“It’s such a shame…you have such a pretty face!” Tom Jones, femininity and fat as failure

By Milly Morris

This week, Tom Jones – veteran singer, TV talent show host and Welsh national treasure – spoke of one of his former client’s failures in the music industry. Like many before her, Lianne Mitchell had won The Voice UK under the premise that she would be embarking on a bright and bountiful future in the music industry, only to fade into obscurity. Jones stated that Mitchell’s short-lived career was directly linked to her weight-gain, a visual metaphor for her lack of drive and ambition:

“When she first came on, I thought about her trimming down a bit. Leanne had gotten comfortable singing in this holiday camp and she’d put on some weight (…) Rather than take the opportunity of winning The Voice and a having chance of getting a record deal, which she did, she put on more weight. She didn’t have the drive. It didn’t seem like she grabbed hold of it with both hands and say ‘This is my chance’.”

(http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/tv/news/english/tom-jones-accused-of-fat-shaming-the-voice-contestant/articleshow/56402111.cms)

Rather than Mitchell’s career-flop being down to bad management or a lack of interest in the music she produced, her size gave her away as weak-willed and incompetent. If she can’t cut the calories, has she really got the grit to make it in the music industry? Here, Jones reiterates the mainstream narrative surrounding fat and femininity; fat women are out of control, lazy, gluttonous and untrustworthy. As Cooper notes, the fat woman is “not willing to commit to change or live up to the dictates of healthy living. She is a compulsive eater, she is hyper-emotional, she is a physical and moral failure” (Cooper, 2016, p.23). For example, the downfall and subsequent re-birth of female singers is often told through a narrative of weight. In 2015, The Daily Mail proclaimed that Janet Jackson, Britney Spears and Pink had all ‘triumphed’ in their ‘battle’ with weight ‘problems’ and successively ‘got their bodies back.’ (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-3096410/How-Britney-Spears-shed-pounds-got-body-Vegas-residency-help-celeb-trainer-Tony-Martinez.html). Another piece claimed that Britney is now able to ‘regain her former glory’ after beating the ‘bulge’, the implication being that Spears’ slimmer figure is a representation of her mental stability.

I do not mean to suggest that Tom Jones is a bad person or even that he had any malice in his comments; he is simply projecting ubiquitous ideas of what it means to perform ‘femininity’ properly. Likewise, Tom works within an industry that reserves sex and sexuality for the thin and heteronormatively beautiful. As a fat woman, Mitchell’s body represents asexuality that can only be viewed as sexual if it is through a comical lens. This is exemplified through characters such as ‘Fat Monica’ in Friends; her attempts to seduce Chandler and her sexuality in general are presented as laughable, deluded and repugnant. If a fat woman attempts to be sexual in a serious way, we are taught to recoil in horror. Remember the ‘cringed-out’ headlines after Britney Spears performed her overtly sexual routine on the MTV music awards with a ‘fat’ body? Recently The Daily Mail reflected on this performance, recounting Britney’s disgust at looking like a ‘fat pig’ and even quoting music mogul Simon Cowell as saying that he ‘wouldn’t have let her on stage’ (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-480947/I-looked-like-fat-pig-says-Britney-MTV-fiasco.html). Thus, rather than being considered a success because of their brains and/or talent, women in the limelight (and in general) are continuously stamped with a ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ mark based upon the tightness of their abs and thighs.

This association between femininity, fat and failure infects every aspect of women’s lives. Even some feminist activists cannot help but be submissive in the crusade against female fat. For example, Susie Orbach’s work ‘Fat Is A Feminist Issue’ is often held up as one of the best pieces of critical feminist analysis of fat and femininity. Yet Orbach still frames ‘fatness as the problem’, starting the book off by suggesting that self-acceptance may be the key to weight loss. As Cooper observes, weight-loss and a life-long fear of female fat are still being presented as the end goal for women, just in more ‘positive’ terms. Likewise, in ‘Shadows On a Tightrope’ – an anthology of articles and personal stories written by fat women – Mayer notes:

“In gatherings of the highest revolutionary spirit, you will see right-on feminists drinking cans of diet soda to avoid being fat (…)They are locked into that old-time religion promulgated by the eleven-billion-dollar sexist industry that has made the lives of fat women a living hell.” (Schoenfielder & Mayer et al, 1983, p.3).

