Sunday, May 31, 2009


This morning I heard about the murder of Dr. Tiller on NPR, and I've been thinking about it, off and on, in the back of my head, all day. I know a lot has already been written on this topic, so I'll just say this. Every time this murder has returned to my thoughts today it occurs to me again how profoundly wrong the label "pro-life" is. I realize that most people in the anti-abortion camp would never stoop to this kind of violence, or even approve of it. And I acknowledge that they are not a monolithic group. However, I have yet to meet a person who labels themselves "pro-life" who's opposed to the death penalty, or the war in Iraq, for that matter. How does that stance earn you the label of pro-life, for crying out loud? And beyond that, if you're anti-homeless-people and anti-welfare and anti-universal-healthcare and anti-compassion-in-general, then you are not pro-life. Period.

Friday, May 29, 2009

DIY Home Birth

I admit I'd probably be too chickenshit to ever try this, and I know this kind of thing tends to send a lot of people into hysterical lectures on safety and allowing your ideals to endanger a baby and how horrible and unnatural and scary and dangerous and inherently medicalized birth is......but........I still love the idea that you could defy all of that and let birth return to something that's natural and painful and exciting and scary and a normal event in the life of a family after all. And I admire the people who are brave enough to drown out the voices that our culture has planted in their heads and do it anyway. That's all.

Video of the Day

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Think the Thought Whole

I've had just about all I can take of the same-sex marriage debate right now. But I just have one quick comment to make. Today at lunchtime I caught a short segment of Talk of the Nation in which Jim Garlow, who's the pastor of some megachurch in CA, made this claim "a child has a right to both a mother and a father, and we're dedicated to protecting that right." Or something like that. I was driving and eating a burrito and digging under the seat for my phone, so I may not have gotten this word for word, but that was the gist.

So let's think about this idea that a child has a right to both a mother and a father. As anyone who's studied judicial history concerning rights-to, this stuff can get tricky. It's much easier and more clear-cut to legislate and judiciate on rights-from than on rights-to. Think about the policies that would follow from a statement like Garlow's. If every child has a right to both a mother and a father, then children of single parents should be removed from their custody and placed in suitably heteronormative foster homes. This would at bare minimum apply to families in which the parent is single due to abandonment or death of a spouse. But I would suspect Garlow and his type think that having two parents who live in different households is pretty much the same as not having both a mother and a father. So this would mean that children of any single parents ought to be "reassigned" to properly intact families in order to protect their right to have both a mother and a father.

In one of Kierkegaard's musings on the church and it's teachings, he writes that the clergy often begin to delve into a biblical passage, but then they glimpse the implications, which are distasteful to them, so they back off and "fail to think the thought whole". This is an example of the opposite situation - Garlow and his type routinely fail to even consider the implications of their words, and because of intellectual laziness or denial of the logical implications that their position entails, they fail to think the thought whole, and thus end up defending incoherent (or at least very objectionable) positions.

A note on Sotomayor

I haven't posted on the Sotomayor story because it's already been so widely covered. But I do have one thing to add to the existing commentary. Sotomayor is a former member of the board of directors for Maternity Center Association (now called Childbirth Connection), which is a group that advocates for evidence-based maternity care, fostering informed decisions and control of maternity care on the part of mothers, and increased birthing options and midwife education in the U.S. And that kicks ass.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Princess Pros and Cons

Back by popular demand...



Princesses are nice to everyone1) Being nice to everyone is a female virtue that often works to disadvantage women in the real world. And anyway, one can “be nice” to those who deserve it and still kick some ass when necessary. Look at Princess Fiona (who is really an anti-princess, in many ways), for example.

2) Classic fairy tale Princesses (including the Disney variety) generally are nice. But the pop-culture notion of a princess has come to involve the idea of a materialistic, spoiled, self-centered, bossy little brat who will do anything to get her way. And we’re supposed to be all indulgent of these characteristics, as long as the child displaying them is cute enough?
Princesses are beautiful and have beautiful voicesBeing beautiful and having a beautiful voice is not the most important thing about a woman.
Princesses are “sweet”What exactly does “sweet” mean here? Sexually pure? Acquiescent and passive? Tolerant of inconsiderate, rude, and/or abusive behavior?
Princess play boost a girl’s self-esteemTraditional princess mythology ties a girl’s self-esteem to her appearance and her desirability from the perspective of the prince. In our culture this translates into the necessity to be thin, pretty, and white.As for the pop-culture princess ideal, a spoiled and self-involved child may initially appear to be confident and have high self-esteem. However, there’s a world of difference between being self-centered and having high self-esteem. A small amount of experience in the real world will shatter her vision of this imaginary world where she’s the boss of everyone, and then she’ll have no other skills or abilities to fall back on, having put all her eggs in the pretty, pretty princess basket.
Princesses are helped out of dire situations by acts of love, courage, and friendshipPrincesses are helpless creatures who languish in bad situations waiting for a rescuer rather than doing anything to help themselves.
Princess play encourages girls to reach all their potentialHow, exactly? Do princesses ever do anything other than wait for a prince, do some menial tasks around the house, and sing? And how do you reach your potential while in a coma or locked in a tower? And why would you even attempt to reach your potential when there’s a prince on his way to rescue you and solve all your problems?
Princesses are good role modelsSeriously? They go running off with princes they either just met or barely know. Generally speaking they can’t lift a finger to help themselves. They have no skills or abilities that would allow them to be financially independent or care for the children that are sure to result from the implied tryst with the prince. In fact, snaring said prince is really their only goal in life. They’re gullible and easily duped into things like eating poisonous apples from very suspicious-looking characters. In the midst of a night of magic and romance they can’t even stay level-headed enough to leave for home on time. They’re constantly falling into a coma or getting stuck in captivity. And, in the more recent Disney incarnations, they don’t hesitate to show a little cleavage and/or asscrack if it will garner a little extra attention. Maybe they are good role models, but for whom?

Have a great weekend!

