Saturday, October 18, 2008

Rant: Vegan activism as able-bodied privilege

I'm a vegetarian (as of September this year), because after reading one of Peter Singer's books, I couldn't deal with meat anymore (not even fish). While I am ethically okay with my choice, it is a pain in the ass socially; I do not want to impose my choices on others, and I hate being that person, the one who no-one wants to have over or go out for dinner with because they are annoying about food. I also worry that for some, my choice will imply judgment on their choices, and I don't want that; everyone needs to do what they need to do to stay happy and healthy, and (particularly that latter bit) for people with many medical conditions that implies a diet which includes meat as a source of protein.

Which brings me to vegan activism: It is a form of able-bodied privilege. If you read (for example) this page, it states that 'a properly planned vegan diet is healthier than the average American diet' and that 'it is very difficult [for a sensible vegan] not to get enough protein'. Ironically enough, that page also recommends B12 supplementation, and while B12 can now be artificially synthesized, I would lay money that the synthesized form was tested on animals).

Back to the claims on, though, which as vegan activist sites go is fairly mild: both the claims listed there (and a number of others I have chosen not to address) rely on the assumption of an able body to hold true. We don't normally think of able bodies in terms outside of motor functions, neurology, and the senses working adequately, but none of those systems is the one most affected by veganism. If you have (as I do) a digestive tract that does not work correctly, not only will a vegan diet not nourish you adequately, it may actually kill you. Patients with bowel diseases need more protein than the average bear, particularly when they are ill. This on its own would be no problem, but when you combine it with the type of protein readily available in the vegan diet, it becomes a problem. Those with active bowel disease often need to be on a low-residue diet, that is a diet that won't leave too much stuff in their poo to irritate them, or block up narrowed areas in their intestines. Fibre (as is foind in legumes) and nuts and seeds are all potentially harmful (and in very rare cases, fatal) for many bowel disease patients with active disease. This leaves only highly processed soy protein as a protein option to fulfil those extra protein needs which (in addition to being a very dull diet for patients with high protein needs and risking taste fatigue and thus further weight loss) may be a cancer risk (it is also an allergen, which would leave some people completely unable to use it).

Now, as I have said, I do not judge others for their choices about their diet. Like Jill, I believe that it is best to eat things that are humanely farmed, and I personally will only eat free range eggs, but I also recognise that veganism (and to a certain extent vegetarianism) rely on economic privilege as well. I also recognise that for some, their health is a barrier to a meat-free diet; this is likely to be true for me in my lifetime. Having said all that, I respect the choices and commitments that vegans make, but vegan proselytizing, particularly the kind where everyone should go vegan and consequences be damned, is a form of able privilege, and I am here to call it out.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Rave: 'Ana's song' as a representation of pain

As I said in my post yesterday, 'Ana's Song' by Silverchair has been in high rotation for me lately, partly because I have noticed (and been saddened by) the food issues in society around me, but probably partly also because I'm in that kind of mood. Whatever the reason though, it is an incredibly clever song.

It's well known, I guess, that the song was written by Daniel Johns in the throes of his own struggle with anorexia and other mental illnesses so the pain is very real. The song is about anorexia nervosa, though, and while I was never anorexic, it certainly resonates with some of the less-sane coping strategies I have witnessed, and used myself.

There is an incredibly clever pairing between the quiet, high, stripped down first verse and the description of the destruction of anorexia that it offers: Even as Johns asks it to 'please die', and talks about it's sharpened nails, he sounds like he is singing about love and lust. The rhythm section of the song kicks in with the chorus, and adds the tension to the music between the open fire that burns, and needing that same fire. The verse is once again soft, talking about the seductions of a coping strategy that fails and hurts every single time, until describing the damage done, where the tension again becomes evident. The third verse is positively ragged, and while it is the most "sane" of the verses in terms social perception, it is the place in the song where the music is roughest, one could almost say angriest. The song closes with two repeats of the chorus with slightly less tension, but tense nonetheless.

The pairing of the "least sane" lyrics with the most seductive parts of the song, and the "most sane" with the angriest, most ragged, least stable parts of the's clever. It reflects obsession from the inside so cleverly that the listener becomes sympathetic with insanity without even noticing.

