Saturday, January 19, 2013

On Pregnancy and Body Image

Hooray for hips and belly

I have never considered myself a particularly vain person. However, constant media messaging (your body is not good enough, therefore you are not good enough) has a way of working itself into everyone’s psyche to some degree. My whole adult life I’ve pretty much maintained the same weight, no matter what I did. I have not really been able to gain or lose much regardless of what I did. Although my weight is exactly normal for my height, its distribution had caused me some anxiety. I was scrawny on top, with visible ribs and a flat stomach, and big on the bottom. I went through phases of calorie counting and exercising but only managed to get bonier on top, while my bottom half happily went about its business as usual. People asked me if I was sick. So much for weight loss attempts.

Still, I couldn’t shake the other desire I had always had: to be stronger. I hated the fact that I was small and weak, that no matter how hard I worked out in the gym, I would never be stronger than the average couch surfing dude. I would never be able to easily lift, carry, push and pull things. I would never be athletic. (I rode my bike all around Toronto for years, living mid-town, going to school downtown and working uptown – 1-2 hours a day of biking, and never got faster. Other bikers passed me, breathing easily while I struggled. So frustrating! A doctor I went to about chronic fatigue told me I had so little muscle that my mitochondria couldn’t effectively use oxygen. Um thanks, but what do I do about it. True story.)

The best thing about getting older was losing whatever interest I had in "perfecting" my visible body, and learning to accept its limitations (more or less – I still hope I might magically grow 25 pounds of muscle). I also grew to appreciate its positive aspects: I was generally healthy, I was fully mobile, I could touch my tongue to my nose, thrift shopping is a breeze for me because I’m so small.

Being pregnant is a bit of a trip because for the first time, I have to gain weight. I have only gained 6 pounds so far (16 weeks, so I’m right on target) but I'm the heaviest I’ve ever been, and I'm only getting bigger. (No more flat belly!) Except for the fact that my clothes don’t fit, it’s oddly enjoyable. I feel a little bit rebellious, flaunting society’s dictates (all women must have the body of a 12 year old boy). I can be proud of getting fatter. I am enjoying food like nobody’s business – gawd everything tastes so good (except the things that taste so bad--get them away from me). I have ginormous boobs (well, for me), and my wide hips finally are coming into their own. These amazing hips are going to make labour and delivery easier (I hope) than 12-year-old-boy hips would. I am proud of what my body will accomplish (hello, creating new life). I am enjoying the experience of my changing body.

Ask me how I feel when I get to the waddling stage.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Food Politics and American Elections

I find it fascinating how often American election campaigning features the cultural politics of food.
Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain said in an interview with GQ out Monday that one can tell how "manly" a man is by looking at how many toppings he puts on his pizza. He also said a pizza covered in vegetables is a "sissy pizza."
"The more toppings a man has on his pizza, I believe the more manly he is," said the former Godfather's Pizza CEO.

Cain explained that "the more manly man is not afraid of abundance" before calling into question the manliness of a pizza with vegetables on it.

"A manly man don't want it piled high with vegetables! He would call that a sissy pizza," Cain said.[CBS]

Lattes, arugula, organic, wine and sushi are pretty much bad words, conjuring images of elitist effeminate un-American liberals. Fried pork rinds, barbecue, and beer - now that's a presidential meal worthy of a true American leader! See how gender, nationalism and class stereotypes are all mobilized here.

This is not entirely surprising, given how much food is caught up with issues of identity and how symbol-heavy elections (especially American elections) are. There's a long history of wheat and beef being associated with 'civilization', while root vegetables were associated with lower-order humans. (Read more on this here.) The Sociological Images blog has a number of posts demonstrating gendered food in popular culture. Notable examples here, here and here.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

On Innovation and Capitalism

So in theory the profit motive drives innovation. Too many taxes, it is said, diminishes innovation. (Never mind that entrepreneurship - particularly among women - benefits from a strong safety net.) The government is supposedly inefficient and, having no incentive, incapable of innovation; this is a common justification for the drive to privatization.

Because of private enterprise and the profit motive, society benefits from such innovations as deep-fried cola and the donut burger. And 20 bazillion varieties of toothpaste. Such innovation brings us choice, more of which is always good, right? Right?

Never mind that it might be causing decision fatigue:
No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice. Ducking a decision often creates bigger problems in the long run, but for the moment, it eases the mental strain. You start to resist any change, any potentially risky move — like releasing a prisoner who might commit a crime. So the fatigued judge on a parole board takes the easy way out, and the prisoner keeps doing time.
The ability to make meaningful choices, to exercise agency and control over one's work and life, does correlate with an increase in wellbeing. As do civil liberties and the ability to participate in the political process. Of course, if we are all too exhausted from deciding which of 100 television channels to watch, perhaps we are not able to be fully engaged with personal and civic choices.

