Laurie and I are trying to keep this blog generally COVID-19 free, but today I am making an exception. A white friend who is a talented and dedicated amateur epidemiologist forwarded me this interview with Dr. Michael Osterholm, conducted by Dan Buettner at Blue Zones.
Let me be clear: this is generally an excellent article. Osterholm is thoughtful, considerate, compassionate, and knowledgeable. And yet, my friend forwarded it to me because it made them feel guilty, triggered, and more in danger because of the emphasis on obesity as the greatest risk factor for people under 55. Because Osterholm is so clear and careful, they felt especially threatened, and they asked me what I could tell them that would help.
Here’s what I responded.
My basic reaction, with all due respect to Osterholm (which seems like it is a lot) is that this is not something he has thought through. We know beyond a doubt that there is a huge racial disparity in both cases and deaths. You and I know that a lot of the reason for that racial disparity is who is on the front lines and must work and be in contact with the public, whether it’s nurses, grocery store workers, delivery drivers, postal carriers, etc., etc. We also know that there are racial disparities in levels of obesity, and we know some of the reasons for them as well.
I would bet my last dollar that if you correlate that obesity statistic with 1) level of involuntary exposure to the public; and 2) poverty leading to reduced dietary options, the obesity itself would shrink or even disappear. Someone is undoubtedly doing that, because enough doctors of color understand that. But if you are not alert and aware of the correlations between race and obesity, and you are not familiar with health at any size (and most doctors are neither), then obesity looks like a controlling factor. So that’s how I see the science.
The rest of my answer was personal to their situation, and not relevant here. I will say that my answer seems to have provided some relief.
When we learn to look beneath the automatic demonization of fatness, we almost always find that the underlying issues are complicated, racialized, and rooted in many forms of injustice.
I knew absolutely nothing about traditional Inuit tattooing practices before I read this article … and now I know a tiny bit more. Juanita Nelson at CBC News interviewed Angela Hovak Johnson, and several of the women she tattooed in the Inuit community of Kugluktuk.
A Yellowknife resident, who got Inuit tattoos done on her own face eight years ago, Hovak Johnston wrote proposals and got the funding she needed to hold a five-day event that included a contemporary tattoo artist from Yellowknife and a traditional tattoo artist from Alaska. …
Catherine Niptanatiak, one of the women participating in the event, designed her own tattoos. … Niptanatiak says she did her research first before getting tattoos.
“Only chosen women got traditional tattoos and they were done at puberty and it meant she was capable of taking the full responsibilities of a woman, so going from young girl to young woman.”
“Because I’ve taken on the roles of a woman, I feel like this is the right time for me.”
Niptanatiak chose to have her wrists done using the traditional hand-poking technique using needle and ink.
Cecile Lyall, whose hands are shown above, chose “both the gun method and the traditional method to show her history.”
Reading about First Nations women reclaiming traditions makes the ongoing “skin whitening” pressure sadder and more frightening. Denise Oliver Velez has been fighting colorism since the early 1980s, and in this Daily Kos column she summarizes some of the current front lines of the fight. All the videos are worth watching, but I especially hope that millions of darker-skinned people watch this one by Wilbur Sargunaraj.
I feel like I grew up with the concept of the “biological clock” that theoretically describes internal pressure on women to have babies. I had no idea that the term is noticeably younger than I am, until I came across Moira Weigel’s article in The Guardian:
Women in many times and places have felt pressure to bear children. But the idea of the biological clock is a recent invention. It first appeared in the late 1970s. “The Clock Is Ticking for the Career Woman,” the Washington Post declared, on the front page of its Metro Section, on 16 March 1978. The author, Richard Cohen, could not have realised just how inescapable his theme would become….
The story of the biological clock is a story about science and sexism. It illustrates the ways that assumptions about gender can shape the priorities for scientific research, and scientific discoveries can be deployed to serve sexist ends. We are used to thinking about metaphors like “the biological clock” as if they were not metaphors at all, but simply neutral descriptions of facts about the human body. Yet, if we examine where the term came from, and how it came to be used, it becomes clear that the idea of the biological clock has as much to do with culture as with nature. And its cultural role was to counteract the effects of women’s liberation.
First, conversations about the “biological clock” pushed women towards motherhood, suggesting that even if some of the gendered double standards about sex were eroding, there would always be this difference: women had to plan their love lives with an eye to having children before it was “too late”. Second, the metaphor suggested that it was only natural that women who tried to compete with men professionally, and to become mothers as well, would do so at a disadvantage.
