Not A Psychic

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to get involved in the Science and Engineering Challenge, a University of Newcastle initiative to get high school students thinking about careers in (you guessed it) science and engineering.

My task for the two day competition was to supervise and score the students participating in the “Future Power” challenge. This was one of 7 activities we ran throughout the day, which also included catapult, hovercraft and bridge building. The aim of my activity involved supplying power to a city and making the most money. ALL of the kids (as far as I can tell) enjoyed the challenge and there was a lot of excitement buzzing through the room as teams raced to complete their task.

Due to a bit of an administrative hiccup, some of the students had been told they would be attending a building activity when they were in fact scheduled to spend their afternoon with me and 8 power boards, which looked like this:

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Pretty daunting at first, right (except for the fluffy headband I guess)? Hence I made a point during my task brief to the students that I’d give them plenty of time to learn how to use the equipment, and that I’d come and talk to each team individually before we got started.

A certain cluster of girls took an instant dislike to me and my power boards. We were not what they were expecting and they weren’t having any of it. As I worked my way closer to their table, I could hear them complaining loudly. I approached them tentatively…

“So, how are you going? Do you have any questions?”

The ringleader folded her arms and huffed at me: “Miss, we don’t get it. It’s too hard. We want to build stuff.”

The other girls nodded enthusiastically in agreement.

And in a moment of sheer eloquence and confidence that I will likely never re-live, I replied:

“Well, it’s just as well you don’t get it already because you only just got here and you haven’t even tried. If you already got it, then it would mean you had psychic powers and I’d probably have to hand you over to the government so they could do crazy experiments on you.”

Unfortunately I didn’t get a laugh (unless you count my laugh), but I did win enough favour to be able to sit down with them without getting evil eyed into the next dimension. By this point, some of the other teams were getting pretty into it, yelling (nicely, mostly) over the top of their boards at each other. Surely enough, once they took the time and energy to try and understand what was going on, the girls grasped the concept and were keen to get started with the competition.

I was reminded of this incident today when I sat down to plan a series of experiments. I felt anxious, frustrated and annoyed with myself for taking so long to plot it all out. I wanted to give up, go home…

But wait a minute. Of course it was taking me a long time. I had never done it before. It was always going to take time and energy to think it out properly. I was never going to be able to jump into this without committing myself to understanding it first.

I’m not a psychic. And just as well,really.

roswell

Ode to the Things I Am Not

For the less observant among you, I’m just going to point out: it’s been a long ol’ time since my last post.

Since that last post I have been back and forth between the idea of “Coming Out” and “Carrying On Regardless”. I think Coming Out is on for a winner because hey, look, I’m sitting at my desk and writing, which is something I have not been capable of doing for a while.

Often people talk about the trigger for their depression, but I really didn’t have one. It was probably a slow starter, prompted forward my on-going struggles with anxiety.

Every Instagram selfie was a person I couldn’t be, every article on Twitter something I could never write, every Facebook post an experience I could never have. If that sounds pathetic, imagine how it feels. I attended a workshop on academic writing and had to leave a few minutes in because the guy kept talking to the audience as though we were capable. I know (or my anxiety knows) that I am far from capable.

My anxiety got to the point where just opening a Word document would send me into a panic attack (yes, a few awkward moments at work), or the idea of trying a new experiment would make breathing difficult. I would be afraid to leave the house and developed a near phobia of my workplace. I would wake up in the night sobbing uncontrollably at the thought of having to try and get something, anything achieved during the next work day.

But then I stopped caring. I stopped trying to go to work, I stopped trying to go outside and I stopped trying to do the things which I knew would make me feel better. My anxiety had made a friend in the form of depression. Hey, buddy.

I went home to visit family and thought very seriously about staying in my home country. It was even recommended to me by a health professional. But part of me knew that running away from my problems wouldn’t make solving them any easier. It would probably making returning to work even more difficult.

For a long time I was in denial. I wasn’t depressed, I was just lazy. I wasn’t anxious, I was just vain and self-conscious. I had three different health professionals give me the diagnosis, yet I was still convinced that it was my fault for being a lazy attention seeker. This is what anxiety does. It makes you doubt yourself, and it can make you hate yourself.