Song of the Day

Thank God I'm Pretty by Emilie Autumn

Thank god I’m pretty
The occasional free drink I never asked for
The occasional admission to a seedy little bar
Invitation to a stranger’s car
I’m blessed
With the ability to render grown men tongue-tied
Which only means that when it’s dark outside
I have to run and hide
Can’t look behind me
Thank god I’m pretty

Thank god I’m pretty
Every skill I ever have will be in question
Every ill that I must suffer
Clearly brought on by myself
Though the cops would come for someone else
I’m blessed
I’m truly privileged to look this good without clothes on
Which only means that when I sing you’re jerking off
And when I’m gone you won’t remember
Thank god I’m pretty

Thank you god
Oh lord
Thank you god

And when a gaggle of faces appears around me
It’s lucky I hate to be taken seriously
I think my ego would fall right through the cracks in the floor
If I couldn’t count on men to slap my ass anymore
I know my destiny’s such
That I must stocking and curl
So everybody thinks that I’m
A fucking Suicide Girl

Thank you god
For the occasional champagne I never asked for
The occasional admission to a seedy little bar
Invitation to a stranger’s car
I’m blessed
With the ability to render grown men tongue-tied
Which only means that when it’s dark outside
I have to run and hide
Can’t look behind me
Thank god I’m pretty
Thank god
Thank god
Thank you thank you thank you thank you
Thank you god...

Woman of the Week: Ursula Burns

I heard on NPR this morning that Ursula Burns is set to become the next CEO of Xerox on July 1st. Burns is currently the president of Xerox and on the board of directors. She started with Xerox as a summer intern in 1980 with a BS in mechanical engineering from NYU-Poly, and earned an MS in mechanical engineering from Columbia the following year. While rising through the ranks of Xerox and filling a number of different roles from manufacturing and supply chain operations to product development to global reasearch and marketing, Burns also married and raised two kids. 'Cause some people just kick ass like that.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Every Girl Wants to go to Prom, Whether She Knows it or Not

I usually agree with the advice dispensed by Prudence (Emily Yoffe) over at Slate. But this one seems a bit off to me:
Dear Prudence,

I am a senior in high school and stuck in the midst of prom season. Everywhere I turn, other girls are talking about dresses, and makeup, and dates. My problem is that, unlike most of the other girls, I have no interest in attending prom. It's not that I don't have a date, or a dress for that matter; I just don't get the whole "prom" thing. When other girls hear that I don't intend to attend, it stirs up a flurry of questioning and disbelief; they don't seem to understand why I wouldn't want to go. Do you have any advice for how to deal with these people? Or should I just bite the bullet and go to please everyone else?

—Not a Prom Queen

Dear Not a Prom Queen,

Don't go to please everyone else—go to please your future self. I felt the same way as you (I was really good at being alienated), so I didn't go to my high-school prom. It helped that no one asked me, but still, I shouldn't have let that stop me. I'm sure I would have had a good time. But even if I hadn't, every time I watched a prom scene in a movie or saw kids in stretch limos on their way to the prom, a part of me wouldn't say, "Why was I such a cluck not to go to my own prom? I don't even know what a prom is really like." You don't even sound as alienated as I was, just indifferent to the whole rigmarole. Good—this also means you're the kind of person who won't become hysterical when the cocktail napkins at your wedding reception are the wrong color. You have only one high-school prom. Don't miss it.

I'm not really sure why Prudence assumes that going to the prom will please Not a Prom Queen, or why she'll regret it if she doesn't go. Assumably she's been to other school dances and gets what the basic format is like. And it's bizarre to think that anyone could grow up in our culture and not know what a prom is like. Proms are featured in so many movies and TV shows, and really, how different is one prom from another? I think in this case the cultural assumption that all girls love dances and dresses and parties is at play here. I've never loved dances or dresses or parties, and I didn't enjoy my prom all that much and now view it as a complete waste of time and money that it didn't occur to me to skip. So maybe we should be celebrating the fact that a normal, socially healthy girl is considering bucking the social pressure and skipping it. And while we're at it, does it seem to anyone else that the prom business has taken on a life of it's own? Perhaps a post on the prom-industrial complex is in order...

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Case of Daniel Hauser

You've probably heard of this story by now. Daniel Hauser is a 13 y/o who's been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which is said to be highly treatable with chemo and radiation. Daniel's family is Catholic but also "believe in the 'do no harm' philosophy of the Nemenhah Band, a Missouri-based religious group that believes in natural healing methods advocated by some American Indians." So the family prefers natural healing and feels suspicious about the effects of chemo (and rightfully so).

Daniel has quit chemo after one treatment, and he and his mother missed a court appearance, resulting in an arrest warrant for the mother and an order to seize Daniel, put him in foster care, and resume treatment immediately. It's unclear from the news stories whether Daniel himself made the decision, or if it was his parents choice. And even if it was his decision, no doubt his parents worldview is deeply influential on him. Add to that the complexities of whether or not a child can truly grasp the gravity of a terminal illness, can balance the short-term pain of treatment with the loss of years of his life, etc, and you have a very complex case. All the issues of government intervention in parenting, child autonomy, religious freedom, and the power of the medical-industrial complex factor in here in a very convoluted way.

One of the interesting things coming out of this case is the way choice is constructed. Daniel's attorney, Phil Ebert, said "I am very angry that Daniel isn't here. The case from the very beginning was about honoring and respecting a decision, a choice ... we now need to respect the judge's decision." This quote is odd in that it conflates a paternalistic decision made by an authority figure and externally imposed on the individual with that person's individual choice and autonomy. Generally when we talk about choice as a social and legal issue, we're already assuming that an authority figure such as a judge could in fact make a choice for you, but we're questioning whether enforcing that decision would be the best thing for you, or a legal action, or something we want to allow in a democratic society that values personal autonomy.

Another issue that's unclear from the news coverage is the extent to which Daniel is capable of making an informed decision on his own. According to this and other articles, Daniel is illiterate (which brings up other issues concerning religious freedom and parenting) and his family doctor was not given sufficient time to explain to him the disease, the chances that chemo and radiation will work, etc. So this does raise huge concerns that, even if Daniel is mature enough to make a decision of this magnitude for himself, he's probably not informed enough to make a truly autonomous decision.

However, the state's view of medical care and parental obligation is also somewhat problematic here. According to the judge, state law requires the parents to provide “medically necessary care.” But the question of who gets to determine whether a course of treatment is medically necessary or sufficient is not stated. In a government that's so profoundly influenced by the lobbying actions of the medical-industrial complex, conventional western medical treatment will most likely be viewed as the only adequate treatment (another marvelous example of the colonization of the lifeworld by a profit-driven system). And conventional western medical practice is not evidence-based, contrary to popular belief. Further, in the worldview of the family, chemo and radiation treatments amount to an assault on Daniel’s body and torture in the long term. Given this view, it's clear that the duty of the parents would be to protect him from treatment and seek alternative therapies.

