Friday, December 01, 2006

Loving Science but Hating Academia

You know what- we don't really learn what science is unless we get lucky and end up learning from a teacher who loves it. I had one such teacher the first year of my Ph.D. and another who guided me through my Ph.D. The early teacher was Ronald Red Owl Hoskins. Had us delving into the philosophy of science, Popper, Kuhn, examining what we knew about "Truth" and whether it existed. His teaching excited me and made me into a "true believer."

The man who guided me through the Ph.D. is Tom Stewart, a scientist and human being par excellence. He speaks little but boy, he personifies the scientific ideal. A keen mind and a no-frills scientist. His integrity truly sets him apart. When I was down about my dissertation research not resulting in a "stop-the-presses" type finding, he was the one who pointed out the true value of any finding, its role in progressing scientific thinking.

But most of academia does not work for the benefit of science. It works to support itself as an institution and a profession. It is not uncommon to see acts of self-glorification in academia. What is worse, it is not hard to find cases of academics trying to undermine and undercut the work of their colleagues. And worst of all, falsification of research.

"Publish or perish!" It is the mantra given to all young researchers. Scientific findings do need to be proclaimed far and wide in order to further science and knowledge. But "publish or perish" also sets up perverse incentives to the detriment of science. For example, the public now believes that you can always find evidence to favor whichever position you prefer- you only have to look!

Science is not meant to work like that. Scientific research depends on the impartiality and integrity of researchers and their tools. Scientific publishing on the other hand does not reward all scientific findings alike. Add in the factor of the variously vested interests of funders (many from the private sector) and we do indeed have a mix that is not the most conducive to true scientific progress in academia.

A recent heart-warming example is that of Grigori (Grisha) Perelman. Here is a guy who has turned down offers to be an institutionalized academic. This man has recently turned down the Fields Medal which is the foremost award in the field of Mathematics. He was chosen for the award for solving an unsolved 100+ year old mathematical problem, the Poincaré conjecture. (You can read more about this by googling it).

Grisha does not work to a schedule. He works on something that interests him, continues working on it till he thinks he is done and then as often as not publishes the result; and then not always in academic journals. No fan-fare, nothing. Can you see this happening in an academic department at a university? Nope, they would want to get maximum mileage out of it - if that is they allowed such a slow person to stay on as long as they have. Of course, I could be dead wrong about all of this, but I doubt it.

Meantime, there is another academic who sees a chance to further himself here because a) Perelman's derivations are hard to follow, b) are not published in an academic journal and c) Perelman is not beating his chest saying he done it. Dr. Yau, a former Fields medalist, gets two of his students (Zhu & Cao) to work double-time on a paper presenting this same result and publishes it in his own journal (conflict of interest anyone?!) after giving the editorial board three days notice by email to comment on the paper. Oh did I mention that neither the paper, its abstract nor any reviews were attached to the email. When one member asked to see the paper, they were told it was not available. Oh the wonders of the modern peer-review process- the paper gets published! Even the title is not the same one as proposed in the earlier e-mail notice.

I will close here with some words from Perelman.
On ethics in academia:
It is not people who break ethical standards who are regarded as aliens. It is people like me who are isolated.

On the Zhu-Cao paper:
It is not clear to me what new contribution did they make. Apparently, Zhu did not quite understand the argument and reworked it.

On Yau:
I can’t say I’m outraged. Other people do worse. Of course, there are many mathematicians who are more or less honest. But almost all of them are conformists. They are more or less honest, but they tolerate those who are not honest.

On his decision to refuse the Fields Medal and leave academia:
As long as I was not conspicuous, I had a choice, Either to make some ugly thing [an issue about academic integrity] or, if I didn’t do this kind of thing, to be treated as a pet. Now, when I become a very conspicuous person, I cannot stay a pet and say nothing. That is why I had to quit... I am not a politician!

[The quotes here come from a Nassar & Gruber article in the New Yorker.]

