Laurie Toby Edison

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A Clue to Rethinking Dementia Care

Debbie says:

I don’t know when I’ve been as excited by a new concept as I have by this one (okay, I was just as excited by the article from last week’s links about Arunachalam Muruganantham), but this is very different and equally important.

… in the small town of Weesp, in Holland—that bastion of social progressivism—at a dementia-focused living center called De Hogeweyk, aka Dementiavillage, the relationship between patients and their care is serving as a model for the rest of the world.

floor plan of the village

The interior of the security perimeter is its own little village—which means that patients can move about as they wish without being in danger.

“The fact that a resident cannot function ‘normally’ in certain areas, being handicapped by dementia, does not mean that they no longer have a valid opinion on their day to day life and surroundings,” say administrators.

Thanks to Stefanie for the link!

The Gizmodo article at the link starts by talking dementia statistics: basically, the problem is already staggering and is growing by leaps and bounds. And the baby boom generation is just touching the leading edge of the age cohort in which this is a problem. We cannot afford current styles of dementia care as a culture, and we certainly cannot afford it as individuals–nor can we afford the intense emotional suffering of both people with dementia and people who love them.

I haven’t been around advanced dementia much. I watched my sister-in-law’s mother go down that road; I’ve seen the occasional other person while visiting nursing homes or hospitals. I fear it for myself more than anything else. I sometimes look at my friends around my age and wonder, “Which ones, which ones?” And until I saw this article, I had never seen a model, or even a hint, for compassionate, potentially affordable approaches to care.

Hogeweyk was … the brainchild of Yvonne van Amerongen, a caregiver who has worked with memory patients for decades. Starting in the early 1990s, van Amerongen and a group of like-minded caregivers began researching and designing a type of home where residents would participate in life, the same way they did before they entered a dementia care unit.

What Hogeweyk reveals … is the culturally-ingrained way we distinguish between those who do and don’t suffer from dementia. By treating residents as normal people, Hogeweyk seems to suggest that there isn’t such a huge difference, deep down—just differing needs. By designing a city tailored to those unique needs, residents avoid the dehumanization that long-term medical care can unintentionally cause.

According to the article, the idea is spreading at least a little: to Switzerland, maybe to more of Europe, maybe to the U.S. I’m crossing my fingers.

Before and After Acceptance

Lynne Murray says:

This year’s Academy Award ceremonies showed a major Joseph Campbell influence, complete with a video clip celebrating cinema heroes and how greatly we value their journeys.

No one at the Oscars would say this, of course, but the superficial road to heroism, in a very Hollywood manner, intersects with the worship of a certain style of camera-ready physical appearance. Those of us not born into that narrow range of acceptable looks (i.e, everyone), we have to decide how hard to chase them. Scam artists stand ready to take our money by providing the illusion that we can turn ourselves into suitable (looking) heroes of our stories, sometimes with huge efforts on our part and sometimes by the scam artist’s magic pill or nostrum.

I have written before about how Before and After weight loss photos often include image manipulation to the point of outright fraud. I’ve also reported on how my own quest for an acceptable body size led me slowly into fat acceptance and how that somewhat resembles religious conversion.

What distinguishes religious conversion from more humdrum experiences of change is depth. Human beings quite normally undergo alterations of character: we are one person at home, another at work, another again when we awake at four in the morning. But religious conversion, be it sudden or slow, results in a transformation that is stable and that causes a revolution in …those other parts of our personality.

Thinking about both hero’s journeys and religious conversion struck a chord that resonated with a recent small study (PDF at the link) that has the potential to turn the “Before and After” idea on its head.

Sociologist Maya Maor explains in her abstract:

Conducting a comparative analysis of Before-and-After weight-loss articles appearing in an Israeli online health magazine, I examine how these narratives marginalize fat people by presenting fatness as temporary and changeable. I then compare these narratives to life narratives produced by Israeli-Jewish women, who self-identify as fat. …

In a world that valorizes slenderness, being fat is considered a failure caused by individual faults. If these faults are corrected, the fat individual can become a thin person. When fat-acceptance activists argue that fatness is is genetically determined, they are challenging exactly this notion that being fat is a transitory state than can be altered through individual choice.

The visual presentation of the same protagonist as fat and as thin implies that body size is transitory; presenting the ‘‘thin’’ protagonist as successful, attractive, and popular and the ‘‘fat’’ protagonist as ugly, miserable, and an outsider implies that the fat body should be replaced by the thin body. …

Challenging the belief in the necessarily temporary and changeable status of fatness is a crucial step in mobilizing fat activism.

Even though the participants in Maor’s study were socially recognized as thin during their “Before” fat acceptance years, they found themselves obsessed with avoiding weight gain.

Tali: “…it was my [entire] existence … for almost 30 years, I used to get up in the morning and the first, first thing I would be thinking about was: is that what I ate yesterday? Wow! I was so bad.” …

While these efforts were aimed at avoiding weight gain rather than at losing weight, they were narrated by participants as attempts to ward off fat stigma, in advance. In a society where fatness is extremely stigmatized, the prospect of gaining weight is alarming for many people, women in particular.