I am truly in awe of what was done here, and I think the world is a more beautiful (if sadder) place for the existence of this song.

Rant: 'Please die ana' and other food obsessions

This is going to be a bit of a rant, so if that offends you I suggest you look away now. The topic of today's rant is food, and in particular the way we have managed to generate obsession in a time of plenty.

In the past week I have watched someone suffering so deeply from an eating disorder I can count every bone in her body put out eating disorder awareness fliers out before she went to work out. I've read a posting on an online community from someone who, trying to instill healthy eating habits in her children said there was no dessert, and then ate candy from her desk; this post led to others (all women) saying they can't open Halloween candy because they eat it all. I've seen one of the fittest people I know actively wage war on half a slice of cake. I've read the story of someone trying to balance blood sugar and digestive disorder, saying that the "healthy" pasta was not worth it for her. I've had someone tell me that they need to join weight watchers because of their risk for heart disease (and their hatred of exercise), but they are worried about it because they have no food or body issues. I've seen a man on TV claim that the meal he cooked at 50 (his first) was the high point of his life, and that until that point food had been merely fuel. Is it any wonder 'Ana's Song' is in high rotation for me right now?

The nexus of all this, of course, is food and the ways in which people do not enjoy it, and all of them in one way or another resonate with me. My relationship with food is only now starting to normalise after a time where I could eat nothing due to illness, and then a time where I would eat a table if it wasn't nailed down because I was on prednisone, and frankly that is enough to headfuck anyone. Part of coming back to food, for me, has been coming back to enjoying it without fear, and part of that process has been noticing how completely and utterly fucked up most people's relationship with it (and I am not letting myself off the hook here) is.

In a time of plentiful food, as many of us in the west are privileged enough to enjoy, instead of enjoying it, food has become an instrument of torture for so many of us. Fat hatred has talked huge numbers of women into imposing artificial famine upon themselves, and when we do break that famine we gorge, because we're not being "good" so why the fuck not? The wester beauty ideal has a lot to answer for, let me tell you. When it isn't famine, it is eating the "right" things as defined by some metric of health; there is even a named eating disorder for taking this to extreme: orthorexia. The specter of "long term health" is being used as a stick to beat food choices with now, for many, and as in the case of my friend above some people can't win for losing. And even for those who are fuelling their bodies, for some it has become utilitarian and there is no joy in it. And lack of joy does not even begin to describe the hell and the demons battled by those with EDs; hell and demons that make me unspeakably sad.

What the fuck have we done as a society? How is it that we have managed to take the joy out of food for so many people, when there is plenty of food to go around? How many people are not performing at their best right now, because they are underfuelled, or obsessing about what they want to eat? How many people are eating chocolate and feeling nothing but guilt?

Do me a favour today: Enjoy something you eat, and don't feel guilty about it.

Postscript: Without meaning to, and truly ironically, I posted this just after the end of 'Love your Body Day' where I live. Life is so weird sometimes.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Revelation: Why I like (primarily) male vocal music

I have long been deeply disturbed by my own personal preference for music performed by male vocalists; I feel like it is something I should hand in my feminist card over--it seems contradictory to believe women should get equal opportunities in the music industry but not really be that into their music myself. And the thing is, it's not that I like what most people would cosnider "nice" male voices; I'm a huge fan of Placebo (no, really, I hear you say); I've done my time with the Smashing Pumpkins, and I was briefly fascinated by Lukas Rossi--none of these men have traditional voices. I've always been obsessed with the lyrics of songs, and I know far more lyrics than it is reasonable for one human being to know, so the words that are being sung are often (though not always) more relevant to my choice of music than the voice that is singing them.

So, recently I was working on a playlist for a mix CD for a friend of mine who likes female vocalists, and to my surprise, I discovered that actually, I like quite a number of female vocalists--Dilana, Brooke Fraser, both the Runga sisters, Alanis, Marie Fredriksson, Beth Ditto and Hanna Pakarinen--to name a few she might not have heard, or who she might not have heard recently (which doesn't even begin to touch on my flirtations with better-knowns like Annie Lennox, Stevie Nicks and P!nk who I know she listens to). I was trying to figure out what the common theme was, and initially I thought it was rage, but that should imply that I would like (for example) Lily Allen, who I cannot abide. Thinking about it more, I realised it was actually just having something interesting to say, and saying it to an appealing melody in a way that meant I could connect with it emotionally. This allows for the spectrum Placebo have presented me with, for Hanna's rage and Bic's homesickness, even for Brooke's devotion that I do not share.