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Uterine Fibroids and Treatment Options

We know that many women get fibroids growing in and around their uterus at some point in their lives and that some of us become very uncomfortable because of the symptoms the fibroids produce (these range from urinary frequency to painful and heavy bleeding). Research still has not shown why this happens and what predisposes us to it. I have a previous post in this blog about some of my experience so far and I will be writing more about it as I undergo treatment.

Considering that uterine fibriods have been a problem that has existed long before modern medicine came into being and given that they are the second most common reason for major surgery in women after child-birth (specifically c-section), it is a bit puzzling why we still don't know what causes fibroids. Not only this, what is even harder to understand is the lack of information women are given about the various options available for treatment. I am going to go over the options here in case someone who wants to know stumbles on them on this little outpost of the web.

Do nothing: Most women who have fibroids are aymptomatic and needn't take any course of action. These benign growths do not interfere with their lives. Other women turn symptomatic and still may choose to do nothing if the symptoms do not affect their quality of life. Even if the fibroids do affect the quality of their life, a woman may choose it as the lesser of two burdens given the treatment options. In addition, a woman who has not had children may, depending on location and the affects of the fibroid(s), choose to put off treatment till after childbirth in order to ensure that her fertility is not negatively affected.

Gonadotrophin therapy: Some women are given gonadotrophin drug (Lupron in USA or Prostap in UK) injections to chemically induce menopause. As the levels of estrogen and progesterone drop, reproductive organs (and the fibroids growing in and around them) shrivel. This therapy is associated with all the other wonderful symptoms of menopause such as hot flashes, bone loss (over time), vaginal dryness, etc. Soon as therapy is stopped, the reproductive organs AND the fibroids spring right back. This therapy is used pre-surgery (typically for 3 months) in women who are heavy bleeders and anemic to shore up their blood and help with recovery post-op. It is also supposed to reduce bleeding during surgery. However, this treatment is not indicated pre-surgery for non-anemic women. Surgery is easier on a non-shrunken uterus and fibroids. However, incision size may be larger if the fibroid is extremely large.

Hysterectomy: This has previously been the option of choice for many surgeons (and by extension their patients) as it was often the only option available. It remains a frequently used option and many women are expressing discomfort and displeasure with doctors who seem to present it as the only viable option. On the other hand, for many women who have severe symptoms, recurring fibroids and who are past child birth, this remains an acceptable option. Of course, a hysterectomy entails permanent menopause with its own issues. For women who are younger and who still want to keep their options for reproduction open, this is not an ideal option.

Myomectomy: This comes in two forms. Abdominal myomectomy and laparoscopic abdominal myomectomy. The first is when they manually make an abdominal incision and surgically remove the myoma(s) or fibroids. The second is when they use laparoscopes to do the surgery making small holes in the abdomen to thread in the laparoscope. Healing times and rates of infection differ. Typically the larger the fibroid or the more delicate its position, an abdominal myomectomy would be preferred over a laparoscopic myomectomy. The advantage of a myomectomy is that it is a more uterus conserving surgery and a woman may hope to maintain her reproductive abilities. Even if reproduction is not an important consideration, the avoidance of abrupt menopause alone would make this desirable in my opinion. [Menopaused women are not troubled with fibroids as the reproductive tissue has or is shrivelling.] However, myomectomies do not prevent the fibroids growing back.

Uterine Arterial (or Fibroid) Embolization: UAE involves threading catheters into the two uterine arteries. The catheters are used to deliver silting agents into the blood supply of the targeted fibroids. This results in the fibroid starving and shrivelling away and this relieves most symptoms. There are a couple of issues with this treatment beyond its indication for certain types of fibroids. Firstly, UAE is performed by radiological experts rather than gynecological surgeons. This may create a conflict of interest in that many gynys may not refer their patients away to another specialist for treatment even if they remain the doctor of record. Secondly, UAE is still doubtful for women looking to conceive as the blood supply to the uterus and ovaries should be as little compromised as possible.

