Friday, January 04, 2013

Today's Shallow Thought

Why isn't "it depends" or "whatever" an interesting opinion?  Why are only strong and extreme opinions viewed as worth writing down?  What about all those of us who are middle-of-the-roaders, walking along the center line and getting hit by cars from both directions?

The world is a complicated place and when it comes to societies and individuals most causal relationships look like a very tangled braid.  But stating that isn't somehow good enough, sigh.  You've gotta argue that it's the fifteenth strand of hair from the left temple which caused the coiffure to collapse.

It can be hard work to produce those "it depends' opinions, you know, very hard work.

E.J. Graff on Rape Culture

Content note:  Sexual violence.

E. J. has written an interesting piece on the connection between purity and rape, in terms of cultural beliefs.  She quotes one article about the culture in India:

I’ve now read a number of commentaries exposing India’s, particularly New Delhi’s, culture of street violence against women. The most memorable, by Sonia Faleiro in The New York Times, talks about the fear that was instilled in her during her 24 years living in Delhi:
As a teenager, I learned to protect myself. I never stood alone if I could help it, and I walked quickly, crossing my arms over my chest, refusing to make eye contact or smile. I cleaved through crowds shoulder-first, and avoided leaving the house after dark except in a private car. …
Things didn’t change when I became an adult. Pepper spray wasn’t available, and my friends, all of them middle- or upper-middle-class like me, carried safety pins or other makeshift weapons to and from their universities and jobs. One carried a knife, and insisted I do the same. I refused; some days I was so full of anger I would have used it — or, worse, had it used on me.
The steady thrum of whistles, catcalls, hisses, sexual innuendos and open threats continued. Packs of men dawdled on the street ... To make their demands clear, they would thrust their pelvises at female passers-by.
Such endemic street harassment is not about sex; it’s about threatening women for daring to leave the private sphere. It’s a form of control over women’s ambitions and lives. And when such a culture is widespread, it gives men permission to use women as the target for any excess anger they might have.

She then discusses the Steubenville rape case (which I have followed since August, without writing about it here):

Or consider the recent rape in Steubenville, Ohio, allegedly by members of the football team, which was reported on in excellent detail by the Times—primarily because of the shocking way it was was celebrated via social media. Here's how Prospect contributor Amanda Marcotte summarized the case at Slate:
The alleged crime: Witnesses, some also on the football team, testified at a probable cause hearing that Mays and Richmond spent most of the night of Aug. 11 standing over, directing, transporting, and otherwise controlling the blacked-out drunk victim, who they carried to three separate parties. According to the New York Times, witnesses claim that Mays and Richmond tried to coerce the victim into oral sex, exposed her naked body as a joke to other partygoers, penetrated her digitally, and exposed themselves to her. Other Steubenville students on Twitter and YouTube say they witnessed even worse violations, including urinating on the victim and anal rape, though these are not official statements. (And sadly, these students were more delighted than upset by what they allegedly saw.) While it appears that multiple students taped and photographed the alleged assault, officials claim they haven't been able to turn up much in the way of evidence, because the evidence has been deleted.
Football players like these two can almost always find young women who will have sex with them willingly. Taking a drunk and helpless girl and urinating on her, humiliating her, fingering her publicly, violating several orifices—that’s about rage and power, not sexual pleasure. That's sexual assault and enforcement of the rape culture's idea that a woman's job is to protect her purity.

And she points out the connections between purity and rapeability (for the lack of a better word):  Either women are pure which they can prove by staying at home, by covering up, by not going out at night or whatever the rules of a particular culture might be, and then they shouldn't be raped, OR women are not pure in which case they are free game and in a very real sense cannot be raped at all because they are assumed to be available and therefore ultimately willing.

I agree with that.  I'm currently doing a lot of thinking and reading about the concept of a "rape culture" and what it might mean or not mean, and I hope to write on all that in the near future.  The division of women into good and bad is an essential part of such a culture.

But the Steubenville rape case and the American culture are not the same as the Delhi rape case and the Indian culture.  The amount of street harassment women face varies by country and how common victim-blaming is in the case of rape also varies by country.  The consequences of rape vary.  In some places a raped woman is urged to marry her rapist, for example.  If she does not, she might never be able to marry.

An article in the Guardian criticizes the Western treatments of the Delhi gang rape as implying that rape is unheard in England or America, for instance, and it has a point*.  At the same time, we are not going to get very far if we argue that the situation is identical all across the world or that different cultures wouldn't differ in how they define women's rapeability.

