ITT #6: Gender Identity



Confused about what an Intellectual Turing Test is or what “gender identity” and “Blanchard-Bailey” mean? Click here! Please read, then vote at the end of the post.

Hello, there, Ozy’s readership! I’m thrilled to be speaking to you today about the incomprehensible quagmire of gender discourse. I’m technically in the camp that believes in gender dysphoria as Ozy defined it for this ITT: “gender dysphoria is a sense of dissonance because either one’s social role or one’s physical sex does not match one’s preferred gender.” I believe in this and I don’t believe in autogynephilia. You’ll see why I say I only technically fit in the category in a minute.

I’m not sure what to say about Ozy’s first question. The definitions of “man” and “woman” aren’t exactly handed down from on high, carved clean through a stone tablet with a little stone circle levitating magically in the middle of the “o” to make it perfectly clear that the author is God. I think Slate Star Codex has a good post on this topic, The Categories Were Made For Man, Not Man For The Categories. There’s enough blog readership overlap between here and there that I can just say I agree with Scott, right? Up to a point. I’ll get into my disagreement later.

I guess I just go along with whatever definition people around me use. But, like Scott says, different ways of drawing the line have different effects for the people who have to live with them. For example, trans people. We have, for some reason, the completely inexplicable, nonsensical primary experience of gender dysphoria. It’s honestly almost like a delusion, except that we make all the same empirical predictions a cis person would make. I’m not constantly being surprised by what I’ve got in my crotch. I’m aware of it. In fact, that’s the problem.

Here’s the problem with defining a woman as someone with XX chromosomes and an estrogen-dominant hormone balance: it leaves trans people miserable.

Here’s the problem with defining a man as anyone who says they’re a man: it robs the word “man” of all meaning. If someone asks me, a trans man, how I know I’m a real man, what am I supposed to say to that? Because I said so? I did say so, but that’s not exactly the epistemic standard we apply to other categories. I’m not a traditionally-published author just because I identify as one; if I tell you I’m a published author, I’d better be able to point to some books on a bookstore shelf with my name on the spine. Publishers might not be fair about choosing books and maybe it’s important to treat self-published writers as real published authors, but they can still point to books with their names on the spine. Maybe we care about the environment and believe that ebooks are just as legitimate as actual books with spines you can put names on. Fine. Then you can still point to an ebook that someone wrote to prove that that person is a published author. Maybe we don’t want to make a distinction between fanfic and other fiction. Fine! Point to your AO3 account with your 200,000-word slow burn Loki/Nick Fury a/b/o Sandman crossover in alternating sections of iambic pentameter, free verse and haiku. (Please do. I want to read it.) All of that is just an argument over which empirical fact counts as evidence that someone is a published author; it’s still all about describing the world. Even if you believe in taking people’s word for it because “oh, really? I don’t believe you; prove it!” is a little rude as an answer to someone telling you about getting published, you still expect that they’re making a claim about an empirical fact and that that fact is about something besides how much they want to be published. For people who merely want to be published, the phrase “aspiring author” works fine.

I have a burning psychological need for the statement “I am a man” to be true, so it would be nice if it weren’t meaningless. It would also be nice if it weren’t immutably false.

Unfortunately, there aren’t any good alternatives being seriously debated. There are possible alternatives, but none of them are serious possibilities. No one is proposing or living under the rule that everyone who joins the military automatically gets male pronouns used for him. No one in America is currently proposing or living under the rule that everyone who can spell “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” gets female pronouns used for her. Maybe we should; trans women who can spell that deserve to be able to pass without needing to do anything else!

Then again, I deserve to pass, too, and I can spell pretty well. Of course, we could have a solution based around sufficient but unnecessary conditions and necessary but insufficient conditions; a woman could be anyone who identifies as female and satisfies one other thing off of some list (XX chromosomes, verbal ability, presence of a vagina…) and no one who doesn’t identify that way or doesn’t manage to check off even one thing off the list. Or we could solve it by using only sufficient unnecessary conditions and treating “man” and “woman” as compatible with each other; say, anyone literate is female, but might also be male if they like trucks. Then you could choose which gender to identify with, out of those you have the right to… which reduces to the first possibility, with identity as a necessary but insufficient condition.

Here’s the problem with defining womanhood and manhood in any of those ways: you’ll never be able to get anyone on board.

So I guess I don’t have a definition.

Moving right along…

The cotton ceiling is a dumb wank and I’m not comfortable telling people they should have sex with someone they don’t want to or shouldn’t feel bad about being rejected by everyone in ways that invalidate their identity. Does that count as an answer? I don’t have any more of one.

Interests seem to correlate with ASAB more strongly than with gender identity. Maybe that’s because AMAB people have to fear bullying if they’re interested in certain things; maybe it’s because only AFAB people receive encouragement in interesting and fulfilling hobbies like knitting and cooking, causing AMAB people to stick to what they’re allowed to be interested in while AFAB people sometimes get involved with more attractive feminine hobbies. Or maybe it’s because of the effects of hormones on brain development.

Another thing to note is that autistics are disproportionately likely to be trans. Given that trans people are a tiny fraction of the population, if more than half of autistics are trans, then at least a supermajority of trans people are probably autistic. This makes it absolutely shocking that trans women are so often programmers, since, as we all know, autistics are most known for our disproportionate representation in positions such as Wal-Mart greeter, used car salesperson, politician and other fields requiring good social skills, a specific uniform, working on site or traveling a lot, and maintaining specific hours and a consistent schedule. Except, no, we’re known for hating jobs like that and becoming programmers instead because you can pass a job interview in jeans and a T-shirt.

There are two or three possible explanations that I can think of off the top of my head and might be more that I can’t. I have no idea which one is the biggest factor but I’m not very surprised by this correlation.

I’m not in a great position to talk about why other people have the sexual fantasies they do. I think most sexual people have sexual fantasies and I think most people’s sexual fantasies are about themselves. I think most people who sexually fantasize about themselves might have fantasies where things that annoy them in real life aren’t true. I’ve heard that most people who fantasize, for example, about prolonged bondage scenes featuring total immobilization aren’t fantasizing about bedsores and needing to pee. If non-sexual fantasies tend to be similar to sexual fantasies, then we can look at Mary Sues and see that people fantasize about being more attractive by their own standards and more like they wish they were. People have fantasies about being beautiful and loved. Self-insert characters usually match the gender of the author.

But then after I wrote that last paragraph, I read Ozy’s RPF and it turns out this isn’t true. Maybe the actual reason is that trans women are all deliberately conspiring together to pretend to have fantasies that would be in line with the Blanchard-Bailey hypothesis, in order to confuse everyone as much as possible. That sounds plausible enough to me so let’s go with that!

When taking the poll, if you can POSSIBLY round yourself off to Blanchard-Bailey or gender identity, please do so. Please do this even if you have major disagreements with the side you are leaning towards. Only use “neither” if you really really really cannot in good conscience round yourself to either.

ITT #5: Gender Identity



Confused about what an Intellectual Turing Test is or what “gender identity” and “Blanchard-Bailey” mean? Click here! Please read, then vote at the end of the post.

How do you define woman/man?

A woman is someone who identifies better with, or is in some way happier with, the general XX-chromosomes-associated body type and the social role her society tends to assign to people in that body type. Correspondingly, a man is someone who feels that same way towards the XY body type and the social roles involved.

‘Social roles’ doesn’t necessarily mean being the epitome of masculinity or femininity. A man can be perfectly happy in a typical ‘woman’s job’ but still prefer to be called he and not wear dresses.

What are your opinions on the cotton ceiling?

The cotton ceiling can easily be seen as, well, a bit rapey, a demand that people have sex with people they don’t want to, and that’s obviously a problem. But at least some of the sentiment is not ‘you should have sex with me to be a good ally’ but ‘the sensation that I’m disgusting and nobody could ever want me as a sexual partner is really hurtful, and I think to some extent it’s a result of prejudices about transgender women’. Nobody but you has the right to say who you have sex with, but voicing pain should not be automatically seen as a demand.

Why are trans women disproportionately likely to be programmers?

This is specifically true of a subgroup of transwomen who share various other traits, like being attracted to women and having a high IQ and enjoying BDSM. At a guess, there is in some meaningful sense a ‘neurotype’ which tends to share these traits.

(Note that autistic people are more likely to be programmers and also more likely to have gender issues.)

Why do many trans women experience sexual fantasies about being or becoming a woman?

So-called ‘autogynephiles’ are also more likely to be, well, gynephiles. People who are attracted to women.

I think fantasising about having a body you like better is perfectly understandable for transgender people, and if said body is also one you are sexually attracted to, it’s not surprising that the fantasy turns sexual. Autogynephilia is a natural result of gynephilia plus physical dysphoria.

When taking the poll, if you can POSSIBLY round yourself off to Blanchard-Bailey or gender identity, please do so. Please do this even if you have major disagreements with the side you are leaning towards. Only use “neither” if you really really really cannot in good conscience round yourself to either.

ITT #4: Gender Identity



Confused about what an Intellectual Turing Test is or what “gender identity” and “Blanchard-Bailey” mean? Click here! Please read, then vote at the end of the post.

How do you define woman/man?

“Woman” and “man” are the roles our society has devised to accommodate the sexual dimorphism of its inhabitants. (You know, us.) They are related to, but distinct from, the concepts of “female” and “male,” which refer to (for lack of a better term) one’s physical sex, which is a biological property. Our society expects adult female humans to act in the role of women and adult male humans to fill the role of men. A cat, or an insect, or a flower could be ‘female,’ but even if you have a cute name for her people will look at you funny if you say she, or it, is a woman. This is why we draw a distinction between sex and gender identity. (And also why describing women as ‘females’ is somewhat demeaning.)

The roles are in some ways prescriptive, pushing males and females to act in ways their peers want them to, and in other ways reflective of the natural behavioral differences that tend to exist between the sexes. (Reflective traits quickly become prescriptive traits as we lead people to fit into their roles.) And because these roles are so important to how our society works, we’ve also created arbitrary markers to signal that a person is one or the other. So we assign female humans to the “woman” role, which includes ‘be a mother’ (prescriptive), ‘act demure’ (reflective-turned- prescriptive) and ‘wear pretty pink bows in their hair’ (signaling), and male humans as “men,” who we expect to ‘eliminate hostile interlopers,’ ‘act boisterous,’ and ‘talk a lot about football.’

But there is a monkey wrench in both the sex and gender binaries. Male and female aren’t discrete categories, because they arise from complicated biochemical processes that aren’t guaranteed to work the same way every time. For example, some males produce more masculinizing hormones and some produce less. Sometimes children are born intersex. Quirks of chemistry can alter or block the effects of sex hormones on all or part of the body.

And highly prescriptive gender roles, we’ve found, are suffocating: our parochial expectations for men and women result in a lot of unnecessary suffering and limit our ability to achieve (because, say, a brilliant woman who could have transformed the world was forced to stay home and raise the kids).

That’s why our culture is beginning to acknowledge and adapt. Gender roles are not as imposing as they once were. But they are still meant to reflect and to signal sexual differences. Simultaneously, some people identified as one sex at birth realize that they feel more attuned to the other (or both, or none). The research in this area suggests that the brain ‘expects’ to perceive a certain set of sexual characteristics, based largely on hormonal exposure in utero, and responds with confusion and stress when it does not. Fortunately, these people can seek treatments that bring their body in line with what their mind is telling them. Similarly, adopting a new gender role can help dysphoric individuals feel like they are reflecting their interior state better, and help them achieve their goals.

What are your opinions on the cotton ceiling?

I wasn’t familiar with this term. I assume it’s referencing feminine hygiene products? Meh. But I guess there’s two things going on here? One being the hostility from TERFs. Okay, their model of sexuality, or PIV sexuality, or the presence of a penis-bearer, or whatever, as being inherently degrading and predatory is fucked up and anathema to good people leading happy lives. It’s not fair to men, and it’s definitely not fair to trans-women, who as a population already face more discrimination and hardship than anyone is comfortable confronting.

Two being, the difficulty facing trans-women who want to find female sexual partners who treat them for who they are. Hmm. I dunno. I don’t resent people for wanting to find sexual relationships that satisfy them, in either direction. And I’m not super comfortable with the idea that everyone has to validate something so intensely personal to them. But I am positive that, given enough time and goodwill, integration works. We’re already seeing it. Secondhand prejudice always loses to firsthand epiphanies.

Why are trans women disproportionately likely to be programmers?

I have no idea. Trans women have brains that are more like cis women, in some respects, but it’s not like those masculinizing hormones are just sloshing around doing nothing. Males are, on average, more predisposed to work with things and abstract systems than females. Perhaps dysphoria leads transwomen to eschew the physical competitiveness and social status games that signal manhood, and repress the instinct toward signaling femininity, so they stick to what they’re both naturally talented in and allowed to be good at. But that’s purely a conjecture.

Why do many trans women experience sexual fantasies about being or becoming a woman?

It would be weirder if they didn’t. Sexual response is such a deeply embedded instinct, so interwoven with bodily sensation, that it’s not surprising that they would reflect each other.