Holistic options: There aint no herbs out there that I know of which can target a fibroid specifically and not affect anything else. I can imagine there are herbs that help relieve some symptoms (such as heavy bleeding). However, if a drug claims to shrink fibroids, it is probably functioning as a gonadotrophin. Now we know that menopausal women are outta the fibroid game, which leaves only those of us lucky enough to need these herbs to worry about the consequences of a potentially gonadotrophin herb. And if you are still considering giving birth at some point, you need to make the decision while weighing in your reproductive health and that of any baby that you will carry. In terms of other holistic options such as meditation and exercise, the way I see it, these can't harm us and if they help us- then great. Good food, healthy eating habits, relaxation and exercise are never wrong.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Toxic Wastes in Abidjan- Progress Report

So far Trafigura maintains that the wastes were not toxic and that it tried to dispose of them but due to its unfortunate selection of an Ivory Coast company called Tommy, many people were poisoned and about 10 lost their lives. Investigation has however revealed that Tommy is a shell company created while the Probo Koala was on its way to the Ivory Coast - talk about custom made. A report out this week suggests a chain of incompetence and negligence was to blame for the tragedy. So far those jailed include the manager of Tommy, two European Trafigura officials and a few Ivorian businessmen. Trafigura meantime has retained a high-flying British lawyer and is sticking by its story of compliance with national and international laws.

This is how globalism and international capitalism works. The tiny people get ground up and spat out by the cogs of big MNCs. All this delaying, legal mumbo-jumbo and obfuscation puts such heart-rending injustice out of mind over time. We feel less and less outraged as our lives are not affected and we can still get cheap oil. Hey, a few hundred unhealthy and 10 dead Ivorians versus the $300,000 to be paid for safe clean up. I mean, if Trafigura paid that sum, they would have to pass it on to their customer and we all know that cheap fuel keeps our world going around, right?

[Same picture, NYT- thanks.]

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Elusive Surgeon

Yuck! Well, I've been diagnosed with a uterine myoma and that has screwed with my head somewhat. Going from totally healthy and fit to being a patient is not easy because you are not mentally geared for it. I have also always taken good care of my health- good clean food, no bad habits, exercise... so of course, a small voice in your head goes- how'd this happen to me? Turns out, too many of us women suffer from this problem. It is the second most common reason for surgery in women after childbirth (why childbirth even needs surgery is another blog being written by April one of these days).

Depending on where you get your info from, fibroids occur in 40 to 70% of all women. A post-mortem study showed it in 70% (or was it 80%) of women autopsied. Most women, it seems, are asymptomatic and either never know they have fibroids or don't need to have them removed. Some of us turn symptomatic. I am one of them. Urinary frequency (my bladder is now reduced to the carrying capacity of peanut - ok not really, but close enough), a belly that is beginning to protrude (doc describes it as 16 weeks) are some of my symptoms.

I want to talk about how difficult it has been as a patient, specially when faced with a physician- oh wait! I have not been faced with him yet and am not likely to before I am rolled into surgery! I have had 2 appointments with my consultant (known as specialists in the US) in the UK under the NHS. And both times I met a fantastic research fellow working under him. She was thoroughly lovely, easy to talk with and extremely helpful but she ain't a surgeon (so she won't be cutting me open) and she is not the expert when it comes to answering my questions on treatment options. What information I have been gaining about what I have and what to do about it has come less from my consultant than from other sources due to active efforts on my part. The one letter I have from him addressing an issue I raised suggests that the guy is probably competent and means well, but boy oh boy, the fact that I will never even get to be more than a paper patient and then a sedated uterus to this guy bothers me no end.

Oh btw, the consent form I had to sign to get on the waiting list for surgery lists the "serious or frequently occuring risks" as:
1. Excessive bleeding during blood transfusion.
2. Excessive bleeding requiring hysterectomy (removal of the womb).
3. Incisional complications including hernia.
4. Infection which may require antibiotics.
5. Injury to adjacent organs requiring further surgery.
6. Venous thrombosis which may or may not result in pulmonary embolus.
7. Failure to achieve desired result.
8. Pain.

Would have been nice to observe a slightly greater investment or even interest in my care from the surgeon.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Toxic Wastes? Dump on the Poor!