It is those very differences which give me hope.  Should the situation be exactly the same all over the world I might start believing that rape is something we can never tackle, never make rare.  That different countries show differences is a good thing and therefore shouldn't be ignored in the discussions.

*A partial one, because the rape statistics are not directly comparable.  We need to know what percentage of women in each country go to the police in the first place, out of the total number of women who have been raped.  It's likely that this percentage is higher in the UK than in India, given what I've read about the silence concerning these matters in the latter country.

Missives from the United Guns of America

You should listen to this clip where a former NRA (Guns R Us) president Marion Hammer is interviewed on gun control, not only because she equates controlling assault weapons with denying people civil rights on the basis of the color of their skin but because the whole thing is such a wonderful example of totally illogical thinking and the twisting of facts or the making of pseudofacts:

It reminded me of Foucault's Pendulum.  She begins by stating that the current president of the NRA had warned that the re-election of president Obama would result in "them" taking away our guns and look!  He was right!

That the reason for the attempts to regulate assault weapons has to do with the butchering of twenty tiny children and not Obama's re-election is somehow forgotten.

The interviewer then says that "you listen to people in England and Australia and they say don't do what we did, don't take away our guns."  Which is probably true, in the sense that they can find a few gun nuts in all countries who would say that.  But what is the predominant public opinion on those issues in England and Australia?

The interviewer continues by arguing that taking away guns doesn't stop gun violence and it may even increase it.  But the Australian ban was caused by a mass shooting, and they have had no mass shootings since that date.   Never mind that the number of gun deaths in England per year sorta matches the number of gun deaths in one US city.

The last silly comparison is the one to racism:

“And they even admit this is about banning the ugliest guns, it’s about cosmetics and it has nothing to do about how a firearm works,” host Ginny Simone said toward the end of the segment.
“Well, you know, banning people and things because of the way they look went out a long time ago,” Hammer responded. “But here they are again. The color of a gun. The way it looks. It’s just bad politics.”

It's silly because guns don't have civil rights.  They are not alive.

I thought talking about how bad thinking happens is useful. 

But it's also a bit frightening to hear that, combined with the fear of the government and the assumption that if we all went to the supermarket armed to the teeth the government couldn't "take us over."  The US government has drones and bombs who can think and brush their own teeth and no amount of assault weapons will make those totally disorganized "militias" into a workable defense force.

Today's Useful Pic

I don't have a proper link for this one, sorry.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

The Beauty of Winter

That's a snow-covered river.  The silence of the snowy night.

This post is intended as one of those tidbits in a Victorian long meal which refreshes your palate for the main course.  But it made me also think of the wonderful fact that you might read this in a place which is hot or dry or without any snow at all!  Isn't the Internet quite wonderful?  Also a real pain in the butt, of course.

On Fat And Mortality. The Recent Meta-Analysis.

Fat.  It's one of the great fears of today, both in the foods we eat and on our bodies.  Even talking about fat always creates a debate.  And the reasons are in the odd mixture of concepts we have nailed to the word "fat." 

Fat is bad for you, goes the recent medical wisdom.  Yet our bodies need some amount of fat to function, and fat babies were viewed with great admiration only a hundred years ago or so because when starvation is a real possibility having a bit of extra fat is very useful.  Similarly, what was regarded as normal weight, in the terms of "beautiful",  has changed over time.

What makes the debates about fat so very nasty is the moral, even prudish tone.  Being fat is seen as a behavioral problem, as a form of moral failure, as one of those deathly sins:  greed or gluttony, made manifest.  It's one of the human vices one cannot hide the same way one can hide, say, cruelty or avarice.  It's viewed as ugly.  Fat people have no willpower!  Fat people are greedy!  Fat people are Lesser Than Us Thin People.

All that is over and above any medical arguments about overweight or obesity.  It's the moralizing zeal of others which truly hurts anyone labeled overweight and the odd assumption that one can make those moralizing comments openly because, after all, being fat is bad for you. 

It's that moralizing aspect which always leaves me with a sour taste in my mouth because it reveals so very much about those doing the moralizing.  It reveals something about them which should be included in the seven deadly sins or similar lists:  Lack of empathy, perhaps, or the idea that one doesn't have to try to understand individual differences, different life challenges (poverty, say), different metabolic rates or different genetic inheritances; one can simply attribute a reason for someone else's overweight, and that reason is a moral failure.  The assumption beneath that is that everyone is exactly the same in those aspects, that everyone fatter than the judge must have just failed where the judge would have succeeded.

Yet we don't know that.