All of Mora’s participants got help from “alternative social and activist communities” as they found their way from the “Before” of anxious, obsessive dieting to the “After” of calm acceptance:

“After” the transition, participants described their present identities as fat women, and the advantages they found in embracing this identity. Despite their increasing deviation from the thin ideal, participants experienced a greater degree of self-acceptance and a deeper connection to their bodies and identities:

Tali: “Today I feel the best I ever have regarding my body and I’m the fattest I have ever been … I was brought up for 30 years to think of it as a paradox…. I don’t experience it as a paradox but as a marvelous sensation.”

It is important to note that the participants do not argue that they are “naturally thin” and choose to fatten themselves out of ideological motives. Rather, they choose to stop constant attempts to diet that caused them pain and frustration.

I can testify to having a similar experience of serene body acceptance. Truly our bodies respond and function much better when we listen to what we really want and need rather than torturing and starving ourselves to achieve (or maintain) body weights that did not come naturally. Thus, the hero’s journey is not to an ideal body or perfect weight; it is to genuine, unforced acceptance of who(ever) we are.

Long Overdue Links

Debbie says

So the site was down, and various things happened, and we’ve been posting a little less frequently than usual, and the links have been piling up like nobody’s business. I’m going to trim off some of the old ones from the list, but this will still get long …

***

This will come as no surprise to many regular readers here, but the visuals are powerful, and apply in slightly less dramatic ways to so many of us:

The current World’s Strongest Man, Brian [Shaw] is 6’9″ and 420 pounds, and traveling can be a bit more difficult for him than it is for the average person. Especially when you fly commercial.

***

You can read a lot of Internet without finding news as good as this:

Arunachalam Muruganantham was horrified to learn that his wife (in a rural area in Southern India) couldn’t afford decent menstrual pads and was using soiled rags. It got worse when he found out that other women were using even less hygienic substances. He went to great lengths to study the issue…

Four-and-a-half years later, he succeeded in creating a low-cost method for the production of sanitary towels. The process involves four simple steps. First, a machine similar to a kitchen grinder breaks down the hard cellulose into fluffy material, which is packed into rectangular cakes with another machine.

The cakes are then wrapped in non-woven cloth and disinfected in an ultraviolet treatment unit. The whole process can be learned in an hour.

Muruganantham’s goal was to create user-friendly technology. The mission was not just to increase the use of sanitary pads, but also to create jobs for rural women – women like his mother. Following her husband’s death in a road accident, Muruganantham’s mother had had to sell everything she owned and get a job as a farm labourer, but earning $1 a day wasn’t enough to support four children. That’s why, at the age of 14, Muruganantham had left school to find work.

The machines are kept deliberately simple and skeletal so that they can be maintained by the women themselves. “It looks like the Wright brothers’ first flight,” he says. The first model was mostly made of wood, and when he showed it to the Indian Institute of Technology, IIT, in Madras, scientists were sceptical – how was this man going to compete against multinationals?

You have to love this man:

“Imagine, I got patent rights to the only machine in the world to make low-cost sanitary napkins – a hot-cake product,” he says. “Anyone with an MBA would immediately accumulate the maximum money. But I did not want to. Why? Because from childhood I know no human being died because of poverty – everything happens because of ignorance.”

He believes that big business is parasitic, like a mosquito, whereas he prefers the lighter touch, like that of a butterfly. “A butterfly can suck honey from the flower without damaging it,” he says.

***

It’s no longer Black History Month (I’m in the camp that believes we need twelve months of that every year), but it’s not too late to be horrified by how racism and fatphobia can go hand in hand as co-opting partners:

"Celebrate Black History Month: 1-800-GET-THIN"

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It’s no longer National Eating Disorders Week either, but it never hurts to have good resources on this difficult topic.

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And then, there’s sex: A surprising number of my current links group under the subject of sexuality. First, I don’t know when I’ve read a better or more thoughtful article than Rich Juzwiak’s piece on Truvada, barebacking, and safe sex:

For those, like me, who were unaware of or uneducated about Truvada, it is an antitretroviral cocktail that was approved in 2012 for pre-exposure HIV prophylaxis (PrEP):

For some—say barebacking enthusiasts, sex workers, or people in serodiscordant couples (in which one person is HIV positive and the other is negative)—Truvada is a no-brainer. There are plenty of us, though, who occupy a gray area, in which barebacking isn’t exactly a lifestyle, and in which contracting HIV doesn’t exactly seem like an inevitability. For those of us in that group, the kind of introspection that Truvada requires is hard.