Some of the best innovations have come from motives other than profit -- those inventions with necessity as their mother. Education, the arts, social innovation, nonprofits, open source are incredible producers of innovation (what if trendsetters went on strike?). Social innovation has given us libraries, microcredit, socialized health care, new ways of managing archival information. The profit motive gives us deep-fried butter-on-a-stick.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

DIY, Homesteading, Radical Housewifery/Homemaking

Though I haven't read the book yet, the lifestyle described in Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming domesticity from a consumer culture by Shannon Hayes is kind of seductive. I've flirted with these ideas a bit. Screw the rat race and 70 hour work weeks (all in the attempt to make partner, or get an elusive tenure-track position or not get fired). Instead focus on a slower pace of life, gardening, baking bread, living close to nature, voluntary simplicity, reskilling etc.*
Mother Nature has shown her hand. Faced with climate change, dwindling resources, and species extinctions, most Americans understand the fundamental steps necessary to solve our global crises-drive less, consume less, increase self-reliance, buy locally, eat locally, rebuild our local communities.

In essence, the great work we face requires rekindling the home fires.

Radical Homemakers is about men and women across the U.S. who focus on home and hearth as a political and ecological act, and who have centered their lives around family and community for personal fulfillment and cultural change. It explores what domesticity looks like in an era that has benefited from feminism, where domination and oppression are cast aside and where the choice to stay home is no longer equated with mind-numbing drudgery, economic insecurity, or relentless servitude.

Radical Homemakers nationwide speak about empowerment, transformation, happiness, and casting aside the pressures of a consumer culture to live in a world where money loses its power to relationships, independent thought, and creativity. If you ever considered quitting a job to plant tomatoes, read to a child, pursue creative work, can green beans and heal the planet, this is your book.

I know and admire several people who I would class as radical homemakers/homesteaders/DIYers. Some off-the-grid, some minimally on it. Some with children, some without. Some with lots of land, some with tiny patches in the city. They pretty well all combine this with some sort of income generating work. I respect what they are doing. It's hard work!

Indeed Not One More Winter in the Tipi, Honey (found with commentary over at Historiann) discusses gendered labour off-the-grid.
Too often, modern homesteading asks women to return to the toil so many of their grandmothers left behind. No matter how progressive the homesteading couple, the unfamiliarity and the physical demands of DIY living make it easy to fall into traditional gender roles — to retreat to the stereotypically masculine and feminine skills most of us still learn first and best. The result is that in many modern homesteads, despite highly evolved intentions, men build the houses, and women, like their pioneer-era counterparts, cook over the wood stove. Or scrub the floors. Or care for the babies.

This old-fashioned division of labor means that women are often the first to encounter the worst realities of homesteading. While their partners are outside, impressing the neighborhood with their construction skills, women are inside, confronting the cultural invisibility of domestic work and the social isolation of rural life.

Of course, this is a generalization. I'm sure many relationships are more egalitarian, but so many fall back into these gender roles. Though I think some work traditionally gendered female is beginning to be seen as admirable and even cool - cooking, baking, knitting and gardening were definitely not 'cool' when I was young. Young women tried to get AWAY (to be liberated) from doing those valuable yet unpaid (and therefore not contributing to GDP, and therefore having no official value) tasks. I'm not sure yet that toilet-cleaning has made it into the newly-cool category, but maybe it is just a matter of time.

I guess my question is: Is it really that radical for a woman to stay home and do what women have been doing for generations? Actually, it might be.

Which brings me to the feminist activist Radical Housewife blog (named with tongue-in-cheek), and a whole other way to be a woman who does not currently work for wages. One can still have a voice and be political and be a primary caregiver to children or a household. The danger is in supposing that simply "staying home" or dropping out of the paid work force will somehow automatically fix the world. Of turning completely inward and forgetting to be political. (Or confuse property rights with real human liberties.) Forgetting to fight for social justice and rights for others. Forgetting to be active in our communities. Becoming blinded by our own halos.

*I know, I know, it sounds so bourgeois and indeed it may require a degree of privilege (I suppose being minimally middle-class or at least upper-working-class) but I suppose there are worse things that one could DO with that privilege. (This reminds me of a similar discussion going on over here - Is minimalism just for the rich?)

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Of Plastic Bags and Things

As described in this article, Rwanda is one of several places in the world that has banned plastic bags. Kigali, the capital of Rwanda is a beautiful and clean African city (I was highly impressed when I visited last year). This is due in part to the plastic bag ban. Rwanda is not alone; apparently 25% of the world either restricts or bans the bags. And people still manage to carry things!

