Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Small Island Talk

SMALL ISLAND TALK: How to be British When the Russians Can't Even Remember David Cameron's Name

As I speak, various members of the UN Security Council are engaged in a seriously complicated geopolitical dance, all in their various ways trying to reconcile their divergent interests while all the time watching out of the corner of their eye as missile after missile is being dropped on the civilians in Syria. With all that tragedy and outrage filling the headlines, talking about anything else seems a bit of a cop out. But let’s be honest – my knowledge of the Middle East is limited to BBC reporting, newspaper editorials and an intimate acquaintance with imam biyaldi. I have a gut opinion about military intervention, and could pour my bleeding Western heart out about the state of the humanitarian situation as I see it from my nice cosy living-room, but it would really just be crass and arrogant.

All this silence, however, starts to feel a bit uncomfortable, and so I’m going to take a punt and post about something related, but hopefully more at my level, which I don’t feel quite so much like ignorant, undergraduate foreign-policy-by-platitudinous-numbers. I’m opting for identity-politics-by-platitudinous-numbers instead, because with grim inevitability this whole, messy affair has thrown the jingoists and the post-Blair-pacifists into a bit of a tizzwozz (technical geopolitical term, that one) about ‘Britain’s role in the twenty-first century global community.’

Not that this is anything new, of course. We British seem to spend so much time gazing at our own national navels that I’m surprised we can find our way to the right room for the UN Security Council, let alone look beyond our shores enough to quibble over whether interventionism makes us the good guys, or just the guys with good intentions. Do we even really have a ‘direction’ as a country? Can we have one when we spend so much of the time glorifying or apologising for all the destruction and/or brilliance we’ve done on our way to where we already are? Sometimes, Britain reminds me rather of a tired, world-weary husband at the end of a long family shopping trip. He got his shopping done a while ago, and now he’s lumbering around, nonplussed, loaded up with bags, trailing the rest of the family. Generally, he follows his young teenage upstart country, America, because she’s got the loudest voice and if one wants a quiet life it’s generally good to keep her happy. It’s nice to have her round, because she drags you into the cool, young shops where you get treated like you’re important, and which you’d never get in to normally, because you’re too old and wrinkly and haven’t spent enough on your shoes. Occasionally, our sensible European wife (usually German, occasionally Scandinavian) overrules the teenager and shows us that there is a much more grown-up, cheaper way of doing things, and then we suddenly remember that, actually, yes, we don’t have to do what the teenager wants, and we sit the next expensive shop out, and let the daughter go off and flash her cash (read: helicopters) in another shop, showing how young, cool and infinitely generous (read: powerful and influential) she is by dropping a lot of money on some big present for someone else (bombs and liberation are presents, right?). A lot of the time, I think Britain could do with bowing out and settling down for a cup of tea – the world would probably do well enough without us, after all, and we’re probably not cut out for it anymore.

Except, of course, that the lacklustre shopping Dad usually ends up slumped in a chair at the entrance to Marks and Spencer’s changing room, looking thoroughly beaten and only opening his mouth to yawn or assure the wife that either the black or the blue is good. (Sorry for the heavy stereotyping, but go to your nearest M&S on a Saturday afternoon and you’ll see I have grounds.) Britain, meanwhile, has steadfastly refused even a pretence of defeat. Even with the contortions of neck it requires to both look back wistfully and navel-gaze at the same time, we’ve still got a hand spare to wave a Union Jack.