The understanding that I might benefit from using Truvada dawned on me slowly, like I was stuck permanently at 6 a.m. for a few months. It was other guys who helped prompt my decision, like the ones I had the sense not to fuck raw when they assumed that’s what we’d be doing on first meeting, or the ones who tried to fuck me bare so casually, it was like they were going in there to check their mail. It was the guy who told me, “Yes, I’m negative—I was tested in February,” in October. It was the guy that I hooked up with who then proposed a threesome via text: “My friend said he wants to fuck raw.” This was a few texts after I told him, “I play safe,” and he said, “Yeah, me too.” A few texts later, he admitted he’d already fucked raw with our prospective third.

And it was the condoms that have come off or broken during sex, rendering that session raw anyway.

Juzwiak combines his own experience and thoughts with careful statistics, analysis of the ethical/moral questions involved, consideration of the drug’s long-term side effects, the meaning of “barebacking” in a heterosexual context,” and more. Read the whole thing.

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I was pleased to see the work of Terri Conley, re-examining the differences between men and women in hook-up culture. Conley directs the Stigmatized Sexualities Lab (how cool is it that that exists!) at the University of Michigan:

“I like to look beyond conducting research that confirms existing stereotypes,” Conley told the Cut over the phone last week. “These gender differences that everyone knows exist, and they know they’ll always exist and they’re biological — when I started pressing on them I found that a lot of those assumptions hadn’t really been tested.”

… We have a paper under review that says there are no differences between men and women if you control for two factors: pleasure, which we define as how capable they perceive their partner to be, and stigma, which we define as someone believing you’re a bad person for engaging in casual sex. I like to think of my research as trying to rule out alternative explanations in a way that evolutionary psychology doesn’t bother to do.

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I don’t agree with everything Claire Dederer says in this article on women, sex, and writing about sex, but I like how she’s breaking down the questions and thinking about things. She’s at her best when she’s writing about herself (and, not surprisingly, at her worst when she generalizes from her own experience to what’s true about “women”):

Hell, I wanted to be having sex. I liked sex. Didn’t I? Well, actually, I was never quite sure. Growing up in a world where the adults were busy trying to find themselves and the kids roamed unsupervised, I loved the adventure of sex, and I loved the attention, and sometimes it felt great. But did I want it enough? How good did it truly feel? Was I doing it only because the other person wanted to? My desire was real, I could feel it there at the core of the experience, but if I let myself, I could also feel doubt braided tightly with the desire. As a middle-aged married person, I’m still, you know, very pro-sex, but even now that’s how it is with me. Second thoughts come right on the heels of first thoughts, and am I really supposed to be having thoughts during sex anyway?

Her analyses of Anais Nin and Erica Jong, later in the article, are also worth reading.

***
Finally for the sex section (say that three times fast), Grace Annam, not writing so much about sex as about sexual organs:

Hi, it’s us. Trans women who use bathrooms.

We know that you’re not comfortable sharing a bathroom with us, even though all the nakedness happens behind a stall door.

… We get it. There’s that penis in the room, and the whole entourage that can come along with those goddamn things.

We get it. Because when we go to the bathroom, there’s a penis in the room, too. Every time.

It’s right there in the stall with us.

She goes on to discuss trans women’s relationships with their own penises, a topic that is almost never addressed. And she does it without stereotyping or assuming that all trans women are the same. Here’s her unforgettable ending:

So we’d like to go to the bathroom, just like you. Ideally, we’d like to do it alone, but if we must have company, in that vulnerable moment, sitting over cold water with our pants down or skirt up, holding our clothes so that they don’t touch the floor (because, gah, ew)… we would like that experience to be gentle and brief, rather than nasty, brutish, and possibly followed by a stint in the hospital or the morgue.

***

Finally, here’s a bit of black, sex worker, and American history that I didn’t know, very timely for this week.

1942 photo of Mardi Gras baby dolls

Calling your lover “baby” had just become part of the English language. Meanwhile, actual baby dolls, the toy, were rare. By dressing up this way, they flouted both gender and race rules. Women were largely excluded from masking for Mardi Gras and African Americans were still living under Jim Crow. Black women, by virtue of being both Black and female, were particularly devalued, sex workers ever more so. Asserting themselves as baby dolls, then, was a way of arguing that they were worth something.

The Biggest Winner

Debbie says:

Long-time readers of this blog know that Laurie and I are big fans of Ragen Chastain at Dances with Fat. Her recent take on how The Biggest Loser is really about the money is a fine post, but the gold is in the comments, where Jennifer Hansen says:

I’ve said it before: I want to be enjoying the 20th season of a show called The Biggest Gain. In this week’s episode we meet Ahmina, who is trying to overcome her fear of falling through the water (yes, this is a thing, my husband and I both have it) in order to learn to swim at age 33; Bob, a veteran who is coming out of a long spell of depression after becoming a paraplegic and wants to regain as much as possible of his former physical fitness; Charlene, who is battling agoraphobia; and Darius, a minor-league baseball player who turned down a non-athletic scholarship in order to follow his dream. By the end of this run, Ahmina will be able to float calmly in the deep end of the pool although swimming without a flotation device still activates her panic reflex, Bob will triumphantly lift his entire body weight for 10 reps using the armrests of his chair as braces, Charlene will be filmed reading a book in the local park for the first time since the bullying she experienced as a child drove her indoors, and Darius will have decided to become a machinist’s apprentice due to a job loss in his family. All four will be praised for their courage and relate their new insights in in-depth interviews, and Ahmina’s tears of joy when she realizes that the water really is holding her up will go viral on Youtube. All expenses are paid for the contestants, but viewers will vote on who gets the $250,000 prize for the Biggest Gain