So where, I hear you asking, do I get my feminist card back? The answer is pretty simple: Exposure. The majority of my music exposure is through popular channels, for example the gym, commercial radio, television, and my itunes recommendations. At a guess, exposure is usually going to come via a record company, adn besides suing 12 year olds and screwing artists out of the majority of their royalties, record companies exist to make money. In a culture where women are objectified, dismembered and made two dimensional at every opportunity, it's a big risk for a record company to take on a woman who has strong feelings about anything, because you know, thinking and feeling women who sing about it are more than just tits, ass and male sexual fantasy. Even when such a woman does make it through the record company gauntlet, too often the lyrics are about how men have altered their lives for the worse, and how they are still cut up about it (this is probably how Alanis made it out, but all the subsequent albums were much more interesting). Men, on the other hand, can sing about whatever they want and get away with it; record companies will still sign them if they are angry or even write music that doesn't have women at its centre.

While this discovery has made me realise my discovery channels are failing, and has reinforced to me that the record companies are failing to provide what I want in so many ways, I no longer feel like I should hand in my feminist card over my musical taste...I just need to keep looking in less mainstream channels for women to love.

Update 8 Jul 2008: For a more theoretical and coherent discussion, read this at Smart Like Me.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Rant: Buy your own damn machines

Where I live, we have a public healthcare system where most things are paid for, and I am fortunate to have much of the care for my chronic illness paid for out of my taxes. Having said that, I do not particularly like the care I get for said illness. Too frequently of late I have waited a long time in waiting rooms; an hour and a half for bloodwork (and this cannot be claimed to be an inefficiency of public care--bloodwork is generally done by private companies who are contracted to the government or individual patients), and regularly at least an hour to see my specialist. The only time I have not waited, they phoned me five minutes before my appointment time to see where I was, because everyone else was gone and they wanted to go home. You can guarantee that they don't phone me before my appointment when they are running an hour plus late. Not only do they not phone me, it seems to be against clinic policy to apologise for the wait. Clearly, given that they always run late, their appointment times are too short, but obviously this is okay because in this circumstance it is only the patients (whose time is infinitely expendable) who have to wait, not the doctors. So yeah, I'm not crazy about my hospital.

Where I live charitable donations are tax deductible, so come tax time every charity is out asking for donations. Now, I am all for giving to charity; I have a couple of donations that go out monthly to organizations I support, and I am tempted to add a couple more to the list. So around tax time, I got a letter from the hospital where I get my care, soliciting donations for some "hi-tech" new ultrasound machines to help "pregnant women and men with prostate cancer". Now, leaving aside for a moment the fact that I don't even like the bloody hospital, this is wrong on so many levels:
  • They have my address because I am one of their patients. Not only does this show me that they are quite willing to use information I provided for reasons of healthcare to solicit for donations, it also shows that they are willing to ask for donations from those who already have the additional financial burden of a health condition bad enough to be treated at a public hospital (and yes, there are costs associated with illness even in socialised medicine). I've also had solicitations for donations from other public hospitals I have nothing to do with, and I'm somewhat suspicious as to how they got my information.
  • They were talking about how wonderful these new machines were. There have been no truly significant developments in ultrasound since the 90s, so either they are very slow off the mark, or they're...dissembling.
  • The government will be making a significant contribution towards the cost of these machines, and if the hospital cannot afford to replace equipment, it should either be asking the government for more money or looking at how it spends its operating budget (especially if these machines are just replacements).
  • They do the routine about "obese, older mothers" benefitting more from ultrasound. First of all, it is at best debatable how much obesity is really a risk in pregnancy, and secondly, ultrasound is a difficult imaging tool to use on patients with a lot of adipose tissue, so these machines won't help obese mothers that much anyway.
  • The letter also says how pregnancy and prostate imaging are "non invasive" diagnostic measures. Given that prostate ultrasound is performed transrectally, and pregnancy ultrasounds is often performed transvaginally, these people clearly have no idea what "invasive" means to non-medical professionals.
  • Despite asking me to send them a cheque or my visa card details, a replay paid envelope was not included. This is not only rude, it means I am altogether too likely to make a mistake and send money to the wrong address.
Given the cost of postage, I truly wonder whether they will make any money on this campaign at all. I'm pretty annoyed about all the trees involved in doing a paper mailout like this, and I'm equally annoyed at being targeted for all the reasons I list above. Honestly, if the donation section had not had my name and address on it, I would have paid for a stamp to send it back with "you've got to be joking" written on it in big red letters. Because really, they've got to be joking.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Rant: Gynecology, choice, "annual exams", and the medical establishment