So I think all these factors combine to make this case very complex and thought-provoking. In my view, it's very difficult to produce an easy answer in this case, as both sides have a number of valid concerns and a number of obvious flaws. I would be interested to hear how others are responding to this. Your thoughts?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Feminist Icons

Usually when we hear the phrase "feminist icon" we think of women like Gloria Steinem. But I don't think the phrase should be limited to women who self-identified as feminists or were activists and academics. I think there are examples of feminist icons in many fields, who were strong and independent and forged ahead where women had never been before and did their thing in the face of the disapproval and criticism they received on a daily basis. So what if many of them didn't see themselves as feminist? They lived feminism every day, and opened doors for women in their fields.

One woman that has always seemed like a feminist icon to me is Adelle Davis. Adelle Davis was a nutritionist in the 40s, 50s, and 60s who lived a fascinating life and wrote many books that were foundational in the healthy eating movement. She was highly educated for a woman of her time period, earning an MS in Biochemistry in the late 30s. She was also widely criticized by other scientists due to her disparagement of the food industry, much of which was based on her research and experience treating patients with nutritional deficiencies.

And what I love most about the story of Davis is that many, many of the things she said and was criticized for are now being proven and acknowledged by scientists. For instance, you might be familiar with all the hype about trans fats, right? Well, Davis was condemning hydrogenated oils and explaining the negative effects of trans fats on the body back when everyone else was extolling the benefits of margarine, and 25 years before other prominent scientists would even acknowledge the problems caused by trans fats. Similarly, she warned against preventing any sun exposure whatever on the grounds that your skin naturally produces vitamin D when exposed to the sun, and this vitamin D is more easily absorbed and utilized by the body than the vitamin D in supplements. Sure enough, now that everyone is properly trained to slather themselves and their kids down with strong sunscreens every time they step outside, ailments that relate to a lack of vitamin D are on the rise.

And the list of things Davis was right about goes on and on. She was the first to criticize processed foods with chemical additives and preservatives and recommend whole unprocessed foods. She recommended restricting daily intake of processed sugars and refined grains and instead advocated for whole grains, fruits and veggies grown without pesticides, and meat produced without hormones. In addition, her work anticipated the Atkins diet craze by 30+ years, only better, because she distinguished between simple and complex carbs and rightfully noted that it's the simple carbs (white bread, white rice, etc. rather than whole grains and veggies) that contribute to weight gain in those leading a sedentary lifestyle.

In all these ways Adelle Davis was a leader in the field of nutrition, as well as being intellectually curious and productive, courageous, and a well-rounded, adventurous person. While some of the criticisms of her work are not unfounded, many were no doubt driven by misogyny and professional territorial motives. Davis appeared to be impervious to this environment, and continued her work unscathed during a time when college-educated women were widely expected to give up their work once they became wives and mothers. In my view, this makes Davis a feminist icon.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Anti-Semitism and Israeli War Crimes

While driving to my daughter's daycare at lunch today, I caught a few minutes of discussion on this controversy concerning UC Santa Barbara soc professor William Robinson on NPR. Robinson sent an email out to students in his Sociology of Globalization class that juxtaposed images of victims of Nazi concentration camps with images of Israeli aggression in Gaza and depicted Gaza as a vast concentration camp. Robinson wrote "We are witness to a slow-motion process of genocide."

Two Jewish students immediately dropped the class and filed complaints with the university. Since then the issue has become quite public and controversial, with those on one side vehemently arguing that Robinson's words were anti-semitic, and their opponents claiming that they are trying to silence him and prevent the free and open discussion of ideas that's so vital to academic progress. The most common critiques of Robinson's words include the following: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not relevant to the course, so Robinson should not have sent out the email, any critique of Israel is anti-semitic, and comparing Jews to Nazis is anti-semitic.

Cases like this always cause my slow-down-and-carefully-parse-this-thing-out alarms to start violently ringing. This really is a complicated issue. And it's compounded by the presence of war photos, which always ramp up emotions, as well as terminology such as Nazi and genocide, which are also mechanisms that serve to intensify emotional responses. All of this combines in a recipe for strong emotional responses and poor critical thinking. So a good way to start with issues like this is to carefully back away and try to think through it as calmly as possible.

It seems the three claims that are central here can be examined one at a time. Clearly the Israel-Palestine conflict is relevant to a course on globalization. But is it true that any critique of Israeli leadership is anti-semitic? One would hope not. But this attitude is not unique to this situation. How many times have American dissenters been called unamerican for critiquing their own government? This is a common ad hominem. Perhaps it's partially motivated in this case by consideration for the historical experiences of Jews and a desire to be supportive of their security and autonomy. But exempting a group of people from basic standards of social justice and decency does not benefit them. And it only furthers the cycle of violence. War crimes are war crimes are war crimes, no matter who commits them. If American Indians were to suddenly perpetrate war crimes on European Americans, or Tutsis on Hutus, or Armenians on Turks, would we resist critique and censure of them on the basis of their historic mistreatment and genocide? It seems unlikely.

But what about the third charge? Is it true that comparing Jews to Nazis is inherently racist? It is true that this is something we ought to be very cautious about, given the historical context. And generally speaking, comparing anyone or anything to the Nazis is at best not helpful and at worst counterproductive and dismissive of the horrors experienced by victims of the holocaust.

But I'm hesitant to say it's inherently racist, or that we can never compare anyone to Nazis. It seems to me that people could engage in actions that would merit comparison to Nazis. Even Jews. Does that mean it was an appropriate comparison in this case? Not really. Although the treatment of Palestinians by Israel has been outrageous in some cases and dismal overall, it doesn't quite amount to that of the Nazis. Does this mean Robinson's words are anti-semitic? I don't really think so. They were clearly ill-advised and insensitive and counterproductive. But I think that within the scope of academic freedom we have to allow for hyperbole and figures of speech. Robinson's comparison of Gaza to a concentration camp was clearly meant to be figurative. It wasn't particularly prudent, but that doesn't mean it amounts to racism. So I think that those who call for disciplinary action against Robinson are allowing their emotions to carry them away, just as Robinson's emotions carried him away as he wrote this email. An apology from Robinson is definitely in order, but his words don't seem to justify the kind of escalation that's occurring.

