The body of Grace; how it’s been loved, hated, and finally accepted

At almost 28 years old, I am 5 feet 11 inches tall and weigh 135 pounds, give or take a few. It has taken me nearly all of three decades to accept what I look like and love myself, and clearly, it has been a long road. Let me explain.

I have always been tall, but I wore it as a badge of honor until I turned about 11 when I, like many young women, started to hit puberty. When I began the 7th grade, I was 5 feet 8 and weighed (get ready for this image) 85 pounds. If I were I grown woman at that height, I would have been considered anorexic. But I wasn’t. I was just a bony, clumsy rail of a creature with stringy, long hair, a huge appetite, and a pretty terrible view of myself. At the same time, I was also developing what I now embrace as an hourglass figure, but I saw my new hips as hideous monstrosities that I bumped into countertops and made me look even goofier. I thought the hips were “fat”, but all of my classmates still saw this scarecrow of a girl. I very vividly recall a classmate telling me I would never have a boyfriend because I looked like I would be broken in half if hugged too tightly. Yet, I thought I was overweight.

I began a pattern of eating, guilt, and obsessive exercise that lasted through my junior year of high school. This is technically a form of bulimia, but though I never got frighteningly skinny, I was sick. The person I saw in the mirror was a monster. I constantly picked myself apart; my arms looked funky, my stomach was never flat enough, and those damned hips were always a problem. In high school, I was athletic. I was the co-captain of the cheerleading squad, ran track, and played basketball, but I hated competing. All I wanted was to work out more than all my peers and have the “perfect” body, a desire I cannot even begin to explain beyond the fact that I had a view of perfection and I wasn’t meeting it. I wanted to be what I saw in magazines and on TV. Even if a woman had larger hips or breasts than me, I compared everything part by part. “Sure, her hips are bigger, but look at her abs!” I used to think when flipping through a magazine. I remember I watched one episode of “Ally McBeal” and Lucy Liu, Calista Flockhart, and Portia de Rossi (who wrote of her own body struggles in “Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain”) gave me such a complex I couldn’t watch another episode. I went to my bedroom that night and did 500 crunches. No kidding, I was a sick young lady.

Something happened early in my junior year that would start the long road to accepting myself. I applied to the Rotary Youth Exchange program for my senior year, was accepted, and assigned to the incredible country Brazil. Going into it, I really just wanted to get the hell out of my puny little northern Michigan town and see the world, learn a language, and meet new people. This was what drove me to leave my family at 17 and head off to this fascinating, unknown place. Brazil was nothing that I expected and everything I could have ever hoped for. Obviously, if you have been there, you know the country is top to bottom GORGEOUS. Portuguese was a fun language to learn and I had host families sent straight from Heaven. I loved it, but for the first few months, the body thing continued. When I was in training to go to Brazil (yes, we were trained, mostly in how to cope with the psychological mess that is culture shock), I was told that everyone, with the rare exception of an exchange student going to Japan, will gain weight. Stories of people gaining upwards of 25 pounds in 10 months were told among the students returning. But that wouldn’t be me. No f***ing way. At this point, I had poured all my excess energy into being as close to a Photoshopped shot of a 5’11”, finally full grown supermodel as I could be. So, I naively took off to Brazil thinking that I would walk out of this exchange with the same body I had going in, but it was not to be.

Guys. Brazilian food. I just don’t even know. There are the basic rice and beans, but then there are feijoada, churrascarias, pao de queijo, coxinhas, pasteis de carne….oh dear Lord. It didn’t help that my first host mom was an awesome cook and my host dad barbecued every Saturday (complete with beer and German music, can you tell I miss the Pscheidt family, yet?). I gained about 15 much needed pounds in 11 months. During that time, I wore the puniest possible bikinis on the beach and short shorts and mini dresses! All with those extra 15 pounds! But, without two important influences, I would have never had the confidence. First, there were my friends. I became very close to several of my fellow exchange students from around the world who were also going through the same issues of cultural differences and of course, weight gain. The energy between us was so positive, I could have run naked, 50 pounds heavier, down Copacabana. These girls and guys made me feel beautiful through their support and humbled me with their Devil-may-care attitudes to their own weights, though I never noticed any changes in their bodies, we just talked about it (laughing) all the time. In one very memorable moment, my sweet guy friend, Michal, approached me while we were touring northern Brazil and flat out asked me if I had an eating disorder because he had noticed that after every meal, I beelined to the bathroom. I wasn’t and have never forced myself to vomit after a meal, but it hit me hard since I had done something similar for so many years. He was the first and only person to ever confront me about this and I love him for it.

