Saturday, 14 October 2017

The Message is Domination

 Television actor, Mayim Bialik, writes in the New York Times about her experience as a woman who is not conventionally attractive – at least not by the entertainment world’s definition of physical attractiveness.   She talks about how she has negotiated her place in a world in which standards of physical (and hence, sexual) attractiveness – especially for women – are abnormal. In that rarefied world, instead of being in the majority, female actors who are average in appearance are atypical.

Somewhat controversially, Bialik suggests that if women in the industry dressed and behaved more modestly, as she has done, they would be less likely to be sexually objectified and assaulted.

This comes too close to blaming the victim for a lot of people and it is about as wrong as it’s possible to be in the wider social context in which, irrespective of how they dress or conduct themselves, all sorts of girls and women are sexually insulted and assaulted by men.

A depressingly large number of women and girls have experienced sexualised insults and assaults or felt at risk of them.  Like many women, I have my own stories, from being intuitively aware of the intentions of a paedophile when I was very young, to being physically attacked in the street and in my home, to being treated by men in ways that, as an older, wiser and much stronger woman, make me want to both weep and rage for my younger, more vulnerable self.

I’m now well past the point where the question of my sexual attractiveness or lack of it intrudes on my life but I know that I could still be raped or beaten by an angry, dysfunctional man - just because I’m a woman.

Men sexually assault women irrespective of where those women sit on the beauty spectrum, or how young or old they are. It is why the cliché of rape being about power is so utterly true. 

The motivator is anger and fear, the sex is the medium, and the message is domination.

But it’s simplistic to cast all men as actual or potential abusers or all women as passive actors or hapless victims of a male controlled narrative when some women participate in, collude with, and benefit from that narrative, and some men are harmed and appalled by, and seek to change it.  

In strict legal terms Weinstein has had allegations made against him. He is yet to face criminal charges but in the court of popular opinion he's already been tried and found guilty because it's pretty obvious that the reason there's lots of smoke is because a big fire has been burning for a long time.  He has been sacked, his wife has left him and all manner of public humiliations have been heaped upon him including people he has bankrolled politically, distancing themselves from him. 

In my view he deserves what he gets even though I'm not a naturally vindictive person and in an auto-da-fé I'm usually one of the people running up with a bucket of water.

The powerful behave in such openly abominable and destructive ways because they can -and they can, largely because other people allow them to. 

As individuals, less powerful people can be intimidated and constrained by the threat of the loss of a job and being boycotted, which is why the less powerful need to be in a collective.  It is only in combination that small voices can be heard over the racket made by the powerful and privileged minority.

I can find no such excuses for rich and powerful people who know and who do nothing.  
Any actor, director or any other person in the industry who is rich enough or who has enough celebrity cachet to be able to choose, and who knew what Weinstein was like and chose to work with him anyway - has no place on the moral high ground.  

In truth, in that part of the entertainment world, in relation to the commission of, or collusion with, sexualized bullying, intimidation and assault, I suspect it would be hard to even locate the moral high ground. 

This is especially true if the issue is widened out beyond the actions of this one man, however obnoxious he might be. 

The entertainment industry is an atypical, somewhat aberrant world that has a grossly disproportionate impact on how the wider world sees, and judges people - and especially women.

It is a small, insular world of extreme wealth and privilege in which power is still wielded mostly by men, a majority of whom are white, and whose standards of what constitutes talent, beauty and desirability are narrow and damagingly stereotypical.

The industry actively promotes feminine stereotypes of age, appearance, style and behaviour. These stereotypes don’t just reflect the personal preferences of the powerful men who dominate the industry, they help to put bums on seats, which serves to boost personal and corporate power. 

That some of those powerful men then prey upon young women who personify the industry stereotypes is about as wrong as it can be, but it is not surprising. 

As well as condemning this sort of exploitative and oppressive behaviour,we need to engage with the ways in which the entertainment world's stereotypes reinforce the sexual objectification of women that is one of the main underpinnings of the modern phallocracy. 

And we need to examine the extent to which we contribute to that through our own consumer and other choices.

Otherwise all that happens is one man gets pilloried, and after a while, it'll be business as usual. And viewed from down here, and in the context of the global everything, business as usual is pretty damned toxic.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Clean and Green

This is a dairy cow on a farm in North Canterbury.  Every bone in her body is visible through her dull coat.  On the body condition scale that I would use for horses, she is extremely emaciated - a walking skeleton. Her udder is massively swollen so she has recently had a calf.  She looks depressed. None of the small herd she is in even glance in our direction - which is unusual for cows as they are normally very curious.