Cultural Fatphobia and Children

I often think that parenting is the most feminist thing I've ever done. Hours of protesting, letter-writing, fund-raising, blogging, teaching, marching, sitting-in, etc don't really compare to the daily work of being a feminist parent. Children effortlessly and constantly soak up all the cultural crap that many of us have learned to resist as adults. All the messages they hear via advertising and their peers seem not only plausible, but trustworthy to them. And a huge part of feminist parenting is to teach them to be critical of everything they hear and see, to question the messages they're surrounded by. This is particularly difficult when the messages are endlessly prevalent and often implicit.

Such is the case with the plethora of fat-shaming messages that are cleverly disguised as rhetoric about being healthy in our culture. So much of the talk about being healthy involves calorie restriction and a pursuit of fat-free foods, which is not really healthy at all. Eating a completely fat-free diet (if that were even possible) would be the opposite of healthy eating for anyone. And calorie restriction can be very dangerous for a growing body and developing brain. And beyond all that, there's absolutely no reason why calorie restriction should be equated with healthy eating, for anyone of any size at any stage of development. It simply isn't true that being the best you can be equates to counting every calorie, as the old Crystal Light commercial claimed. And yet, this is the very strong, very pervasive implicit message behind much of the rhetoric about being healthy in our culture. So much so that kids are absorbing the message from a very early age. According to this article, kids as young as 5 years old are showing up at hospitals with eating disorders. In increasing numbers. And they all report that they believe they're fat and need to be thinner.

This story hit home for me this weekend when my 5 y/o stepdaughter looked at the Kellogg's logo on a box of Nutri-Grain bars and told me "This means special K, which is what we eat when we want to be skinnier." Nobody in her life eats Special K or is on a diet, and we use DVDs and a DVR to try to limit the number of commercials our kids see. But somehow she's already internalized the idea that some people should be dieting, and to do that you need to buy certain foods. How naive would we have to be to believe that kids won't immediately pick up on the fact that when we say "healthy" we really mean "skinny"?

Another infuriating fact about our cultural equation of "healthy" with "thin" is that it glosses over vital facts about healthy eating and causes us to miss an opportunity to develop truly healthy habits and a healthy relationship with food that could last a lifetime. For instance, it is not the case that it's healthier to eat a 100-calorie pack of cookies containing hydrogenated oils and high fructose corn syrup than 2 homemade cookies with neither of these ingredients that nevertheless contain 140 calories. But most of my coworkers believe that the 100-calorie pack is a better choice and look askance at my homemade goodies, because they've been trained by advertising and our cultural fear of calories. And the message that the numbers on the scale and the calories in your food are the only things you should be concerned (more like obsessed) about is so prevalent and loud and repeated and everywhere that it's hard to approach food in any other way. And forget about the healthy mindset of viewing food as fuel for your body and a source of nutrition and enjoyment.

We often talk about how our cultural attitudes toward fat and food impact adults, especially women. But to me the scarier fact is that there's a whole generation of kids who are internalizing this stuff at a very suggestible age. Once these attitudes toward body shape and food are internalized, it's incredibly difficult to change them. And the more a person is immersed in a particular attitude or worldview, the harder it is to be critical of it or challenge it in any way.

Video of the Week

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Colonization of the MomWorld

I know it's a bit late on a Friday afternoon to get all philosophical on ya, but this issue has been bumping around in my head all day and it won't wait for a more civilized time.

Jürgen Habermas is known for, among other things, his theories on the colonization of the lifeworld. The colonization of the lifeworld occurs when we lose the balance between our social practices, values, identities, etc and economic/political activities, goals, and structures. Habermas thinks that in advanced capitalist societies, economic/political practices and values inform or dictate our social practices, which negatively alters the cultural production of meaning, our communication dynamics, our identity formation, etc. All of this sounds more complicated than it really is. So here are some examples.

The conventional view of this process is that our cultural values guide or limit our economic activities. So if we as a society value wilderness and open spaces, for example, we will abstain from or prevent business practices which destroy wilderness areas, regardless of the profit that could be made by destroying them all. If we value human life and health, then our medical and pharmaceutical industries will be primarily guided by this concern rather than by the goal of maximizing profits (ahem, ahem). Although this is the conventional view, it's obvious that in the majority of cases (at least in our capitalist system), economic practices and values actually trump or usurp cultural values. Colonization can be seen in other areas as well. Identity formation relies increasingly on the material goods one possesses (are you a PC or a Mac?), and advertisements promise that the solution to any social/relational problem you might have is located in a product you can purchase, and every important life event, emotion, or shared memory you may experience can be perfected/completed/immortalized by simply visiting the right place or shopping at the right store or whatever. So these are all examples of colonization of the lifeworld.

So lately I've been thinking about how motherhood is constructed in our culture as a management job. As a mom, you’re the household manager and supervisor and purchasing officer and consultant. And so the necessary efficiency involved in managing and the outcomes that you’re supposed to be attaining (super smart, well-adjusted, charming, well-behaved kids) trump traditional parenting concerns like connecting with your kid, nurturing the attitudes and values you deem important, etc. It’s the colonization of the MomWorld. And while these objectives of motherhood-management don't initially seem to be economic in nature, in a capitalist society, functioning (being smart and well-adjusted) always boils down to being productive, right? See, it's the colonization of the MomWorld.

Not that this is a huge surprise or anything, just food for thought.

Video of the Day

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Torture Scapegoats

Dick Cheney continues his media blitz, which according to him, is intended to protect military operatives and government employees from prosecution for their role in our little torture phase. Protecting those who carry out orders that turn out to be unlawful from being prosecuted is indeed a noble cause. But the way Cheney is going about this makes no sense.

