Monthly Archives: March 2013

On the Road and Female: Theory and Practice

Debbie says:

I doubt there is a better analysis anywhere of the lack of female road narratives than this amazing piece by Vanessa Veselka. It is not a pretty story:

By 2004, so many women had been found dead along the interstates that the FBI started the Highway Serial Killers Initiative to keep track of them. There were girls found in dumpsters, behind truck stop diners, off the side of the road on truck turnarounds—the national database listed over five-hundred Jane Does in or near rest areas and truck stops alone. Some of these were the very truck stops I was now passing through, and yet I couldn’t uncover even rumors of past murders. The strangeness of this crystallized when I visited a Pennsylvania truck stop where I knew for a fact that two women had been killed, one found only yards from where the woman I was speaking to worked. Still, she “had never heard of anything like that.”

… in a society as obsessed with celebrity as ours, where people claw their way to a camera or a microphone and serial killers breed fascination rather than disgust, someone should have remembered something. Who forgets the body of a murdered teenaged girl found at their place of employment while they worked there? There is no doubt that the social invisibility of these women contributed to their predation. But what exactly was that invisibility made from? These women weren’t remembered, it seemed, because they hadn’t been seen in the first place. And they hadn’t been seen partly because there was no cultural narrative for them beyond rape and death. As such, women on the road were already raped, already dead.  Whereas a man on the road might be seen as potentially dangerous, potentially adventurous, or potentially hapless, in all cases the discourse is one of potential. When a man steps onto the road, his journey begins. When a woman steps onto that same road, hers ends.

Veselka is not just on to something here, she’s on to practically everything. She’s on to why rape culture is acceptable, why Zerlina Maxwell gets horrifically threatened for simply saying she doesn’t want to be required to carry a gun, why we attend to reviving Ophelia and not civilizing Hamlet. She’s also on to a piece of my own story that I rarely talk about.


The year is 1972. I have just graduated from college and I have decided, rather than either going to graduate school or getting a job, to take the comparatively little money I have left over from my parents’ college fund, buy a car with it, and drive around the country, from New York to the West Coast and back again. A combination of life circumstances and unrecognized privilege coalesce to make me completely physically fearless about this: including growing up culturally fat, believing I was largely outside of the sexual sweepstakes, and having been raised by a mom who gave lip service to what was not then called “stranger danger,” but basically believed in the humanity of individual people and raised me that way. My mother is, nonetheless, terrified about this trip, especially when I refuse to promise her that I won’t pick up hitchikers. “You could wind up bludgeoned in a field,” she says, and I make fun of her to my friends for such an over-the-top image.

(More than 40 years later, I can see all the reasons to be terrified, and all the ways this could have gone horribly wrong. I absolutely could have wound up in a dumpster. And I’m still, though much more chastened about it, really glad that I didn’t understand the risks at the time.)

Although not the least bit afraid of being raped, attacked or killed, I am in fact terrified of wandering out on my own, of my ability to navigate the world completely by myself at 21. Not yet even out of New York, I am nearly seduced by the opportunity to “live off the land” in a hippie farm in a community actually named Freedom, and only my promises to myself and my fear of looking scared get me out of that alternate history. After that, I am completely on my own, except that I have several names and phone numbers of my parents’ friends along the way.

At least four or five times, in Kansas City, in Denver, in Colorado, I call one of them and stop for a meal or a night’s bed. Invariably, the woman of the couple makes time to pull me aside. She is green, jittering, speechless with envy. The thought of having an adventure alone makes her regret her whole semi-conventional life, and wish she could have lived in a time when she could do what I am doing. She never warns or discourages me, she just shares a great deal of wistfulness. She probably knows, as I do not, that I am taking an enormous risk, but she is too caught up in her own dreams to deter my fearlessness. And I wouldn’t have listened anyway; maybe she knows that. During the conversation, we both believe that times are changing for women, that her daughters and grand-daughters will be as safe as I believe I am.

Most nights alone are just that; nights alone. My little car is my best friend. When I stop in a city for a couple of weeks, I get a temp job and a room in a single-room-occupancy “hotel,” where I learn a lot about people on the margins, about hookers and johns, transients who aren’t privileged like me. No one ever bothers me in these places. One night in a park, a lonely man around my own age propositions me, and I end up giving him a hand job. It wasn’t until 20 years later that I can see the way this edged up against forced sex, but I didn’t experience it that way at the time. I’ll never know what he would have done if I had said a flat no; 21-year-old me thinks he would have wandered away, but 61-year-old me is far less sanguine.

In Colorado, I’m adopted by some hippie men who give me weed and miso soup (the former familiar, the latter exotic), but read me the way I read myself, as generally sexless, and “nothing happens.”

I land in the San Francisco Bay Area four months or so after setting out, and stay a long time. In a pick-up bridge game in a student union, I find the man who will be my partner for the next fifteen years. A couple of months later, I head home to see my mother through surgery.