I am convinced that Africa is the world's dumpster. None of us really care about this continent, except in terms of what resources it can provide to the rest of the world. Europe is up in arms about how many immigrants land on its shores from Africa- many dying on the beaches after a perilous journey. No regard whatsoever for the tourism of the affected countries and all those folks who have come to the beaches to enjoy the sun, sand and surf. America couldn't give a damn about the continent- when it came to Iraq they dreamt up weapons of mass destruction and went in to save the day; Charles Taylor was gutting Liberia at the same time but the US decided when it came to Africa the very organization they label as incompetent and irrelevant (yea, we are talking about the UN) was good enough to handle Liberia using its peace keeping force. Let's not forget history here folks- Liberia is the nation created by those former slaves who chose to return to Africa from America. IMO, there should have been a greater desire to help those whose pasts were shackled to yours. But of course, Liberia's black gold isn't in liquid form.

Here is a recent example of the mistreatment of Africa and Africans that makes my blood boil.

The Probo Koala- a Greek oil tanker, flying a panamanian flag, leased by the London branch of a Swiss firm whose headquarters are in the Netherlands- docked into Amsterdam to get its holds cleaned of what it claimed were marslops, before heading out again. Amsterdam Port Services contracted to do the cleaning for $15,000 but as they started the cleaning, they found that what they were pulling wasn't just marslops and not of a volume they assumed it would be. The mixture they were withdrawing was toxic, the fumes were making the workers sick and the residue cleaning estimate was changed to $300,000 for full and safe clean-up. Trafigura, the lease-holding company, decided this was way too much to pay for clean up and processing, and sought a short-cut. [ FYI, Trafigura posted revenues in 2005 of $28 billion, in case anyone is keeping a tab.]

Trafigura contracted with a company called Tommy in the Ivory Coast and all that toxic sludge (500 tons worth) was dumped around the capital city of Abidjan on the 19th of August. Oil traders and toxic waste experts say that it is clear to see that a country like Ivory Coast has no facilities capable of handling toxic wastes of this kind or proportion. Yet, Trafigura claims that the responsibility lies with the company they contracted to carry out the removal and disposal. Meantime, 8 people are dead and 77,000 sickened by the sludge. If what is happening in the Ivory Coast today were to have happened in any country in the Western World, if even one life had been lost in the West, if even a tenth of the numbers of people were sickened in the West, do you think this story would have faded away this easily? Oh wait a minute- what am I thinking, one life in the West is so much more valuable than one life in Africa. It is only Africa and the lives of Africans- who cares!
This picture shows 6 month-old Salam Oudrawogol of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, who developed these sores since he was exposed to toxic waste in August.
The picture at the top of this page shows another resident of Abidjan near a dump in Akouedo where much of the toxic material was dumped.
[Both pictures taken from NYT (thanks). My Probo-Koala story draws on BBC and NYT reporting; angry editorialising- all moi.]

Monday, September 25, 2006

Revisiting a Thin Issue

So after Madrid fashion week brought the focus on models and image issues, it seems they opened a breach in the dyke that had kept at bay viewpoints that expressed reservations about female image and health issues. London fashion week followed up by stating that they were not going to tell designers who to choose as models and how to run their shows. The culture secretary for the UK, Tessa Jowell, joined the debate with a call to follow the Spanish example. Well, anyway, all to no avail.

But. Surprise! Milan fasion week has stated that it won't participate in the exploitation of young women and has announced a new code that models need to adhere to in order to participate. In order to participate, models will have to carry a medical certificate showing they are healthy. Young school-age girls need a guardian accompanying them. The code also combats the exploitation of vulnerable women who fall prey to unlicensed operators who talk them into having sex in the hopes of attaining their dreams.

Ok, before anyone goes around thinking, I have something against skinny women, let me say that I acknowledge that some women can be naturally thin. The issue with me is not the thinness- it is the imposition of an ideal. It is the restriction of a natural range. That is why I think Milan's actions go further than Spain's. I think Spain's heart was in the right place when they tried to curb an epidemic of body-image illnesses. By asking models to show a medical guarantee of health, Milan says whatever size you are- you gotta be healthy.

I love to see policy being formulated by the users. Let's see how this keeps developing.