The second influence in my learning to love myself was the Brazilian attitude towards the female body. I saw every shape and size in the same tiny bathing suits I was wearing. It didn’t matter if you were pregnant, overweight, underweight, or whatever, women just wore what they liked. For example, I walked Copacabana beach from start to finish with a friend of mine and on the way, I saw a large group of women and their children, who ranged in age from about 5 to 17.  Each one of the women and teenagers were wearing the same little, typically Brazilian bikini and each woman was representative of a different body shape. I smiled at this loud, raucous crowd and began to realize that the female body, including mine with its hips and cellulite, was something to be proud of.

After returning home, I went to college, graduated, moved to Spain, moved back, and lived in DC for two years, Michigan for one, and Chicago before I moved back to Latin America, Bolivia this time around. During this period of 9 years, my weight fluctuated hugely. I went back to my old habits of eating, guilt, and exercise (eating^2 x self-hatred^10 = exercise is known as the “Grace Theorem” in mathematics circles), but recovered fully from it. Living in Latin America again has inspired me to post this story of my relationship with my body, again due to the external forces of positive reinforcement (my angel of a boyfriend and my beautiful girlfriends) and Latin American marketing that embraces the beautiful female form. Everything that I could find suggests that these women may have their cellulite or makeup edited, but also that their beautiful, round parts are 100% genuine. These women are models and have big, mushy butts. Wrap your head around that, America. And I have to admit, seeing these gorgeous round tushes and breasts make me feel like I am just perfect the way I am.

Though in this post I have talked of nothing but external influences on our (my) views of our (my) bodies, none of those matter if you can just love yourself. I think I am getting there, but I am sure I will always have problems with this. Two minutes ago, I went into my bathroom, stripped to my underwear, and looked at myself in a full length mirror. I am 5 feet 11 inches tall, I am 36-25-37, I have cellulite, a few horrible mosquito bites, some weird hair on my right big toe, my inseam is still 34 inches, and I have a zit on my left cheek the size of Vesuvius. None of that matters though. I am a graduate student, I speak two foreign languages, I know more than any human being should about Bolivian grassroots movements, and I love fiercely and give everything I can to those I am close to. I am a woman and today, all of me is perfect.

Killing the King

I have been waiting to weigh in on this so that I could get my thoughts together, so here we go.

Lion hunts are not right. I have looked at different articles arguing about the role of hunting in conservation, private hunts for sustainable economics, etc, but nothing has convinced me that this is okay. Some of what I have read says that such hunts (not necessarily for threatened species) are important, not for conservation, but for paying game wardens to protect critically endangered species. But in the same breath, they mentioned hunting for animals like gazelle or antelope, ie, animals a human would be more inclined to cook and eat. And worse, in one article, they discussed the hunting of these species (gazelle and antelope) on American soil, which is clearly not their natural home (I’ll bitch about introducing non-native species in a different post).

So, the meat of this (excuse the phrasing) is that an American female hunter killed a male lion in South Africa. I also read some feminist articles saying that if the genders were reversed between the human and lion, it wouldn’t have been an issue. But it would have. A hunter killed a threatened species; gender doesn’t even enter into that equation, so shut up.

I grew up in the farthest north of Michigan’s lower peninsula. We had the first day of deer season off every November, it was a veritable bank holiday, and we were always excited for our friends who brought down a buck. To me, this IS hunting and I will explain. Michigan has more deer than could ever be killed in a season. In fact, in northern Michigan, we have so many deer, people regularly blast them with their cars. The deer have even passed on Bovine Tuberculosis to cow herds in Michigan, which has led to the mass euthanasia of thousands of cattle because of the communicable nature of the disease. We have so many deer EVERYWHERE, we actually need hunters. We invite hunters because by reducing the deer population, we can begin to return our ecosystem to its natural state. Deer have become a problem because we have historically killed off their natural predators, bears and wolves. Though it would be nice to reintroduce wolves and encourage the existing bear population, it cannot be done because of the stigma surrounding these animals and the sad fact that many parts of Michigan are being developed into housing. In short, Michigan deer are everywhere, but man is their only natural predator and they can only hunt them a few months out of the year.

Deer season means venison to me. I love the stuff; sausages, tenderloins, stews, roasts, it’s organic, I know who killed it, skinned it, and butchered it.

So that said, when did you last have a big slice of big cat steak with a side of potatoes? NEVER? And therein lies my problem with this idiot:Image

Yeah, I know who killed it, she put her dumb face right in the photo. Skinned it? Probably not. Butchered it? No one eats lions unless they’re starving, and given this was taken after a fancy private hunt, no one ate any bit of him. They threw his body out, much to the delight of scavengers. This magnificent cat was struck down by some stupid person with a gun because he’s “beautiful”. He was “beautiful” because he was alive.

Hunt for food and never hunt something you wouldn’t eat. If you can’t use every part of an animal you KILLED, as in, ended its life on Earth, then don’t pull the trigger. And above all, never EVER hunt a threatened animal like the African lion, because one day, they’ll be gone, and all we’ll have are stuffed heads to show for it.