Nancylebov, whose comment sparked Hansen’s response, says in her own journal that she thinks

a show like that could work. It’s not like upworthy is going broke, and it would be cheaper to make than The Biggest Loser. I don’t think it would make The Biggest Loser go away, but at least it would exist and do some good.

I agree with Nancy, and I think there’s a bigger point to be made here: as a culture, perhaps even as a moment in historical time, we are completely focused on the negative. Sure, there are still those little uplifting bits at the end of the news, and in the back pages of the newspapers, but it seems to me (anecdotally) that they have gotten less cheerful and more “how unlikely is this?” over the recent years. We see a lot fewer stories about generosity and compassion, and a lot more about disaster and cruelty.

One of the reasons I’m so impressed with Jennifer Hansen’s comment is that she is swimming upstream against the culture. Her high concept is that big problems can be improved, if not solved, and that we can “compete” in a race to make things better, rather than a shame festival like The Biggest Loser.

Reality shows are inexpensive: that (and the Hollywood writer’s strike of several years ago) is why we see so many of them. My only question is: who’s starting the Kickstarter for this one.

Trapped in the Wrong Body … Maybe, Maybe Not.

Laurie and Debbie say:

The oh-so-common cultural narrative of trans people is that they were born “trapped in the wrong body.” Of course, while this is the lived experience of many people, nobody’s story is simple.

Writing in Buzzfeed, Thomas Page McBee takes on the belief that “trapped in the wrong body” and trans are the same thing.

in the two years since I began injecting testosterone, I’ve grown increasingly suspect of the fascination with the “trapped” narrative. From talk shows to The New York Times, trans children to celebrities, the idea that trans folks are tragic or even heroic saddens me, because within the pity and pithy hope they generate lies a darker reality: The sensational portrayals dehumanize trans folks by making us strange. If I’ve learned anything by living in this body, it’s that when anyone’s dehumanized, we all are.

We’re more alike than not. Here’s my story: I saw myself, like a sculptor sees a face in the stone, become clearer and clearer with each passing day. I got to work on the business of being, constructing an approximation out of Ace bandages, then swagger, then surgery, then testosterone. I grew, over time, to be the man I am; and though I’ve felt the panic of dysphoria, I mostly had the sense of evolving. I didn’t feel trapped, exactly — only a sense of becoming.

McBee’s point is that sensationalism is dehumanizing. We take that one step further:

Single narratives are dehumanizing.
In her exquisite TED talk, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie applies this principle to xenophobia (fear of strangers):

When I left Nigeria to go to university in the United States. I was 19. My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my “tribal music,” and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. She assumed that I did not know how to use a stove.

What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.

In his article about trans narratives, McBee goes on to talk about an upcoming British movie, My Genderation,, a documentary designed, says Raphael Francis Fox, one of the directors, to “provide a window on what it’s like to be trans* in modern-day Britain, without shock tactics or upsetting the person being interviewed.” (There’s a six-minute trailer at McBee’s blog post, and a lot of film clips at the movie link.)

What’s true of of complex trans stories is true of all human stories. “Why should you care about our stories,” says McBee (and Adichie would agree),

when they don’t follow the pristine arc that starts with being wrong and ends with us riding into the sunset, real at last? “We all have feminine and masculine in us,” Fox offered. “Gender affects everyone.”

The truth is, trans people illuminate a crucial aspect of the human condition, not anymore salacious, tragic, or beautiful than anything else. If there’s a lesson we can share, a great truth or tragedy, it’s this: We’re living it all, right in front of you, in our bodies and our many, varied tellings.

Thanks to kaberett for the McBee link.

The Search for Science without Bias

Lynne Murray says:

Science is the religion I grew up in. My father was a research psychologist who was flexible in some ways. But he was very serious about the design of experiments. I didn’t follow science as a career but when I was in grammar school my father used to quiz me about the elements of the scientific method.

It’s simple enough for even a math-challenged kid like me to grasp how to design a basic experiment. The goal is to set up a situation that isolates the one factor you are studying and as much as possible controls other factors that could influence it. Not every experiment proves the scientist’s initial hypothesis (aka the scientist’s first guess at what might be causing the phenomenon). Failures provide as much information as successes.

In the ethical atmosphere I grew up in, faking the data on an experiment would be a major sin, certainly grounds for dismissal for a researcher.

I am constantly distressed at how often so-called obesity research never bothers to question major, unproven assumptions about what makes people fat.