For one thing, if Bush and Cheney knew all along that the methods being used on prisoners had been cleared by their lawyers, why did they allow the soldiers who were caught up in the Abu Ghraib scandal to be prosecuted and put away? Couldn't they have used the memos from their own administration to clear their names and save their military careers? And if Cheney is so concerned with protecting military operatives, why isn't he talking about these soldiers now? Whatever happened to people like Ivan Frederick, Charles Graner, and Lynndie England? It's somewhat understandable that Cheney wouldn't have spoken up during the scandal and the subsequent trials. To do so would probably have endangered the torture program to which he was so deeply committed. But now that the jig is up and it's clear that these people were not just some rogue group who were misbehaving, but instead simply acting according to the accepted standards and military prison culture of the time period, it seems deeply unfair that their plight is deemed irrelevant. If you think about it, they actually sacrificed a great deal for the Bush-Cheney crew. They gave up their careers and their honorable standing and years of their lives so that the Bush administration could portray the Abu Ghraib situation as an isolated incident rather than the norm. Cheney should not only be fighting to overturn their convictions, but should be nominating them for medals for outstanding service to and sacrifice for their country.

I suspect that Cheney views the Abu Ghraib folks as a lost cause in a way that he doesn't view torture in general as a lost cause. This has a lot to do with the info and images available to us. During the Abu Ghraib scandal we were inundated with offensive photos of guards posing with prisoners in humiliating and painful positions, and even with dead bodies. Once these kinds of images have worked their way into the public imagination, the chances of gaining approval for the practices involved are quite slim. Perhaps it's the wisdom of repugnance. If looking at a photo or hearing a detailed description of the treatment of prisoners makes you cringe, you're probably going to conclude that we ought not to be acting this way. And rightfully so. It often does seem like our deepest and strongest intuitions are a reliable moral guide. So Cheney is wise to let the ghost of Abu Ghraib rest. But if he wants us to believe in his integrity and the purity of his motives, clearing the names of the guards of Abu Ghraib ought to be his first concern.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Double Puke

Today I received an email from Slate magazine announcing the good news that Slate isn't just for men anymore. I totally didn't get that it was only for men before, hence my mistake in actually reading it occasionally. But I guess I should have known this, given that the default assumption in our culture is that anything that isn't specifically branded for women (i.e. dumbed down and pinkified) is for men. So now Slate is also for women, but only their Double X site, not the regular site. Because their regular sections cover things like politics and the economy and new books and art and science. But women aren't interested in these things. No, women are obsessed with fashion and parenting and feminism-bashing, apparently. In fact, we need a flashier layout and more pictures than teh menz, based on the look of Double X.

So I foolishly clicked on the link in the email and proceeded to read a blog post entitled Whine, Womyn, and Thongs by Christina Rosen. According to Rosen, feminism has been an epic failure. This is because the goal of second-wave feminists was to bring about profound social change, but women today are shallow, unhappy, and obsessed with their piercings. In spite of the fact that they seem to have it all, they're discontented and whiny. Rosen attributes this to a major fact that feminists overlooked: choice is bad. Very bad:

In fact, for women today, the challenge is not a problem with no name that can be solved with a few simple changes in public policy. It is a paradox: the paradox of choice. The more options we have, the more anxiety we experience about the choices we eventually make, as economists who study choice theory have shown but as the feminist movement never acknowledged.
For one thing, this explains why all the men are so miserable. 'Cause choice itself is a terrible thing, and if second wave feminists had had more foresight, they would have realized this.

Second, the only thing that could possibly be causing the discontent and frivolity of today's women must be the increased range of choices available to them. It couldn't be the fact that women's lives have in fact changed while societal views and expectations of them have lagged behind shamefully. It couldn't be because having a career and children generally results in double the stress and workload for women but not men. It couldn't be because they experience reciprocal pressure to both work outside the home and be a model parent, to be healthy and energetic while starving themselves to fit into the ridiculous beauty standard, to be wise, mature, and self-sacrificing while looking like an 18 y/o. Could it perhaps have to do with the fact that, while many women desire to be taken seriously, our culture in general and media outlets like Slate continue to portray them as interested only in fashion, celebrity gossip, and parenting? Could it have anything to do with the disparate parenting burden and associated guilt and shame that's placed on women but not men, as evidenced by the fact that the default male version of Slate is largely uninterested in parenting articles?

The myopic view of feminism - both today and in the 60s - that Rosen takes is both puzzling and reveals that she is either out of touch or intellectually lazy. In any case, it seems clear that Rosen missed the part where feminism is not monolithic. It wasn't in the 60s and it certainly isn't now. Who are these Facebook feminists to whom she refers? I know a lot of women who identify as feminists on Facebook, and also organize, march, blog, aggitate, raise awareness, research, teach, write letters to Congressional representatives, and live feminist principles and values every day. We're not whining and we're not wearing thongs. At least I'm not, being opposed to torture in any form.

If Rosen had been interested in really analysing the situation of women today and how feminism has impacted their lives, she could have explored the fact that second wave thought pushed for a wider range of choices while largely overlooking the necessary changes in cultural attitudes that would need to accompany these choices. She could have looked at the underlying causes of the resentments that, according to her, women are always running around nurturing rather than shrugging it all off as a failure of feminism. But that would require a departure from intellectual laziness, which apparently is not required on a site like Double X. And that is profoundly depressing.

Friday, May 8, 2009

PMS is a Social Construction

A couple of people have questioned me about my comments suggesting that PMS is a social construction. So I'm reposting this. I posted this on Feministing a few months ago, so if you're interested in the responses, check out the comments there.

I know from previous posts that this is a sensitive issue, so I want to clarify a couple of things right up front. To say that PMS is a social construction does not mean that women don’t experience it. It does not mean that “it’s all in your head.” It does not mean that your experience doesn’t exist, or is invalid in some way. Rather, the claim is that the explanatory framework surrounding this set of experiences is faulty, and that it would be more constructive to look for and attempt to address the true causes behind this phenomenon.

So, what does it mean to say that PMS is a social construction? A social construction is any contingent phenomenon that is created by a society. Social constructs exist only because the members of a society implicitly agree to behave as if they do. Generally speaking, there are conventions around social constructs that guide our behavior regarding them. The most common example used to illustrate this is paper money. Paper money would be worthless if it weren’t for our practices and conventions.

What evidence is there that PMS is a social construction? First, there’s a great deal of cultural mythology surrounding the concept of PMS that has no grounding in science. There is no identifiable hormonal cause for the symptoms of PMS. This is particularly significant when you consider how much research has been done. There is no consensus within the medical community on how to diagnose PMS, on which symptoms must be displayed, or on when in the menstrual cycle they should occur. Over 150 symptoms are attributed to PMS, many of which are experienced by men and post-menopausal women with the same frequency as menstruating women. In countries which don’t have a construct corresponding to the Western idea of PMS, women don’t report experiencing the symptoms in any pattern tied to menstruation.