It was only once I started to get better, and read some of my journal entries back to myself that I realised how real my depression is. It’s hard to write that in present tense because sometimes I go through these waves of improvement where I can really feel like myself again. But it’s still there. I still have a Mental Illness.

It means a lot that I was able to sit and write something tonight. Thanks for reading and please take care of yourselves and your friends.

A Date with The Doctor

About a month ago, I spotted Dr Karl at a book signing in my local shopping centre.

Part of me was desperate to talk to him and tell him how awesome he was. But part of me knew that he must get so sick of people fan splurging all over him. The second part of me won out, and I left the shopping centre feeling somewhat proud that I had made a very grownup decision.

Later that evening, I was harbouring a toddler-esque resentment of my grownup decision. I sat sulking on Twitter, scrolling through Dr Karl’s feed, inwardly scolding myself for missing out on the opportunity to fan splurge on THE Dr Karl. As a reflection of this inner turmoil, I somewhat-joke tweeted:

Dear @DoctorKarl, I want your job.

Later that evening, my game of Scrabble (no, really) was interrupted by my phone.

karl tweet

Several weeks later, I rolled up at the ABC in Sydney and presented myself to the receptionist.

“I…I’m here to see…Dr Karl?”

“OK, sure just sign in here”

There was a space for “Host Staff Member” on the slip he had handed me.

“Erm…I…I don’t know how to spell his last name.”

He laughed. “That’s OK. Just take a seat over there and I’ll track him down for you.”

He handed me an ABC Visitor Pass and I wondered over to the sofas he had indicated.  I immediately set about trying to take a stealthy selfie of me and my pass, figuring it would take the receptionist a while to find my host. Caught up in awkward angles and unflattering close-ups, my selfie taking was interrupted almost immediately.

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“He’s in the coffee shop; you can go and meet him there.”

I find my way to the coffee shop without embarrassing incident, and am beckoned over to Dr Karl’s table by The Man Himself. (He’s wearing an Americana print shirt with a Route 66 belt buckle, for those of you who are interested. NB You should ALL be interested).

Karl shakes my hand and introduces me to the two other people at the table, his wife and his “body guard” (a slight, short-haired lady, who I assume is in fact his publicist…but she could just have a mean right hook, what do I know?). They are discussing titles for this year’s book. Karl will be writing his 38th book this year, and they settled on:

You’re Kidding Right, I Definitely Do Not Have The Authority Or Permission To Talk About That

After coffee, Karl gives me a Brief History of the ABC Ultimo Building. He moves with purpose and a near constant commentary of our surroundings. At this point in the day, this commentary regards the age and orientation of the building. However, at other stages of the day, it will instead focus on the pattern of the traffic lights, the speed of the elevator we’re standing in or who is currently walking past the recording booth. It’s actually very comforting in an odd sort of way. He takes me up to the third floor balcony space, where he can point out the ABC satellite dish.

“How long does it take for a typical communications satellite to orbit the Earth?”

“Errrrm I don’t know? Sorry.”

“That’s OK, it’s only one of the greatest achievements of mankind, why should you know? There are other things to think about, like the Kardashians.”

I didn’t have much time to think about how I felt about being spoken to like this, as Karl was already moving on with more detail about the technicalities of the ABC broadcasting systems…most of which goes over my head, as I am busy nodding and smiling*. He even leads me into the high security main control room, warning me not to touch any of the buttons or cables.

As Karl sets up for his ABC 612 Brisbane segment, I am left with the guys in the transmission control room , as they tell me about their jobs keeping the entire country in touch with the ABC. They are quick to remind me that this task is a bit tricker in Australia than the UK, a country which can fit inside Victoria. Later in the day, Karl tells me that he enjoys having his “Tardis” (isolated soundproofed room) in such close proximity to these guys as he has a lot of respect for their profession and expertise. No kidding.

I am directed into Karl’s Tardis, where he is sat with his laptop open and Skype running. He is about to go on air and one of the producers is typing messages to Karl on Skype, writing out some of the questions they have been texted, tweeted, emailed or called in. This is the first time I realise that Karl has literally no time to research the answers to the questions he is asked. Within a minute of Karl and the producer typing their “Good Mornings”, Karl is live with Steve Austin and answering questions about solar panel efficiency, towel drying and weight loss. Initially I thought the producer would continually type out questions on Skype for Karl to select, but often he was given no choice of which question to answer. Dr Karl is a sodding enigma.

