Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Sleep Morality

A brief comment conversation with Katja over at  Family Feeding Dynamics (Thanks for the shout-out, by the way) got me thinking about something that’s not exactly fat-related, but involves similar natural variation among people and shame for not conforming to some arbitrary ideal, and that’s sleep patterns. 

We’re all supposed to be able to slot into a 9-5 workday, up somewhere between 6 and 8 and presumably back in bed by 11 or 12 to get about 8 hours per night. That’s the framework, and everyone (at least, everyone I knew growing up) was supposed to be able to fit themselves into it. Sleeping in on the weekends was grudgingly allowed, but sleeping past noon was too far, and Mom would come in and wake me up. In later years, if she didn’t still wake me, she’d just make jokes about my waking up at “the crack of noon” and remind me that when I got a job, I’d have to stop that.

But, of course, we all know that some people are morning people, and some people are night owls. Since I was a baby I preferred sleeping late and going to bed late. I seem to function best when I sleep about 2-11am, with 9 hours late into the night and late into the morning. I can get up if I have to – this past school semester I was taking a 9:30 class, and was up at 8:45 every morning.  But I still found it very difficult to fall asleep before 1am. If I stayed up a little later to 2 or 2:30 on a weekend, then my sleep cycle would re-set itself to “normal” and not want to go to bed on Sunday night until 2 or 2:30. If I wound up with 7.5 hours sleeping, I’d be sluggish during the day and have to nap when and if I found the chance.

Napping, by the way, also comes easier to my family than to me. When I finally learned to nap this year, it meant a good hour and a half in bed to fall asleep and rest. Both of my parents know how to take ten minute naps that refresh them – I can’t be asleep ten minutes after lying down. Somehow, it just doesn’t work that way. But when I nap in my childhood home, I still feel like someone will wonder why I’ve gone all the way to sleep instead of “napping” like they do.

When I mentioned all the sleep trouble my 8:45 wakeup was causing when I visited for thanksgiving, she told me I’d have to learn to like coffee when I got a job, or get a “vampire job” that would let me sleep in. Now, I’ve learned since going off to school that actually, not every job in the world is 9-5. Retail needs people to be there 12-8 or 2-10 or any other range of late-start shifts, and it’s in fact one of the reasons I don’t so much mind the thought of getting a retail job when I do graduate college. But the term “vampire job” is so obviously pejorative, like people who don’t work 9-5 are lesser than people who do, and their jobs are lesser.

It struck me as an odd coincidence in the way that peoples personal health habits and natural variation can be rigidly confined and people made to feel lesser for them. We have some of the same stereotypes – if you sleep late then you must be a lazy person, even if you’re not getting any more sleep than anyone else. And if you do happen to need 9 or 10 hours instead of 8, you must really be lazy. Why can’t you get up like everyone else and get a normal job?

Well, why can’t I just drop 80 pounds and be a normal weight like everyone else? Because people are different.


  1. mu husband can nap for 20 minutes, can fall asleep in 3... I HATE napping if it's less than an hour 1/2. I feel worse, always did. We do need to be more accepting of natural rhythm variations. My aunt sleeps from about 2 am-10 am. Works for her... She's 70, on no meds, gets lots of letters written!

  2. I think there's a big gender thing going on there too. If a guy gets up at noon he's "being a guy" if a woman does it, especially a fat woman, she's a lazy slob. I personally do better with 9 or 10 hours and had to put up with the same crap from my mother who doesn't need an alarm clock because she wakes up every hour or so. Which is better: being well-rested or appearing not to be lazy?

  3. I agree people moralize about sleep. This also feeds into some of the biggest myths about adolescence... In industrialized countries, people between the ages of 15 and 22 (or thereabouts) in general have a shift in their bodies' natural sleep rhythms such that they tend to go to sleep later and wake up later, and also need 9 hours of sleep. This is just a general trend and of course there's a lot of variation. However, my point is, as a result of people forcing teenagers to all do the same schedule as adults, a lot of them go around sleep deprived constantly, causing some of the teenagerish behavior we associate with stereotypes.

  4. Mrs. Sprat - I think that's a good point, albeit one I don't have personal experience with. In my house, my brothers get woken up at about the same times I did. Although, this is one thing that I've been left more alone about since going off to college. I won't get woken up just because it's past noon now, but I will get comments about it.

    Thlingan, absolutely. I definitely suffered from high school sleep, especially since I didn't know how to nap at that point. And since, after being at school from 7-3 and doing homework until dinner, if I didn't have activities keeping me at school till 5 and working later, and all manner of other things going on, not enough time to nap with my nap patterns anyway.

    I remember hearing stories of the mythical popular girls who woke up at 5am every morning to have time to shower and style their hair and do their make up in high school, and I feel lucky that I was never part of that routine. If I felt that I needed an hour and a half to be presentable, if I were feeling social pressure to present myself that way, it would have been even more miserable.

  5. Hi! I read your very first post and COMPLETELY empathized, and I feel the same way about this post. My parents used to wake me up early on weekends as well (or, like you, they'd let me sleep in and then make some comments about how shockingly late I'd woken up). Anyway, just wanted to say that (unfortunately/fortunately), you're not alone. If you feel like reading my story, check out my post about my experience with food & family growing up (on my pretty new blog):