Add to this the benefit a patriarchal culture derives from any mechanism which serves to marginalize women and explain away their behavior and cognition as merely the result of some bio-chemical event. When women voice legitimate complaints or concerns, it is common to suggest that they are “feeling hormonal.” This serves to delegitimize their claims and cast them as irrational, overemotional creatures. Further, PMS has historically been used as a mechanism to keep women out of the work force when jobs were scarce for men due to the Depression and the end of wars. Of course, in times when women were in demand in the workforce, research was used to demonstrate that PMS was not an issue and would not prevent women from being productive members of the workforce (for a fascinating history of this topic read Emily Martin, The woman in the body: A cultural analysis of reproduction ). In addition, the economic motives of the medical and pharmaceutical industries are solidly at play here. PMS and PMDD have been useful in allowing pharmaceutical companies to extend their patents and thus retain a monopoly on revenues. Although the underlying causes of the symptoms of PMS have not been identified, the pharmaceutical companies continue to offer remedies.

Finally, reports of PMS symptoms are far more severe in women who are in or have a history of abusive relationships , are experiencing high levels of stress, feel overwhelmed by their workload, or are unhappy with their lives in general. This correlation suggests that women who are unhappy with their lives subconsciously utilize the construct of PMS as a socially acceptable outlet for the suppressed frustration and rage they feel, since expression of these emotions is widely viewed as “unfeminine.”

All of these things suggest that PMS is a social construction. If PMS was a disease or a syndrome there would be some underlying bio-medical cause, as well as some consensus among women who are diagnosed as to what the symptoms are and when they are experienced in the menstrual cycle. But there isn’t. Retaining PMS as a medical and cultural fact does not benefit women. Researching PMS with an open mind regarding other possible causes and related phenomenon would benefit women far more than clinging to the notion that women are fundamentally flawed by the normal functions of their reproductive systems. Finally, simply prescribing antidepressants to help women deal with the hardships in their lives is one way to avoid addressing the more challenging and important issues regarding the societal causes of their depression and unhappiness.

Video of the Day

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

I Don't Get It

I have to admit I'm feeling a bit confused by all the hubbub surrounding the allegedly racy pics of anti-gay-marriage spokesperson and current Miss California Carrie Prejean. I guess there are a number of issues at play here:
  1. It's unclear to me why women like this are expected to parade around in teeny tiny bikinis on stage during pageants, but posing in a bikini bottom with no top is thought to be morally unacceptable. Seriously? What's the real difference between being photographed in a bikini and being photographed topless? That (maybe) 4 square inches of fabric contained in her bikini top is really that important? Like you can't already see every feature of her body when she's strutting around on stage in a bikini? Seems like a distinction without a difference to me.

  2. We're told that according to pageant rules, Miss California could lose her crown for being "photographed in a state of partial or total nudity," which is deeply ironic, given the fact that she earned her crown by being photographed in a state of partial or total nudity. Perplexing.

  3. And I don't get this whole "I'm a Christian and they're persecuting me because of it" shtick. I guess the story goes like this: Good conservative Christians oppose same-sex marriage on the basis of biblical teachings; I'm a good conservative Christian so I oppose same-sex marriage; My oppressors don't like my view on same-sex marriage, so they're trying to call my Christian credentials into question." The problem with this is that the conservative Christians I know (my entire extended family, and it's a big family...) believe it's immoral and "worldly" for a woman to parade around on stage in a bikini. Good Christian girls are demure and modest. They wear simple one-piece suits when swimming, and only when swimming. They are not supposed to flaunt their bodies or their sexuality. They're not supposed to get plastic surgery in order to conform to the beauty standards of the world, as their bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. And in this worldview, we as a culture have a responsibility not to sexualize girls and women, but to value them for the creatures that God made them to be: self-sacrificing helpmeet, mother, cook, maid...
None of this means that publishing the photos, or saying a lot of things that have been said about her, is appropriate either. It's just that this is all really confusing to me. And I don't think it's just me. I think there are deep and pervasive contradictions involved here that tend to be very prevalent in our culture.

This story is cut from the same fabric as the Britney-Spears-is-a-virgin shtick. Or the Miley-Cyrus-took-a-purity-pledge shtick. I can't comprehend why it would matter that these creatures who are sexualized from their heads to their toes actually have teh sexx or not. When every ounce of your physical being is sexualized, what's the function of virginity? In fact, I don't understand the concept of taking a purity pledge at all if you're going to make your living by flinging your flesh around the stage in as sexual a manner as possible. If the implicit message of everything you do is "I am a highly desireable being whose sole purpose and value is sexual," then why would you refrain from sexual activity and from nude photos? It doesn't make any sense. The only people for whom a purity pledge actually makes sense is for the uber-humble, uber-modest, long-skirt-wearing daughters of the Duggar family and their ilk. I mean, I might disagree with all of the most fundamental aspects of their worldview and their values, but at least they're consistent. You wouldn't catch one of them extolling the virtues of Christianity and modesty and virginity while arching her back in order to shove her tits and ass out for the camera.

Just sayin'

Every Day Should be International No Diet Day

Happy International No Diet Day!

According to Wikipedia, the goals of INDD are to:
  • Doubt the idea of one "right" body shape.
  • Raise awareness to weight discrimination, size bias and fatphobia.
  • Declare a free day from diets and obsessions to body weight.
  • Present the facts about the diet industry, emphasizing the inefficacy of commercial diets.
  • Show how diets perpetuates violence against women.
  • Honor the victims of eating disorders and weight-loss surgeries.
And these are all great goals. But it's depressing to me that we need a day for this. And it's depressing that a lot of women see this as a day to take a break from their diets. Some of the ways we're encouraged to celebrate INDD include:
  • Enjoy a food that you typically deny yourself
  • Eat at least three healthy meals and two snacks today
  • Give away clothes you've been waiting to be thin enough to wear
  • Don't compare your body to anyone else's. Remind yourself that you are unique
  • Pay someone a compliment based on something other than weight-related qualities
  • Do something you've been putting off until you're 'thin' enough to do it
  • Make a top ten list of things you love about your body
I think you should eat three healthy meals and a couple of healthy snacks every day. I think you should find things to appreciate about yourself every day. And I try to avoid complimenting people on weight-related qualities every day. There are so many way more important characteristics to a person than their weight.