When taking the poll, if you can POSSIBLY round yourself off to Blanchard-Bailey or gender identity, please do so. Please do this even if you have major disagreements with the side you are leaning towards. Only use “neither” if you really really really cannot in good conscience round yourself to either.

ITT #3: Gender Identity



Confused about what an Intellectual Turing Test is? Click here! Please read, then vote at the end of the post.

How do you define woman/man?

The source of gender identity is the mind. Neuroscience doesn’t to my knowledge have the ability yet to explain this fully, but it looks like some combination of brain structure, hormonal environment, and other brain chemical environment causes a brain to perceive itself as being a woman or a man. Most of the time this lines up with chromosomal sex and primary and secondary sexual characteristics but not always, so there is no way to know from the outside whether a person is a woman or a man. So being a woman or a man (or some other kind of person) is defined only by the person themselves.

In practice, whether someone is a woman, a man, or neither is not very useful information about what they are like as a person. Most of the time I don’t see a point in defining “woman” or “man” in either direction. By that I mean that considering a person and deciding that they are a woman or a man based on appearances doesn’t give me new information, and also that learning that someone is a woman or a man (or neither) doesn’t have much in the way of predictive value. So it’s easier to leave these terms pretty much undefined except in the case where someone wants to define themselves in those terms.

What are your opinions on the cotton ceiling?

Trans-exclusionary radical feminist lesbians believe that having male genitalia, being assigned male at birth, and being raised socially as a boy make a person fundamentally a man in a way that cannot be changed. So they might be polite to trans women and claim not to be transphobic – but they still don’t think trans women are “real” women and they won’t even consider having sex with them. This is bigoted and transphobic, or at least is a result of years of being acculturated into a bigoted and transphobic society, which teaches all of us that trans bodies are not desirable and that trans people are not suitable life partners.

Of course all people have a right to choose which sex partners they do or don’t want, consent is critical, and nobody should ever try to bully others into having sex with them. But even so, if lesbians were to try harder to reject the transphobia instilled in them by the patriarchy and become philosophically open to having sex with trans women (instead of insisting on defining people by their genitals) their lives would on the whole likely be improved by this openness.

Why are trans women disproportionately likely to be programmers?

I don’t think this is known. But because the source of gender identity is in the mind, it seems likely and uncontroversial to hypothesize that people who have bodies that are assigned male at birth but the mind of a woman tend to be unusual, tend to be unusual in a way that is similar to each other, and that this particularity of mind makes programming or similar tasks more congenial than these tasks are to the rest of people.

The other possibility that presents itself to me is that most careers involve a lot of interpersonal contact with strangers and coworkers. For most people, even most introverts, this is no big deal. But for people whose gender identity is different from their outward appearance, interacting with people all day and at best being constantly misgendered (while at worst being actively harassed) is liable to be deeply personally painful and difficult. Programming and other IT-related jobs pay a decent wage and are reasonably stable, but usually allow a minimum of in-person or over-the-phone contact with strangers.

Why do many trans women experience sexual fantasies about being or becoming a woman?

They are women. The biggest sex organ for any person is the brain, and fantasies about sex are an important part of sexuality for any person. People whose bodies and partners match their gender identity and sexual orientation may have sexual fantasies about themselves as themselves and this is totally unremarkable. And indeed it should be unremarkable that a woman would have a sexual fantasy about herself being a woman even if her body does not look at that moment like the body most people expect a woman to have.

In addition to this, women are known to have a much more fluid sexuality than men and to be sexually interested by and fantasize about a wide variety of sometimes surprising topics. It shouldn’t be surprising for women of any description to have sexual fantasies that include her body being different than its current state in any particular way – if they want to, women can have sexual fantasies about themselves as men, as dolphins, as robots, whatever. I’m not entirely sure why this finding (that trans women experience sexual fantasies about being women) even needs an explanation.

When taking the poll, if you can POSSIBLY round yourself off to Blanchard-Bailey or gender identity, please do so. Please do this even if you have major disagreements with the side you are leaning towards. Only use “neither” if you really really really cannot in good conscience round yourself to either.

ITT #2: Gender Identity



Confused about what an Intellectual Turing Test is? Click here! Please read, then vote at the end of the post.

How do you define woman/man?

I use two different definitions – sociological and interpersonal.

Sociological – A woman is an adult human viewed by society as belonging to the social class of people who can get pregnant. A man is an adult human viewed by society as belonging to the social class of people who can impregnate others. I use this definition to think and talk about feminist theory, because I’m a radical feminist. The word radical comes from radix, which means root. The root of women’s oppression comes from the desire to control women’s reproduction. Since the Neolithic, society has been set up to ensure that women’s bodies remain under control of their fathers, who then transfer that control through marriage to women’s husbands. If a woman is property of one man, that man can know that he fathered her children and can pass power down to his sons. This is where the term patriarchy comes from – rule of the father.

Today, some of the most important issues women face are related to their having uteruses – abortion, access to menstrual products, not being fired for getting pregnant, etc.

Women who don’t have uteruses – intersex, had a hysterectomy, MtF transitioned etc. – are treated the same as women who do in most circumstances. A man who doesn’t want to hire women because he thinks their periods make them crazy and they’ll just quit when they get pregnant isn’t going to bother to ask job candidates if they have uteri before sticking their application in the circular file.

Interpersonal – A woman is someone who wishes to be seen by others as a woman. A man is someone who wishes to be seen by others as a man. I use this definition to decide what pronouns I use for people. People with dysphoria are going through a hard enough time as it is. I can make their day a little less hard or I can be an asshole. Why be an asshole?

I also use trans woman, trans man, etc. when I’m talking about trans issues. I say “trans women who isn’t out” instead of something like “dysphoric male” because, again, why be an asshole. Those terms communicate my meaning without hurting or alienating people. Anyone who doesn’t think biological sex is real has written me off as a TERF anyway.

What are your opinions on the cotton ceiling?

This is a problem because different people are working from different definitions. Most trans women and their allies see the cotton ceiling as the idea that trans women are inherently ugly and undesirable, that a cis lesbian who sleeps with a trans woman must not be a real lesbian, and that a trans woman hitting on a cis lesbian is just as out of line as a cis man would be. They see fighting against the cotton ceiling as upholding trans woman as beautiful and desirable, running sex ed workshops and writing erotica, supporting relationships between cis lesbians and trans women, and explaining why its inappropriate for a cis lesbian to respond to a trans woman who propositioned her with “Eww, I wouldn’t sleep with you – I like real women.”

Most radical feminists see the cotton ceiling as the idea that lesbians have the right to choose and reject partners based on sexual desire and pleasure instead of guilt, pity, and the desire to be a good ally, and that it’s totally normal for lesbians to be sexually attracted to vulvas and indifferent to or grossed out by penises. They see fighting against the cotton ceiling as telling lesbians who are sexually attracted to vulvas that they’re disgusting fetishists who see women as walking genitalia, telling rape survivors that they need to unlearn their hateful transmisogynistic fear of penises, and if they absolutely can’t sleep with a trans woman with a penis without a panic attack that they can always enter into a sexless relationship and hook up with cis women on the side for sexual fulfillment.

I think the term “cotton ceiling” is terrible because it positions women’s panties as a barrier to be broken through. I also think trans women and their allies need to do a lot more to call out the kinds of predators who tell thirteen year olds that they’re bad people if they don’t want to take dick, and they need to stop setting up a dichotomy between good and virtuous lesbians who sleep with trans women and bad, close-minded lesbians who don’t. However, all the stuff I mentioned in the first paragraph is worthwhile activism.

Why are trans women disproportionately likely to be programmers?

There’s a mix of reasons I can think of, but I’m guessing, because I don’t know any trans women programmers. Most of the trans women I’ve known have been sex workers.

A) Trans girls and women who aren’t out and are seen as boys by the people around them are a lot more likely to be encouraged in STEM.
B) Trans women have a hard time getting hired and tend to face discrimination at work. Programming is a job that lets people get hired online and work from home.
C) The internet is a good way to get away for people who don’t fit in.
D) Social contagion. Trans women tend to make friends with other trans women online. If a teenage trans girl has a lot of older trans women friends she looks up to who are programmers, she’s a lot more likely to look into programming.

Why do many trans women experience sexual fantasies about being or becoming a woman?

I think its obvious why a trans woman would fantasize about having breasts and a vagina during sex, but a lot of trans women have fantasies that go a lot further than that. Sexual fantasies come from things people have strong emotions about, and those emotions get swirled around in the id with all the patriarchal messages put out by our culture, and then a bunch of really weird shit comes out. This goes for cis women as well. I guarantee that right now a cis woman is rubbing one out to the thought of herself as an inferior set of meat holes.

Also, a lot of young trans women want to look for porn they can in some way relate to, and end up finding sissy transformation fetish stuff by actual autogynophiles. Getting off to stuff rewires the brain by associating a stimulus with pleasure – one ill-advised late night trip to 4chan can leave someone with all kinds of kinks.

When taking the poll, if you can POSSIBLY round yourself off to Blanchard-Bailey or gender identity, please do so. Please do this even if you have major disagreements with the side you are leaning towards. Only use “neither” if you really really really cannot in good conscience round yourself to either.

ITT #1: Gender Identity



Confused about what an Intellectual Turing Test is? Click here! Please read, then vote at the end of the post.

How do you define woman/man?

Okay, background here. Firstly, I’m not an Aristotolian. I’m fairly convinced that many, perhaps all of the words we use, do not have tightly defined meanings. Instead they’re pointers to things. Take names: like Ozy. You can tell me your name is Ozy and I can refer to you as that without having to know your full life story (unless you’re an Ent). A useful word is a brief word that picks out meaningful distinctions for the relevant context, not a comprehensive definition of every single possible real world case.

Secondly, social construction. From observation the noun-phrase “social construction” seems to have at least two different meanings. One is something that is entirely socially-constructed. Eg “Donald Trump” is President of the United States and head of state of the United States. Had a small percentage of Americans voted a different way, or the voting laws been slightly different, there could have been a totally different person as President. And voting laws can be very different, the British for example determine their Head of State via hereditary monarchy and have done for several centuries now. No one gets fussed when you claim that the Head of State is a social construction. (Obviously, just because something is entirely socially constructed doesn’t mean it’s not real.)

The other sort of social construction is about boundaries. And this is the sort of social construction claim that gets the headlines. But it’s quite different. Let’s take age. Everyone knows that there’s nothing magically special about the night when you’re 17 years and 364 days old that turns you from a child into an adult. We could move the age of adulthood around by months or even perhaps years. We can phase it in, with different ages for driving, drinking, etc. We can understand phrases like “a 30 year old with the mind of a 5 year old” (even if medical science has gotten a bit more precise) and we can define some people as not legally competent to take care of themselves no matter how old they are. “Adult” and “child” are socially constructed. But a society that makes no distinction between the decision-making responsibilities of a 3 year old and a 30 year old is going to run into problems. There’s an underlying reality there, society only has freedom at the boundaries. We can make nuanced judgments, we can think that the typical 16 year old should have more freedoms than a 6 year old, but it’s still valid to talk about adults and children. Or adults, teenagers and children.

Now let’s take sex. Every argument I have seen that sex is socially constructed is a boundary argument (see for example “Gender is not alone: the social construction of sex”.) The arguments talk about a minority of people who are intersex. Or whose chromosomes are unusual, or who exhibit androgen-insensitivity or what-not. No argument there. But, that does not mean that it’s invalid to talk about people who have small, mobile gametes and those who have large immobile gametes. Even without explicitly noting that some people don’t fit neatly into either definition.

And we do find that even people who maintain that woman and man are matters of self-identfying alone find themselves coming up with words like “female-bodied” and “male-bodied” or DFAB and DMAB. We don’t see this with things that are entirely-socially constructed, the Brits aren’t looking to replace Elizabeth I as their head of state with an orange-haired billionaire reality TV star.

So, finally getting to the question itself, I have multiple definitions of woman/man. For simplicity I will define woman and perhaps other, and leave the definition of man as an exercise for the reader.
1. a woman is an adult human who ticks the Female box on forms when it’s the choice between that or Male. Note, Statistics NZ introduced as an option in 2015.
2. a woman is an adult human who looks/sounds/etc like a woman (bearing in mind clothing, etc as well as body type). Note this is not the same as being feminine, even when I was doing my machine workshop, wearing overalls, with steel-capped boots and short hair, no one ever thought I was a man.
3. a woman is someone with external sex characteristics highly correlated with getting pregnant and having babies.

I’m not particularly attached to any of these words per se. If you prefer to use “female-bodied” in place of (3) or “uterus-bearing”, I’ll probably go along with it for the purposes of conversation with you.

I don’t think we’ll ever have a word or short noun phrase that captures the key distinctions between women and men in my sense 3, there will always be boundary cases not covered. Eg, DMAB falls apart for the Guevedoces, a condition in the Dominican Republic where some people are born appearing female but with XY chromosomes who then turn into boys at puberty when the second flood of hormones hit. They’re male-bodied as adults, but they weren’t designated-male at birth, so not DMAB. Either we go to the Ent naming solution, and we don’t have the lifespans for that, or we’re left with a word that is the verbal equivalent of a vague pointing motion that something is “over there”.