[interesting link:]
[pics were either NYT or BBC- I forget which- so thanks to both I guess]

Monday, September 18, 2006

And what gives me the right to Nation-bash?

So... a friend read my Orient Express post and told me that it made him very uncomfortable to read it. I seemed to be so anti-China in it. Do I hate China and the Chinese?

Well, let me ask you if the Chinese dissident who is thrown into jail for protesting things he sees wrong with the Chinese political ideology hates China? Maybe s/he does, maybe not. To answer that question straight up- No, I do not hate China as a country or the Chinese as a people. Historically, this is a culture that is a sister to my own (Indian). I do however have a strong aversion to China as an ideology- that which seems to avert attention from individual rights by making them secondary to a nationalistic philosophy which is dictated by the few to the many.

Many Chinese have given voice to how much better their lives are getting. And yet, the few dissidents whose voices are raised against some injustice are being silenced underfoot. Why? If everything is so good, why be scared of a peaceful movement like Falun Gong? Why kidnap the Panchen Lama and replace him with a State-sanctioned Panchen? Why not let Taiwan exist independently? Why...

In short, no I don't hate the country of China anymore than I hate the US or India. But I am as much against its ideology and philosophy as the nearest Chinese dissident.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Role Models

So... New development.
Madrid Fashion Week has decided that this year they will not be allowing any models with a BMI lower than 18 to participate in the show(between 18.5 and 25 is considered the normal range). While this is not a premier fashion show- hey, its a start! Every year they were facing protests from doctors and women's rights groups and this year they decided to ban underage and underweight models. Go Spain!!

About 30% of the models have flunked the BMI test. I am glad we are beginning to pay some attention to the role models put out there for younger women. Male models don't look half as unhealthy as some of the thinnest female models. I am not recommending or even condoning male modelling- just saying body image issues-wise, they are nowhere near as unhealthy.

We need healthier role-MODELS.

[Color pic from BBC news site and B&W pic from a French website on Anorexia and Kate Moss/Amber Valleta as far as I can tell. Thanks guys.]

Sunday, September 10, 2006

The Orient Express

If you were to hear the Chinese ambassador to the UN speak you would not be alone to wonder which school of diplomacy he attended. He is very clear about presenting China's policies to the world. You even have to admire the man for at least having the gumption to say what he means when it comes to world politics and the last-minute "diplomacy" run by the US to keep all the fires in the world barely in check. In a recent interview which got wide coverage in print and AV media, he reiterates that China's military build up is for self-defense (!!!ok!!!) and tells the US to "shut up" and look to itself before pointing fingers. He also goes on to say that one inch of land is more important to the Chinese polity than the lives of all its people. Strong words.

Now, as far as military buildup being for self-defense, I do have trouble buying that argument when the same military is being used to forcibly keep Tibet a part of China, attacking India without provocation in 1962, suppressing popular demonstrations from its own public mercilessly, etc. However, if I look at the fact that the US has the world's largest military expenditure, which is also ostensibly for self-defense, but is used to wage war on other nations and people, then I have to say it is high time someone did tell the US off for being a hypocrite. Sadly, the only one who have the muscles and the guts to do this will probably be the other contenders for world hegemony. :( Oh woe to the rest of us.

China has been flexing its political muscles more and more as it has learnt to play the economic game that goes under the name of democracy but is really all about capitalism. Who cares about democracy as long as free market and consumerism rules? After all that is the medicine the west has been selling for awhile hasn't it? And now how are they to call China on it when they want its cheap products and even more importantly, they want access to its enormous market? Trapped in a mire of our own making.

As clearly stated by the ambassador, one inch of land is more important to China than all its people's lives put together. This is nationalism taken to an extreme and it certainly doesn't fit the line of self-defense and peaceful, economic rise well. It is Tibet today, Taiwan tomorrow (most nations don't recognize this island nation anymore anyway so who is going to shed a tear on its re-aborption into the motherland), disputed borders and islands in the ocean the day after... I am not saying that China's ambition is to take over the world (not militarily anyway, as of now). But I can see a day when China goes from manning its borders to keep the people in to patrolling it to keep the non-Chinese out. Movements that promote jingoistic nationalism are more likely to spawn feelings of superiority amongst its espousers and followers and xenophobia towards others. (You already see this in Tibet -the Han Chinese have overrun the peaceful, monastery-studded landscape.) All the makings of a hegemon? You decide.