When I was a personal trainer, clients would come in and tell me their goals and ask for a exercise and diet regime that would help them accomplish these goals. Often, toward the end of the first consultation they would ask "what would you do if you were me?" At the risk of them never taking me seriously as a trainer again, I would reply "I would avoid dieting." I would go on to explain that changing your eating habits to be healthy, moderate, and balanced should be a lifetime thing, and shouldn't require starving yourself or refusing to allow yourself an occasional treat in moderation. If the goal is fueling and nourishing your body in a healthy way, weight loss often happens as a secondary effect.

For one thing, getting your 5-9 daily servings of fruits and veggies and drinking a reasonable amount of water doesn't leave that much room for giant portions of fatty foods full of simple carbs and refined sugars. But also, telling yourself that you can have any reasonably healthy food in moderation as long as it's balanced by other healthy foods takes off the pressure and allows you to nurture your body instead of punishing it. And the fact is, when you stick to a healthy balanced diet and get a moderate amount of exercise, your body will return to the weight it wants to be (which may not be the weight you want it to be, or the weight our culture tells you it should be), and you'll sleep great, have tons of energy, and have strong and glowing hair, skin, and nails. In other words, health is beautiful at any size, and valuing and caring for your body rather than punishing it gives you a sort of confidence and centeredness that are visible and very appealing to others.

So regarding the first recommendation for celebrating INDD, I think the only foods you should be denying yourself on a daily basis are foods that are inherently unhealthy to begin with. I avoid foods with ingredients like hydrogenated oils (trans fats) and high fructose corn syrup everyday, but I don't deny myself a little bit of chocolate (real chocolate) or the baked goods I crave all the time or any other foods that are thought to be off limits because of their calorie content. I do eat them in moderation, but I don't deny myself althogether. But avoiding the trans fats and HFCS means that you can't eat the cookies and muffins from the bakery or the grocery store. It generally means if you want a cookie or muffin or piece of carrot cake, you're going to make it at home. And that means you can control the ingredients, tweak the recipe to be healthier, and control the portion size. It also means that you'll find yourself baking a batch of healthy cookies and muffins on the weekend and putting them into baggies in individual servings and freezing them so that your family can dole them out all week. But having access to healthy treats in reasonable portions is a huge benefit for someone like me who craves the baked goods but shuns the unhealthy crap used in industrial baking. And it changes your approach to food and to your body. Instead of shaming yourself for wanting treats and denying yourself constantly, you took the time to care for yourself at the beginning of the week and provide a healthy treat for yourself each day. And it makes the giant muffins at the coffee shop lose their charm when you know you have a healthy, reasonably-sized muffin or cookie tucked in your lunch just waiting to be savored with your afternoon coffee. So I intend to celebrate INDD not by allowing myself to eat some pre-packaged snack that's full of unhealthy crap (since these are the only foods I typically deny myself), but by eating the same way I eat every day.

Happy International No Diet Day!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw for the Supreme Court!

I rarely find myself disagreeing with Melissa Harris-Lacewell, and this is no exception. This week she wrote a post on The Nation advocating for the nomination of Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw to fill the Supreme Court spot vacated by Souter. Crenshaw is one of my all-time feminist heroes and a leading thinker in Critical Race Theory. Samples of Crenshaw's ass-kicking work on the intersection of the social constructions of race and gender and their role in judicial decisions can be found here and here. In the words of Harris-Lacewell:

Kimberle Crenshaw is a field-defining critical race scholar who earned a law degree from Harvard. Her writings on race, gender, and the power of law dynamically altered the academic discourse in law schools throughout the world. Her work has been central to political movements here in the United States and to the development of emerging democracies globally. She is a prolific legal scholar and a respected public intellectual.

There is no one on the current court with the expansive, progressive, clarity of legal reasoning that Crenshaw has demonstrated for more than twenty years. As a justice Crenshaw would have the potential to substantially revise our understanding of American constitutional law by articulating elements of the American experience that have never before been integrated into our constitutional interpretation. She would open up the unique possibility of black feminist scholarship and practice challenging American jurisprudence from the inside out.

Click here to join the Kimberle Crenshaw for the Supreme Court Facebook group!

Pathologizing the Behavior of Victims

This may be a little disorganized and random, as I'm still processing my thoughts about it.

A close friend of mine recently accepted a job in Behavior Health Services (aka the psych ward) at a hospital. Obviously there are confidentiality concerns and employees are not supposed to talk about the patients outside of work. But the job is emotionally taxing at times, depressing, uplifting, sobering, etc. So people who work there do talk to their friends and families about it, withholding any names or details that would reveal the identity of the patients of course, because they need to "decompress" after work. So all of these fascinating and depressing stories of the individuals who find themselves there have been rolling around in my head, and here are some of the things I'm thinking.

It's disturbing to me that so much behavior that seems absolutely reasonable and normal to me, given the person's history, is pathologized. For example, most of the women who show up in BHS have been abused in one way or another. Some of them in extreme and disturbing ways. When you're in your mid-twenties and have several children by your own father, you have a right to be messed up. But although the abuse is acknowledged and taken into account by the therapists involved, this person is still diagnosed with a mental illness according to her symptoms. And this strikes me as problematic. To say that she's bipolar or schizophrenic or borderline personality suggests that something is wrong with her. Like there's something broken in her head. And this seems all wrong to me. The symptoms and coping mechanisms she's developed are just absolutely right given the violent and skewed environment she emerged from. She's not broken, her world is. Of course now she needs a lot of assistance and compassion to learn how to cope and function in the world outside of the warped one she grew up in. But that's her abusers fault, not hers. He's the one who's fucked up, but she gets labeled and stigmatized because of it.

Similarly, many young women who suffer from depression or suicidal thoughts have been systematically excluded in our culture that values women based on the beauty and usefulness of their bodies. These women are socially awkward and don't meet our strict beauty standard, so they've been cast aside and isolated by their peers. When they show up at BHS feeling lonely and sad, they're diagnosed as clinically depressed or borderline personality. Once again, the problem lies with them - they're broken; something's wrong in their heads. But I feel like this is deeply unjust. The culture they're submerged in, which can't see them and value them for who they are, is what's broken. Responding to isolation and neglect by feeling sad and lonely is not abnormal, it's not irrational, it doesn't make you sick. In fact, it's a more natural and healthy response than many other possible responses.