The three definitions have different pros and cons. (2) is practical for every day use. (1) has the advantage of not excluding anyone who wants to be a woman. But (3) is important too. It’s the historical definition, and often a very important one. While that definition can hurt people who don’t fit nicely into the category, and that calls for sensitivity about its use, the same is true when it comes to talking about parenthood, which can really hurt people struggling with fertility. But that doesn’t mean we should never ever talk about parenthood.

What are your opinions on the cotton ceiling?

The cotton ceiling: well if you have a large enough group of people over a long enough period of time, at some point some of that group is going to do something very stupid.

And in this social media age, this is going to be picked up on and fear-mongered about.

So the cotton ceiling in the way it was presented (breaking down barriers to people having sex with transwomen), was fairly terrible. Strong norms against shaming people for their sexual preferences are important. Sex should be about positivity and fun. People who want to increase the sexual range of other people should focus on tactics like encouraging positive representations of said range in media stories and only shame people making transphobic descriptions of other people’s relationships (eg saying that A isn’t a lesbian because she’s in a relationship with a transwoman). I get the sense that the transwomen who had the cotton ceiling workshop are not from people-focused professions.

On the other hand the claims about them from TERFs are also ridiculous. Strong norms against misrepresenting people are also important.

So my opinion is that both sides behaved badly.

Why are trans women disproportionately likely to be programmers?

I am not sure that most trans women are programmers. It is obviously easier for trans people to get together on line, and for a couple of decades there, programmers were much more likely to be online, leading to a sample selection bias.

That said, programming is an escape for kids who are subject to bullying, and kids are notorious for bullying those who aren’t neurotypical. Plus programming brings money which makes it easy to transition. So there are some social reasons for trans women to contain an excessive number of programmers.

Why do many trans women experience sexual fantasies about being or becoming a woman?

As a cis woman, my reaction to this question, is, well, why wouldn’t people have sexual fantasies about being a woman? Being a woman is fun!

Okay, when I achieve my proper position as Empress of the Universe there are going to be some firm words had with biology re the whole pregnancy thing. And menstruation will be replaced by a monthly typed letter from your body giving a plain-language update of your health.

But leaving aside those design faults, women have soft skin, no beards (well mostly), to wear swishing skirts in public, and have better curves than a scenic railway. And, I understand that the clitoris has the same number of nerve endings as the penis, just more concentrated.

And of course trans women don’t have to include periods or pregnancies in their fantasies (not to mention that people can fantasise about overcoming pain and hardships in their own right.)

So fantasizing about having a woman’s body is natural. And, logically therefore, fantasing about becoming a woman is natural.

The real question is why don’t men fantasise about being women?

Well, maybe that’s not the real question. But it’s at least as sensible a question as any other about fantasies.

When taking the poll, if you can POSSIBLY round yourself off to Blanchard-Bailey or gender identity, please do so. Please do this even if you have major disagreements with the side you are leaning towards. Only use “neither” if you really really really cannot in good conscience round yourself to either.

Book Post for February, Part Two: Books About Parenting


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Experimenting With Babies: 50 Amazing Science Projects You Can Perform On Your Kid: Exactly what it says on the tin! If you would like to replicate a bunch of developmental psychology experiments on infants with your very own infant, this book will explain to you how! All the experiments were selected for being easily doable in the home and posing no risk to the child. Important note: buy a copy while you’re pregnant, as many of the experiments are best performed on newborns.

The Baby Book: Since there is very little evidence about most decisions parents make about babies, I feel perfectly free to make my decision based on my own preferences and values. Attachment parenting, I think, is in line with my values: it hews closely to the way people raised children in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness; it emphasizes closeness and support; it doesn’t involve letting your child cry it out, which personally I feel like would make my heart shatter in two. Whether or not Dr. Sears’s advice is right for most people, I definitely think it’s right for me.

I don’t understand why the attachment parenting blogosphere is such a cesspit. Dr. Sears emphasizes that the most important thing any baby needs is happy parents and that parents know their own baby best, so if advice goes against your own parental intuition throw out the advice. Even the much-despised advice about being a stay-at-home mother is primarily motivated by concern for the mother: raising a baby is very stressful and combining it with a full-time job can make moms miserable and unable to enjoy their babies. I think Dr. Sears both doesn’t think enough about his class privilege and doesn’t recognize that some mothers legitimately prioritize career success or would go insane only talking to people whose age is measured in months, but I think it comes from a good place.

And yet all the attachment parenting blogosphere is like “h o n e s t l y if you’re not breastfeeding your child until three and you’re not using handmade cloth diapers and you don’t cosleep until the child decides to leave your bed on their own you’re basically abusing them l b q h.” There are people feeling guilty that cosleeping isn’t the right choice for them! This is absurd. How do people take such a kind and compassionate book and transform it into an opportunity to beat up on other mothers for doing it wrong?

The Other Baby Book: A Natural Approach To Baby’s First Year: Okay, now I understand where the guilt comes from.

This was pitched to me as “amazing hatereading material” and it was, in fact, amazing. I learned all about how you can prevent the adverse consequences of vaccines by giving your child megadoses of vitamin C and homeopathic preparations. And how formula is basically POISON. And pretty much every object I’ve ever bought is also POISON, full of dangerous and unpronounceable chemicals. And that “a person—a loving, calm, skilled, experienced person who was with the laboring woman, breathing with her, talking to her, being quiet with her, supporting her” is an acceptable substitute for fetal monitoring. And the important baby bonding of elimination communication (look, it’s fine if you personally feel that elimination communication helps you bond with your baby, but my opinion is that we live in the 21st century in which there is such a thing as a disposable diaper). And that epidurals hurt your baby (no, they don’t). And in general that we should trust Nature. To be honest, Nature invented the concept of parasitoids, I think she’s a terrible fucking mother.

Apparently “woman is the birth power source.” I have no idea what this means but to be honest I sort of want to make “the birth power source” my pregnancy tag.

Brain Rules for Baby: How To Raise a Smart and Happy Child from Zero to Five: This book I like!

Prenatal stimulation is really cool and I feel sad about how much pseudoscience has given it a bad reputation. Your baby can learn things before they’re born! They can recognize Dr. Seuss books, or lullabies, or soap opera jingles, or their dad’s voice. And familiar sounds are likely to be comforting! It does not make your child a genius, but it doesn’t have to make your child a genius to be nifty.

Apparently one third to one half of new parents experience as much marital distress as couples who are currently in therapy trying to save their relationship. The biggest causes are sleep deprivation, social isolation, an uneven division of labor (usually in heterosexual couples favoring the man), and postpartum depression. To prevent this, practice empathy and ensure that you are doing your fair share of the chores (which will probably feel like you are doing an unfairly large share of the chores).

To increase children’s intelligence: breastfeed; talk to your baby a lot; encourage imaginative play, possibly using the Tools of the Mind classroom techniques which increase executive function; praise effort, not IQ. I think the last piece of advice was poorly phrased in the book: they imply that you should just switch out “you did well on that math test, you’re really smart” with “you did well on that math test, you worked really hard.” Of course, if your kid didn’t work hard at all, they’re going to be totally aware that you’re bullshitting them. So you should probably just say “good job” about the math test and instead praise their soccer performance, where they keep tripping over their own feet but also keep showing up to practice.

To increase children’s happiness: practice a demanding but responsive parenting style (support, warmth, and acceptance, combined with high standards and strictly enforced rules); be comfortable with your own emotions, including negative ones; be attuned to your children’s emotions; teach children to label their own emotions; validate and don’t judge emotions, but teach children about unacceptable behavioral responses to emotions and view crises as an opportunity to teach self-regulation skills; if your child is throwing a tantrum about not having a cookie, say something like “I bet you wish you could have another cookie. If I could, I would wave a magic wand and make all the carrots taste like cookies.” The advice here is pretty similar to How To Talk So Kids Will Listen (And Listen So Kids Will Talk).

To encourage self-control and altruism: create reasonable, clear rules; praise when the rules are followed and the absence of bad behavior; be warm and accepting when enforcing rules; when punishing, be swift and consistent, use real punishments, and remind your child that you love and accept them; whenever possible, use natural consequences or withdrawal of parental attention; provide an explanation for all rules during warnings, praise, and punishment; don’t spank.

I have two complaints about this book. First, autism is described as a single condition caused by a deficit in theory of mind, even though the evidence suggests that theory of mind deficits are not universal in autism. Second, the author explicitly claims that their advice might not apply to single parents, gay parents, or blended families because research has mostly been done on parents who are heterosexual married couples. I’m not sure why your parents being gay would mean that one should instead be harsh and unaccepting when enforcing rules, but okay.

Caring For Your Baby And Young Child: Birth To Age 5: Extremely complete, fairly mainstream, not a lot to say about it.

I must say I have a grudge against the American Academy of Pediatrics on the cosleeping thing. If you control properly for confounders, sleeping in a nursery is only a little less dangerous than safe cosleeping. And yet the AAP is all like “you should NEVER EVER EVER cosleep even if it is the ONLY WAY to get a good night’s sleep and even if you are afraid that YOU WILL KILL YOUR CHILD IN A CAR ACCIDENT DUE TO SLEEP DEPRIVATION OTHERWISE”, and their book is not only doesn’t address concerns about nurseries but also is like “here’s some advice about how to decorate your kid’s nursery.” Bleh. I can’t help but think that this is a class thing.

The guide to improving your child’s brain health includes the statement that you should avoid subjecting your child to psychological or physical traumas. Thanks, AAP. I never would have guessed.

Montessori From The Start: The Child At Home, From Birth To Age Three: What is it with parenting books and taking umbrage about totally random things? This book objects to disposable diapers and playpens. Like, honestly, lots of children use disposable diapers, and yet they all wind up toilet trained eventually anyway, so I don’t see any reason to stress about it. More seriously, Montessori from the Start also objects to pretend play, which is cognitively important for the development of small children.

I like the Montessori attitude of respecting children’s autonomy and giving them responsibility. I think that this book is exactly correct that toddlers are capable of handling a lot more than people think they are, if parents are patient and willing to teach. The book gives many practical suggestions of activities that allow one’s toddler a sense of independence and self-reliance, such as teaching the toddler to make their own snack.

The Expectant Father: The Ultimate Guide for Dads-To-Be: I was hoping for a book something along the lines of The Birth Partner, but for the entire pregnancy– a calm, patient book aimed not at the pregnant person but at the pregnant person’s support network. Unfortunately, that is not this book. This book is very definitely aimed at men. The sections about How You Might Be Feeling This Month include lots of information about what your masculinity is doing. Maybe you are feeling more masculine because you impregnated a woman! Maybe you are feeling less masculine because you’re experiencing couvade syndrome! Since my husband does not really have a masculinity in the first place, this book was less than helpful.

One thing that was actually good about this book was its extensive advice for deployed fathers feeling connected to the pregnancy. I myself am neither in the military or married to someone who is, but if you are this book might be helpful.

The Baby Owner’s Manual: An extremely cute premise– basically it’s a baby care book written as if it were an operating manual for a car or an electronics device. The advice is mostly boring standard advice you will also find in the American Academy of Pediatrics book. I had hoped it would be laugh-out-loud funny, but unfortunately the authors were insufficiently good at puns to make that happen. Not recommended.

Moebius Noodles: Adventurous Math for the Playground Crowd: A series of games which teach mathematical concepts to children from birth through school-age.  It covers symmetry, numbers, functions, and grids, and provides a variety of games that you can play with children and they can play with each other. While I know literally nothing about mathematical education, it does seem like the suggested activities are fun and would help build mathematical reasoning. Weirdly, it does not include any moebius strips.

Eating Well When You’re Expecting: A guide for nutrition for preconception, pregnant, and breastfeeding parents. This book appears to follow the USDA’s nutritional guidelines. Like all books in the What to Expect series, it is overly conservative about food safety (for instance, it forbids sushi because of the risk of parasite infection) without providing sufficient information to allow the reader to assess what they should eat based on their own risk tolerance. I suggest consulting Expecting Better or Debunking the Bump for food safety information.

Eating Well When You’re Expecting does not contain any information that you cannot find in What To Expect When You’re Expecting, except for a bit more information about various nutrients, some trouble-shooting about how you can get your nutrient needs met if you’re busy or broke or nauseous or at work, and a large number of pregnancy-safe recipes. I would suggest skipping it unless you’re having serious problems getting your vegetable/proteins/grains/whatever servings, in which case it might come in handy.

This is probably my fault for pirating the epub in the first place, but not having a search function is a huge pain in the ass if you’re trying to figure out which food groups peas count as. So if you are planning, like me, to maintain a spreadsheet where you keep track of your servings of Vitamin C foods, it might be worth obtaining an ebook with a search function.

Debunking the Bump: A Mathematician Mom Explodes Myths About Pregnancy: If you liked Expecting Better, you’d like this book, as they are in fact identical.

Debunking the Bump goes through a long list of things that pregnant people are supposed to worry about and tells you which ones are the biggest concerns, and which ones you probably shouldn’t worry about. She considers miscarriage and stillbirth to be an order of magnitude worse than congenital disability, which she considers to be an order of magnitude worse than things which cause minor impairments (very low birth weight), which she considers to be an order of magnitude worse than things which cause statistically detectable impairments (low birth weight). Given this value set (things will probably change if you have different values!), here is a listing of how risky things are in order of how risky they are.