IPE Course Blog 1: Bolivian Quinoa in the Global Market

This blog post is for my graduate International Political Economy course and is based on readings we (my classmates and I) were assigned. We are currently reading a book called “Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy” by Pietra Rivoli among various articles. This is something that I am graded on and all the opinions expressed here are my own. 

In the past several weeks, we have been examining the dynamics of international political economy and the myriad actors, institutions, and legislation that play roles in it. More recently, we’ve studied international trade agreements and regulatory bodies, so in this blog post, I want to look at the trade of a particular commodity, the Andean super-food, quinoa. My motivation for honing in on an agricultural good lies in my interest in land management and sustainable farming practices, namely in the Andean region of South America. The story of quinoa also features many all of the colorful characters we have grown to know in our study of IPE.

In recent years, the grain quinoa has gained international popularity as a highly nutritious, versatile food. Consumption in industrialized countries has skyrocketed, but despite the international fame, quinoa is still grown almost exclusively in the Andes. In this part of the world, quinoa has been a staple part of the diet for thousands of years, but the recent explosion in demand has caused some controversy. Some claim that this boost is harming Andean countries because the price of quinoa has risen by a factor of 8, while others are lauding exports as a boon to small scale quinoa producers, especially in Bolivia which is the least developed country in the region. This post will focus on a few important elements of the quinoa problem. I will look at how quinoa is changing the economies and diets of Andean countries before looking at the emerging idea of growing quinoa in other places. I also want to look at the role of governments in the quinoa boom, specifically how they are protecting growers and the environments in their countries. For simplicity’s sake, I want to limit this post’s focus to one country in the region, Bolivia. As I stated earlier, it is the least developed country in the region and a place whose agricultural practices and trends I am very familiar with.

Just over half of Bolivians live below the global poverty line of 2 USD per day. Though migration to urban centers has been growing in recent years, there are still remote, small farming communities scattered throughout the high mountains, across the Altiplano, and in the eastern jungles. Most Bolivian farmers are small scale, even subsistence, farmers who for the most part still plow their fields with livestock and a manual plow. Bolivia is also home to one of the highest indigenous populations in the Americas, so many of these farmers also do not speak Spanish as their first language, nor is the majority literate. Quinoa, it would appear, is a blessing to these farmers and on the surface, it is. Some farmers have been able to purchase vehicles or farming equipment that make their lives easier and more efficient. In some cases, people who have migrated to the city for work are able to return to their small hometowns to take advantage of the boom. But, digging a little deeper exposes some pretty unnerving realities. With so many farmers taking advantage of the crop’s popularity, there is a danger of environmental damage. Traditional farming methods (crop rotation, fertilization methods, etc) are being ignored, especially by newer farmers and there is a possibility that quinoa is pushing out other crops important to the Bolivian economy and diet.

On the whole, however, the extra income from quinoa is beneficial. The Bolivian government has been taking advantage of demand by implementing subsidies for farmer and other benefits geared toward increasing production. To combat the high prices of quinoa negatively effecting Bolivians, the government has nutritional programs in place to keep quinoa in the diets of children and child-bearing women. Even so, the price of quinoa is very prohibitive. At my local grocery store, a kilo of rice is about 15 Bolivianos (2 USD) while a kilo of quinoa is about 40 Bolivianos (5 USD). I rarely see quinoa on the menu at restaurants and the only time I do is when it is suspended in broth with vegetables as sopa de quinoa, a practice that minimizes the amount of quinoa needed in a recipe.

So, there are definitely pros and cons to ramped up quinoa production and export in Bolivia, but what will happen if the happy days don’t last? Because of the explosive demand by so many industrialized countries, attempts to grow quinoa in other places around the world are currently underway. Quinoa is a very hardy plant; it needs little water, a lot of llama manure, and sunshine. It can theoretically be grown in a number of climates and locations around the world, so what will happen if quinoa comes to a field near you? A boost in production will likely cause the global price to drop. The popularity will drive large corporations like Monsanto to drop in on the quinoa party, so any traditional ties quinoa has to its native region will be ostensibly severed. Small farmers in Bolivia will find that their farms aren’t as lucrative as they once were and migration to cities will increase.

Luckily, the Bolivian government, in particular the Morales administration, is taking precautions and so are the farmers in Bolivia. Quinoa is not just recognized as an important economic commodity, but also as something that is tied to the history and culture of the region. Another thing tied to the culture of the region is a well-founded distrust in industrialized countries, particularly the United States. Farmers in Bolivia refuse to share their seeds with outside parties and the government is less than keen on sharing thousands of years of quinoa-growing expertise with the people who jammed destructive neo-liberal economic policies down their throats for decades. To add another layer of protection, the Bolivians are in the process of trademarking their quinoa, an act that will brand Andean quinoa as the genuine article, the true “Mother Grain”.