We’re a patriotic bunch, us Brits. Not in the USA-way, obviously – with all their flags and their pledges of allegiance, they’re just a bit nouveau and happy-clappy. Ours is a very stealth-wealth, C of E style patriotism – the blue, red and white stuff, the Great British [fill in here] is either slightly tongue-in-cheek or basically just naff. Most people realise that the EDL and BNP are basically just racist idiots – nationalism is just a bit tasteless, on the whole, a bit brash, a bit impolite. We are Proud To Be British, obviously, but I think part of the reason why we’re so ridiculously vanilla about it is because we exist in a weird patriotic void. Ask anybody what ‘Britishness’ is and they’ll usually do one of two things. Option one is taking the politician’s favoured route and spouting out the same stuff about tolerance, community, grit and fair play, presumably in contrast to all those twenty-first century functioning democracies who are so proud of their intolerance, cowardice and willingness to celebrate life’s cheaters. The other way to go is to splutter a bit, and then finally list a few, ultimately unimportant things like queuing, understating everything and always complaining about the weather, possibly with passing mention to the ‘British eccentric’ and Shakespeare or The Beatles. The first of these two options is, if I’m honest, well-meaning guff. The second seems a bit lame, but personally I think it’s spot on. The fact is, that we have largely lost our geo-political role in the world, and as a faded player in terms of real power, we fall back onto the softer stuff, and look to what is, ultimately, our role in the world – to keep churning out what we’re good at: Britishness. The reason why we’re good at this is because we are somehow programmed to be it, despite having no idea what ‘it’ is. Handily, this means that the rest of the world haven’t got a hope in hell of replicating it, and we can continue to accidentally churn out cool pop bands and slightly off-the-wall big thinkers, while ploughing the furrow in terms of producing good tweed, . Meanwhile, the rest of the world get to send their products, students and whatever else here, and allow us to sit in the corner of the security council, looking nominally important in the same way an old man with a lot of medals does, even though he got them forty years ago and has now plum forgot how to drive a tank/keep calm and carry on/defeat fascism. We’re an easy target with the whole ‘yeah, but you were big bad colonials’, and yet also a handy ally when you’re looking for . But short of that, we make enough noise culturally to remind everybody we’re still here, and that keeps us as a player.

Looking back on all that, I’m tempted to say that we should all stop worrying about what our ‘role’ is in the world is, and just get on with doing what we’re best at, which is carrying on as usual and just ‘being ourselves’. But that would kind of defeat the object, because worrying about who we are as a nation is who we are as a nation. So worry on Britain – it’s what makes us Great.

Friday, 26 July 2013

Like A Natural Woman

FEMINISM AND SCIENCE: A spot of rewiring.

I am hardwired to feel tenderness towards young children, and to seek protection from men. I naturally tend towards romantic interests who make me feel that they could provide for me, and am genetically predisposed to value loyalty and intelligence over good looks. I am also a feminist. And personally, I don’t think anything that I just said is contradictory.
Feminists shouldn’t be scared of the idea of what’s ‘natural’ to females. Empowering women doesn’t mean denying that they aren’t men. I was born a female, and I am as such, to a certain extent, ‘naturally’ different from someone born male. Whether that’s how my brain works now, or how my brain worked then, is a separate point. As it happens, I grew up a woman, and am probably to a certain extent influenced by my ‘natural femininity’ even now. However, I could have grown up to be someone showing no personality traits associated with ‘traditional femininity’; or, I could have grown up to be someone who identified as a man. No scientist I know would say that any of these was wrong. It is all too easy to look at any bit of writing claiming to reveal what women (or men) are ‘hardwired’ to do or think, and feel outraged. It’s ridiculous – you can’t say that half of the population all experience and approach the world in one homogenous way, can you? What about all those incredibly caring men? What about those women who have no maternal instinct whatsoever? What about the competitive, ambitious female businesswomen and the sensitive, aesthetically-minded male artists? Are we going to dismiss them all as ‘abnormal’? As going against nature?
Well... kind of, yes.

Bear with me, here. I think the problem we have here is that we have somehow come to fetishize being ‘natural’. Some of it for good reasons – I buy organic when I can, am sufficiently lazy to appreciate not having to cake odd-smelling brown stuff onto my face every morning and will gladly frolic in a wildflower meadow given opportunity. I do not like wholly unnatural things like deforestation, morbid obesity or nuclear weapons. Some natural is good, some unnatural is bad. But if there’s one thing the world order, natural or not, doesn’t like then it’s a hard-and-fast rule.

I mean – tape worms, they’re natural. High infant mortality – part of human life for thousands of years. Bad breath, going bare-foot, yearly migration, celery (just me?), bubonic plague, living in caves – they’re all just as Mother Nature intended. The point is that just because we’ve evolved to do something over a few thousand years doesn’t mean that in 2013 we haven’t stopped doing them for very good reasons. If that squirrel with bubonic place in America has his way, we might suddenly all find ourselves getting natural in a plaguey sort of way again, but I’m not supporting the Black Death coming back again, even if it is natural for us to incubate disease and spread among ourselves to our own detriment (sorry, squirrel).