  1. Smoking more than ten cigarettes a day.
  2. Delaying from age 35 to 36.
  3. Smoking less than ten cigarettes a day.
  4. Delaying from age 30 to age 31.
  5. Delaying from age 25 to age 26.
  6. Having a BMI of over 30.
  7. Alcohol abuse.
  8. Contracting viruses from small children.
  9. Lead.
  10. [Tied] Not eating oily fish; driving.

Of course, many of these are not actionable: you can’t become younger, and if you are smoking cigarettes while pregnant it is probably because you are a nicotine addict and not because you are unaware that it is very risky. Here is her list of actionable advice:

  1. Wash your hands frequently when interacting with small children; avoid baby drool.
  2. Cut down on discretionary car trips, wear your seatbelt, and drive cautiously.
  3. Eat a daily serving of fish, particularly salmon and mackerel.
  4. Eat organic vegetables to avoid organophosphate pesticide residue, particularly green beans and bell peppers.
  5. Never ever ever ever ever ever ever eat any kind of meat without microwaving it or thoroughly cooking it first. This includes cold cuts!
  6. At your next prenatal checkup, ask for your blood to be tested for lead. If your lead levels are high, take a calcium supplement.

The Shit No One Tells You: A Guide To Surviving Your Baby’s First Year: I really wanted to like this book! It’s a funny memoir by a disabled lesbian about the experience of parenting. I think a lot of parenting books are really, uh, optimistic, and The Shit No One Tells You provides a realistic point of view on how much labor sucks (a lot), whether you will have time to do anything except take care of a baby (no), and how much poop your life will involve (lots, and sometimes preceded by the word ‘projectile’).

But then I got to the chapter on vaccines.

Look, I feel like I’m a tolerant human being. “The research on this subject is overwhelming and confusing and I don’t know what the right thing to do is” is a common feeling. I am even sympathetic to parents who don’t want an autistic child, particularly an autistic child with high support needs. But when you say something like “there are so many anecdotes about children who got vaccines and then the light in their eyes just went out!”… guys, I’m autistic, and I’m a person. The light is still on in my eyes! I understand I am verbal, I don’t require a paid caregiver, and my violent meltdowns are extraordinarily rare, but people with more support needs than I have are still people! It is like finding a worm in the middle of an apple. The rest of the apple might taste really good, but it kind of ruined my whole experience.

Breastfeeding Made Simple: Seven Natural Laws for Nursing Mothers: This book contains medically inaccurate information about formula. In the developing world, breastfeeding is a very important public health intervention: breastfeeding reduces the risk of severe gastrointestinal infections, which can kill; parents who use formula in the developing world can wind up making their baby’s formula with unsafe water or diluting formula to save money. In the developed world, where most people can afford formula and the water is generally pretty safe, breastfeeding is less important: it leads to fewer gastrointestinal infections (which are far less dangerous in the developed world), lower rate of constipation, and probably a higher IQ. Many of the benefits this book claims simply have not been backed up by evidence.

In addition, Breastfeeding Made Simple has an anti-science attitude that upsets me. It’s true that formula was widely adopted, not because it was better, but because it seemed more scientific. And it’s true that some parents, inspired by behaviorism, ignored their babies’ cries and hunger signals. But that does not mean that we have learned that sometimes the wisdom of motherhood matters more than science; it means that science is self-correcting and sometimes makes mistakes, but that we can revise these mistakes. And it doesn’t mean that alternative medicine is an adequate substitute for real medicine.

I don’t mean to criticize this book overall. If you take the alleged benefits of breastfeeding with a grain of salt, it seems like an extraordinarily useful resource for breastfeeding parents, covering many common pitfalls. Babies do not understand the concept of clocks, and so you should generally expect to feed your children on their own schedule, not on yours; formula-fed babies take to a schedule much better, while for breastfed babies scheduling feedings can lead to underfeeding and loss of milk. You should never experience pain worse than a slight tenderness while breastfeeding: if you do, your baby probably has an improper latch-on. To ensure proper latch-on:

  1. Hold your baby’s body under your breast and firmly against you; align your baby’s nose to your nipple; allow the baby’s head to tilt slightly back.
  2. Lightly bring your baby to the breast (NOT breast to baby), rubbing your nipple along your baby’s face until the baby’s mouth opens.
  3. Before the baby has developed head and neck control at four to six weeks, gently push the baby to get the baby to take more of your breast into their mouth.

For the first forty days after your baby is born, you should not expect to do anything except sleep and breastfeed. Clarify this state of affairs with your coparent(s); even though you may be home for parental leave and they are at work, they should still expect to handle all the cooking and cleaning. However, over time, breastfeeding becomes easier than formula feeding; you don’t have to prepare formula in the middle of the night, you can just sleepily stick the baby on your boob.

If your baby has enough stools, they are probably getting enough food. After the first week, the baby should have three to four stools the size of a quarter or more daily. It may help to track your breastfeedings and the baby’s stools on a piece of paper. Your doctor will weigh the baby; if the baby is losing weight, they are not getting enough food. If you are a neurotic wreck, or if you have some reason to believe you might not produce adequate milk, investing in a baby scale allows you to check your child’s weight at home. (This is unnecessary for most parents.)

The easiest way to wean a child is to simply continue to breastfeed until the child decides they no longer want to breastfeed. There are only positive consequences of this; in many hunter-gatherer cultures, children are breastfed until four or five. If that is not possible or desired, a gradual weaning is far superior to an all-at-once weaning; it is far less likely to be painful and to lead to health consequences like mastitis.

Several chapters at the end kindly and compassionately discuss breastfeeding difficulties. I appreciated the reminder that some breastfeeding is always better than no breastfeeding, and the most important aspect of feeding babies is that they get enough food. If you must supplement with formula for health reasons, this is not a failure.

Neurodiversity in the Classroom: Strength-Based Strategies to Help Students With Special Needs Succeed in School and Life: The opening paragraph of this book is about a teacher introducing the author to her students and saying “and these are my slow students”. The author wonders, “doesn’t she know that they can hear her?” As soon as I read that, I knew I would like this book.

It’s no secret that a lot of special education is really bad. “We’re cutting shop, which you like and are good at, so you can spend more time reading, which you hate and are bad at” bad. “This kid with ADHD forgot their homework, so we’re keeping them in from recess to make it up” bad. Neurodiversity in the Classroom argues that, instead, teachers of neurodivergent children should deliberately construct positive niches that build on the children’s skills and strengths. He provides a seven-step process for doing so:

  1. Strength Awareness. Teachers and the student know what the student is good at and don’t just think of them as a pile of flaws and disabilities.
  2. Positive Role Models. The student is aware of adult role models who have the same neurodivergences they do, including both celebrities and people in the community.
  3. Assistive Technologies and Universal Design for Learning. Assistive tech is technology that improves access for disabled people, such as augmented and alternative communication devices, wheelchairs, and large-print and Braille reading materials. Universal design for learning is designing a learning environment that accommodates a wide array of learning differences for both neurotypical and neurodivergent children: for instance, using interactive digital books which provide speech, text, and graphics.
  4. Enhanced Human Resources. The use of individuals besides the teacher to help the student, including psychologists, physical therapists, parents, tutors, and other students.
  5. Strength-Based Learning Strategies. The teacher should build on the student’s abilities and interests when teaching them; for instance, an intellectually disabled student who loves music can be taught to read through song lyrics.
  6. Affirmative Career Aspirations. The student should be aware of careers that they are well-suited to, given their neurodivergence and other abilities. For instance, a student with ADHD might be encouraged to look into jobs that involve novelty and movement, like being a personal trainer.
  7. Environmental Modification. An environment should be created that fits the student’s needs. For instance, a teacher might muffle school bells if they have an autistic student with a sensitivity to sound.

The book is full of practical ideas about accommodating neurodivergent people in the classroom. For example, to accommodate a student with ADHD, the teacher might help the student use time-management software, frequently change activities (group work, then individual work, then lecture), provide hands-on learning activities, hold science or physical education classes outdoors, introduce movement breaks into the day, or have the student use a balance ball chair instead of a regular chair.

The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education At Home: A lot of the advice here seems like silly and/or counterproductive ways to educate children. Why would I waste energy teaching my children to be able to name off the English kings in order? Why would you attempt to teach spelling through workbooks instead of teaching it the way every good speller learned to spell– lots of exposure to text and having their misspellings corrected? Why would you primarily teach subjects through having children do readings and then outline their readings? (Why not spaced repetition? Oh, right, they didn’t have that in the Renaissance.) Why are you teaching children to think using formal logic, but not even addressing the skill of reading a study? Where, pray tell, is the evidence base?

Not all of the Well-Trained Mind is bad. Teaching the humanities as a single subject in its historical context seems to me to be a better approach than artificially separating art, music, literature, and history. A great books education still seems to me like a useful way to teach about the development of intellectual thought. But I expect the correct way to do it is just to work through the St. John’s College Great Books list once the kids get into high school, and not bother with all this nonsense about outlining.

Every Book Is A Social Studies Book: How To Meet Standards with Picture Books, K-6: This is pretty much exactly what it says in the title: a bunch of ways to use classic children’s books to teach about social studies topics. (“Let’s use the Sneetches and discuss prejudice!” “Let’s read about Ellis Island, then talk to people we know who are immigrants!”) If this sounds like the sort of thing you’d be interested in, you’d probably be interested in it. It is mildly annoying that one of the suggested lessons is about reducing one’s garbage output, when in reality excessive garbage production is not a particularly urgent environmental issue and it would be much better if they had talked about climate change instead.

Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs: In case you’re wondering, these skills are focus and self-control, perspective-taking, communicating, making connections, critical thinking, taking on challenges, and self-directed engaged learning.

To build focus and self-control: support your child’s interests; play games that encourage executive function, like guessing games, puzzles, sorting games with changing rules, Simon Says, and Do The Opposite Of What Simon Says; have children participate in reading books by repeating refrains or familiar words; for children over the age of two, show them age-appropriate, meaningful, educational, and nonviolent television; no background television; encourage children to play pretend; get children to make plans, follow plans, and then discuss what they accomplished; ensure your child is well-rested and has breaks; model focus, self-control, and taking breaks yourself.

To build perspective-taking: model perspective-taking; teach children collective problem-solving skills, like brainstorming possible solutions and identifying ways to meet everyone involved’s goals; be warm and kind to your children; validate your children’s feelings; talk about feelings– yours and theirs; talk about other people’s points of view in everyday life; encourage playing pretend; when a child does something that hurts others, explain how it hurts others; ask children to try to figure out the goals and motivations of people they know and fictional characters.

To build communication: model a love of language and literature; talk a lot to infants and toddlers; talk about subjects that go beyond the here and now, like what happened in the past and might happen in the future; talk about what your children find interesting; tell stories about your life and ask children to tell stories about theirs; read to children and talk about books with them; play word games; encourage children to write; use cognitively engaging talk and complex words; give children access to many forms of media, including music, art, and the performing arts.

To build the ability to make connections: tell the child about other things that are connected to their passions (e.g. a knight is like a superhero in the past); acknowledge that making mistakes is part of learning; give children open-ended toys like balls and dolls; use spatial words like “above”, “behind”, “below”, etc.; when playing with children, don’t boss them around, but instead ask questions, describe, and point out mathematical concepts; play hide-and-seek and treasure hunts; use math talk in everyday situations, such as giving out cookies; give children chores that involve math; play board games and dominoes, which involve counting; show children optical illusions; give them feedback on the strategies they chose for thinking about problems.

To build critical thinking: encourage your child’s curiosity and interests; let them play; give them accurate and valid information, even if you have to look things up; help children find other experts; teach children how to assess if things are true; talk about television shows and ads to encourage media literacy; when you and your child have a conflict, help them brainstorm ways to resolve the conflict; talk to your children about confounding variables (or someone else will).

To build the ability to take on challenges: model managing your stress, talking to others about stress, and taking time for yourself; don’t protect your child from normal bad experiences; have a warm, caring, and trusting relationship with your child; don’t freak out about your child hurting themself; help them develop coping strategies for stress; have reasonable expectations; have your child come up with a plan for following your rules and meeting your expectations, including a plan for if their first plan doesn’t work; let shy children watch new situations and gradually come to participate; promote your child’s passions; praise effort not ability; teach them that the brain is like a muscle and it gets stronger with use and hard work.

To encourage self-directed and engaged learning: be trustworthy and reliable, providing safety, security, and structure; help children set and work for goals; always include a social, emotional, and intellectual aspect to learning; when a child is recalling a past event, practice a high-elaborative style, in which you ask open-ended questions, show interest, provide feedback to the child, and repeat what the child says; have conversations that explore the past, the future, and fantasy; have children explain what they’re learning; have children strive for their personal best; give children accountability through clear expectations, acknowledging their strengths, and praising effort; create a community of learners.