After the ABC 612 segment, we dash upstairs to the Triple J studios to join Zan Rowe for a one-hour Q&A session with callers to the radio show. Karl is quick to tell Zan off for partying too hard over the weekend at Beat the Drum, and they are left with about 45 seconds to talk about some of the callers they’ve had so far. With Zan’s show, the guys do get a break every few minutes while she puts a record on, and while they do use that time to discuss the upcoming calls, there isn’t much picking and choosing. Karl’s happy to tackle just about everything (however I did get the feeling that younger kids often got a preference…so feel free to recruit some younger siblings/ nieces/ nephews/ cousins/ passing school children if you are really desperate to get on the show). Although Karl was happy to answer any question, it’s pretty important to note that, like any half decent scientist, he knows when to say those magical words, “I don’t know!”.

A lot of the questions have obviously been brought on by the Australian summer, as sweat and sunburn make a few appearances. During an explanation about UV, Karl tells us:

“UV-A causes Ageing, UV-B causes sun-Burn and UV-C causes Cancer.”

A couple of seconds later, my phone buzzes as my supervisor has sent me an angry text message:

nikola text

I show Karl during one of the music breaks, and he looks a bit concerned. He asks that Nikola send him some references and he’ll have to do some reading. When Nikola sends the papers through a few minutes later, he thanks me enthusiastically. This guy loves his scientific literature. He tells me he’ll read it through and correct himself next week.

As the show comes to a close, Karl and Zan move outside of the studio to take their weekly picture. A few awkward moments pass as I’m unsure whether I’m supposed to be IN the picture or taking it. I’m more than flattered when Zan and Karl usher me between them and one of the producers emerges to take our photo. Which is now my phone, Twitter and Facebook background picture. Obviously.

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Karl and I have lunch together, and he asks me about my PhD project. We talk about why melanoma incidence in Australia is so high, and why it has such chemoresistance tendencies. This is the one and only time I feel as though it’s ME educating HIM, although he could just have been humouring me. The UV thing has obviously piqued his interest, and he presses me to tell him everything I know about the differences in wavelengths. He seems almost as disappointed as me that I can’t really help him out. I begin to feel as though every other thing I say to Doctor Karl is, “I don’t know,” and I apologise for my stupidity. He tells me,

“You’re not stupid, you’re just ignorant in some areas. There’s a big difference between stupidity and ignorance.”

Again, I’m not given too much time to dwell on how this makes me feel, as he moves on to tell me about ACTUAL stupid people, like climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers, as well as conspiracy theorists.

We have another hour before his next show, but Karl has scheduled reading for this time: he reads over $10,000 worth of scientific literature a year. I tell him how impressed I am by his memory, and he tells me he actually has a “terrible memory”, and he has several mechanisms to help it along. Firstly, he has an extensive filing system on his laptop. When he reads something interesting, the coupling of reading with the action of filing helps him to remember. Secondly, he tries to write science stories as often as he can, always with the intention to publish. I ask him how much sleep he gets and I’m kind of pissed off when he tells me, “8 hours.”

Karl lends me some magazines to read (National Geographic and Scientific American Mind), and I trot off to entertain myself for the next hour. Inspired by Karl’s dedication to science, I put down my smartphone, get out my notebook and attempt to really try to learn SOMETHING in the next hour. Note to self: it’s hard to focus when you are buzzing from exhaustive fan-splurge.

We dash out for coffee. Without asking, Karl orders me an espresso and is somewhat distraught when I ask for a flat white instead. He insists that I at least TRY his, and justifies that his coffee must be nicer than mine because I’m not making “MMMMMM” noises anywhere near as loud as him, nor gesticulating anywhere near as wildly. As if to make a point, he draws me the chemical structure of caffeine, alongside that of theo-bromine (the “active ingredient” in cacao). They look remarkably similar, and, literally translated, theo-bromine means, “food of the Gods”. I ask Karl to sign his structures and he obliges (see, even HE doesn’t know how to spell his last name).