Even by the low standards of modern, large scale and intensive dairying, this poor creature is seriously below par.

The dairy farms I cycled past this morning are uniformly ugly. To facilitate the irrigators, the fields have few or no trees for shade or shelter for stock. There are kilometres of electric fencing, huge silage pits, mountains of old car tyres, rivers of discarded plastic wrapping and large agricultural machines that carve up any soft ground they travel on. The working areas of the farms look completely industrial.

Little groups of calves huddle together for warmth and comfort. Their mothers are lost in the big herds standing in lush green grass. Most of the cows that I can see have reduced skeletal muscle and little or no body fat, huge udders and depressed demeanour. 

I know that most of the energy dairy cows ingest from the sugar rich grass they eat goes into filling their unnaturally large udders. I know that their udders are too low-slung to be suckled easily by calves even if the cows were allowed to feed their offspring. I know that instead of the all-day suckling of a calf, the dairy cow’s udder may be emptied just once a day to reduce costs so, by the time she is due to be milked, her udder is vast and distended, uncomfortable and unwieldy.  I also know that the way these cows are selectively bred and fed results in a shortened life span and a myriad of metabolic and musculo-skeletal problems.

We started our ride in Rangiora and cycled along the Rakihuri trail towards Waikuku.  The trail - a formed walking and cycling track - runs along the river bank from Rangiora until it gets to a point where it rejoins the road along the top of the stop bank. There have always been gates at various points on the stop bank to control the use of them by 4-wheel drivers and trail bikers. 

A new, large gate with a Private Property sign on it now blocks the stop bank road at a point about 3kms above the SH1 road bridge.  Another gate with the same sign has been put in near the road bridge.  As the Ashley-Rakihuri Regional Park has been developed by the regional and local authorities, there have been issues with pockets of private land i.e. where old farm boundaries extend into parts of the river bed that are now enclosed by the stop banks.  The current owners of this land have created access routes up over the stop bank to the wide riparian strip on which they graze cows.  They have installed a number of other gates to shut off the stop bank road while they move stock. The Private Property signs are very recent. Walkers and bike riders are permitted to squeeze past the end of the gate but have to negotiate any gates across the stop bank that have been left closed by farm workers. They’d also be well advised to avoid touching the electric fence.

The stop banks protect the farmland; without them the land would flood whenever the river is in spate. They were built by with public funds and are maintained at public expense. I’ll lay odds that the person who has put up the Private Property signs does not maintain that section of the stop banks at his own expense. In fact it's likely he didn't even pay for the gates and the signs.

The land alongside the river is wetland.  Like all of Canterbury’s braided rivers, the margins are criss-crossed by numerous streams and springs.  There was an article in the local press a couple of years ago about one of these streams that was fenced and planted in natives by a farmer who has since sold his farm to a huge dairy concern. At the time the article was written that stream ran clear and supported fish but other waterways are not so lucky. Even when streams are fenced and have the natural filtration of native plantings along the banks, intensive dairying’s large-scale use of artificial fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides and anthelmintics will cause harm to both the land and river ecosystems.

The Rakahuri runs out into a vitally important estuary which falls outside of the scope of the Ashley Rakahuri Regional Park management. The estuary is a “valuable ecological hotspot and any management decisions made for the park further upstream may have flow on impacts on the estuary environment further downstream that should be considered. The Ashley Estuary provides internationally significant habitat for migratory birds like the Bar-tailed Godwit, as well as providing autumn and winter habitat and feeding grounds for several threatened braided river bird species. The Estuary is also an important habitat for many native fish species. Inanga (whitebait), eels, Koaro, flounder, common smelt, torrent fish and bullies are all known to spend part of their lifecycle in the Ashley Estuary. The freshwater-saltwater transition zones of many of the small tributaries feeding in to the Ashley Estuary provide important Inanga spawning habitat.”

And this is the river whose floodplain is now covered in large dairy cattle farms and on whose banks just a few kilometres upstream a dairy farmer runs large numbers of cows.

In a sensible country all the land within the stop banks would be acquired by the State and control of it vested in the regional and district councils for the protection of the river and its wildlife - and for use by the public who fund it all.

This is not currently a sensible country and it desperately needs to be.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

More on the question of obesity

On The Independent On-line via my Facebook feed a few days ago there was story of a young woman who is striking a blow against the body shamers and fat bashers.  There are loads of these stories - personal responses to the vicious trolls who swarm the Internet in search of something to be offended, disgusted or enraged by.  