How To Raise An Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid For Success: You know that thing where people say DARE makes kids use drugs more because it normalizes drug use by telling them about all the other kids who are doing drugs? I don’t know about DARE but that is definitely true of this book for me. Normally, I think that unstructured play is the best thing for children, and my parents gave me plenty of time for it. I know there are a lot of great schools; I’ve met enough people who went to Ivies to be aware that their college experience honestly wasn’t that much different than my own. And I had a full-time mental illness as a teenager which meant that I didn’t do three hours of homework a night or go to fourteen extracurriculars.

But then I read this book and I was like “holy shit, people will judge your child for going to Barnard instead of Stanford? People hire coaches to help their children optimize their college applications? People start trying to get their children into prestigious preschools as soon as they’re born? THERE’S SUCH A THING AS A PRESTIGIOUS PRESCHOOL???????” and now I have tons of anxiety disorder fuel I didn’t before. Thanks! Very helpful.

Also, what is it with old people and the trophy thing? Yes, I got a participation trophy for soccer when I was six. No, I was not somehow deceived into thinking I was good at sports; I was perfectly fucking aware I sucked at sports. No, I don’t think it screwed me up. Can’t we wait for relentless competition until the kids are no longer reading books with pictures in them?

The Happiest Baby on the Block: When babies are born, they are not 100% finished yet. Human babies are far more dependent than nonhuman babies, because we have big heads and narrow hips and if we waited for the babies to actually be finished mothers would be way more likely to die in childbirth. Therefore, babies are likely to be very fussy and bad at self-soothing for the first few months of their life.

The solution is to create an environment that imitates the womb. This is what The Happiest Baby on the Block calls the 5 S’s:

  • Swaddling– tightly wrap your baby. You can do this really tightly; most parents wrap far too loosely, for fear of causing damage.
  • Side or Stomach– put the baby on their side or their stomach, not their back. (Always put the baby on their back when they sleep, to reduce risk of SIDS.)
  • Shhhhhh– Make a loud shushing sound near the baby’s ear. Try to be as loud as the baby’s crying. You can also use a white noise CD.
  • Swinging– Rock the baby, put them in a swing, or even stick them on the washing machine. For this one, it’s important to be gentle, because shaking a baby can cause brain damage.
  • Sucking– Give the baby something to suck on, such as a pacifier, your finger, or your boob.

The Happiest Toddler on the Block: How To Eliminate Tantrums and Raise a Patient, Respectful, and Cooperative One- to Four-Year-Old: The part of toddlers’ brains that is good at language and logic is immature, and therefore the emotional and impulsive part of their brains is in the driver’s seat. It is best, therefore, to think of yourself not as your child’s boss or as your child’s friend, but as an ambassador from Adult Land to the exotic country of Toddlerlandia, with its strange customs and manners. An ambassador is unfailingly polite and respectful, and they’re willing to negotiate. But when a country is trying to get away with something that is absolutely unconscionable, an ambassador is willing to put her foot down and say “my country will not accept this.”

When a toddler is upset, always begin by echoing what she wants and feels, to make her feel understood, before taking a turn to tell her your important messages. (Of course, if your child is doing something that harms herself or others, always stop her first and then empathize. You don’t her to be hit by a car because you empathized while she was running into the street!) Use language toddlers understand: short phrases, repeated several times, with animated gestures and an expressive tone of voice.

If your child is behaving in an annoying but not dangerous way, first empathize with her, using words she understands. Then offer her a win-win compromise where you both get something you want. If she continues to behave in an annoying way, clap your hands hard and growl “no!” If she still does that, then kindly ignore her until she quiets, checking in every twenty to thirty seconds to empathize again. If your child is harming herself or others, or breaking one of your firm rules, use an appropriate consequence such as a time-out or taking away a privilege.

The best way to combat bad behavior is to prevent it. Therefore, give your child plenty of attention and praise when they’re doing well. Praise is often more likely to be believed if you say it to another person where the toddler can overhear. Offer your child age-appropriate choices (although not with more than two options, which is the most she can handle). Sometimes pretend to be incompetent at things (“do the pants go on your head?”) to make your child laugh and feel confident. Occasionally delay something your child wants for ten or twenty seconds, to give the child practice with patience and teach them that things they want will come if they wait. Help them practice breathing slowly, so they can do it when overwhelmed. Spend special time with them (as little as five minutes) several times a day, and talk to them at night about things they did well over the course of the day. If your child does not have a lovey or transitional object, help her find one. To teach appropriate behavior, tell stories about children who behave in appropriate ways, notice and praise other children who behave appropriately, and role-play troublesome situations when the child is calm.

[content warning: depressing fact about the Holocaust]

Free To Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life: It turns out this whole time Mike Blume and I have been unfairly blaming the Prussians and school was just as bad before then. The 17th century Protestants are going about memorizing little ditties about how if you tell a lie you will go to hell and be tortured for eternity. Not to be outdone, the Catholics were memorizing “What does it mean to resist authority? To resist authority is to rebel against the divine order. What happens to those who do not submit to authority? They will suffer eternal damnation.”

The basic thesis of this book is that children have a natural drive to learn, which schools successfully manage to beat out of them over the course of twelve years. This seems plausible to me. Preschoolers are, after all, known for their incessant questions. Human beings evolved to have an extended childhood because of how much we need to learn. It seems extraordinarily strange that evolution would have us pay all the costs of taking care of a child for ten or fifteen years instead of having new children, and not bother to evolve children a desire to actually learn things as opposed to being dragged into learning kicking and screaming. Other animals learn through play, and children do have a notoriously strong desire to play. We know that extrinsic motivation kills intrinsic motivation dead. And hunter gatherer tribes do not explicitly teach their children; instead, their children play games, imitating the adults, and over time acquire all the skills they need to be successful hunter gatherers. The fact that children have to be forced to learn is very strange, and primarily because for a very long time obedience and respect for authority were far more important virtues to teach children than independence and autonomy. Since, nowadays, independence matters more, it makes sense to shift back to a forager model of learning.

My one point of disagreement is that Free to Learn adheres to a Sudbury school/unschooling model in which children basically do whatever they want. I agree that that is the ideal and it works best for hunter-gatherers. However, hunter gatherers also have thousands of years of social technology, which means that the games children want to play are games which teach them skills useful in a hunter-gatherer society. We have, clearly, wasted our last couple of thousand years of cultural evolution on getting children to memorize things about eternal torture. So in the meantime I think something like Montessori is correct.

That said, time for unstructured play is also very important. Consider Little League versus a game of baseball with your neighbors. Because you have a coach at Little League, you’re probably going to be better at baseball, if for some reason you care about elementary schoolers actually being good at baseball. But if you play with friends you get the same amount of exercise, you’re free from adults, and you get practice resolving conflicts fairly and compromising with others about what you want to do. Kids who really really don’t want to play baseball don’t have to, and there’s an incentive to make playing baseball more fun for kids who suck at it– otherwise, you won’t have enough players to make up the team. And Mom doesn’t have to drive anyone anywhere. It just seems like a better system all around.

Interesting fact: The Baining are apparently the world’s most boring people, and at least one anthropologist quit studying them in disgust at how dull they are. They think that natural things are shameful and that the purpose of human life is work. Almost uniquely among human cultures, they don’t really tell stories; most of their conversation focuses on work and details of daily living. Free to Learn argues this strange behavior is linked to the Baining finding children’s play shameful and discouraging or even punishing it.

Other interesting fact: At Auschwitz, Jewish children played gas chamber.

[content warning: child sexual abuse]

Our Whole Lives: Sexuality Education For Grades K-1: You know how sex-positive feminists are always like “we need comprehensive sex education that goes beyond STIs and putting condoms on a banana. Sex education should talk about pleasure. It should give children an opportunity to think about sexual ethics and their sexual values, without assuming the only way to ethically have sex is to wait until marriage. It should be inclusive of disabled people and LGBT+ people. It should help people set boundaries and teach them to respect other people’s consent.” Well, good news, this exists and it’s called Our Whole Lives.

I particularly liked the abuse education lesson. Child sexual abuse education is very important, but I worry that if you only talk about genitals in the context of abuse, then it winds up treating genitals as bad and wrong and forbidden, which is not the message we want to send. The lesson on abuse begins by talking about healthy things we do for our bodies like exercising and eating vegetables, then talks about how loving touch is another healthy thing we do with our bodies which makes people feel good. Then masturbation is discussed briefly, along the lines of “masturbation is touching your own vulva or penis. Some children do this and other children don’t. Either way it is fine, but masturbation must be done in private.” Then they move to talking about how no one should ever touch you without your consent except in an emergency, and you don’t have to put up with touch that makes you feel angry or afraid. Only after all this context has been laid out do they talk about sexual abuse. I think this gives the message that (a) touch in general and sexuality in specific is a good thing, but (b) some bad people use touch in a way that is hurtful to others. Which I think is the right message to be sending.

Disability is included casually throughout the program: for instance, some of the children in stories are disabled, and the teacher is asked to specifically point out that disabled bodies are also wonderful.

Book Post for February, Part One: Books Not About Parenting


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Fashionable Nonsense: I have conflicted feelings about this book! It consists mainly of quotes from Continental philosophers about math or science, followed by “this doesn’t actually make any sense”, “this is confusing the scientific concept of chaos with the colloquial meaning of chaos”, “none of these words are real math words”, “they mixed up ‘velocity’ and ‘acceleration'”, and “the reason fluid mechanics are hard to solve is not that people have a misogynist objection to fluid things”. They spend a lot of time bashing Lacan, which I always approve of.

To a certain extent, I feel like it’s not entirely fair to critique postmodernism for being an elaborate series of word games? That’s the thing it is. A bunch of clever people showing off how cool their wordplay is. Now, you can ask a bunch of questions about it like “why do people act like these word games are producing knowledge?” and “why is the government funding people to sit on their asses and play incomprehensible word games with each other?” But I feel like criticizing them for being word games without connection to reality is sort of missing the point.

That said, I completely agree that a cute analogy to some mathematical or scientific concept is not the same as “an argument” or “evidence” and mostly serves to give unwarranted scientific rigor to your half-assed speculations. Indeed, I often feel like shouting this to large segments of the rationalist community.

(Not, of course, that there’s anything wrong with making half-assed speculations– I do it all the time– but it’s bad form to make people feel they are all science-y when they’re not.)

I spent a lot of the chapter on Bruno Latour grousing to myself because, yeah, sure, Latour’s approach to sociology of science neglects that people might believe things because they are true, which is kind of an important part of science. But he can also write a coherent sentence! Sometimes he’s even funny! These things are not true of literally anyone else in the book Fashionable Nonsense (I guess sometimes Irigaray is funny but not, like, intentionally), and I think we should give Latour some credit for that.

Models: Attract Women Through Honesty: Finally, a PUA book that isn’t full of shit.

The basic thesis of Models is that the most important traits for a heterosexual man attempting to attract women are vulnerability and non-neediness. Non-neediness means that you care more about your opinion of you than people’s opinion of you in general and her opinion of you in specific. Vulnerability means that you are open about your tragic backstory, weird hobbies, embarrassing tastes, and other things that people might judge you for. These go together, because if a woman is like “ew! He likes bugling!” you’re not like “how can I survive if a woman does not approve of me?????” you’re like “*shrug* her loss.”

I think this is broadly accurate in terms of dating advice, although I really want to expand it to also apply to romances aimed at women. Vulnerability is right, but I feel like there are a lot of things you can say about Edward Cullen but “not needy” is not one of them. Maybe “at least one of not-neediness or murder”? When I brought this up on Tumblr people were like “Ozy, romance novels are different from real life”, which is true. But I think the primary difference is that some things which are bad in real life, like stalking and a history of committing murder, can be romantic in stories because you know that it is not going to end with Bella feeling creeped out and uncomfortable that she’s being stalked or with Edward Cullen murdering Bella Swan. I don’t think it’s true that women are attracted to needy men but understand that in real life there are negative consequences that don’t exist in fiction. There is clearly something different going on here and I want to understand it.

My favorite story from this book is when the author goes out with one of his player buddies to try to figure out The Secret Of Women. His player buddy gets drunk and starts shouting “can I pee in your butt?” at every attractive woman who walks by. Most of them are horrified, but one of them starts talking to him about rimjobs, and they go home together. A week later, the author tries saying “can I pee in your butt?” to women. He does not get laid.

The moral of the story is that subtext matters more than text, and if your subtext is “I like saying gross shit because I think it’s funny, that is who I am, I don’t care whether you laugh or flee in horror”, that is attractive, and if your subtext is “I have unlocked the magic secret to pussy, please fuck me now”, that is not.

Models argues that when someone rejects you, they’re actually doing you a favor. For instance, a lot of men complain about women rejecting them for being short. But if she rejects you for being short, she is either not attracted to you or extremely shallow. Why do you want to date a shallow person who’s not attracted to you? You should be grateful they kicked themselves out of your dating pool so you don’t have to. This is basically abundance mindset. It is really really hard to get people who can’t get laid to have abundance mindset, and I hope Models’s framing would actually work.

Women can be divided into the categories receptive, unreceptive, and neutral. Unreceptive women have boyfriends, are moving out of the country tomorrow, have taken a vow of celibacy, are lesbians, don’t share your interests, don’t share your values, think you’re ugly, etc. If you’re not certain if a woman is unreceptive, ask her out and then you’ll know. It is best to assume that you are never ever ever ever ever going to change the mind of an unreceptive woman; even if you can, it’s not worth the effort. Shrug it off and move on.  Receptive women initiate with you or enthusiastically reciprocate your flirting. If you have a receptive woman, you escalate and move things forward.