On an aside, speaking of "Movements that promote jingoistic nationalism [which] are more likely to spawn feelings of superiority amongst its espousers and followers and xenophobia towards others" - the American and European push against immigrants and policies towards poorer nations of the world that are seen as not having much to offer is a lovely case in point- but we will leave that for another time.

While the US has been busy stoking and controlling fires around the world, China has been making some serious inroads into South America and Africa. Continents and nations that have largely been ignored by the west as not accounting for much on the political stage. Brazil for instance, has been crying for the WTO and the west to give it fair breaks so it can grow and feed its people. All it gets instead are selfish fights about subsidies. China enters stage when it realizes it has huge resource needs as well as a need to legitimize its position as a political heavy. It can do both by offering African and South American nations investment and technology without too many strings attached. So for instance, it allows regimes such as Mugabe's Zimbabwe and the Sudanese government to continue to tyrannize its own people as long as they provide China's energy needs in return for investments.

Of course, not all the governments it deals with are banana republics. This means that some of those investments are really going to pay off in a good way. For the first time, some nations are getting a serious player in world politics giving them attention and much-needed financial and technological assistance. The rest of the developed world should feel ashamed. They have been throwing pennies at these poorer nations everytime there was a "humanitarian" crisis without making a serious and sustained commitment to help. How will they now deal with the growing legitimacy that China will gain to these nations as a friend, a success, a country like their own that has been able to bring 400 million people out of poverty?

The sad thing is that China may be doing what it is doing for selfish reasons. But the sadder thing is that the "ethically" minded and democratic west did not do anything even for selfish reasons.

[All pictures taken from the BBC news website- thanks!]

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Out with the old...

When I was figuring things out with my first child, I was a lot less compassionate. If you chose to have a child, you SHOULD be a baby-slinging, co-sleeping, nursing-on-demand mama. If not, you are simply not up to par. Your poor child…

Now, with a 3.5 rd old wild child and a new baby, I am a little frayed at the edges. I still believe in wearing my babe, and he sleeps next to me at night, and nurses round the clock. We’ve delayed vaccinations, am appalled by circumcision (of either gender!), and have embraced respectful communication. We plan to unschool.

Having kids makes you deeply mindful…of your own choices. Gives you less time and energy to judge the choices of others. Maybe more importantly, it provides new clarification into how difficult it is to be on the path no one else chose. We are biologically constructed to be social creatures, to be part of the pack. So sometimes it’s HARD to feel like you are tribe-less. To feel like you are the weird one. To not do the done thing. So, I can feel for those women who feel society’s tug, and yield to the pressure to conform.

On the other hand, and this is for everyone who chose breast augmentation and cesareans, it is tremendously empowering to walk the unpopulated path. It allows you to yield to what feels good instead of what looks right, which, despite the catcalling of those on the Christian right, is often a stunningly good barometer of behavior. It allows me to have homebirths and nurse in public, and deeply question the ways Society tells me I have to raise my kids.

I have a hard time juxtaposing my desire to be compassionate, to live and let live, with my need to co-create the kind of world I will leave to my children. The lingering question is always, always: is walking away the only option? In other words, is Society so rigidly unchangeable that the only option is to create something completely different, not just outside the mainstream, but in a new ocean entirely? Is it somehow less “progressive” to suggest giving up on a lot of the sacred tenets of modern America, instead of trying to change what I don’t like, a la

Is building a new model just as legitimate a way of life as reforming the old?

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The Body

So the latest news making the rounds in the media (and, no, you no longer have to be addicted to tabloids to get these kinds of news items) is the "cat-fight" between Elle McPherson and Heidi Klum. For those of us, who don't know these women (pictures used without permission from a website called modelsblog - sorry fellas, we be little fish, don't sue us!), they are part of a relatively new breed of creatures called Supermodels. They make tons of money and are considered the epitome of beauty and sexiness.