For those readers of this blog who are made squeamish by feminism, medicine, or vajayjay talk, I suggest you look away now. Consider yourselves warned.

Recently, I read a post on feministing asking how women felt about getting their "annual exams". I didn't weigh in on the topic, because where I live now, and where I lived before, "annual exams" aren't annual, and include only a pap smear, rather than the breast exam and everything else that seems to happen in the States. Also unlike the U.S., here these exams are usually done by your family doctor, rather than a gynae specialist. what this discussion reminded me of, though, was a pro-feminist framing of gynae care I'm not sure I am comfortable with. I'm not sure I can agree that gynae care is entirely feminist--while being healthy is certainly pro-woman, I'm not sure viewing the female reproductive system as something that needs to be checked once a year to remain healthy, or the pap smear as a pre-requisite to a birth control prescription is feminist. The first reminds me enormously of the medicalization of birth, with all the patriarchal control of female reproductive organs and disconnect between a woman and her own body and health (after all, what other body system needs so much checking out once a year?). Requiring a pap before prescribing birth control smacks of medical paternalism to me--even in the highly legalized medical environment in the U.S., surely a woman ought to be able to sign a waiver and get her birth control anyway (there are some places that offer this option, but from what I have heard they are in the minority). I think it is likely, too, that this insistence on intimate exams may actually prevent some women from getting hormonal birth control--this insistence will not force unwilling women to get gynecological exams, it will cause them to use other (potentially inferior) methods of birth control.

Combine this climate of control and medical paternalism (of which there is a long history with regard to women's bodies) with the fact that often women are not in charge of their gynae exams--take this and this as examples from the medical blogosphere and the feminist blogoshpere respectively that make my toes curl in their shoes--and you have a pretty ugly scenario.

In Australia, around 61% of women go for their pap smears every two years as recommended. That means 39% don't. To try to raise this number the government is paying doctors extra for treating women who have not been tested for a while (but you can guarantee that that extra money is not being passed on to patients). In a country the size of Australia, you can guarantee some of the problem is access and choice--when you're dependent on a rural health service that covers a wide area, well, it might take a bit longer to get to a doctor. Like anywhere, though, some women's reluctance will have to do with what doctors call "anxiety or embarrassment", which I believe is meant to cover everything from anxiety and embarrassment right up to fear and trauma. While the medical approach is that these women should "get over it for their own sake", I am a little disappointed to note the actual level of care being offered--I'm going to talk about the Australian model, because I've done some research about it.

In Australia, around 2% of the ordinary non-liquid paps are inconclusive (usually because they contain blood or mucus), requiring the woman to come back for another test 6-12 weeks later. While there is a more effective test, the cost of this test is not covered by the Australian government (unlike most other medical testing), and even where it is performed an ordinary pap must be performed anyway. In a traumatised woman, the additional testing, expense, and discomfort may be the barrier between getting successful health care, and not getting it, but it is much easier to trot out the line about how "women with cervical cancer should have come in for a smear" than actually address this problem.

HPV testing could be offered as an alternative to traditional pap smears, meaning women did not have to get tested so frequently, but again, this is not covered by the Australian government, and therefore does not actually help many women.

And then there is collection method. Blind sweeps, and self sampling (either with the traditional method, as this midwife offered, or with the newer mechanisms) can offer women an non-traumatic way to collect the necessary samples. The Australian cancer screening program., however sees 'no evidence' to support the use of this approach. I guess the women in this study who would use this approach but did not get regular pap smears are not enough evidence. As this paper says, self sampling could bring the participation rate in cervical screening to near 100%, but cynically I have to wonder if it is easier and cheaper to blame women for getting cervical cancer.