Because of that moral and judgmental jungle I always find writing about the possible medical aspects of obesity difficult.  You press one of the medical buttons by, say, discussing the correlation between obesity and Type Two diabetes, and you also open one more avenue for the various kinds of ranking judgments.  Those are the reasons why the research about obesity and health should be scrutinized very carefully.  It has consequences over and beyond any health consequences because we use fat as one of the measuring sticks in our current society. 

All that is a long introduction to a new meta-analysis which looks at the relationship between one often-used measure of possible obesity, the Body Mass Index (BMI) and mortality rates.  The meta-analysis was discussed in the New York Times:

The report on nearly three million people found that those whose B.M.I. ranked them as overweight had less risk of dying than people of normal weight. And while obese people had a greater mortality risk over all, those at the lowest obesity level (B.M.I. of 30 to 34.9) were not more likely to die than normal-weight people.
The report, although not the first to suggest this relationship between B.M.I. and mortality, is by far the largest and most carefully done, analyzing nearly 100 studies, experts said.
But don’t scrap those New Year’s weight-loss resolutions and start gorging on fried Belgian waffles or triple cheeseburgers.
Experts not involved in the research said it suggested that overweight people need not panic unless they have other indicators of poor health and that depending on where fat is in the body, it might be protective or even nutritional for older or sicker people. But over all, piling on pounds and becoming more than slightly obese remains dangerous.
“We wouldn’t want people to think, ‘Well, I can take a pass and gain more weight,'” said Dr. George Blackburn, associate director of Harvard Medical School’s nutrition division.
Rather, he and others said, the report, in The Journal of the American Medical Association, suggests that B.M.I., a ratio of height to weight, should not be the only indicator of healthy weight.
“Body mass index is an imperfect measure of the risk of mortality,” and factors like blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar must be considered, said Dr. Samuel Klein, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
Dr. Steven Heymsfield, executive director of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Louisiana, who wrote an editorial accompanying the study, said that for overweight people, if indicators like cholesterol “are in the abnormal range, then that weight is affecting you,” but that if indicators are normal, there’s no reason to “go on a crash diet.”
Experts also said the data suggested that the definition of "normal" B.M.I., 18.5 to 24.9, should be revised, excluding its lowest weights, which might be too thin.
The study did show that the two highest obesity categories (B.M.I. of 35 and up) are at high risk. “Once you have higher obesity, the fat’s in the fire,” Dr. Blackburn said.

I haven't read the actual report which makes it hard to state how good the meta-analysis might have been.  I hope that they have taken into account the obvious problem with correlations between weight and mortality:  In many terminal diseases one loses weight, and thus BMI, before death.  That fact could appear as a false correlation between low values of BMI and early death.  What we want to study are levels of weight over a longer period of time, of course.

The second potential problem with this study is the concept of BMI as a measure of adiposity.  It makes no real difference between fat and muscle, for instance, and I don't think it allows for different skeletal structures in individuals of the same height. 

But more crucially, crude measures such as BMI don't necessarily tell us what the "normal" BMI should be for individuals of different ages.  It's possible that getting a bit heavier as one ages is, indeed, "normal," in the sense of not being necessarily bad for one's health. 

And we don't really know what the "normal" BMI should be, in general, because how to define that seems to be partly determined by the health consequences of various BMIs.  Hence the suggestion in this study that the lowest BMIs should be removed from the definition of "normal."

Note the circularity in this?  Another reason to be careful when interpreting medical findings of various types.

The NYT write-up also points out that where the body fat is deposited might make a difference in its possibly impact of health.  Stomach fat seems to be the current rogue, whereas pear-shaped people might be OK.   On the other hand, I have read at least one study which argued that greater stomach fat after menopause could benefit women by producing more estrogen which protects against heart disease.

What is the significance of this particular meta-analysis?  It's one analysis of existing studies.  As such, it doesn't offer us brand new evidence.  But whatever its problems might be or might not be, the debate it created tells me, at least, how very invested we humans are in anything regarded as received wisdom.  Of course that received wisdom may well turn out to be correct, in the long run.  Or perhaps not.

To put all this into some kind of perspective, have a look at one proposal in the UK:

Obese and other unhealthy people could be monitored to check whether they are taking exercise and have their benefits cut if they fail to do so under proposals published on Thursday by a Conservative-run council and a local government thinktank.
Westminster council and the Local Government Information Unit say new technologies such as smart cards could be used to track claimants' use of leisure centres, allowing local authorities to dock housing and council benefit payments from those who refuse to carry out exercise prescribed by their GP.