Well, it turns out that Elle- who is now in her 4th decade on this planet- was once (1986) referred to as The Body by Time magazine. But then as she got older, she stopped modelling as much and now isn't seen as widely. Turn page. Victoria's Secret decides to run some ads in 2006 with Heidi Klum- who is now in her 3rd decade- presenting her as The Body.

Hmm... This story and the brewing dynamics are strange and weirdly off-putting on so many levels that I don't know where to begin. So I'll begin where I left off which was talking about the caricaturizing of femininity and the female ideal.

Firstly, that the female ideal in terms of physical appearance is very narrowly defined. So, the feminine ideal should be a supermodel who is between 5 feet 9 and a half to 6 feet tall, have dimensions ranging between 34-24-34 to 36-25-35 (yes, yes, with a woman those three numbers seem to say it all), should be white (so the fairer you are the better), blondish (depending on the shade in favour at the moment), should have long tresses, should have long limbs, be thin all over except in the chest (thick thighs and a hips are a NO-NO) and just be overall gorgeous and glamorous. That is The Body.

And if you ain't got it, you can try- there's growth hormone therapies to push on "shorties," there's trips to cosmetic surgeons, there's skin lighteners (for those of us not born to minimally pigmented parents), there's dieting and not to mention extreme makeover! What more can a modern woman want- we live in an age that is helpful enough to really lay it all out for us.

Secondly, here are two women in the public eye, battling over the "privilege" of representing the whole of the female human body-type. It might even be a "pseudo" fight in that it does not make much of a difference to Elle or Heidi personally whether they are the holders of the title- but a fight has nevertheless been announced to titillate people and make sure this item gets as much coverage as possible. The fallout of this is that many women, impressionable or not, will be bombarded by these seemingly irrelevant stories about two women vying for something as inane as the title of The Body. But it ain't irrelevant- it is setting standards for THE BODY! This is the benchmark, broadly broadcast, that will help you measure your sexiness at a glance. Hmm...why thanks guys!

Not to mention the fact that it is demeaning to the two women in question (Heidi and Elle) to be battling over a dubious distiinction. And demeaning to all women that we allow society to objectify women to this extent- the emphasis is solely on appearance and nothing else! It is a sorry state we have come to. Do you notice that the female ideal has nothing to do with a woman's ability, intelligence, interests or anything else?

Frank says that to him The Body would always be the original. Jesse Ventura. :P

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Caricature-izing Femininity

My sister is visiting me here in Brum, UK, with her girl friend. This past weekend we took off on a long road-trip since it was bank holiday weekend. On Sunday afternoon as we sat in a rickety booth in Maggie Dickson's in Edinburgh eating veg haggis (for the uninitiated- YUMMY), sis says that she was finding the city to be quite gender-normative. Now granted we cannot talk about the whole city here since we were mostly in the theatre/ arts quarter where the Fringe festival was happening and I am sure we were floating in a lot of tourists. That said, she had put into words something I had been sort of feeling since I moved to the UK last year.

There isn't enough variation in dressing, attitude, hair, looks...within gender while at the same time there is quite a distinct divide between the genders. So for instance, I see women who are all following the same fashion trend (say WIDE belts slung low over the hips), long-er hair, and high heels tottering around on cobbles in all weather. Everytime I look around, I see women scurrying to keep up with male partners. Their stille-toes however, won't allow them to stride so they end up taking these fast mincing little steps which looks ridiculous rather than sexy. And they always end up walking behind the man (talk about allegorical positioning of the sexes) who can stride and lead the way. Even in the coldest weather, you can see these women wearing hardly anything. They are supposed to look sexy- but goose bumps and a funny walk don't do it for me- but of course, they aren't doing it for me anyway- so hey, WIN-WIN!

Gray on a man – distinguished and even sexy. Gray on a woman – past shelf-life. Admittedly, more and more men are also facing the pressures to conform but nowhere close to what women have to deal with. The hair color industry is reaping the rewards of our conformity to vain ideals. Meantime, studies telling how toxic hair color really is can find hardly any readers. Who cares about health if you can look young and sexy?