My point is this (and yes, I have one): I do believe that being healthy, and having a healthy reproductive system are feminist objectives. I also believe that choice, knowing one's own body, and questioning the patriarchy are feminist objectives, and given the above it is clear that (at least in Australia) choice is being restricted (and may pose a barrier to the health of up to 39% of women). I am all for taking care of our bodies, and I am grateful that (largely thanks to the feminists who went before us) gynecological care has advanced enough that women are allowed to get pap smears these days. Having said that, the fact that the medical patriarchy is denying birth control without a pap smear, or constricting womens choices about what kind of pap smear they have (financially, practically or informationally) quite frankly makes me think that too much gynecological care isn't feminist. Until women everywhere can get care in the way that works best for them, until the blaming of cancer victims for "not coming in for a pap" stops, until women are seen as intelligent beings and allowed to decide for themselves about the risks associated with birth control, I can't quite see the "annual exam" as feminist.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Rant: Religion and the food industry: There's what in my yoghurt?

Recently I hit the grocery store needing a mid-afternoon something to fill the hole. I don't know what it is about me, but I eat all the damn time. Honestly, if I am not the original argument for "size is genetic" I don't know who is--like I say I eat all the time, and I (like my parents, who eat differently to me) am short and on the stocky edge of normal. I like to eat protein in the afternoon, because it fills the hole and keeps me out of the candy jar at work (because my already-awful teeth need me eating that stuff like I need another chronic illness). I was also in the mood for something sweet, so I checked out the mousse type selections in the yoghurt fridge. I read the ingredient list, and discovered to my horror, that Nestle mousses include halal gelatine.

Now, giving Nestle the benefit of the doubt, I contacted them to enquire whether the gelatine was from animal sources, and indeed it is--beef gelatine. After this, The Partner conducted a survey of all the products in that fridge--and despite mostly being yoghurt, many of them had gelatine in them. Upon my understanding of all this, I have investigated gelatine as an ingredient, and will not be ingesting anything that contains it in the future.

There are two larger issues at play, here, though. First of all, what the fuck are all these companies doing putting an animal product in yoghurt in the first place? Yoghurt is supposed to be a healthful, vegetarin food, and should be primarily dairy. Bulking these foods out with gelatine is at best making the foods less healthful, and at worst sneaking meat into what should be vegetarian products. I knew the food companies weren't above dirty tricks, but I am significantly unimpressed that yoghurt isn't yoghurt anymore.

The second issue is the use of halal gelatine. I am a firm supporter of religious tolerance. I support everyone's right to live their spiritual life in any way they choose. I do not, however, support any kind of cruelty done in the name of religion or culture, to humans or animals. I do not support customary-rights whaling, I do not support bullfighting as a protected cultural practice, and I do not support halal or kosher slaughter, which I (and the British Veterinary Association) believe to be cruel.

Now, yes, arguably any slaughter is cruel (and it certainly seems especially unnecessary to thicken yoghurt which should be thickened by straining and no other method), but as someone who would truly struggle to meet their nutritional needs without meat, I would at least like my meat products to come to me with as little attached cruelty as possible. I buy free range eggs and chicken, and I try to stick to fish products and (even better) vegetarian options as much as possible (but it won't always be possible). And I believe putting animal-based halal gelatine into anything consumed by a population that would almost certainly deem the method of slaughter cruel is unethical. Certainly, it makes it easier for the food giants--they do not have to deal in multiple suppliers, and their food is suitable for a larger market; but easy and ethical only rarely go hand in hand, and in this case they don't. The food suppliers ought to label more clearly that their food is not suitable for vegetarians, and not suitable for those who support what research shows to be humane slaughter.

As for me? I'm now sticking to Tamar Valley yoghurt. Sure, it costs me $8 for a six pack, but it tastes amazing, doesn't have gelatine of any stripe in it, and leaves me feeling fuller (perhaps because it isn't bulking out the product with gelatine) than any other kind of yoghurt. And as for gelatine? It's off my list.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Rave: The reclamation of my own body

I've decided I need to write more in this blog, as a space for the things I can't put on any of my professional blogs. I shall try not to ignore it for nearly a year in future.