To conclude, I cannot be more excited about the future of quinoa. It has a fascinating history and a bright future. It looks like Bolivia is trying to take all the right actions to protect their growers from the powers of the world market; no matter how detrimental the cons of environmental degradation may be in the future, at least there will be a strong foundation laid for an agricultural industry that can play on the global scale. 

For further information:

Bertelli, M., & Sauras, J. (2013, July 25). Quinoa boom a mixed blessing for bolivians. Retrieved from http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2013/07/201371013540775237.html

Flores, P. (2013, Febru 20). Boom in quinoa demand stresses bolivia highlands. Retrieved from http://bigstory.ap.org/article/boom-quinoa-demand-stresses-bolivia-highlands

Guarino, L. (2011, March 28). The quinoa story: it’s complicated. Retrieved from http://agro.biodiver.se/2011/03/the-quinoa-story-its-complicated/

Charles, D. (2013, Augus 15). Can quinoa farming go global without leaving andeans behind?. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2013/08/15/212342707/can-quinoa-farming-go-global-without-leaving-andeans-behind

            

Cochabamba and Holy Week

I arrived in La Paz yesterday morning at about 5 am only to find that every single flight to Cochabamba had sold out for the day. I got a cab with a great guy named Umberto who told me about his four daughters and 11 grandkids, how much he loved Evo Morales, etc etc. I made it to the bus terminal in time to get a 6:30 bus to Cochabamba, 7 hours and several frightening mountain roads later, I made it to Plaza Sucre where I met Jonathan and FINALLY got to take a shower at the Sustainable Bolivia main house. The whole compound is three large buildings, the art studio, patio and herb and vegetable gardens. We have a gorgeous view of the Cristo de la Concordia statue and easy access to pretty much everything great in the city. So far, so good!

Today one of our Spanish students, Ollie from London, and I went on a long ramble through town. It’s Good Friday and many parts of the city are totally closed down, but the market was largely opened and the streets were still packed. It is sunny and hot today, so we found a cafe to get a beer and rest. Since it is Holy Week, all alcohol sales are prohibited, but a apparently it’s a law that is widely publicized but not greatly enforced. In any case, Ollie and I had a wonderful conversation about neoliberal economic failures, the Euro crisis and the problems with higher education systems in our respective countries, three topics so depressing they are best discussed over beer, thank god we found some.

Being out and talking with people made me forget all my worries about not remembering how to communicate in Spanish. I am shocked by the amount that rushed back the minute I stepped off of the plane. We speak mostly English at the headquarters, but only Spanish with the Bolivian staff and it’s been very easy. I still have problems substituting Portuguese words to fill in gaps and sometimes my Brazilian accent affects words that have a ‘t’ or ‘d’ in the end (turns out ‘fuerte’ is NOT pronounced ‘fuer-chee’), but the differences are so minimal whoever I am speaking with understands what I mean.

But it’s sunny and perfect out, I feel like I am wasting daylight sitting in the shade on the patio, so this is all for now. Stayed tuned to photos and more visually-arresting content 🙂

-G

One more day…

I am leaving on Wednesday, 10:30 am, O’Hare-> Miami-> Lima -> La Paz -> Cochabamba. I think everything on my to-do list is completed, but I will inevitably worry about irrational eventualities all day tomorrow.

Today was my last day at work, but because it was spring break, I missed many of the people I wanted to see. However, the happy faces and hugs I received filled me with joy, I cannot wait to see everyone in June. My going away party was on Saturday, it was was full of food, drink and fun. Both of my beautiful sisters and many of my coworkers were able to attend, those warm thoughts and memories will last well beyond this trip. Thank you Margie, Bean, Matthew, Nick, Ana, Aaron, Joe, Andrea and Mac for coming by and celebrating with me. Also, major thanks to Christina for providing some delicious singani for the festivities and the professors at MOL for their kind, supportive goodbyes. I know when I leave Bolivia, I will feel like my time was too short and will equally miss the people I leave behind, but at least I know that I am coming back to a city and people I adore.

Now onward. The road ahead is exciting and fraught with minor (yet irritating) challenges. My study will be on environmental grassroots movements in Bolivia and will involve three NGOs and countless people, both Bolivian and American. Much of my study will be based on conversation and those who know me understand that I speak better Portanol than Spanish, Quechua or Aymara. I can only hope that the Spanish I learned during my 6 months in Spain returns within a short amount of time so I will be able to communicate effectively. Speaking a language is much like riding a bike; you may not have needed it for a long time, but when you do, the skill comes rushing back. That’s how Portuguese has always been for me and I trust that I will readapt to Spanish in the same way.

That’s really all for now, just my worries and saudades. Tomorrow will be a long day of packing and cleaning, but when it’s finished, I’ll be on my way.

Let’s go live life!

-Gracia