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We dash back into the ABC with about 30 seconds to spare before he’s live with Rhod Sharp on BBC Radio Five Live (fun fact: Rhod is actually broadcasting from Massachusetts, USA live to his listeners in the UK). The show goes for an hour, plenty of time for Karl to educate us on global warming, methods of investigating the Earth’s core, human cartilage, satellite highways and cheese dreams (NB Not actually A Thing). It’s during this show that I realise that Karl’s earlier Kardashian comment (and several others which could have caused offence) is really just part of his humour. He’s just so fast that you don’t often have time to realise that he’s being funny. At one point, Karl suggests that we stop women from waring out their cartilage by carrying them around everywhere. But in the next breath he’s telling us about dietary supplements which can actually aid cartilage health. Neither the host of the radio show nor the listener had time to laugh, because he’s tells these “jokes” with such confidence in exactly the same tone and manner as he when he talks science.

There are two more shows in the day, half an hour with ABC 105.7 Darwin, as well as half an hour with ABC 720 Perth. In the brief periods in between shows, Karl is replying to tweets (he endeavors to reply to every question) and emails as well as reading/ filing science articles. It’s during one of these shows (forgive my memory) that someone calls in to ask about something (?), only for Karl to respond,

“I’m sorry, that’s one of my areas of ignorance. We all have areas of ignorance, and that’s mine.”

…and I’m comforted once more. He really didn’t mean anything offensive when he had called me ignorant at lunch time, he was being purely logical. This is not the only occasion throughout the day when Karl is humble; one radio host introduces him as a, “genius”, and is quickly corrected. The average IQ is 100, and Karl’s IQ is just 110. And when I complimented him on his memory earlier in the day, again he was quick to “correct” me (I’m still extremely impressed).

As we pack away for the day, I am regaled with instructions of how to recognise a “herpetologist” (a person who studies reptiles and amphibians will usually have a missing tip from one of their finger), as well as a brief description of Karl’s two daughters (one in high school, and another has just got a job in her chosen field, fashion and textiles).

We bid our farewells, and Karl thanks me again for bringing some more facts about UV to his attention. I give him one last fan-splurge (THANKS SO MUCH FOR THE OPPORTUNITEEEEE!). He shakes my hand, I hand in my precious visitor pass and wonder back out onto the Sydney streets, day-dreaming about satellites, cheese dreams and ejaculatory sneezes.

*I’m truly sorry that I didn’t understand what was going on. It was so clear that this was one of Karls’ favourite topics but Physics has always been my weak point. I know that’s no excuse. And I have been reading up on telecommunications since! But I’m definitely not confident enough to write about it yet.

Optimism Muster

Oh Bugger.

It’s December already, and Christmas Eve to be precise. Christmas Eve EVENING to be precise-er. I guess I should do some sort of ‘signing off’ piece and so here I am. Unfortunately I only have about half an hour before I have to leave the house for Christmas drinks. Now I’m always one to advise against apologising for your work but…yeh I haven’t put too much planning into this one.

I am feeling inclined to write An Ode To All The Work Which Hasn’t Been Done. But that won’t serve anyone, although it really is all that I can find to think about right now. So instead I’m going to pull together all the optimism I can muster and see where that takes me.

For several fleeting moments of the past few weeks, as I subconsciously scramble to piece the sum of my experiences into a reflective summative blog post, I have been reminded that there are some things worth being optimistic about. As ever, these moments are quickly overwhelmed by my concerns and anxieties as once more I’m left with a tightness in my chest. But as I said, I am today in the business of Optimism Mustering.  Hence here I go, listing all of these aforementioned moments which made me forget, if temporarily, that everything might not been completely doomed:

(I’m not unaware of the “First World Problems” perpetuated in my blog, and how most of my concerns about career prospects and acceptance by my peers could be viewed as fairly petty. However, we can’t help the way we feel and nor should we be ashamed of it. It’s with this proviso that I march onward with this post.)