Conversely, there is nothing natural about: running water, developing ways to find adequate nutrition without killing the same things we draw on Easter cards, surviving cancer, human flight, cake. The last one might sound stupid, but stupid things often provide the best illustration of a point. Thinking about making yourself a cheeky Victoria Sponge: natural process? Well, first off you have to turn the oven on. Except that of course that requires man-made technology and a load of gas sucked (against nature) out of the ground, none of which are processes which human beings are innately given to. Even putting aside the oven issue, we’ve got the ingredients to worry about. There’s nothing natural about butter; or bicarb; or even flour, really, because we only learned to do that, didn’t we? Some genius looked at a load of grain and thought – wonder what would happen if I ground it up a bit? Answer: not a lot, until we get to a First Baker, who looked back down the line of grain-grinders and metal-box-smelters and bread-makers and thought, ‘wonder what would happen if’, and created the cake. He/She probably didn’t do it in a gas oven, with eggs from a chicken-farm and flour bought at a huge superstore, but the basic idea was the same, and all it takes is a bit of fast forwarding to reach the Victoria Sponge. A lot of people might accept the use of fire, and the municipal farming methods as being down to ‘evolution’, but that does force me to ask – what about the rest of it? The question is – at what point did cake-making stop being ‘natural’?

Actually, no. Scratch that. The question really is – why the hell does it matter? Cake is good. It tastes nice. There are numerous difficulties with farming methods and use of fossil fuels that we will not get into now, because the niceness is the most pertinent point. Are we going to stop enjoying afternoon tea because it’s not uncooked steak with a few foraged berries? Erm, no. Let us eat bloody cake.

SO – to return to the original matter in hand. It is natural for me, as a woman, to want to be a mother, a faithful sexual partner, and a provider for the assembled brood. It is probably natural for me to a certain extent to fancy tall, broad-shouldered men with six packs who look like they throw a good spear and could handle a bison. So what? Whether it’s evolution, human nature striving towards unnatural ends or sheer bloody mindedness, I and most other women have moved beyond that point. We’ve invented the metaphorical wheel, discovered the figural fire – we’ve come up with this thing called equality, and we now think that all humans being fundamentally deserving the same opportunities in life might be quite good, actually.

In a similar way, we came up with this thing called love, and decided that it might be alright for some people to be gay. We came up with this thing called empathy and decided that we might not force people to live with intense pain if they rationally made a choice that they didn’t want to. We got past having to do everything just because we needed to in order to survive, and we discovered choice.

In that case, why do we need scientists looking back and telling us what we used to be like, I hear you ask. Because we have to acknowledge some parts of scientific truth, in order to recognise social truths. It’s not dangerous to say that men are in a primal way to women with child-bearing hip-ratios, or that women are in a basic sense programmed to be more attuned to emotional states. The problem arises when we accept that as a limitation, not a simple starting point. There’s no getting around the fact that men and women are biologically different, and some of those biological effects might reside in the brain, too. But so what. The brain is an incredibly complex organ that no-one understands properly, but we do not that it is malleable. If it wasn’t, we would stay as we are from birth – without language, without emotional understanding, able to do what we are programmed to do, which is to demand nutrition, cry, and defecate.

Science which tells us something about what we started off as is not dangerous. Shoddy articles which make it look like that’s what we’re fated to end up – they’re dangerous. But as feminists we need to distinguish between the two. Good science and good feminism aren’t incompatible, even when the first has something to say about ‘natural’ gender differences. It’s those people who argue that we should limited to and defined by these differences who deserve our outrage, for it’s those people who are hijacking science and using it to justify any number of hideous, sexist things which demean both men and women. Surely we’ve done enough twin studies by now to realise that we are not the product of genes alone?  

That said, I’m prepared to give the sexists a chance, too, just so long as they’ll walk their talk. I’ll stick to the way I was born, the way I was ‘in nature’, if they will. That is, I’ll trade motherhood and domestication for going back to breast-milk and falling over unless propped up. Or to living in cave, starving at winter, and getting carried off by wolves. Either is fine by me. Whatever comes naturally.