… The term was originally coined by scientists to describe circadian rhythms, the processes that tell our bodies when we should rise, eat, and sleep. In the 1950s, the US air force began sponsoring research into how the biological clock worked. Soon researchers were racing to develop drugs that could eliminate the need for rest. The idea was that if we understood the body well enough, we could overcome its limitations. In the 1970s and 1980s the meaning of the term shifted to the way we use it now: a description of female fertility. But is being female a weakness that we believe professional women should want to cure?
Weigel’s article is long, informative, and thoughtful.
Biological clocks are certainly related to birth control, and I can’t say I’d ever thought about birth control for military women, but pharmaceutical company Medicines360 has, and interestingly so. Here’s Sarah Kliff, reporting for Vox:
“A number of studies suggest that a third of servicewomen can’t get their preferred birth control method before they’re deployed,” says Jessica Grossman, chief executive of Medicines360, which manufactures Liletta. “A long-acting, reversible contraceptive might be particularly of interest to women in these situations.”
Recent studies have documented difficulties women service members experience accessing contraceptives, especially while deployed. One study found that four in 10 women had difficulty accessing their contraceptive of choice while deployed — and military women have a higher rate of unintended pregnancy than the civilian population.
Medicines360 is offering a very steep discount to the military, if they will provide the company’s IUD’s to military women. They are also trying to counter the pervasive myth that only women who have borne children already can use IUDs.
Despite my well-established bias against pharmaceutical companies, I have to say this seems like a good plan for everyone involved. My only question is, if they can really lower their prices from $675 to $100 for the military, what should they be charging civilian women?
On the other hand, the only surprising thing about this article about weight gain in Biggest Loser contestants, is that it’s by Gina Kolata, who certainly knows that the information isn’t new. Kolata, who wrote Rethinking Thin more than ten years ago, doesn’t reference her own earlier work, but rather writes as if this was new science.
Researchers knew that just about anyone who deliberately loses weight — even if they start at a normal weight or even underweight — will have a slower metabolism when the diet ends. So they were not surprised to see that “The Biggest Loser” contestants had slow metabolisms when the show ended.
What shocked the researchers was what happened next: As the years went by and the numbers on the scale climbed, the contestants’ metabolisms did not recover. They became even slower, and the pounds kept piling on. It was as if their bodies were intensifying their effort to pull the contestants back to their original weight.
“This is a subset of the most successful” dieters, [Dr. David Ludwig, director of the New Balance Obesity Prevention Center] said. “If they don’t show a return to normal in metabolism, what hope is there for the rest of us?”
Still, he added, “that shouldn’t be interpreted to mean we are doomed to battle our biology or remain fat. It means we need to explore other approaches.”
I’d love to know what the article looked like before the editors of the New York Times got their hands on it.
Perhaps Dr. Ludwig should just close his center, because here — in another completely unsurprising development — is more data that says fat is not unhealthy. Alan Moses wrote about it for U.S. News and World Report:
[Danish] researchers said that the risk of dying early for any reason is now the same among obese individuals as it is among normal-weight individuals.
Just as we knew about dieters regaining weight, we’ve known this for a long time. But somehow it always seems to be completely new, astonishing, and loaded with faith sentences, such as:
“I do not believe it has necessarily become safer to have what is classified by U.S. National Institutes of Health as an overweight BMI,” [Lona Sandon, program director and assistant professor in the department of clinical nutrition at UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas] said.
On the other hand, “high heels are bad for your feet” is one of my own personal faith sentences, and Mary Karr, writing for the Uninvent This column in The New Yorker, agrees with me:
While the rest of my physique is mediocre by the laxest standards, I started adulthood with an exemplary foot. My toes tapered evenly, and my high arch was ballerina-worthy. I even copped a job as a foot model for an exercise sandal. Yes, I am bragging.
By sixty, those feet had gnarled up like gingerroot. I don’t grieve my less than pert tatas. When my ass lies down on the back of my leg, I think, Oh, rest, you poor thing. Given new bra technology and some spandex, I can squish stuff in and—spray a little PAM on me—still slither into a size 4. But standing for an hour in heels sets red lightning bolts blazing off my feet.
Karr doesn’t mince words:
I was a slave to the desire that rules our libidinal culture. And an elongated foot and leg just announces, Hey, y’all, there’s pussy at the other end of this. Yet every pair of excruciating heels also telegraphs a subtle masochism: i.e., I am a woman who can not only take an ass-whipping; to draw your gaze, I’ll inflict one on myself.
I have lots more links, so maybe there’s another links post in the near future. Meanwhile, though, I’ll close by telling you about this well-deserved tribute to Katherine Johnson. Langley Research Center has named its new Computational Research Facility after her, as well they should.
When Johnson began work at Langley in 1953, she was among a pool of African-American women whose role it was to be the “computers.” Hired by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the predecessor to NASA, she and her colleagues performed the mathematical equations and calculations needed by the engineers to advance their aeronautical work.