Being an avowed feminist, and getting more avowed by the day, I've been thinking a lot about the mind-body dichotomy and how it plays out where I can see social ideals exerting controls over women's bodies, through food and fat, through sex (and rape), through fashion, through forced childbearing or denial of the right to bear children, through sports, and ultimately through murder (to name just a few).

For me, personally, my body has been a source of discomfort for as long as I can remember. Because I cannot run fast or catch a ball, and I grew up in a society that values sports above all else, my body and its failings have made me an object of school ridicule since I was small. I do not fit in to an idealized beauty standard, and this has been readily apparent to me for a long time. And in my early adulthood, I suffered the bodily betrayal of chronic illness; pain, dependence, weight loss and gain due to illness and medication, loss of control in general (the illness with which I am diagnosed has particularly socially unacceptable symptoms, being intestinal in nature). And of course the usual stories of sexual harassment and the like that all the women I know could tell, well, I can tell them too.

I'm not saying all or any of this for pity, but because I want to demonstrate how from the time I went to school, my body has been a source of embarrassment, shame, inconvenience, pain, and discomfort. Until I left my teens, I walked with a hunch to make myself smaller and less obvious. I wished I could be like that Roald Dahl story, and just be a brain in a jar, because nothing good came of having a body.

Recently though, I have begun to realise the joy I take in my body. Now, for those of you whose minds have already hit the damn gutter, I'm not even going to talk about sex--partly because it too bloody obvious, partly because it is fraught and I don't want to get into it. Instead, I'm going to talk about other things:
  • Discovering swimming at 13, and realising I could swim further than pretty much anyone I knew, but that that didn't matter because it was good to just move through the water and be tired afterwards.
  • Discovering the gym at 14, and learning to enjoy group exercise in a way where I was my own master, and where I did not have to be able to run or catch a ball.
  • Playing basketball in girls-only physical education in Finland, where all that mattered was that everyone was having a good time.
  • Learning to climb and be the master of my own destiny, and getting bloody strong along the way (oh, and meeting my husband wasn't bad either).
  • Lifting weights, and changing the shape of my body, not in a way that pleased society, but in a way that pleased me.
  • Taking up running on the treadmill with a goal in mind, and being surprised at how fast I could run without even trying
  • All the other gym classes -- step, where I was particularly talented and could learn anything; boxing aerobics, where I was quick and my aggression didn't matter, pilates and body balance where I learned to concentrate on what my body was doing and how small changes affected it, deep water running, where I could do great cardio without joint pain and most recently and importantly...
  • ...body jam, where I dance. I've always loved to dance, but I've never had any faith that I didn't look stupid or pornographic. It's taken a year of jam, but I simply don't give a flying fuck anymore what I look like. I don't care that some of the moves are sexual. I enjoy moving, and I am moving not for anyone other than me. It's about how I feel, rather than how I look (though I've been told that my dancing is pretty damn pleasing to the eye, these days).
It's taken doing the jam thing (for a year!), and losing my shame about moving my "child bearing hips", "thunder thighs" "boobies" and all the other parts of me that attract less attention for me to look at all of these experiences and stand up and recognise the joy I take in them. The brain in the jar scenario doesn't allow for any of these joys, and finally I am choosing to focus on the joy in all of it, rather than feeling slightly embarrassed and apologetic.

This is not, of course, to say that I love the way my body looks, or that the creepy jerk staring at my chest in the gym/elevator/train doesn't make me want to hide (or smack him), or that pain and illness don't make me curse my body as a bastard traitor that isn't playing the game. It's just that that isn't the dominant narrative anymore; it's no longer about what my body can't do, or what it is, but about what it can and does do. I've reclaimed my body.

I can't help but wonder, though, if I wouldn't have come earlier to this if physical education at school had been better rounded, and exposed me to other things than running and catching balls (and after all, the majority of us are not great at these things or sports heroes wouldn't be worshipped the way they are), and perhaps I might have come to the joy in simple movement earlier. It wouldn't have completely ameliorated all the other baggage, but knowing my body did one good thing just for me might have helped along the way. If I have daughters who are as hopeless at sports as I am, I'm certainly going to do my damndest to expose them to other types of movement...just in case.