Friday, 19 July 2013

'Permitting more people to move about, meet and be stupid together'


‘Nostalgia: it’s not what it used to be’. Yeah, I know, that gag is a bit old. But the old one’s are the best. They don’t make jokes like they used to, after all.

Towards the top of the (inappropriately lengthy) list of things which piss me off sits the populist brand of mirthless anti-modern sentiment, much beloved of people phoning Radio 2, and taxi-drivers. Approximately enough considering that last fan of the standpoint, anti-modernism spends its time looking over its shoulder towards the past, gleaning the halcyon days of bankers in bowlers, upper lips with rigor mortis and ‘Love Thy Neighbour’. Afflicted as I am by youthful optimism, I’ve sworn never to get so old and twisted that I speak about how things are ‘nowadays’. Not, of course, that it’s a matter of age as such. David ‘Broken Britain’ Cameron earned his stripes early on (though not as early as Mr Hague, who was busy predicting the apocalypse before he had even had a chance to go properly bald). A lot of the Tories seemed to have emerged from the womb complaining that this whole ‘breathing for your self’ thing was a shambles compared to the good old days in the uterus when you got the oxygen you deserved without every Tom, Dick and Harry sucking it up first.

One of the reasons why this is so damn annoying is that flies in the face of demonstrable fact. It was a nice bit of irony that, yesterday, the Conservative arm of the government were falling over themselves to celebrate the fact that the crime figures are falling, gleefully crowing that they’re the lowest numbers in more than a decade. When a BBC reporter quite reasonably pointed out that he should probably retract his whole ‘broken’ diagnosis or embrace life as a walking contradiction, Cameron just essentially said ‘Well…some bits of it are broken’. You’re fooling no-one, Dave. I am a literature student. I know all about that tactic: make an overhasty generalised statement about something (the realist novel in Victorian Britain, maybe, or the entire state of a twenty-first century first world democracy); get pushed to justify your assertion by somebody with an annoying penchant for accuracy; backpedal in a vain attempt to save face, pointing out whichever minimal parts of whatever you’re talking about support your general idea…. Except I don’t think Cameron actually did say which bits were broken. Perhaps because violent crime and public disorder are generally considered to be a pretty accurate measure of whether a society is all smashed up or not, for the general reason that they often literally involve smashing said society up.

Anyway, the general point is that all those ‘in-my-day’ers have got another big fat chunk of information to ignore, whilst we people who think that the modern world is actually alright, all in, have some questions lurking in the back of the brain. Like – is society actually, really, getting better?

Obviously, ‘better’ means different things to different people. I doubt a right-wing religious zealot is going to look at our increasing tolerance, liberal agenda and burgeoning secularism as something to celebrate, but then again, I have yet to find much that does please those sort of people, so perhaps best to leave them out. And I suppose you could argue that all these things which we consider to be signs of progress are actually signs that we are creeping ever more swiftly away from the basic human instincts – that is, the sort of law-of-the-jungle, strict-gender-roles, hunter-gatherer-and-whacker-with-stick sort of model of humanity which many people use to condemn homosexuality, feminism, social equality and many other arbiters of civilised life. Of course, there is a big elephant in the room here,called Income Inequality (Mummy elephant: freemarket capitalism, Daddy elephant: globalist exploitation of third world labour). I know a lot of people will have a hard time thinking that things can really have gotten ‘better’ when there are billionaires and people living out of food-banks living a few tube stops away from each other, or when two women of the same age can have their life chances, educational opportunities, and even their ability to avoid a severely premature death decided by which continent they’ve been born on. For the purposes of the discussion, I ask for the ability to leave said elephant filling space in the corner for a bit, just to spend a bit of time hypothesising about the other stuff. He won’t get lonely. He has lots of his little friend elephants squashed up against the walls (they’ve got names like Mounting Obesity Levels and The Rise of the EDL, and they’re taking up a lot of room, too).

Put on your pink glasses for a bit, though, and most of us are able to look at a large number aspects of life in the MEDCs nowadays and see that, taking the long view, we’re going the right way. More democracy, less sexism, more medical advances, less open violence, more support for minorities, less emphasis on uniformity. Alright, so the past few years haven’t been great in some of these areas, thanks to a riot or two and those things called Conservative ministers. But, on the whole, we’re on the right track, don’t you think?