Commercial interests and fear of crossing accepted views on what kind of result researchers are expected to get dictate a lot of “funding bias”:

… an observed tendency of the conclusion of a scientific research study to support the interests of the study’s financial sponsor.

In this toxic atmosphere I was particularly intrigued to see the following passage in an article entitled “Why Are Animals Getting Fat?”:

[H]ow do you explain the rising weights of lab animals? They have been fed a standard diet and kept to a standard lifestyle for at least 50 years…. captive chimps “living in highly controlled environments with nearly constant living conditions and diets” increased in weight by over 30% between 1985 and 2005.

Notice that experimental animals live in totally controlled populations, every possible variable is known. You can’t cook up a story that they gained weight because they ran downstairs to raid the refrigerator and lied about it. Every aspect of their existence is known and observed.

The several authors who did the research called it: “Canaries in the coal mine: a cross-species analysis of the plurality of obesity epidemics.” Here’s part of their abstract.

We examined samples collectively consisting of over 20,000 animals from 24 populations (12 divided separately into males and females) of animals representing eight species living with or around humans in industrialized societies. … Surprisingly, we find that over the past several decades, average mid-life body weights have risen among primates and rodents living in research colonies, as well as among feral rodents and domestic dogs and cats. The consistency of these findings among animals living in varying environments, suggests the intriguing possibility that … increasing body weight may involve several as-of-yet unidentified and/or poorly understood factors (e.g. viral pathogens, epigenetic factors).

Okay, now that is authentic science.

Instead of committing experimental atrocities like throwing out or ignoring results that don’t confirm the popular bias or cramming the data into a cookie cutter pre-decided conclusion aimed at pumping up a profitable product, the authors look at the statistical results and consider realistic factors that might lead to future testing that could yield actual answers.

I’m curious to follow this line of research and see what they find.

Note: For those who want to explore the real science behind obesity reseach, Sandy Szwarc, BSN, RN, CCP offers a wealth of information at her blog, Junk Food Science (now inactive and archived but still a great resource).

She examines the actual scientific studies that are often tossed around in the media, simplified, misquoted or simply poorly done. She addresses the product-driven nature of so-called scientific research. Szwarc describes why she needed to debunk fake science:

Science is being misused for marketing and political purposes. Evidence is being distorted and bias has inundated media, research, government policies and clinical guidelines. Unsound information proliferates in professional and advocacy organizations, academic institutions and journals; and even professionals aren’t reaching beyond beliefs to critically examine studies and recognize credible information. So much valuable and critically important information, and the very best science — well documented in careful, objective, evidence-based research — is almost never reported by mainstream media. Fear sells and unfounded scares, exaggerations and “what-ifs?” are being used to terrify people about their foods, bodies and health.

And all of this is costing, frightening and hurting people.

For years Szwarc made it her mission to trace “virtually every science, food and health story in media to their original press releases, which are reported verbatim.”

She concluded that:

Literally everything we hear and read today – on the internet or mainstream media – is marketing and created by those trying to sell us something: a belief, cause, product, service, or themselves. That’s why we hear “science” finds something one day, and something entirely different the next. “Pop” science, what is popularly believed and marketed as “science,” is oftentimes really the junk science.

I’ve also gone to the original source, the study behind each of those stories, and been even more alarmed to realize that the evidence is nothing like what we hear, or even what appears in the conclusions of many study abstracts. In fact, it’s often the exact opposite! Simultaneously, I’ve watched the very best science that counters popular beliefs and could put fears to rest, go unreported.



The best path to the truth is to embrace good science, no matter where it takes us … and even if the evidence debunks some of the things we’ve also come to believe. I am passionate about helping people understand the scientific process and decipher media and unsound marketing. That’s the only way we can all protect ourselves.

Dreadlocks, Cultural Appropriation, and Thoughtfulness

Debbie says:

Shayna Stock (who is white) cut off her dreadlocks in January, and wrote a long, nuanced post about the experience.

before (with dreadlocks)
after (shaven head)

Here’s her short version:

I have learned more about the history of dreadlocks and their significance as a symbol of Rastafarianism and black/African resistance to white supremacy. I have done a lot of reading and conversing about cultural appropriation – the adoption of a specific element of one culture by another cultural group – and its capacity, when the historical significance of that cultural element is not respected and maintained, to function as a source of further oppression and colonization.

All of this learning, reading and conversing caused me to honestly examine my motivations for locking my hair. When I did, I was not confident that my reasons for having dreads outweighed their potential oppressive effect on the people and cultures for whom dreadlocks hold deep spiritual and political meaning.

The long version is very much worth reading. It includes a link to Dante McAuliffe at Young, Black, Intelligent on why he grew back his locks.

Make no mistake about it, the practice of wearing dreads in the modern western world is due almost entirely to the spread of the Rastafari and reggae cultures. Yes, locked hair has been worn for thousands of years, but it was only after reggae stars like Bob Marley came onto the scene that wearing dreadlocks became popular. The wearing of dreadlocks as we know it came from a movement meant to inspire and uplift black people. It was a highly spiritual thing. It was not about privileged hipster kids looking for something to rebel against. Indeed, dreads were something you only saw Rastas wearing. But after Bob hit the scene, that all changed.