Since it was implemented two years ago, Toronto's 5 cent bag fee has significantly reduced the use of disposable petroleum-based bags. When it first came into effect, there was a chorus of whining hyperbole from those who thought they somehow had a right to free garbage bags or who thought they were being subjected to Soviet-style repression, etc. etc. But most Torontonians got on with their lives, getting into the habit of bringing reusable bags with them.

As Wayne Roberts points out, the city's bag "tax" is just the beginning of what is truly required. Charging a "nominal payment for the convenience offered by plastic throwaways" was enough to start a conversation, to gently encourage people to use less plastic. I used to get funny looks when I said "I don't need a bag"; now I am always asked if I need one. I would say it has been a successful first step: relatively painless, and relatively effective.

Now our illustrious gravy-destroying mayor plans to go to the trouble of actually getting rid of the bag fee (a "Nightmare" according to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business). Toronto might never be as clean and beautiful as Kigali.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

How useful am I?

As an academic, I question my usefulness. Society will always need carpenters (or plumbers or tailors or nurses or farmers). Their benefit is pretty clear and obvious. Will it always need historians? How important is my obscure research that might only be read by a handful of other obscure historians? Am I a producer or a parasite?

I think it is a normal to want to be a productive member of society. To know that the work into which you put your life force actually benefits humanity in some small way. Even to be able to ask these questions demonstrates a great deal of privilege.

On the one hand, academia is often criticized for being an ivory tower, from being divorced from "real life". On the other, academics are among the most engaged people I know. Rarely are they unconcerned with politics, society or human relationships.

In the hierarchy of academia, often the applied sciences and business are considered to be most useful - 80% of Canada's research funding is allocated to science and health. And in 2009, the Conservative government decided to increasingly allocate the social sciences and humanities research funding to business-related degrees. Already (as often decried during the most recent crash) so many of the best young minds are wasted in the financial sector moving money and creating paper wealth instead of solving society's problems. Even if I don't solve any major problems myself, maybe I will be partially responsible for teaching the generation that might do so.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Hello blog, I have missed you

I think I feel like blogging again. My last post was about a year and a half ago. What have I been doing in that time? I have been working on my PhD in history. I found I was too busy, and had too little energy for writing. Also my eyes hurt.

I just passed my comprehensive exams. To give you a sense of the scope, this involved reading 200 books over the last year, and then being examined on them with 3 written and 1 oral exam. It was a grueling process that involved regular 60-70 hour weeks. The last day I took off was Christmas (and I felt guilty about it). I can liken it to training for a marathon. Then it was over. Now I feel very strange. I'm absolutely exhausted, and feel a bit at loose ends. I've heard about the post-comps slump. I think that so much of my time and energy and self has been wrapped up in this process, that now I don't quite know what to do with myself.

I have to start preparing a research plan. But I feel a bit lost. I've never done anything of this scope before.

What are my plans for this blog? I figure I can use this blog to help me think through some of the issues, concerns, fears and thrills involved in researching my thesis. It will probably also still contain arts, culture and political commentary, and my usual musings on various topics. Probably commentary on academia as well. Many things in my life have changed since I began this blog back in 2005. (2005! I can hardly believe it's been so long!) My perspective has changed. I've become less sure about some things, more sure about others. The more I've learned the more I've become convinced of my own ignorance. It's been an encouraging, and yet humbling 6 years (6 years!) I feel old and young, wise and foolish. I hope some of you join me on the next stage in my journey.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

This must be a joke... please tell me this is a joke

Nature's laws of shopping: Men hunt, women gather
University of Michigan psychologist Daniel Kruger has found that how we shop has an awful lot to do with how we once found our food. Men hunt. Women gather. Conjugal chaos ensues.
As a scientist, he refused to do the sensible thing – shrug his shoulders. He wanted to know the reason. He combed over studies of aboriginal tribes and did a battery of tests on student volunteers. The results will be published in the upcoming issue of the Journal of Social, Evolutionary and Cultural Psychology.

Kruger found that our habits haven't changed. Our environment and our goals have.

In prehistory, women gathered or foraged for food. This kept them close to home, performing a daily, intensive and social activity. A good memory, a keen eye and a lot of patience when choosing help make a good gatherer.

Men hunted for meat. This was an intermittent, asocial activity that earned them prestige only through the biggest catches. Short bursts of energy were followed by long periods of sitting around waiting for women to bring in the harvest.

There are so many things wrong with this article, I don't even know where to begin.