But here’s the niggle that’s getting to me – how long can we keep it up? Can crime keep falling? Can levels of education keep going up? Or will all these signs of a general progress eventually reach a limit? Is there a certain amount of violence, of poverty, of illiteracy, or intolerance and extremism and all those other things, built into the system? If all things tend towards entropy, then why not human society?

That was the medieval view, of course – that the world would basically just keep declining until it eventually ended and God came and sorted it out, with his big dustpan and brush of judgement, picking the good bits out of all the mess and tipping the rest into the fire for the rest of eternity. Essentially, science agrees – sun’s gotta end one day, and this climate of ours is only going one way, too. The long-term picture isn’t really rosy in either.

But I’m not medieval, or religious in any way, or particularly scientifically inclined. I know about climate change, and try to act accordingly, but if I’m honest, when thinking of my life sixty years from now, I don’t actually rule out living in Norfolk on account of it having become a little bit too sea-y for a retirement home.  And I am guilty, I think, of assuming that things not only are better now than they ever have been, but that they will continue to be so. I envisage a day when I look back at myself now and think that I was a racist, misogynist, homophobic idiot, who believed in theories which are so clearly not true, and was so ignorant as to think that cancer could never be cured/world hunger would never be solved/Sherlock would never be bettered by the BBC, and the like. But now I think about it, maybe I do need to put a bit of a check to all these ambitions, because taking progress for granted can make us complacent, can’t it? I tend to assume that we notice the bad bits more because we live in a world largely without flagrant sexism, casual violence, out and out homophobia et cetera. Perhaps I dismiss them too readily as a result?

Crime is down. Wonderful. There are less wars and hatred and intolerance. We are, according to Steven Pinker, essentially just getting less barbaric. But we can’t lose sight of the fact that the potential is there to go backwards, as well as forwards. I worry about the Coalition day to day, but I hardly think they signal the death knell to progress in modern Britain. But some things are lurking which might do – religious extremism, for instance, is still making a stealth approach across the Atlantic. And we all know the perils that come when it’s taken for granted that somebody believes in equality, and so any evidence to the contrary must be ‘banter’.

Progress: it ain’t always just looking forward, y’know.  

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Size 2, Round 2

FEEDBACK. Still no puns intended.

Thanks to everyone who have shared, promoted and otherwise shown their support for my last post, and for the campaign in general. It’s been brilliant to see people reacting so positively. It’s been equally great to see people who don’t support the petition, but have had some important points to make regarding why they don’t. I’m posting this partly out of a selfish need to defend myself, but mainly in the hope of preventing any offence being caused to anyone who disagrees with the petition. My intentions were benevolent, I promise. I only want to make women, all women, feel good about themselves.

First off, I need to fry some big fish. The eating disorders charity b-eat have refused to show support for the campaign, which I'm pretty disappointed at:

I was pretty flabbergasted by this response. I know that they're supposed to be 'experts' on this, but they're supposed to support those with eating disorders, and every single person I know with an ED has (SO FAR!) supported me. All I can say is that I hope that not too many people saw b-eat's response, as I think it does a disservice to what is normally a brilliant organisation who do very positive work. I'm going to try and get a bit more of a response through email. God knows 140 characters isn't exactly a good medium for what could be a complex position.

Moving on, then. The biggest critic, of course, was always going to be ASOS itself. (Whose page on 'Positive Body Image' can be found here. Prepare accordingly. A sarcastic guffaw may be appropriate.) I got in touch with them via Twitter and email, and they’re got back to me really quickly.Brilliantly done, and full credit to ASOS for responding so promptly to feedback, even when it’s not very positive. I’m particularly happy because the only response I’d seen before this was, if you ask me, completely inadequate (but well done to Julie Stephen for making her voice heard!). This is what they tweeted me to say: 

In their email reply they said:

‘We understand your concern about UK Size 2 but we don’t feel there is anything inherently ‘wrong’ in being this size, if you are healthy.  This size is perfectly healthy for some people, including some specific ethnicities including Chinese and South East Asian.  We are currently preparing to launch our Chinese website and our recent addition of some products in UK Size 2 is a response to this.’