That proposal is based on the assumption that obese people, however obesity might be defined there, are unhealthy without any other evidence of that, and therefore obese people could be monitored and punished if they failed to carry out physician-prescribed physical exercise.  Non-obese people would not be monitored unless they, also, were defined as "unhealthy." 

Suppose that we decided, on the basis of that recent meta-analysis, that people with very low BMIs are now "unhealthy."  Should we institute structures of punishment for them, too?  Some sort of a smart card which measures their calorie consumption, with docking of benefits if it is too low?

I find that proposal extremely distasteful unless all British patients under similar conditions are monitored and punished for failed compliance in the treatment of their conditions.  That this is suggested for obese people is probably because of that moralizing aspect about obesity.

I should stress, to wrap up this post, that I'm not insisting that it doesn't matter what people weigh or that the medical studies shouldn't continue to analyze the possible harmful effects of overweight and underweight and so on.  But I think we have jumped too far to the other direction in our moral and ethical treatment of obesity and overweight as a sin, rather than something worth studying in the medical field.  It's salutary to discuss that aspect of the so-called obesity epidemic, at least.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Good News For All Domestic Abusers!


Congress had a lengthy to-do list as the end of the year approached, with a series of measures that needed action before 2013 began. Some of the items passed (a fiscal agreement, a temporary farm bill), while others didn't (relief funding for victims of Hurricane Sandy).
And then there's the Violence Against Women Act, which was supposed to be one of the year's easy ones. It wasn't.


Back in April, the Senate approved VAWA reauthorization fairly easily, with a 68 to 31 vote. The bill was co-written by a liberal Democrat (Vermont's Pat Leahy) and a conservative Republican (Idaho's Mike Crapo), and seemed on track to be reauthorized without much of a fuss, just as it was in 2000 and 2005.
But House Republicans insisted the bill is too supportive of immigrants, the LGBT community, and Native Americans -- and they'd rather let the law expire than approve a slightly expanded proposal. Vice President Biden, who helped write the original law, tried to persuade House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) to keep the law alive, but the efforts didn't go anywhere.
And so, for the first time since 1994, the Violence Against Women Act is no more.

The GOP really does like that war against women.  And against immigrants, the LGBT community and Native Americans.   Alternatively, they may simply regard something with a name such as the Violence Against Women Act too horrible for words. That's probably the reason the law should have been called something else, because it's not some specifically earmarked special law to benefit women but a law which covered certain types of violence other laws ignored.

I'm hopeful that the new Congress can resuscitate this law because it is needed.

On Makeup, Gender and the New York Times

The New York Times has had a series of pieces as a debate about women and makeup.  The topic:

Some would argue that makeup empowers women, others would say it’s holding them back from true equality. A recent survey seems to come down on the side of makeup—at least superficially—saying that wearing makeup increases a woman’s likability and competence in the workplace.
If makeup has indeed become the status quo in the public realm, does it ultimately damage a woman’s self-esteem, or elevate it?

My bolds.

What fun!  And the last piece in the series is by Tom Matlack, the founder of the Good Men Project.  That site has recently taken a few hesitating steps towards the direction of wondering if deciding to have intercourse with a sleeping woman really is rape or not.   Could be just a communication problem, what with her staying so silent.

Naughty Echidne.  Return to the topic at hand which is whether makeup turns a cowering and insecure woman into a battle Amazon, one who wins the hearts of all men and that raise at work.

Except that I haven't read most of the opinions in the series yet.  That's because the initial setup involves a whole group of dancing invisible elephants, and those elephants are much more interesting than the question of makeup and self-esteem, though that, too, is very very interesting (and I shall return to it at the end of this piece).

The first invisible elephant appears, executes a perfect pirouette and waits for the judges' scores.  That one is the way the above quote is framed.  Let's take a step back and ask ourselves what would happen if we replaced every "woman" in that quote with "man."  We'd get something preposterous, right?

Thus, this thing is about women in the society.  All women, even the ones who don't wear makeup.  It's not about men in the society. 

You could argue that this is no invisible elephant.  It's the one the whole debate rides on, after all.  But sometimes the best way to hide something is in plain view.  My reversal points out what is funny about having a debate of this kind in the first place.  Well, I hope it does.

The second invisible elephant waits for its turn.  It's still behind the stage but it's the most powerful one of them all.  She is about the ultimate sociological reason for makeup:  It's one of the many tools in the arsenal we use to exaggerate biological sex differences in this time and place.  Others are familiar to you, I'm sure:

Because men tend to be flat-chested, women must have biiiiig breasts.  If nature hasn't awarded those to a particular woman, she should get implants.  Because men tend to be fairly straight in the torso, women must have clearly narrower waists than hips.  If that's not the case naturally, work on it.  In an extreme case, such as with some Victorian women, you could remove a few ribs.  But for most heavy dieting and tight belts and such are adequate.