Neutral women aren’t really sure whether they’re receptive to you or not yet; they’re a tentative yes. For most men, most women are neutral when they first meet them. A lot of men assume the right thing to do with neutral women is to avoid offending them by sticking to boring jokes and talking about the weather. This is completely wrong. The longer a woman stays neutral, the more likely it is that she will become unreceptive, because you are boring. In fact, the goal is to get neutral women to become receptive or unreceptive as quickly as possible, through expressing your non-neediness and vulnerability. That way, if she doesn’t like what you’re selling, you don’t have to waste any more time on her, and if she does, then you’re not going to have fucked it up by talking about the weather instead.

There are three important factors in getting laid. Your lifestyle, status, and looks affect what percentage of women are initially receptive to you.  Your boldness, extroversion, and willingness to actually fucking ask women out affect how many women you meet in the first place. Your charisma, flirting ability, and “game” affect what percentage of neutral women become receptive. Models argues that all men who have problems with women have problems in at least one area; most have problems with two, and a few unlucky people have problems with all three.

Lifestyle. The most important principle of lifestyle is that like attracts like. If you want to attract well-educated and successful women with strong opinions on wine, putting your cap on backwards and saying “BROOOOOOOOOOO” a lot will not help. If your heart only beats for metalheads, Sisters of Mercy and Edgar Allen Poe is probably not the right choice. This also applies on a belief level: if you believe that women don’t enjoy sex or that women are all evil, guess what kind of women you’re going to attract. That said, there are also things you can do that will improve romantic success for basically everyone, such as proper grooming, wearing clothes that signal your personality and actually fit, exercising, weight loss, adopting masculine body language and vocal tones, finding unique hobbies that you like, and developing and confidently stating your opinions. (He doesn’t say this, but I would suggest only doing this if they fit with your honest, non-needy, vulnerable self. But I think most guys are not like “my best self is a person who wears clothes that don’t fit!”, they just don’t know how to buy clothes.)

In this section, Models claims that men in general tend to care more about objective indicators of beauty such as waist-to-hip ratio, boob size, and facial symmetry than about subjective indicators like what a woman’s self-presentation is signalling. Typical mind fallacy about this issue, he proposes, is what explains the popularity of weightlifting, complaining about your height, and penis pills. Is that true? Man, other people’s brains are extremely weird.

Approach Anxiety. Lots of men are afraid of things like talking to women, flirting with women, kissing women, and having sex with women. They will generally rationalize why, actually, they shouldn’t approach women: they might say that all women are shallow and terrible (which is silly, because it is far more likely that you are screwed up than that hundreds of thousands of people are all screwed up in exactly the same way), or that they don’t really care about getting a date, or that they need to learn more before they can start. You have to identify your patterns and do the things you’re anxious about anyway; it can help to tell someone who’ll ride your ass about it. He also recommends limiting porn and masturbation so that you’re so horny you’ll ignore your anxiety. Practice accepting your anxiety, recognizing that it’s normal, reframing it as the nervous excitement of being about to do something high-stakes that you’re good at, and not even bothering to hide it from women you’re attracted to. Do exposure therapy to your fear: begin by doing things you’re a little nervous of repeatedly until you are no longer nervous, then try something a little harder. Always err on the side of boldness: boldness polarizes women and turns those “maybes” into “yes” or “no”. Finally, when you are doing something unusual like asking a strange woman you just met out on a date, always acknowledge that it is unusual: for instance, you might say “excuse me, this is kind of random, but I thought you were cute and wanted to say hi.”

Flirting. Models claims that men always communicate literally and don’t do subtext. I have talked to several men in my life [citation needed] and this is absolutely not true. However, I can definitely buy that men who suck at flirting and are buying this book Models are bad at subtext. Anyway, flirting is all about subtext. The difference between teasing and insults is whether the subtext is “I like you so much I trust that you will understand I don’t really mean this” or “I hate you.”

Lots of men are afraid of being creepy when flirting. No one ever manages to 100% avoid creeping out anyone; there are always awkward situations and miscommunications. It happens, and it is not the end of the world. Creepiness is behaving in a way that makes women feel insecure sexually. You can do this by escalating too fast or by having a subtext that isn’t matched to your text (you’re asking her about the book she’s reading and staring at her tits).

When in doubt, the best pickup line is “Hey, I thought you were cute and wanted to say hi.” Don’t bother about worrying about trying to get women not to flake on you; if a woman really wants to sleep with you, she’ll make it happen. If Brad Pitt asked her out, she wouldn’t forget. Avoid movie dates and dinner dates; instead try museums, concerts, walks in interesting places, dance classes, nightclubs or grabbing a drink somewhere, as fits your style. Find a venue close to your house. Try to do multiple things on a date; it builds a sense of getting to know the person. There’s also a lot of stuff about flirting, signals women give, etc. but this review is already a million words long so I am not going into it.

The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption: Evangelical Christians made up an entirely fictional orphan crisis and then decided it was really important that they all adopt children to help end this orphan crisis that they just made up. Naturally, basic economics continues to apply: if you have millions of dollars’ worth of demand for orphans, the supply will magically appear. Parents in many developing countries put their children in orphanages because they cannot afford to feed them but continue to visit and be involved in their children’s lives; these children are often adopted. Many parents in developing countries don’t understand the Western idea of adoption and instead round it to local concepts, such as “being sent to live with a rich relative to be educated and eventually bring money back to your family.” Occasionally children are just stolen.

Domestic adoptions are also horrifying. Many crisis pregnancy centers don’t just coerce women into not having abortions; they also coerce women into giving their children up for adoption. Some actively lie to birth mothers, claiming that their open adoption is legally enforceable when it isn’t or that they can’t take the adoption back because they already signed the paperwork when in reality they could. Others tell women that they are incompetent mothers who will hurt their babies unless they give them up for adoption, or that single parenting is always wrong.

Utah is one of the most ‘pro-adoption’ states in the country. What this means is that, by virtue of consenting to sex, an unmarried man is considered to be aware that he might conceive a child who might be put up for adoption and his silence is assumed to be consent. A birth father does not have to be notified that his child exists; he has to figure it out himself and then fight for the right to take care of his own biological child. If the woman gives birth in Utah, Utahan law applies, and some adoption agencies will move the birth mother to Utah so that the birth father doesn’t have to be notified.

Part of the problem, I think, is that there are a lot of people who want to adopt babies (both infertile people and evangelical Christians who believe in the entirely fictional orphan crisis). But there aren’t a lot of people who want to go through nine months of pregnancy and then not take care of a baby afterward; most people either want to not go through the pregnancy at all (and thus have an abortion) or raise their child. Of course, foster care

Normally, I am not viscerally moved by ineffective altruism. But every time I saw a dollar sign in this book it upset me. $65,000 per child to bring a child from the Ukraine to meet prospective adoptive families equals 19 children dead of malaria. $8,000 per child for adoption fees equals two more dead children.

[The next item talks about the Holocaust.]

Quiverfull: Inside The Christian Patriarchy Movement: Not a lot of new information for me, but then I’ve been interested in Quiverfull stuff for a couple of years and have a lot of ex-Quiverfull friends and so on.

One of the theologians who really created the idea of God not wanting you to use birth control was also a Holocaust denier. Then he read one of his Holocaust denial books explaining that the gas chambers were too small to kill as many people as the Allies reported had died. Then it occurred to him that many Jewish people were children. So he made a gas-chamber-sized space with couches and cushions, called together his children, told them to stand in the mock gas chamber, noticed that they fit, and started crying. He then spent much of the rest of his life writing books debunking Holocaust denialism.

Doug Phillips, one of the more famous Quiverfull writers, is a Jewish convert to evangelical Christianity. Between this and Milo Yiannopolous pissing off the Daily Stormer [link goes to Neo-Nazi website], I have to ask: is there literally any intellectual movement that doesn’t have a Jewish person writing for it?

[The next item contains material about dieting and weight loss.]

Nutrition: A Very Short Introduction: Wow! Nutrition makes a lot more sense than I thought it did! For instance, I previously know that abdominal fat had more negative health consequences than fat on your butt and thighs does, but apparently there is a reason! Butt and thigh fat evolved for fat storage and is metabolically inactive, while abdominal fat evolved to maintain body temperature and as such is metabolically more active, stimulating the production of glucose (whether or not it is needed) and hormones that antagonize the action of insulin. The entire book is like this: explanations for facts you previously knew about but didn’t know there was an explanation for.

In terms of actionable advice, this book recommends eating lots of vegetables and fruits, not eating a lot of processed food or restaurant meals, exercising regularly, avoiding fad diets, and avoiding excessive consumption of alcohol. Which everybody knew about already, but on the other hand if a Very Short Introduction to Nutrition book was full of facts people didn’t know about I would be concerned about the effectiveness of our public health education programs.

I wish this book would have addressed in more detail the subject of why it is so difficult for people to maintain weight loss. The author briefly mentions that an appropriate diet for weight loss maintenance is the same as a sensible diet for people who have been thin all along, but I feel like this fails to answer important questions like how come my husband and I are both eating absurd quantities of post-Valentine’s on-sale candy and yet he’s the only one with a belly.

[Here there be spoilers for Shoebox Project.]

Shoebox Project: Like all the best Marauders fic, it is stealth tragedy. Not, of course, that anything about Shoebox Project is sad: Shoebox Project is commendably fluffy, happy, light, full of witty conversations and shenanigans, and completely missing anything approaching a ‘plot’. But every so often James mentions that he wants to have tons of gross old-person sex with Lily and he probably won’t even think it’s gross because that’s how much he loves her, and then you have to put the fanfic down and sob because of your overwhelming feelings about every one of the Marauders.

(A lot of people are mistaken about this, because the movies inexplicably cast reasonably-aged people to play James and Lily, but James and Lily were only 21 when they died.)

I appreciate that the pranking is treated as being fairly morally ambiguous, and that Remus is shown as having ethical qualms about it but going along because he has a hard time standing up to his friends.

Honestly, Shoebox Project probably has my favorite Peter Pettigrew ever. He feels like he’s stupider and less charming than all his friends (and that’s kind of true), he feels like none of his friends feel very much motivation to hang around with him and just do it out of inertia (and that’s kind of true), and he feels utterly neglected now that they’ve graduated from school (and that’s absolutely true). And he doesn’t even have an explanation for why everyone is neglecting him, because he doesn’t know about the Order of the Phoenix, and he certainly doesn’t know that Remus and Sirius are banging and too busy being wrapped up in new relationship energy to talk to anyone. He becomes a Death Eater because they pay attention to him and they validate his loneliness and they offer an explanation for his problems that isn’t “I’m kind of a terrible human being.” Very relatable. Someone give Peter Pettigrew a hug.

Shoebox Project is famously unfinished, but I actually feel like the ending is a satisfying ending? I mean, you can tell they didn’t intend it to be the ending, but having Peter Pettigrew’s start of darkness as the last chapter is actually a nice resolution. Shoebox Project is about the fun, fluffy part of the Marauders’ lives, and Peter Pettigrew starting to go evil is where you can draw the line and go “yep, it’s over now.”

God, remember pre-Racefail when there was a ton of Discourse about how we need to Write Men Like They’re Men and so we got a bunch of characters being Realistically Misogynist and calling each other girls all the time? Good times, good times. Feels super-weird reading it when I’m more used to reading modern fanfiction in which Remus and Sirius are more likely to have a conversation about how asexuals need to be included in the Wizard Gay-Straight Alliance.

Vegetarianism: The Easy Way


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[Epistemic effort: I thought for five minutes about aspects of my life that make vegetarianism easy for me.]
[Linguistic note: I am using ‘vegetarianism’ inclusively to refer to both vegetarianism and veganism.]

A lot of people who care about animals aren’t vegetarian because they believe that being vegetarian is very hard or will otherwise harm their quality of life. A lot of other people are vegetarian, but find that it’s really hard: they’re sick, they’re struggling with temptation, and if they eat another fucking piece of tofu they will stick someone in the eye with a fork.

I think this is a mistake!

I became pescetarian when I was three years old. Since age twelve, I’ve bounced around from pescetarianism to veganism, and have currently settled on lacto vegetarianism. While vegetarianism has been difficult for me in the past, it’s really easy now! And it’s my opinion that for many people, after a few months of effort, vegetarianism can be easy too.

Should You Be Vegetarian At All?

Some people are ill-suited to vegetarianism. The well-being of animals does not outweigh the well-being of human beings, and if eating meat is necessary for your physical or mental health then there is absolutely nothing wrong with eating meat.

If you are vegetarian, you are leaving out most of one of the five major food groups (protein food). If you are vegan, you’re leaving out another one (dairy). It is perfectly possible to have a healthy diet without a major food group, with a little thought. However, the more limited your diet is, the more likely it is that you’ll have some kind of nutritional deficiency. Therefore, medical conditions that limit your diet will tend to make being vegetarian more difficult. If you can’t have vegetables, fruits, or grains, consider not becoming vegetarian. If you can’t eat soy, nuts, or beans– particularly if you can’t eat any of those three things– also consider not becoming vegetarian, since these are the primary sources of protein for vegetarians. If you have other major dietary constraints, consider not becoming vegetarian. If you decide you want to be vegetarian anyway, please see a nutritionist first; this is well beyond my advice-giving pay grade.