Right. Well, you can’t argue with that, right? Well… I kind of want to. I can’t pretend to be as au fait with the typical  Chinese physique as I try to be with the British one, but I know that people of this heritage do tend to have much smaller frames and therefore smaller measurements. (The whys and wherefores are debated, although there are arguments that this is due to historical poor nutrition, and that, with increasingly greater access to high nutrition, this is changing – see this, from the President of the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine).  However, it seems to be to be a big presumption that, with the spread of Western brands such as ASOS, we can work under the assumption that Chinese women are all thin naturally, and not prey to the same pressures as women in the UK. By no means all Chinese women will be able to be a size 2, either – it’s a huge country and body types vary wildly. ‘Chinese and South East Asian’ is not a homogenous social group, culturally or physically. Plus, there are worrying signs that the same trends towards a cult of thinness are affecting Chinese ideas of beauty (see a study in the journal 'Eating Disorders'). The Chinese University of Hong Kong compared measurements and BMIs of Miss Hong Kong contestants, looked into ED research studying Chinese patients, and concluded that, while ‘Chinese culture has long emphasized thinness in women’, there is a ‘problem with maintaining these standards of beauty [when they are] increasingly hard to achieve with the modern sedentary life style and nutrition. For example, Leung (1995) reported that the mean weight of 18-year-old women was 5.1kg heavier than those studied in 1960s’.

Going back to women in the UK, I think the central point is this. Surely expansion into new markets shouldn’t come to the potential detriment of the original market? (According to that email, they still make 50% of their sales courtesy of the women of Great Britain.) And surely these clothes made for all these, apparently teeny-tiny but totally healthy, women in the East shouldn’t be sold before the launch of the Chinese version of ASOS, and on a website which is still predominantly directed towards British women (see the response to our changing seasons, cultural events etc. on their homepage).

So ASOS, please don’t think that this is enough of an excuse. I for one am not comfortable with the idea of trading off a bigger market share for western retailers in the East for a potential increase in the body-image related issues back here in the UK.

Anyway, that’s the angry stuff out of the way. Onto the genuinely appreciated responses I’ve had from other people. One particular person got in touch with me to express her personal reasons for having a problem with the petition. She gave me her blessing to post my response here, and I’m doing so in hopes that it clarifies some things regarding the most frequent criticism I’ve seen. Apologies for the rash of intensifiers, but I honestly meant them…

'I’m really, really sorry if I’ve in any way hurt anybody’s feelings, or suggested that there aren’t people out there who would benefit from ASOS selling a size 2 range. I know that there are people who don’t fit into standard sizes for reasons other than eating disorders, and I don’t want to suggest that they don’t deserve to have access to fashionable clothes, either. I know it’s not the same, and I don’t want to in any way demean what other people have to deal with, but there is a point in anorexia where it becomes so chronic that everyone essentially stops talking about recovery and starts talking about ‘management’. At that point, you’re usually still really underweight but trying to get on with your life, and yet find yourself without the wardrobe that makes you feel a part of the ‘normal’ community. I’m getting there myself, so I do understand what it's like, and would support ways to make the situation better. I just don't think ASOS's is the way to do it.

Basically – ASOS is a company which is there to make a profit. They wouldn’t have produced size 2 clothes unless there was a decent market to support it. There might be a small minority of people in the right demographic who have health conditions that make that size suitable, but I would argue that there’s not enough of those type of people for ASOS to base their expansion on. They’re clearly not just targeting people who are in a situation where their physical health condition makes it hard to gain weight. I suspect that the target market for these clothes is made up in no insubstantial part by girls who are skinny for quite another reason. And it really worries me that a mainstream, fashion-lead, aspirational brand like ASOS is putting out the message that it’s ok for those girls to see a size which most people get to only through ill health as somehow acceptable, or ‘aspirational’.

I just think it’s a bad move. I know that there are upsides to selling size 2, but very few things are solely bad or solely good. I would technically benefit myself from wearing size 2 trousers, shorts etc., but I just don’t think it would be OK to buy into it, with all the unforeseen consequences hovering in the background’.

Thanks again guys. Hope I’ve allayed some fears and/or cleared up my position somewhat. I appreciate some people will still think I’m misguided/overacting/a nasty woman-hating body fascist, but I can deal with that. I just hope some of you don’t, and will consider supporting the effort.

Louisa x