This invisible elephant is the real answer to the question in the debate series:  Women without makeup look less exaggeratedly female and therefore they may not receive the correct responses from the society accustomed to seeing exaggerated sex differences everywhere.

Finally, the third invisible elephant dances over the stage, executing perfect grand battements.  This one tells us that the hard work of exaggerating sex differences is mostly the work of women.  True, men have to do some of it, too.  They must try to look bigger and more muscular because men are, on average, larger than women.  But almost all the rest of the work belongs to women.

Because the debate ignores those three invisible elephants, it really ignores most of what would be interesting to me.  But then I'm a stern-faced schoolmarm goddess who never ever wears makeup.

Except that I do.  Makeup is fun!  I've always wanted to paint my face with tiger stripes.  And when I was a teenager I wore orange eyeshadow and painted extra lashes on the lower lids of my sparkling eyes.  They looked like orange spiders!  It was fun, and makeup can be fun even more generally.

Makeup is also about concealing aspects of ourselves we are insecure about.  Scars of a youthful battle with acne, perhaps, or something about our faces we don't like.  Men and women can both share such insecurities, as is evident to anyone who knows about male pattern baldness, for example.

But the question that this series ponders seems to suggest that everything about the natural female face might provoke insecurities.  Perhaps.  On the other hand, don't we have millions of dollars of cosmetic industry advertising to try to provoke those very insecurities?

As you see, the questions do not lend themselves to simple answers.  And as is usually the case, evolutionary psychology arguments enter into the debate. 

This is because evolutionary psychologists (of a certain stripe, at least) argue that men value youth in women while women value stuff like bank accounts in men.  Thus, the fact that today's makeup rules tend to make women look younger or more childlike seems to give some support to their arguments.

However, one must always remember that the way we do things today is not necessarily the way all people everywhere do things.  For example, the court fashions in  Elizabethan England was for women to shave their eyebrows and the hair above their foreheads, so as to create a very high-domed impression.  That was caused by the tall forehead of Elizabeth I, and the desire to flatter her by imitation.

And the fashionable women of the nineteenth century Europe aimed at a skin color usually associated with those suffering from tuberculosis, not the pink cheeks evolutionary psychology would predict.  An explanation for all that paleness as desirable can be found from the fact that peasants tanned in their work out on the fields.  Thus, being pale told others something about the woman's social class.

Artificial beauty spots were all the rage among the nobility of France from about 1640 into the 1700s and rouge was applied liberally by not only women but also by men.

And in the Heian period of Japan,  women in the court shaved off their eyebrows and whitened their faces.  They also painted their teeth black.

All those historical examples apply to the uppermost of classes.  The biggest difference in the present time is that cosmetics are within the reach of most people.  Perhaps another difference is that using makeup has been increasingly codified as female, at least in comparison to those past customs of the nobility.

Is any of this helpful for answering the questions the NYT debate series asks?  Not really, though it's always good to know what it is in our constraints, both visible and invisible, which makes us "choose" to do certain things or not to "choose" them.  On the other hand, focusing on all this sociology might make a person feel as if a heavy burden had fallen on their soldiers.  A feminist person, at least. 

What if one enjoys body and face ornamentation?  That is also part of being a member of the homo sapiens, and a way of making the day of others a bit brighter and more interesting.  I always enjoy fun earrings on men, for instance, and things like green hair on everyone.  It's also fun to do something different for a big celebration or party, perhaps to show respect towards those who organized it.

At the same time, none of this is any fun if it is expected from us and if going somewhere bare-faced is regarded as a lapse in politeness and good etiquette.  It would also be nice if the rules weren't so gender-coded.  But they are.  Indeed, any man going out in full makeup will soon find that to be the case.

Monday, December 31, 2012

The Happiest of All New Years

That's my sincere wish to all of you and this little round ball that we call home.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

More Gun News

A dispute about parking spaces led to two deaths.  Given that the shooter is 74 years old and the victims were nineteen and eighteen, it's pretty unlikely that a society without easy gun access could have resulted in these senseless deaths.

The NRA probably would argue that the two teenagers should have been also armed.  Then the deaths might have been only one (the 74-year-old man) or three (all of them).  Without any guns at all, the quarrel would probably have passed without physical damages.

But what do I know.