition of feminism as ‘how we pick each other up’, I suggest that it may also be your source of self-preservation in the pressurised and competitive world of being a PhD student.