We are being shown a caricature of the perfect, sexy and feminine woman with constant images over all media of women like Paris Hilton (blonde, thin, lanky, baby voice, and no substantive messages to detract from her femininity – that would probably spoil it all), Jessica Simpson (same with added bonus of boobs and I’m not talking about the guy she recently divorced), Sienna Miller (umm, I really don’t know what this woman is famous for other than what is called her “Boho” style and the boob that she hangs around), Britney Spears (formerly sexy, now that she is pregnant again, she is losing her spot as a sex bomb while Christina Aguilera continues to retain hers)… This could go on ad infinitum if we looked at all the latest film starlets who are getting the roles, the “super” models, etc. It is as if they are the ultimate in feminine ideal and the last word in sexiness and we can only ever hope to aspire to it.

While I began noticing these trends in the UK, they are definitely not limited to this part of the world by any means. In terms of the ubiquitous “ideal” of the feminine, your personal take on it and how diligently you want to go about tracing it back to its roots- you could say Hollywood was to blame, or the cosmetic industry, or the multinationals, or male-dominated cultures or what-have-you. I want to argue that the supply chain is not where the focus should be if any real change is to be affected in our thinking on this subject. We, as women, need to educate ourselves and think for ourselves.

Why is what is feminine and sexy being defined into a narrower and narrower range? And why are we letting it dictate our own sense of our worth and how we should appear? On the one hand, facial and body hair on women is considered gross (ok perhaps not by you particularly, but you know many people do) and unsexy. On the other hand, as any woman who has been with a partner knows, that whether or not they have passionate sex and how often has nothing to do with whether she shaved her legs and armpits today or at all.

We are told that it is the biological imperative that impels us to be as feminine and sexy as possible. However, feminine and sexy used to encompass a wide range. Well, really it still does except we refuse to acknowledge how much variation there can be in the feminine and how lovely and rich that diversity can be. Women and curves used to be synonymous. Now, curvy is a euphemism for large or fat!!

We don't all have to look like we came from the same mold. Healthy women can come in all kinds of sexy shapes, sizes, colors, hairdos and attitudes. Most pictures you see in magazines are airbrushed so don't go b(u)y those. Aim for feeling at peace with yourself and healthy. You do not have to work on being feminine by buying products or coloring your hair or talking softly or dieting or whatever. You are by definition the epitome of femininity! Don't let the caricature of womanhood being projected all around you pigeonhole your lifestyle, outlook, demeanor, philosophy and attitude. Be You!

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Our first day here

Well, it is a sunday evening here in the UK (20th August, 2006) and I am trying to set up this blog for April and me to continue a partnership we started a couple years ago now. April is a young scholar who is very interested in natural living that is harmonious with the earth. She is a committed local activist who is constantly involved in policy issues that might make her community a better place to live in. She is very interested in natural birthing and parenting. She is a mother of two and is working on completing her Ph.D in Public Policy. We will hear more from her personally in just a bit.

I met April at SUNY Albany when I was still doing my doctorate there (also in Public Policy). I finished that a couple years ago and decided to try living this side of the Atlantic for a bit and took on a research fellowship that would pay me to get here and be here for a bit. I am also interested in some of the issues April is passionate about. On the other hand I also have some other topics that really get me going- some of these are women's rights, animal rights and issues of empowerment and political involvement.

What we hope to do with this blog is to engage in a dialog on issues of importance to us - these could include a topic in the news currently, something that has us pondering at the moment, or just something that has riled us. Even if we disagree, iinstead of trying to impose a judgment on anything we take issue with, we will try to reason about it and try to show why something works for us- or not.

We believe reasoned dialog is what the world needs. We believe humans are an intelligent animal and each of us is capable of contributing positively to this planet we live in and all our co-inhabitants lives. If we humans cannot give anything positive at least we can be aware of any negative impacts we are having and learn how to get along and leave something more than a husk of a planet for the future.