Both Stock and McAuliffe quote extensively from various folks’ comments on locks and cultural appropriation, from all sides of the issue.

Here’s Stock again:

When I first locked up, I was living in Ghana and hanging out with Rastas who were very happy to give me dreads. I had more than their permission – I had their blessing and their enthusiasm, and it was their hands that did the deed. I was motivated by some resonance with some of the values and culture of Rastafarianism as I experienced it in that context. I also saw dreads as the most natural way to wear my hair — they required no product, no brushing, and minimal washing, which appealed to the environmentalist, the naturalist, and the time economist in me. And the feminist in me liked that they challenged ideals and stereotypes of female beauty….

If I am being fully honest with myself, I acknowledge that one of my main motivations was aesthetics. I’d long admired how locks looked on other people before making the decision to grow them myself. To me, they represented anti-authoritarian and counter-culture politics, and I liked the edgy, creative, earthy image they helped me construct of myself. I didn’t associate this with fetishizing Black/Rasta culture, or recognize the implicit racism in these motivations, until the aforementioned facebook conversation pointed it out.

I think it’s important that we don’t paint all white people with dreadlocks with the same brush. My personal conclusion, based on my very specific circumstances and motivations, was to cut mine off. I think a lot of white folks with dreads have similar motivations. But I think it is possible for culturally aware white people to sport dreadlocks in a way that honours their origins and political/spiritual significance. As one Rastafari commenter noted, “I know some white-rasta’s who follow the tenets better than some Black folks.”

For me, the take-away message is to revel in how seriously folks of all stripes are thinking about this issue, and the deeper cultural appropriation issues that lie underneath it. We will never get out of some of the traps we are in with simple answers and automatic assumptions, so it is intensely refreshing to read work from people who are struggling with complex reactions and minimal assumptions. My personal thanks to Shayna Stock, Dante McAuliffe, and so many of the commenters they quote.

Gracie Hagen : Illusions of the Body (NSFW)

Laurie says:

These photos by Gracie Hagen eloquently express the illusions of the body that are reflected back at us from the innumerable media images that barrage us.

My own nude portrait work was always focused on portraying a sense of the reality of the person I was photographing. Avoiding the expected stereotypical glamor poses that people initially tend to fall into. Poses that depersonalize them. And obviously avoiding the very unflattering images that don’t express their reality but rather a fleeting moment the camera can capture. (Unless, like Hagen’s images they are done purposefully.)

Hagen says: This series was made to tackle the supposed norms of what we think our bodies are supposed to look like. Most of us realize that the media displays only the prettiest photos of people, yet we compare ourselves to those images. We never get to see those photos juxtaposed against a picture of that same person looking unflattering. That contrast would help a lot of body image issues we as a culture have.
Imagery in the media is an illusion built upon lighting, angles & photoshop. People can look extremely attractive under the right circumstances & two seconds later transform into something completely different.

Within the series I tried to get a range of body types, ethnicities & genders to show how everyone is a different shape & size; there is no “normal”. Each photo was taken with the same lighting & the same angle.

Celebrate your shapes, sizes & the odd contortions your body can get itself into. The human body is a weird & beautiful thing.

Note: This series is product of passion on the part of the artist & the willingness of whoever decides participate. If there seems to be certain body types, genders, ethnicities etc that are underrepresented, it is because that type of person has not chosen to be apart of it. I have not intentionally excluded anyone.

This series is ongoing, so if you are among the underrepresented, or just want to be involved, please contact me.

I had a hard time making choices among the photographs. You really need to see the whole series in full size to appreciate what she’s doing.

Thanks to Alan Bostick for pointing me at Violet Blue’s post.

Tuesday Linksday

Debbie says:

The “it’s all about me and my feelings” club has a new self-elected president, Jen Caron:

A few weeks ago, as I settled into an exceptionally crowded midday class, a young, fairly heavy black woman put her mat down directly behind mine. It appeared she had never set foot in a yoga studio—she was glancing around anxiously, adjusting her clothes, looking wide-eyed and nervous. Within the first few minutes of gentle warm-up stretches, I saw the fear in her eyes snowball, turning into panic and then despair. Before we made it into our first downward dog, she had crouched down on her elbows and knees, head lowered close to the ground, trapped and vulnerable. She stayed there, staring, for the rest of the class.

Because I was directly in front of her, I had no choice but to look straight at her every time my head was upside down (roughly once a minute). I’ve seen people freeze or give up in yoga classes many times, and it’s a sad thing, but as a student there’s nothing you can do about it. At that moment, though, I found it impossible to stop thinking about this woman. Even when I wasn’t positioned to stare directly at her, I knew she was still staring directly at me. Over the course of the next hour, I watched as her despair turned into resentment and then contempt. I felt it all directed toward me and my body.