Men's behavior is often pathologized too. It seems like a lot of the men who show up at BHS have substance abuse issues and engage in inappropriate or violent behavior while under the influence. No doubt many of them have been abused too, but there's more stigma attached to abuse for a man than a woman in our culture, so the liklihood that they would have gotten help dealing with their abuse or PTSD is lower than for women. But substance abuse and violence are among the ways men are taught to cope with trauma, so these are the behaviors they tend to exhibit. And because of this they're often criminalized in addition to being institutionalized for mental disorders.

And many of these types, both male and female, display a lot of drug-seeking behavior and have learned what to say and how to manipulate staff to get the narcotics they crave. Of course, drug-seeking behavior is frowned upon, stigmatized, and shamed. And these patients are aware of the attitudes toward drug-seeking behavior and have internalized the associated guilt and shame. While I agree that drug-seeking behavior shouldn't be encouraged, I have real issues with the way we make it into this shameful and immoral thing. Using drugs to deal with the pain of abuse or other traumatic experiences is one coping mechanism among many. If I had experienced the kind of trauma they have, I don't doubt I would want to be drunk or high every day for the rest of my life too. It's a totally reasonable response. It's true that these people had the misfortune of seizing upon a particularly problematic coping mechanism, but we shouldn't shame them for it, but should rather see it as a simple coping mechanism and try to help them learn how to replace it with more healthy coping mechanisms. Because treating them for substance abuse and then returning them to their world without any more constructive ways of handling their pain and their issues is ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst.

I realize, of course, that the medical professionals who are dealing with these people on a daily basis have little control over the person's environment. Given this fact, it often makes sense to medicate them and make them as comfortable as possible. But this model is so limited and places so much of the problem and the stigma on victims' shoulders that it seems deeply unjust to me. Rather than taking a critical look at our culture and the way it so casually disposes of bodies and lives, we pathologize the behavior of victims and medicated them and shame them for their desire to numb the pain using substances that have been arbitrarily criminalized by the government while treating them with substances that have the government's stamp of approval because the right rich white guys are getting rich off of them. Instead of looking at the systemic causes of abuse, trauma, and the resulting "mental illnesses," we label the victims and put them in a neat little box, hoping they won't cause too much trouble or be too disruptive. And maybe, just maybe, they'll return to the gold standard of being a productive worker/consumer in our capitalist society. Because in a capitalist, patriarchal culture, the norm is established by appealing to hierarchical roles and expectations and cultural conceptions of healthy functioning, i.e. going to work everyday and being a good, non-disruptive little sheep. But that is another story for another post on another day...

Monday, May 4, 2009


The Iron Hymen blog, featuring abstinence-only coolness for girls.

Their purity pledge:

I, [MY NAME], hereby pledge:

1. To never let grubby boys touch me – unless it's just fun innocent stuff like tripping me and pulling my hair. (But only the hair on my head!)

2. To never wear trampy stuff like shorts or t-shirts or open-toed shoes, which basically tell horny perverts that I'm a major tramp who's just asking for it.

3. To never do rough stuff like ride horsies or bikes with hard seats, which could break my vagina's freshness seal and make me totally unlovable.

4. To never let tampons violate the sanctity of my hoo-hoo, because tampons are really nothing more than thirsty little albino penises.

5. To never have premarital sex, because Jesus doesn't want anyone messing around inside my girly hole until after His church makes some money off a wedding.

I understand that abstaining from sex protects me from:

Super-expensive dry cleaning bills for getting crusty sex goop off all my good silk and cashmere stuff.

Forcing my wonderful parents to use "tough love" and kick me out of the house for embarrassing them by being such a little whore.

Having adoption-hungry homosexuals circle my pregnant belly like vultures, hell-bent on corrupting my unwanted bastard child with their sicko "love."

Systemic Oppression: Sexual Assault Edition

You've probably heard the stat that 1 in 3 Native American women (who live on Indian land in the U.S.) will be raped in her lifetime. I had heard this several times before, but never with an accompanying explanation of why American Indian women are vulnerable to sexual assault at such high rates. But this weekend on NPR Laura Sullivan had a great story on this which answered a lot of questions. You can listen to the podcast here or read the short article here.

According to Sullivan, there are three contributing factors to this epidemic of sexual assault. First, law enforcement agencies on Indian lands are chronically underfunded. This is changing some due to casino revenues. Second, based on a 1978 Supreme Court ruling, only federal prosecutors can prosecute crimes committed on Indian land by non-natives. Tribal law enforcement can only arrest and prosecute Native Americans. And here's the staggering statistic: according to the Justice Department, in 80% of rape cases on Indian land the assailant is non-native. When the assailant is non-native, tribal law enforcement must refer the case to federal prosecutors. So here's where the third factor comes in. Federal prosecutors routinely choose not to prosecute approximately 75% of these cases. One former tribal law enforcement officer claimed that prosecutors only took cases where there was a confession.

The fact that 80% of those who commit sexual assault on tribal lands are non-native suggests that critics are right in claiming that many predators see Indian women as fair game. It also suggests that our government, and our society in general, could give a shit about Native American women. The degree to which we value a person and the extent to which they're viewed as fair game by predators is always linked. Because the less we value a body, the less we protect it. And the less we protect it, the more vulnerable it is. Since brown female bodies just aren't that valuable to us as a society, they're very vulnerable. This is not a new phenomenon. These statistics have been floating around for years, but there's no public outcry to speak of, no effort on the part of Congress to change the status quo. And young girls growing up on the reservation see this. They understand that their physical and emotional well-being are the last things we care about as a society.

So the good news is that Congress is finally paying attention to the problem and moving to change it. I'd like to think it's out of compassion, but it probably has more to do with the increased economic and legal resources available to Native Americans thanks to casino revenues and an increase in the number of Native Americans who have acquired a legal education. At any rate, when The Tribal law and Order Act comes back up for debate, urge your congressional representatives to support it. Passing this legislation will send the message that we care about Native American girls and women, and will restore a degree of Indian sovereignty.