-I met with up with a fellow tweep for the first time. She finished her PhD a few years ago and has moved away from academia into a field which she enjoys. After a long (not long enough!) conversation about concerns about my project and post-PhD prospects, she told me, “I’m just so excited for you!” I was terribly confused; had she not been listening to everything I had just said? How scared I was, how convinced I was that I was likely to fail? But then I remembered saying the EXACT SAME thing to my younger cousin when she started her undergrad degree. And the look on her face which portrayed those EXACT SAME concerns I have of myself now. Sometimes we have to trust other people’s faith in ourselves when our own wavers. And I’m so lucky to have people around me whose faith never wavers. Thankyou to my parents, my sister, my supervisor, my partner, my friends, my tweeps! That these people are in my life, this gives me optimism.

-I got involved in a long twitter-chat with some fellow scientist ladies. One, a second time PhD attempter (and still carrying the weight of the decision to leave the first one behind, something many of us can empathise with!), another was an Honours student trying to decide whether a PhD is the right choice for her, and finally, a post-doc on the cusp of losing funding. All three ladies talked of their concerns about their future, something I can definitely identify with. However, the conversation evolved towards to include the pressure they feel from their family about making the “right” decision. This was something I couldn’t identify with. My parents have always just, for lack of a better phrase, left me to it. I can’t imagine having to make a decision which I knew would suit me AND my parents. I can’t imagine ever having to have some sort of ‘career plan’ to show my parents in order to prove myself, my worth, and earn their permission and respect. For my parent’s belief in me, I am so thankful. That I have only myself to please, this give me optimism.

-This time last year, the idea of going into the lab with a new protocol to try out on my own filled me with worry. I got so pissed off at conferences or talking to other scientists when they suggested to, “just try this experiment”. It wasn’t that easy for me. But this year, I have been thrown into trying several things all on my own, with no one around to ask for advice. Guess what? I didn’t die. No one laughed at me. I didn’t break anything. And I learned that trying out new experiments can BE FUN. It can also be soul destroying. But the fun potential is there. And then, when I come out on the other side, I get to advice people on THEIR work. I’M THE LAB EXPERT ON X PROTOCOL! I HAVE LAB WORTH! And while the head-desking and trouble shooting can be fairly painful, the pleasure that comes with knowing that I have brought something to the table for my colleagues is wonderful. Also, unlike head-desk bruising, it’s not temporary. That I have learned about my potential and that I know I have more to learn and to give, this gives me optimism.

-I am going to Toronto to train for several months next year, I am visiting Dr Karl at the ABC next year, I have my first publication deadline next year, I have my first Franklin Women piece next year, I have my first Scientists in School deadline next year, I will have TWO blogs up and running next year. That all these great opportunities lay ahead of me in the coming year, this gives me optimism.

Merry Christmas AND A HAPPY NEW YEAR. 

Sometimes Marc Maron Says Things

“How long does this exorcism take?(…) You’re always gonna come up against yourself eventually, and you’re always gonna come back to the same place. You think you’ve gone through some changes, you think you’ve made some progress, and you probably have. But then that old feeling comes back. Oh fuck, what, this is IT? (…)Yes, this IS it. But it was no different than when you were feeling good a day or two ago, when you felt great about that thing you did.(…)I just don’t know why those things don’t get cataloged properly. Once you start cataloging the good things, or the progress you’re making, you shouldn’t have to regress back to the shit zone!…I don’t want to be the guy who spins the same plates all day and repeats the same cycles. Something’s gotta give. I mean, I gotta cure cancer or something. (…)Though I guess that’s a pretty high expectation of myself. I mean I don’t even have a Bunsen burner.”

-Marc Maron (who sometimes says things)

(This whole episode was wonderful, and it made me openly sob on public transport. But then that’s not unusual.)

(I love Allie Brosh)

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A Cop Out

So I’ve been going through a bit of a valley of shit and was waiting to get out of the other side, so that I could write a post that goes something like this:

“Hey kids, sometimes life gets you down. But ya know what? *insert major realisation here*. In conclusion: it’s going to be OK.”

But I wasn’t getting out of the valley, and I still haven’t. I’m now getting to the stage where I have started to notice OTHER PEOPLE getting sick of my negativity. Instead of responding to this by readjusting my perspectives accordingly, it’s all turned into a kind of positive feedback loop, wherein I’m just left internally yelling, “I KNOW, RIGHT?! HOW ANNOYING IS PESSIMISM! GOD!”