Of course, we don’t know how the black woman felt. Jen Caron doesn’t know how the black woman felt. She made an awful lot of assumptions based on an amazingly small amount of information.

I thought about how that must feel: to be a heavyset black woman entering for the first time a system that by all accounts seems unable to accommodate her body. What could I do to help her? If I were her, I thought, I would want as little attention to be drawn to my despair as possible—I would not want anyone to look at me or notice me. And so I tried to very deliberately avoid looking in her direction each time I was in downward dog, but I could feel her hostility just the same. Trying to ignore it only made it worse.

The xojane column is called “It happened to me,” so I guess it happened to Jen Caron. Personally, I’d rather know what happened to the nameless black woman. As Hamilton Nolan says, writing about Caron’s essay on Gawker,

JEN CARON: Hey there. Can you articulate your experience to me?

NEW YOGA STUDENT: Who are you?

***

Neither Laurie nor I knew about this particular 19th century photography fad, in which the person’s head and body are photographed separately, but in the same photograph. A contemporary brochure at the link calls it “ladies and gentlemen with their heads floating in the air or in their laps.”

This is a side trail in a long and complex art tradition of headless portraits and photographs, and I also appreciate seeing how seriously photo-manipulation proceeded Photoshop by well over a century.

***

Jenna Wortham has an interesting take on one corner of available contemporary technology which she finds useful.

Period-tracking apps are exactly what they sound like — simple menstrual calendars that help you keep track of monthly cycles as well as symptoms like mood fluctuations or headaches. The market is flooded with them — iPeriod, PTracker, Clue, Period Diary — and nearly every woman I know uses one.

They are the rare corner of the trendy quantitative self and health movement that has resonated with me, largely because they provide  useful insights into my life, how I’m feeling and what’s going on with my body. As much as I’ve enjoyed apps and wearables that give me information on the number of steps I’ve taken in a week, the number of calories I’ve magically managed to burn or how much sleep I’ve gotten, I often question the accuracy of the data and struggle with figuring out how to use that information to reshape my daily behavior and habits. But nothing has been as exciting or revealing as tracking my menstrual cycle.

I’m too old (and too app-ignorant) to be aware of this particular technology, and I think it’s fascinating. According to Wortham, these are not about (or not only about) fertility tracking, but are helping a new generation of women recognize and respond to menstrual cycle changes.

Obviously, this is not going to appeal to–or work for–every woman. Not every woman has periods. Not every woman has a smart phone. Not every woman who has periods and a smart phone cares. However, Wortham convinced me that it’s good for some women, and that’s good enough for me.

***

Technology in women’s lives can be useful, or it can be appalling. Rob Bricken at io9 is suitably appalled:

Japanese lingerie maker Ravijour has developed a bra whose clasp will only open when its wearer is experiencing true love.

How does it do this, you ask? Through a built-in heart rate monitor and a special phone app (also possibly magic and/or bullshit). In case you’re worried about your phone wirelessly unhooking your bra every time you go for a jog, don’t you worry…

I mean, sure, even if the bra was smart enough to distinguish between your heart rate rising due to romantic versus physical causes, I guess you’d run the risk of the bra flying open during dinner if you happened to be eating with your true love, and I have no idea how a woman could take the bra off without the help of their soulmate, but isn’t that a small price to pay to keep your breasts locked away from those who might not appreciate them fully?

I have nothing else to say.

***

Finally, technology can take us so far away from useful information that it would be ludicrous, if people didn’t seem to take it seriously:

What could possibly be wrong with this study design?

The hypothesis here was that making people feel shorter than their normal height would increase feelings of paranoia.

To test this, the researchers—bless them—built a virtual reality version of the London underground station, and a train that travels between stations. Sixty women who had paranoid thoughts within the previous month experienced this virtual world (differences have been shown in how gender affects height perception, so the researchers thought they’d better stick to one gender this time). They each went through the virtual landscape twice, and the researchers altered some people’s heights the second time to make them about 10 inches shorter. After each run through, participants completed measures of social comparison and paranoia.

So we have: a virtual reality locale, a quite small pool of research subjects who are known to have paranoid ideation, a limitation to one gender because “differences have been shown in how gender affects height perception,” and (apparently) no control group. And The Atlantic, a reasonably reliable magazine, is reporting this study as if it demonstrated anything?

I suspect that feeling smaller does make (many? most?) people feel more nervous. But I could not be less interested in how an untested virtual reality system affects a deeply skewed small group under unexamined conditions. When, when, are we going to get journalism that challenges this kind of pseudo-science?

Aside from my most usual sources: Feministe, Feministing, io9, and Shakesville, Lynn Kendall brought us much amusement with the small/paranoid link, and I would never have found the headless portraits link if Charles Pierce hadn’t pointed out Ann Althouse’s tribute to Pete Seeger (Althouse blogged the headless portraits link on the same day).