If you are a very picky eater, consider not becoming vegetarian. If your pickiness rules out fruit, vegetables, grains, soy, nuts, or beans, then healthy vegetarianism may be much harder for you than it is for other people. If you want to, you might try expanding your culinary horizons. Maybe you’ll like roasted vegetables? Maybe tofu’s not your thing, but edamame is great? Once your diet has expanded, you’ll be able to be vegetarian safely and healthfully.

If you have any sort of history of an eating disorder, please be thoughtful about whether vegetarianism is the right choice for you. Many people in recovery from eating disorders are vegetarian. But for some people, adopting a restricted diet can trigger more eating-disordered behavior. So know yourself.

Being Vegetarian Healthfully

On nutrition, I basically come from the Michael Pollan school: eat food that tastes good; eat a varied diet; eat lots of plants; eat packaged food and restaurant food in moderation; avoid becoming too hungry or too full; otherwise, don’t worry about it. If you happen to come from a different line of thought on nutrition, you may find my advice misguided. I am also not any sort of doctor, and this is not medical advice.

So the bad news about vegetarianism is that you can’t do the pure Michael Pollan thing. You are going to have to think about nutrients at least a little bit. The best resource I’ve found for vegetarian health is

Now, if you’re like me, you’re looking at that website and thinking to yourself “aaaaaaaa! Healthy vegetarianism is impossible! This is so complicated!” Relax. If you sat there balancing all your micronutrients for an omnivorous diet, it would also seem really complicated. But in reality, after a small bit of work, it is all quite simple.

Remember that it’s very possible vegetarianism will improve your health. For many people, going vegetarian means they consume more fruits and vegetables. Since desserts and processed food often contain eggs and dairy, veganism or lacto vegetarianism can be an easy way to moderate your consumption of those things. Vegetarianism is often a lot healthier than the standard American diet; it just requires a little bit of thought.

Here are the basic guidelines for being vegetarian or vegan without nutritional deficiencies:

  • Take a vitamin B12 supplement.
  • Consume dairy, eat calcium-fortified foods, or take a calcium supplement.
  • Consume dairy, eat vitamin-D-fortified foods, spend ten to twenty minutes outside between 10pm and 2 pm each day without sunscreen on a day where sunburn is possible, or take a vitamin D supplement.
  • Use iodized salt. If for health reasons you can’t have a lot of salt, eat dairy or take an iodine supplement.
  • Eat multiple servings each day of dairy, legumes (beans, soybeans, peas, lentils, peanuts, and their derivatives), seitan, quinoa, amaranth, pistachios, or pumpkin seeds.
  • High uncertainty: supplement 300 mg of DHA every one to three days; use oils that are low in omega-6, such as olive, avocado, peanut, or canola (cooked under low heat and for short periods); and consume three halves of a walnut, one teaspoon canola oil, one quarter teaspoon flaxseed oil, or one teaspoon ground flaxseeds daily.
  • High uncertainty: supplement creatine.

I know that looks like a lot! But if you break it down it’s really easy. There’s one supplement you have to remember to take. If you’re a lacto vegetarian and only care about things that are relatively certain, then you’re covered! Otherwise, you just have to find a brand of calcium- and vitamin-D-fortified soy milk or orange juice you like, toss your non-iodized salt if you have some, and figure out some good lentil recipes. A few months into being vegetarian, you won’t even think about it.

If you experience intense cravings for animal products, something is wrong. I don’t mean thinking “mm, that smells nice” when someone is cooking bacon here– that’s perfectly normal– but a strong physical desire for animal products. Intense cravings are often your body’s way of signaling that it is missing some nutrients. Even if you’re getting all your nutritional needs met, I believe in easy-mode vegetarianism, and using all your willpower to resist the mouthwatering deliciousness of a burger definitely does not qualify as easy. If you experience a craving, I would suggest taking a multivitamin, eating some high-lysine protein (legumes, seitan, quinoa, etc.) and eating something high in fat (avocado, nuts, olives, etc.). If you continue to crave whatever it is, just have some of it; a 99% vegan diet is much better for animals than falling off the wagon entirely. If you consistently find yourself craving a particular food, consider adding it to your diet regularly.

If you feel tired or sick all the time, if you’re depressed, or if you start having weird inexplicable symptoms like being really pale or having a sore near the side of your mouth, it might be a nutritional deficiency. Google your symptoms, or just pop a multivitamin. It is possible that you have a deficiency other than the ones that are of concern for most vegans. (For instance, when I went vegan for the first time, I got a B6 deficiency instead of a B12 deficiency, because I am a vitamin deficiency hipster.)

I would strongly advise against adopting a raw food, macrobiotic, or any other kind of highly limited diet. These diets increase your risk of a nutritional deficiency and (in the case of raw food) generally do not have enough calories to support a healthy person.

After this point, I am going to be talking about why I suggested the things I suggest; if this bores you, skip ahead to the next bolded bit.

The most important thing for vegetarians is vitamin B12. There are NO reliable, unfortified plant sources of vitamin B12. Because most omnivores eat far more B12 than they need, a vegan can live for many years off their body’s stored B12; however, it will eventually run out, and in the meantime you’re increasing your risk of heart disease and stroke. All vegans should supplement B12 or consume an adequate amount of B12-fortified foods. B12-fortified nutritional yeast which has been stored in a clear bin or plastic bag is not a good source of B12, because light damages B12. If you are a vegetarian who consumes bivalves, milk or eggs regularly, you may not have to supplement B12, but it is probably best to do so anyway for peace of mind. If you are not taking B12, be aware of the symptoms of mild and overt B12 deficiency. If you don’t supplement and you experience any sort of unexplained fatigue or depression, take some B12.

Vegans often do not get an adequate amount of calcium; it is difficult to get enough calcium without consuming milk or fortified foods. While it is theoretically possible to meet your calcium requirements with greens alone, that is really difficult for most people; on the other hand, drinking a calcium-fortified drink is super-easy. The vegan diet contains essentially no Vitamin D without supplementation and fortified foods. Your body can manufacture all the Vitamin D it needs from twenty minutes daily of full sun exposure; this is probably the easiest method for most people, at least during the summer. However, people who live in cloudy places, hate leaving the house, or are concerned about wrinkles should instead supplement. (Neither Vitamin D nor calcium is a concern for people who regularly drink milk.)

Iodine is typically inconsistent in plant foods. You can get it from seaweed, but sometimes seaweed give you too much iodine. Fortunately, the US has public health measures designed to combat iodine deficiency! A quarter teaspoon of iodized salt daily provides all the iodized salt you need. That is about the amount a normal person puts on their food, but if you’re my husband you can use this as an excuse to put enormous quantities of salt all over your lentils.

There are nine essential amino acids that your body can’t make itself. Since your body uses amino acids to build protein in fairly consistent ratios, a deficiency in any one amino acid can cause you to not get enough protein. (It is not necessary to ‘mix’ amino acids at a single meal, as was previously believed; you just need to make sure to get enough amino acids over the course of a few days.) The amino acid vegetarians are most likely to not get enough of is lysine. If you get enough lysine, you’re probably going to get enough protein. Therefore, be sure to eat lysine-heavy meals. If you are lazy like me, the easy way to remember this is “eat lots of legumes”, but there are other things that are also high in lysine (like pumpkin seeds, which are also delicious). considers vitamin A to be a vitamin that needs special attention in vegan diets. However, sweet potatoes, carrots, and dark leafy green vegetables are all rich in chemicals the body can convert to vitamin A; it seems to me that consumption of a reasonable amount and variety of vegetables will cause the average person to eat sufficient vitamin A.

Omega-3 fatty acids are a complicated issue which are not very well understood; they may have a protective effect against heart disease, cognitive problems, and depression. If you’re concerned, supplement 300 mg of DHA every one to three days (depending on exactly how concerned you are); use oils that are low in omega-6, such as olive, avocado, peanut, or canola (cooked under low heat and for short periods); and consume three halves of a walnut, one teaspoon canola oil, one quarter teaspoon flaxseed oil, or one teaspoon ground flaxseeds daily.

A few small studies suggest that supplementing creatine in a vegetarian diet increases IQ, even though it does not appear to increase IQ for non-vegetarians. Creatine also helps build muscles for both vegetarians and non-vegetarians. The evidence is low-quality, but since IQ is of particular interest for many of my readers and creatine is cheap and safe, it might be worth adding.

These Are A Few Of My Favorite Foods

You might be thinking about becoming vegetarian, but you have no idea what to eat!

First of all, you don’t have to give up many of your favorite snacks. Know the Accidentally Vegan Food List. Love the Accidentally Vegan food list. Become one of those obnoxious people constantly telling everyone that Oreos are vegan. But honestly I think that veganism looks a lot less scary when you know you will be accompanied by Ritz crackers and Swedish Fish. (One of several species of vegan marine animals!)

But I’m not going to lie to you: eating delicious vegetarian food is going to involve a little bit of a change in how you eat. I know some people who become vegetarian by eating identical meals, except they swap out the hamburger for a vegan substance that is almost, but not entirely, quite unlike meat. Now, I’m not bashing all fake meat: some of it is absolutely delicious! But having gardenburgers all the time, in my opinion, can be best described by words like “sad” and “depressing” and “a total waste because there is so much delicious, delicious plant food that is not pretending to be meat at all.”

In my experience, vegetarian food tends to taste better if it’s food that omnivores also eat. Skip the soy ice cream and try a sorbet instead. For your protein food at a meal, try black beans and rice, microwavable bean burritos, lentil soup, hummus and pita chips, or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Vegan food also tends to taste better if it’s in the same genre as the meat food you’re trying to replace, without trying to pretend to be the food. For instance, try a Portobello mushroom in your burger: it’s clearly in the genre of “savory grilled umami thing”, but no one is going to mistake a Portobello mushroom for meat. Sorbet is similar here: it’s in the genre of “sweet frozen thing”, but it’s not trying to be ice cream.

Steer clear of recipes that are like “here’s my vegan, fat-free, sugar-free, nut-free, gluten-free, paleo, macrobiotic birthday cake!” While it is sometimes true that recipes like that are good, in general, it is like “I am in awe of the effort you have put into this but also I want to go vomit.”

What about the weird vegetarian foods? It is true that no one is going to make you try any of the weird vegetarian food: I myself have had quinoa maybe five times in my life and until early last year pronounced it “kwin-oh-a”. (It’s “kween-wa.” [ETA: I have been informed it is actually “keen-wa” which I think proves my damn point.) However, it is also true that edamame with iodized salt, tofu stir-fry, and tempeh-broccoli saute are some of life’s little joys. So I’d suggest, if you like cooking, picking up a vegetarian cookbook and trying a few of the recipes that have ingredients you don’t recognize. If you’re intimidated by the weird vegetarian food, consider doing Meatless Mondays for a while before you jump into vegetarianism; it’s a lower-stakes way of figuring out how to cook tofu so it doesn’t taste like crap. (Sauce. The answer is enormous amounts of sauce.)

A word of advice: avoid overly strict veganism. Avoiding the five hundred additives that come from animals massively limits what you can eat, makes your diet way more boring and stressful, makes omnivores less likely to be vegetarian because they think it’s hard and stressful, and doesn’t actually have that much benefit for animals. The vast majority of the benefit you provide animals through being vegetarian comes from avoiding meat and eggs. (You can also flavor food with honey guilt-free.)

But I Can’t Live Without…

So you definitely want to become vegetarian, but you don’t think you could live without smoked salmon. Or sushi. Or bacon. Or macaroni and cheese. Or brie. Or baked goods.

If the thing you can’t live without is a dairy product or bivalve, you’re in luck! Bivalves are, ethically speaking, a kind of plant, and dairy cows produce an enormous amount of milk per cow, making the suffering-per-pound of dairy the best of any animal food. (All the vegans who miss cheese sigh in unison and immediately become lacto vegetarians.) Go and eat cheese and oysters with my blessing.

If the thing you can’t live without is bacon, you have more of a problem. So in my experience, favorite foods fall into one of two categories. Sometimes, people see the food they like and go “ooh! That food is delicious! I want some!” Other times, people have the thought “mm, I could really use some bacon right now” pop into their head.

So I’d suggest going two or three months without bacon. Ask your housemates to keep bacon out of the house. This is crucial! You’ll never be able to tell which category bacon is in if your housemates’ bacon is constantly prompting you with “mmmm, bacon.” In this time, of course, make absolutely certain that you’re eating enough fat and protein: you don’t want to assume that you need bacon when what you actually need is a huge serving of guacamole.

If it turns out that after two months without bacon you still, in fact, want bacon, go ahead and eat the bacon. A 99% vegetarian is a hell of a lot better than a 50% vegetarian. If an occasional Sunday breakfast with bacon improves your life, go ahead and eat the fucking bacon.