When I take a step outside of my own brain (sorry Nikola), I can see how people would get confused and frustrated by my constant gloom. A lot of really (potentially) exciting stuff has been happening recently. Intrigued?

Reasons for me to not feel shitty:

-I got to talk to lots of *famous researchers at the Keystone Conference about my project AND THEY GAVE A SHIT (*in my field)

-I’ve had the offer to go and do some of my project work overseas.

-Because of this blog, I’ve got involved in a super exciting science careers/ gender equality project.

-I may have found myself a beautiful mentor in doing so.

-The inaugural EMBL PhD Australia Symposium, which I was on the committee for, went so so so so fabulously last week.

-I’ve finally got my teeth stuck into the Scientists in Schools project.

-I was invited (INVITED) to give a talk to a group of school girls about careers in biology.

…and yet. I’m not excited. I’m pretty sure that this is all about to come caving in, the minute someone realises that (I’m not actually supposed to be here). Despite all of the above, and the number of friends, family and co-workers spurring me on, my anxiety remains (see Fig.1). I’ve come to see that it doesn’t matter what’s going on externally, I’ll always find a reason to question my own validity, and that’s the way it’s always been.

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Figure 1. Theories for self acceptance strategy A.Ideal scenario i.e. a falsity. B.Actual scenario.

When I realised this, I decided to make another list. A much more depressing one than the one above.

Reasons I have previously found to question my own validity as an actual human, capable of achieving things:

-Not having a boyfriend

-Not having enough friends

-Not getting along with absolutely everyone I have come into contact with

(warming up now)

-Being overweight

-Not being pretty enough

-Not wanting to play violin anymore

-Not liking sports

-Not partying “hard enough”

-Not being a mermaid

OK, so that last one hasn’t bothered me in a while, but it used to. I was thinking hard for a while about what it is that’s bothering me so much right now, so I could stick that one on the list too. Then I realised there were lots of reasons, and that made me sad and it probably didn’t matter anyway.

Putting that list together was a bit emotionally overwhelming for me. I saw how ridiculous it all looks now and consequently how ridiculous “Not getting a western blot to work” will most likely look in 5 years’ time.

You’d think now is when I’d start to write about how I’ve learned my lesson, and I’m moving forward and not sweating the small stuff etc. But if you were paying attention at the beginning then you’d know that’s not how it’s going to go, OK?

I’m still frickin’ crabby. I’m still worried. Writing experiment plans and literature reviews still makes me nervous. I’m still pretty sure things aren’t going to go my way. So here’s my shoddy excuse of a conclusion:

Creating things makes me feel better, and I just created this blog post.

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A Week’s Worth of Lady Advice, as Inspired by The (Still Functional) Internet

I have trawled through this week’s deluge of lady-mistakes, so you don’t have to. As Mary Schmich/ Baz Luhrman would say,

Advice is a form of nostalgia, dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts, and recycling it for more than it’s worth.

(NB I cannot actually promise to paint over all the ugly parts. Especially when it comes to twitter trolls.)

Ahem.

1. Before you go getting your body out in public, you better i) not have done it of your own free will, without any apparent coercion, ii) PLEASE THINK THINK OF THE CHILDREN and iii) not have ever had any previous stance regarding nudity, regardless of context. Also, while it’s never OK for a woman to display her own body, it is definitely OK for everyone else to ridicule it.

2. If you really must get breast cancer, you had better eat locally grown organic food. Doing these things will switch your cancer genes off. If your cancer doesn’t go away, it’s because you are incapable of taking care of yourself. Obviously.

3. If you’re going to interpret blatant sexualisation of women in a supposedly professional setting as offensive, then you had better shut up about it. Because sweat shops (?!). And men have feelings too!

4. If you call someone out for telling you to “shut the f*** up” because you didn’t want to get drunk and make out with another woman, then you are victimising the perpetrator. You need to reassess your pre-existing feminist agenda and apologise (properly.).

5. If you’re going to call society out for its apparent double standards and sexism, then it appears the best way to do this without getting rape/ death threats is to simply get a sex change.

OK ladies, I hope we’re all clear now on how to get by without getting judged/ overtly sexualised/ threatened/ cancer! Good luck to y’all.