Kendra James, Tonya Harding, and the Dictatorship of Expectation

Laurie and Debbie say:

In 1994, the figure skating world was rocked with a major scandal, when skater Nancy Kerrigan was attacked and hit in the leg the day before the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Kerrigan was unable to skate the next day, and Tonya Harding won the championship (which she might well have lost to Kerrigan if Kerrigan had been in competition). A couple of weeks later, Tonya Harding confessed to having been a party to the attack on Kerrigan. It took months for the media furor to die down.

Sarah Marshall, writing at The Believer, recaps and analyzes the Kerrigan/Harding story at some length. Here is some of her context on Harding and Kerrigan.

[Kerrigan's] performance at the 1992 Games was not a triumph of athleticism—though even then Nancy was a far more formidable athlete than anyone gave her credit for—but it was a triumph of image-making. To the commentators, she was “lovely,” “ladylike,” “elegant,” and “sophisticated,” and the audience agreed. Vera Wang had based the design for Nancy’s costume on a dress from her bridal boutique, and as Nancy took the ice in Albertville, France, skating to the theme from Born on the Fourth of July, she seemed to be presenting herself as America’s hopeful young bride. Even her lack of competitive savvy gave her an air of innocence and sincerity: she was radiant when she landed a difficult jump, and appeared near tears after making a mistake. She had the style and grace of a woman, but the bashfulness and sincerity of a girl. She was beautiful without being sexual, strong without being intimidating, and vulnerable without being weak, and in the end she embodied no quality quite so perfectly as she did the set of draconian contradictions that dictated a female athlete’s success. …

When Tonya first rocketed to fame by landing the triple axel in 1991, the media had tried to put a more positive—and more salable—slant on her lifestyle, using the same information, which they would later call in as proof of her trashiness, to paint a picture of a spunky, all-American tomboy. In the words of one profile piece, “She’s only five feet one inch… and weighs only ninety-five pounds. But as petite as she is, there’s a tomboy streak in her that she’s proud of. She drives a truck and tinkers with her car… Yet there’s clearly a young lady coming through in her skating, and her personality.” In 1991, the skating world had no choice but to try to love Tonya: she had done what no other American woman could, and if she continued to grow as a skater—and continued to act more and more like “a young lady”—she could make her country proud at the Olympics, and earn both its love and its money.

Back then, she also didn’t need stories of ladylike behavior and quirky tomboyishness to convince her audience that she was worth believing in. At the pinnacle of her career, Tonya was, in a word, spectacular. At the time, the only other woman who had landed the axel was Midori Ito of Japan. Midori was a remarkable jumper, and she made the axel look effortless: launching all four feet nine inches of herself into the air, her body seemed light, buoyant, and meant for flight. Tonya’s axel did not look effortless. It did not even look beautiful. It looked difficult—which, of course, it was.

Of course, once Harding’s role in the attack on Kerrigan was revealed, no “positive slant” was possible. Harding  was completely demonized; Kerrigan was completely canonized. The media focused relentlessly on a single story. One thing Marshall does in the long article is shed some doubt on Harding’s complicity, by framing the confession in the context of Harding’s incontestably abusive marriage.

Twenty years later, African-American skater Kendra James links her own experience to the Kerrigan/Harding chasm.

Kendra James on the ice

Photo is figure skater Surya Bonaly.

Whether it was my my height, my different hair (no neat skating bun for me), the fact that I couldn’t buy skating stockings that matched the color of my skin, the fact that I couldn’t order and wear the same shades of makeup as the other (white) girls on my synchonised skating team, there was always something that kept me from feeling like I was adored the same way the other skaters were.

By the time I left high school I had all my double jumps down, passed all my moves tests, and was helping to coach a local synchronised skating team, so it wasn’t for lack of talent that the familiar accolades of “you’re so graceful” or “you have such artistry” seemed to always turn to variations of “you’re so athletic/aggressive!” or “you have such a unique style”. Someone at my club in Connecticut commented that I’d probably be amazing at track and field because my skating was so fast and powerful, and had I thought about that instead? New York City tourists have politely and very complimentary (in their eyes) told me that I’m “the best Black skater they’ve ever seen, and so powerful!” Strong, powerful, aggressive, athletic; not the words you want to hear in the delicate, feminine world of figure skating.

James goes on to draw other parallels between herself and Harding, such as choice of nontraditional skating music.

Racism is not classism, but African-Americans in this culture are presumed to come from lower-status class backgrounds, regardless of the reality of their lives. And abuse happens at all levels of society. Nonetheless, James’ conclusion matters:

We can’t excuse whatever part Tonya Harding may or may not have played in the assault on Nancy Kerrigan in 1994, but I get what it’s like to not be seen as the “‘lovely,’ ‘ladylike,’ ‘elegant,’ and ‘sophisticated,’ one,” and spending the energy trying to conform to a sport standard that’s not necessarily made to fit how the world’s been trained to see you. I suspect that several other Black athletes do as well; along with [Surya] Bonaly, Serena Williams comes quickly to mind.

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