We all encounter the herds of inadequate people get pleasure out of venting their splenetic personalities on social media - slithering out from under their various rocks to rant and rail - and nothing brings out the haters like a fat woman who dares expose her body. 

Trolls exist because there are usually no consequences. They operate anonymously and/or at a distance and often they congregate with a crowd of other, like-minded, malicious inadequates.  They're cowardly bullies and I have nothing but contempt for them.  They need to be shamed; people need to stand up to them and to support the victims of bullying and bigotry. 

However, it's a very short-sighted person who argues that being significantly overweight does not involve an increased risk of developing major adverse health issues. 

When a woman's magazine runs a story about a comedian who happens to be significantly overweight and includes a shot of her in a bathing suit, it's not accidental.  Either she or the magazine wants to provoke a response.  I've no idea what the magazine's agenda was but Sofie Hagen describes herself as a' fat acceptance advocate', i.e. she sees obesity as a political issue and wants to ensure that fat people are treated equally and positively.  

Hagen rejects people who express concern about her weight - telling them to 'fuck off' -  which is fair enough when it's a troll hiding behind a faux concern about the health issues of obesity.  However, trolls are easily exposed, ask any of them to explain the physiology behind their concerns and they're at a loss. 

I can understand why Hagen and others like her are angry. I'm of an age where if I exposed my body in public the age-shamers would have a field day.  But, however vile and wrong the bullies are, it is a medical fact that obese people are at higher risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, liver cancer and musculoskeletal damage.  

Carrying large amounts of body fat - especially visceral fat - is a major health hazard with serious implications for affected individuals and for the medical and other services those people will inevitably have to draw on.  While Sofie Hagen may be relatively healthy at the moment, if she remains seriously overweight, chances are she will become steadily more unhealthy.  Most commonly, it's not a question of whether obese people develop health problems, but when, in what ways, and how badly. 

Hagen refers to the correlation between diet culture and capitalism, how the myth of thin equals beautiful has been sold to people by the beauty industry.  This is true.  But, at the same time as the corporate world of fashion and pharmaceuticals exhorts people to be thin - the corporate world of processed and fast foods is busy making trillions of dollars out of making people fat.

if the tyranny of thin is a corporate construct, it now has a twin - the normalisation of fat. 

We need to be asking why we are seeing what seems to be a trend, in both mainstream and social media, to  try to normalise obesity.   I can understand why Sofie Hagen positions herself as a social activist and argues for an acceptance of fatness but, other than those who are suffering stigma and discrimination - who has a vested interest in trying to normalise what is widely acknowledged as a growing medical and social crisis? 

I suspect that, lurking in the corporate shadows, PR companies are busily promoting the idea that being overweight - even extremely overweight -  is normal and even desirable. 

PR companies routinely pump out fake news and biassed opinion to order.  Sometimes these are straight forward opinion or human interest pieces and sometimes they're pseudo-science.

The international food industry knows it is facing a growing body of medical evidence that the food it produces is toxic.  There is the potential of litigation which could make tobacco litigation pale into insignificance and, more immediately, the potential for massive loss of revenue flare numbers of people turn away from junk food. 

The facts are that obesity is a health crisis of almost incomprehensible proportions and it has spread beyond the borders of the USA - which started it all. 

If current trends continue, three out of every four Americans will be obese or overweight by 2020 and currently almost 4 in every 10 people are medically obese.  In NZ one in three people is classified as medically obese, with the proportion in some demographics being far higher.  In the UK and Australia almost two out of three people are overweight or obese. Even the French are getting fatter and in India and China obesity is growing.

In almost all countries the percentage of people who are overweight is increasing every year. Most worrying for the future is the massive increase in childhood and adolescent obesity with the growing incidence of type-2 diabetes in children.  

Activity is a factor certainly,  as is poverty.  Things we don’t yet fully understand such as the effects, on plant and animal health, of climate change, soil depletion and pollutant levels - may be factors but the single biggest and most easily controlled factor is the ubiquity of simple SUGARS, and especially sweeteners derived from maize. 

The links between obesity and the availability of energy-dense, sugar-rich, low nutrient, processed and fast foods have been established and it’s only a matter of time before the giant corporations that have made trillions of dollars out of selling this toxic crap, will face the consequences.

In the meantime - I’ll continue to defend overweight people from vile bullies but I will not go along with the normalising of obesity.