Eating Out While Vegetarian

Eating out while vegetarian is easy if you follow two simple rules. First, only eat at restaurants with an ethnicity in the name. Mexican, Greek, Thai, Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Ethiopian… whatever it is, it probably has much better and more filling vegetarian options than unlabeled restaurants. (The one big exception to this rule is French food, which is generally bad for vegetarians in my experience.) You might say “but Ozy! This restaurant is a vegetarian restaurant! Can’t I eat there?” While not all vegetarian restaurants are terrible, in my experience they mostly tend to cater to an audience that wants to eat soy that has, through hope and prayer, been transformed into something that vaguely resembles meat. There are some good restaurants that do this (Garden Fresh Chinese in Palo Alto is amazing) but mostly it is sad and depressing.

Second, get used to being annoying to the waiter. Even the ethnicity restaurants will often have cheese or eggs in their meals. Don’t be afraid to ask “is there any meat/cheese/egg in this?” (There is meat in the most surprising things. I myself once ordered macaroni-and-cheese at a diner and there was bacon in it, of all things.) And don’t be afraid to say “bean burrito, no sour cream, no cheese.” Finding something to eat at an American restaurant is often an exercise in creativity. For instance, if there’s a chicken quesadilla, it’s usually possible to order a quesadilla without chicken. Sometimes it even comes with veggies! Of course, if the waiter has had to put up with your nonsense, tip generously.

Finally, many people adopt a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy about incidental eggs and milk in baked goods: while they don’t bake with eggs themselves and they avoid anything obviously egg-y like French toast (or, God forbid, an omelet), they also don’t question the waiter intensely about whether the bread has eggs in it. This can be a simple way to make eating out much easier. It also makes sense to adjust your level of don’t-ask-don’t-tell depending on your situation: it probably makes sense to be stricter about incidental eggs if you’re at Sweet Tomatoes than if you’re at an airport and your flight to Europe leaves in fifteen minutes and you’re ravenous.

Dealing With Unsympathetic Omnivores

In my experience, the single biggest factor affecting how easy it is to be vegetarian is whether the people around you are vegetarian or vegetarian-friendly.

The hardest way to be vegetarian is if everyone you know is incredibly defensive omnivores. You have probably heard about asshole vegetarians (and they do exist, I’ve met them). But far more common– if far less complained about, due to their innocuousness to the average person– are asshole omnivores. You might suddenly find yourself having conversations like this:

You: Excuse me, are there eggs in this? I’m vegan.
Omnivore: Why are you vegan?
You: I’m not sure that this is an appropriate topic for dinner-table conversation.
Omnivore: Come on, I want to know. Is it about your health? Or the environment?
You: (sighing) Well, there’s a lot of animal cruelty on factory farms–

You might discover a shocking number of people who have suddenly acquired nutrition degrees and now know that it is completely impossible to have sufficient protein without eating meat. (Bonus points if those people never appear to eat a vegetable.) You might get guilt-tripped about how Grandma will have her heart absolutely broken unless you eat her turkey at Thanksgiving and why are you being so completely unreasonable as to decide that you are in charge of what you put in your own body. There might be people who don’t serve a single thing you can eat at the entire dinner and then get mad at you for not eating. You might experience an extraordinary number of jokes about how your tomato had a home and a family and you can hear its little tomato screams. Many, many, many people may want to tell you about the wonders of bacon.

First, it is important to identify whether you are dealing with a true asshole omnivore. Some people are just dickbags, and if you are dealing with a known dickbag feel free to skip this step. But if you know your friend or family member is generally reasonable, try bringing up the subject in a nonjudgmental way first. Maybe you can explain how lysine is the most important amino acid to worry about for vegetarians and show them how you’re eating lots of beans, thus reassuring them that you’ve done your research and you’re not going to suddenly die of malnutrition on them. Maybe you can say something like “I understand we disagree about vegetarianism, but I think it’s wrong to eat animals. So when I’m having a moment of temptation about the sushi, I want you to support me and not try to get me to do something I think is wrong– just like I’d do the same for you.” Or something like “I know it means a lot to you that everyone enjoys your food, Grandma. But I can’t enjoy turkey if I’m thinking about the conditions the animal is raised in the whole time, and I know you wouldn’t want me to pretend to enjoy your cooking. Let’s look through your cookbooks and see if we can find something I can enjoy too.”

There are basically three ways you can respond to asshole omnivores. First, you can try to argue with them. I suggest picking up a copy of the Animal Activist’s Handbook if you’re planning on trying argument; the subject is too long to go into here.

Second, you can practice your best icy Miss Manners voice and say “I don’t really want to talk about this.” Or “This subject isn’t very pleasant. Let’s talk about Star Wars.” Or, in extreme circumstances when a person is behaving in a truly unconscionable way, “Wow” followed by a long and awkward silence. It can help to internalize that omnivores are being assholes to you for their own personal reasons– maybe guilt about eating meat, maybe equating food with love, maybe they’re unhappy about weird people, maybe a hippie bit them as a small child and they’ve been frightened of lentils ever since. Whatever. Point is, it’s not about you. It’s their own shit and for some reason they’ve decided to throw their own shit all over you. The person who’s throwing shit is the one who’s being rude, not you, who is just trying to get through dinner without starving to death.

Third, you can give in while you’re around them. I don’t think this is an unreasonable thing to do! If eating turkey will save you an infinite amount of grief from your relatives about upsetting Grandma and you feel like it’s not worth it to put up a fight, eat the turkey. As I always say, a 99% vegetarian is a hell of a lot better than a 100% omnivore. That said, if you try this strategy, watch for feelings of resentment and guilt– if it winds up poisoning your relationship with Grandma, it might be easier to try to explain your point of view to her.

Whatever you do, if you’re surrounded by unsupportive omnivores, it’s important to find vegetarian friends who can support you. If in a moment of weakness you’re considering eating an entire ham, you want someone who’ll say “hey, let’s go out for vegan Chinese instead”, not “oh come on, eat the ham, it’s not going to kill you, ham is delicious.”

Avoiding Temptation 

In my experience, I’ve found being lacto vegetarian and living with people who are mostly on the vegetarian spectrum to be tremendously easier than being lacto vegetarian and living with omnivores.

I am very bad at resisting temptation. If egg-filled baked goods and delicious sushi are there to be eaten, I will probably eat them. However, if they aren’t there, prompting me with their deliciousness, I am almost certainly too lazy to bother going to seek them out.

Right now, my house has three lacto vegetarians (including me), one vegan, and two omnivores, and the only person who cooks a meaningful amount is lacto vegetarian. When people buy candy and share it with the rest of the house, it is usually something I can eat. The delicious tempting snacks on the counter are peanut butter pretzel nuggets, which are both totally vegan and 100% amazing. When the housemate who cooks makes cookies or garlic bread or pasta, they are always egg-free and meat-free. And when I open the fridge there isn’t any fish staring at me and reminding me of the deliciousness of salmon.

Therefore, particularly for novice vegetarians and vegetarians who have a low level of willpower, I recommend trying to live with other vegetarians or with people who consume a primarily plant-based diet. This is particularly important if you share meals with someone. If you share meals with an omnivore, try to convince them to adopt a plant-based diet at home or to primarily consume meat you don’t like very much. It’s possible that you and the people you share meals with have totally incompatible food needs– they might object to all vegetables on the grounds of taste, have one of the health conditions I talked about earlier, or simply believe that vegetarianism is unreasonable. In that case, being vegetarian is likely to be much harder than it would otherwise be, and I don’t have a lot of good advice.

Of course, the problem with living with vegetarians is that part of the benefit of being vegetarian is modeling vegetarianism for omnivores, and if all your friends are vegetarian you will not have this positive influence. I suggest continuing to befriend omnivores but not living with them unless they don’t cook very much.

Meat Is Not Food

My biggest tip for easy vegetarianism is to convince your brain that meat is not food.

There are a variety of interesting things I believe on a system one level. For instance, restaurants typically serve one to three dishes of actual food (and it is very strange and overwhelming when they choose to serve more). Grocery stores devote a puzzling amount of floor space to refrigerating non-food items. When people refer to eating “chicken nuggets” in conversation, they’re referring to vegan chicken nuggets.

All of this means that eating meat doesn’t even occur to me as a possible choice. It is not food. Why would I go around eating not food when there is so much delicious food available?

If you can swing it, becoming viscerally disgusted by meat can help a lot. Think about the fact that you’re eating an animal corpse. Go read Jonathan Foer’s Eating Animals, bookmark all the grossest bits, and reread them regularly. I find that naturally becoming viscerally disgusted by meat happens over time, but that it tends to take a very long time, perhaps a decade of not eating a particular thing. So trying to make it shorter can help.

On Mommyblogging



[content note: brief mention of child abuse]

I see a lot of criticism of mommyblogging as being disrespectful of children’s privacy. (Here’s a pretty typical article.) I think I have a unique perspective on this, because I am one of the small handful of people who are currently adults who have firsthand personal experience with being written about as children.

My mother was the editor of our local parenting magazine. Every doctor’s and dentist’s office in the tricounty area had a copy. And every month, my mother wrote an editor’s note, which was almost always about me and my sister.

It was awesome.

We were famous! I have fond memories of getting my mom’s magazine each month and turning to the pages that were all about me. I remember bringing one of my mother’s columns in for show-and-tell and the other children were extremely impressed that my life was the subject of a whole story in a real magazine, like I was the Backstreet Boys or something.

And as an adult… my childhood is really well-documented compared to most people’s childhoods. It’s really cool that there is an essay about every month of my sister’s and my life, spanning nearly a decade. I’ve occasionally read them and been reminded of things that happened in my childhood that I don’t remember (“oh yeah! I used to lie on my stomach on the swingset and pretend I was flying! That was really fun.”)

It’s true that my opinion is probably somewhat biased by the fact that no one bullied me about it. On the other hand, people definitely knew that my mom wrote articles about me, and I was bullied a lot, but I was not bullied on that specific topic. Children, in general, don’t bother to read parenting magazines, so they never found out unless I told them. And everyone I told thought it was nifty! I actually think that is probably a really common response to “and also tens of thousands of strangers are reading articles about me”.

My mother did not use best practices for mommyblogging, in my opinion. For instance, I had no ability to veto columns, which I think is a good practice which I intend to adopt once I have children and want to write about them. But in spite of this, I don’t feel like it was a violation of my privacy. I think that was mostly because my mother made reasonable decisions about what she wrote about. She didn’t talk about my embarrassing medical problems, or my horrible grades, or her feelings of frustration and anger towards me (although those no doubt existed), or the time she caught me jerking off. She wrote about my involvement in theater, my interest in books, my happy relationship with my sister, and my vegetarianism. None of those are things a reasonable person would be ashamed of others knowing.

Of course, a lot of mommybloggers behave in a really unconscionable way. You shouldn’t compare your children to mass murderers or write about how you like one child better than others or fantasize about beating your children. If you do, you should definitely do it anonymously and never tell your children, except maybe in an appropriately contextualized way when they’re adults. (“This was a dark time in my life, and of course I love you and would never want to hurt you. I think this sort of impulse is very common among parents and doesn’t necessarily mean they actually want to beat their children.”) But I think that condemning mommyblogging in general is going too far.

Many writers have a natural desire to write about their experiences. When you’re the primary caregiver of children, a lot of your experiences are going to be about children. Being a hardliner about mommyblogging is essentially saying that writers of personal essays should take two decades off if they want to have kids. That is a pretty fucking significant cost, and even more so if they rely on writing as a source of income.

There are also costs for non-writing parents. It’s really natural, when you’re having a new experience, to want to read about other people going through the same experience. Personal essays from other people having a particular experience can be validating, reassuring you that your experience is normal and other people have gone through the same thing. They can help prepare you for the challenges that lie ahead. They can help you put your feelings into words or develop new frameworks for understanding your experiences. It would be sad if these essays existed for physical disability, neurodivergence, founding a startup, being unemployed, dating, having a wedding, writing a book, weightlifting, and running the Boston Marathon, and parenting was the one area of human life excluded. Parenting books talk about diapering, but personal essays talk about projectile poop. Parenting books talk about how people with mental illnesses can be fine parents, but personal essays talk about the guilt and shame when you explain the scars on your arm to your five-year-old. Parenting books promise you that you will have a happy and loving relationship with your teenager, but personal essays talk about the frustration of watching the child you love grow up to become a stranger.

Here are my suggestions for parents who are considering writing about their children:

  • Don’t write anything about your kid that you wouldn’t write about your spouse. Embarrassing medical issues? Nope. Feelings of rage and contempt? Nope. Comparisons to serial killers? Honestly, what the fuck is wrong with you, no.
  • If the child is old enough to have an opinion, ask for their permission before you publish anything about them. If they can read, let them read articles about themselves before you post them.
  • In a lot of nonfiction essays, the anecdotes do not have to, technically speaking, be “true”. Even if you are talking about your feelings when your own child’s projectile poop ruined your nicest dress shirt, you can totally talk about this other parent you know and his dress-shirt incident. Maybe change the dress shirt to nice pants! Maybe he was using cloth diapers when you use disposables! The minor irrelevant details you can change are endless! (This is also an excellent way to steal other people’s anecdotes without them feeling like you’ve invaded their privacy. If you change enough things they might not even realize it’s about them.)