I have had my own one-girl road trip, and never (as far as I know) come within shouting distance of violence, never come within speaking distance of rape, never been scared of anything except my own ability to navigate my story. I finish it up feeling somewhat proud of myself, shivery excited about my new potential relationship, confident that girls (women) can now do this. In other words, while I have learned some very important things, I somehow managed to miss learning what most females will learn on the road: how many predators are out there, how deeply unsafe it really is, and how I somehow managed to avoid the monsters.

Some of this is about 1972 and open hippie culture (though I was never really a hippie). A lot of it is about privilege. A lot is about luck. A lot is about the way one’s own optimism can (but will not always) color the outcome of one’s story.

Looking at it from 2013, I’m simultaneously deeply grateful for the experience and really amazed that I came out unscathed. I am heartbreakingly sad that I cannot in good conscience encourage other women, young or old, to do what I did. I deeply get the envy that my mother’s peers had of my experience. One thing I took away from it, and still have, is the image of a world where a female-bodied person taking that trip has the same range of potential experiences that her male-bodied counterpart might have–road adventures where gender does not control the narrative.


Junk Food Addiction and Diet Deprivation: Two Sides of the Same Coin?

Lynne Murray says:

I’ve recently come across articles about the seemingly unrelated topics of engineering food to be addictive and conditioning teenagers to be lifelong dieters. The first common element that struck me was disconnecting the body’s natural relationship with food and turning it into a marketable commodity.

Food consultant Howard Moskowitz, who earned his Ph.D. in experimental psychology at Harvard, is famous in the industry for the concept of “the bliss point.”

“More is not necessarily better,” Moskowitz wrote in his own account of the Prego [pasta sauce] project. “As the sensory intensity (say, of sweetness) increases, consumers first say that they like the product more, but eventually, with a middle level of sweetness, consumers like the product the most (this is their optimum, or ‘bliss,’ point).”

The biggest hits — be they Coca-Cola or Doritos — owe their success to complex formulas that pique the taste buds enough to be alluring but don’t have a distinct, overriding single flavor that tells the brain to stop eating.

On the surface, designing a perfectly addicting snack looks like the opposite of this sad story of a teenage Biggest Loser victim celebrating her birthday:

Did she have cake? Well of course not, the show has taught her that she doesn’t deserve cake if she wants to be “healthy”. Instead her trainer, after an “exhausting workout”, gave her, “a tiny, sweet mandarin orange with a birthday candle stuck into it” which according to Sunny, “was, hands-down, the best birthday cake I’ve ever tasted”.

Many viewers and readers will certainly regard this teenager’s fervently coached extreme exercise and deprivation as the “cure for obesity,” which is frequently assumed to be “induced” by junk food.

But I couldn’t help noticing how similar the perceived trigger for obesity (junk food) and the perceived cure for obesity (deprivation) were, especially in how they build on each other and how they are presented.

Emerging research on food addiction suggests that processed salty, fatty or sweet foods of any kind — also called “hyperpalatable foods” — can trigger brain responses similar to those created by controlled substances in addicted individuals.

People react differently to processed foods than they do to foods found whole in nature, says Ashley Gearhardt, an assistant professor of clinical psychology at the University of Michigan.

“It’s something that has been engineered so that it is fattier and saltier and more novel to the point where our body, brain and pleasure centers react to it more strongly than if we were eating, say, a handful of nuts,” Gearhardt said. “Going along with that, we are seeing those classic signs of addiction, the cravings and loss of control and preoccupation with it.”

While engineers fabricate the foods that facilitate uncontrollable binges, limiting food consumption itself provides the starvation mindset most likely to lead to bingeing. A ten-year study at the University of Minnesota following dieting teenagers documented what many of us have found through bitter experience, and what the HAES community has been saying for decades:

The use of dieting and unhealthy weight control behaviors is common among teenagers and may counterintuitively lead to weight gain through the long-term adoption of unhealthy behaviors such as binge eating, reduced breakfast consumption, and lower levels of physical activity.

Four major similarities connect scientifically engineered junk food and food deprivation programs which are commonly called “dieting”:

  1. Detaching the person from trusting their body and its normal hunger patterns
  2. Setting up an infinite loop cycle as the diet-binge-diet-binge processes alternate over and over again.
  3. Giving the customer the illusion of control, while controlling them.
  4. Providing maximum profit to the marketers.

I do not believe in a horrible conspiracy betweem junk food engineers and diet-pushers. I think that most people and businesses are not organized or cooperative enough to perpetrate conspiracies. Instead, I believe these two groups of marketers are pursuing the same population (people who eat) with equal cynical ruthlessness, and that’s why their tactics converge.

Thanks to eleyan for the food engineering link and to my web diva for the Biggest Loser pointer.