This example suggests that even in spaces designed for liberation away from the connotations associated with female fat, the fear seeps in and takes over our actions. Here, I do not speak from an objective perspective. Despite considering myself to be a feminist, I understand and am fully complicit in the seductive nature of dieting and exercise culture. Nevertheless, I cannot help but wonder what would happen if we took all of our fear and pain caused by these body-based rules and turned them into energy and anger? It would be unstoppable!

For now though, fat women are failures. This is what we are told and this is what we tell ourselves. This is why young women pull at their stomachs and prod at their thighs when they are getting ready for a night out, sighing and saying “I wish I could get rid of this bit.” This is why so many women that I know drink black coffee instead of eating dinner, exercise until exhaustion, shy away from cameras and cringe if they have to buy clothes above a Size 8. This is why we consider fat to be a feeling, with the implication being that we feel ugly and undesirable. This is why we view these actions as normal, even as expected, in women. Yet, if fat represents failure, is this type of behaviour really what we consider to be a success?

 

Work cited:

(Cooper, C., 2016.) Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement. London. HammerOn Press.

(Schoenfielder, L. and Wieser, B., 1983.) Shadow on a tightrope: Writings by women on fat oppression. Glasgow. Rotunda Press.

2020 vision

Liam O’Farrell

 

 

I got my eyes tested recently and they said I have 20:20 vision and I thought “what a great way to start a poem!” So here goes…

 

It’s 2020 and the world is aflame.
President Trump and his faithful sidekick, Nigel Farage
are bunkered down in an air raid shelter,
lords of all they survey:
the charred remains of Anglo-American society
riven by riots and rancour and the mutually assured revenge strikes of Russian nukes raining from the sky.
There’s no more Beijing and Brussels is long gone.
The two men embrace – they’re finally alone

 

Or it’s 2020 and the world is much the same.
Trump was a fart. A load of hot air
who really might as well have been the Hindenburg.
Amidst scandal and outrage and protests on the streets
this demi-despot returns to nightly to his lonely, lofty reverie.
The muttering retreats
of restless nights booed in the atria of expensive hotels
and of caviar restaurants and oyster shells
This American Psycho keels over one night at dinner
and just like Stalin’s doctor before him, the presidential physician hesitates for a moment too long to touch the great man
and the Trumpian moment is… Gone with the wind.

 

I don’t really know if either vision of the future is more comforting.
But how could we justify worldviews framed around our nemeses
if in the place of our banished liberal elites
who unwittingly created caliphates around distant oases
these new fascists turn out to be rather… competent? What then?
What if we find out that the world is really rather smitten by a leader
who wants to grab us all by the pussy?

 

Now, I’ll stop the polemicising for a sec and get one thing straight:
if you’re black or you’re trans or you’re a woman or you’re gay,
if we don’t organise, we could be in for a rocky ride.
The painful reassertion of nation-states in liberalism’s approaching night
Shows the notion that they were vanishing from view was misplaced all along.
Colin Hay says the only thing that was in terminal decline
is how much we expected from the human slime we call politicians
How about the economists too? And the consultants – oh my god, the fucking consultants
People with too much capital, too much power, and too little pity
have disembowelled our welfare states.

 

We rightly fixate on the racism and misogyny of our societies but another point is obscured:
what we are seeing is a corporate power grab sold as globalisation
to make us feel more cultured.
Let’s unpack how the darkened alleyway our societies have been dragged into and mugged
is being marketed as an up-and-coming street to modernity – after it’s been socially cleansed.
Per Hammarlund calls the hyperglobalists no less than the high priests of neoliberalism
The eroding middle class, social mobility in reverse, the sound of a drawbridge being slammed shut the perverse concentration of wealth and power in the wrinkled hands of dusty white men
The cauldron of anger boils over with protest voting to try to dislodge them.

 

But I do have to ask: what offends you about protest voting anyway?
‘Why did you vote out?’ The Guardian cries
‘Why did you vote out? Did you believe BoJo’s lies?’
Outcast out voter, when you open your mouth,
do flat northern vowels or long Midlands G’s or Essex glo’als fall out?
Do you read the Sun? Where you come from
is there even anywhere to pick up sushi on the way home?
When you drive through the city do you feel your pulse quicken
does every dark cirrus of burqa-clad women
make your blood pressure rise, just for a minute?

 

Do you fill your brain with reality TV to banish away another day in a dead-end job
if you even have a job at all? Is that why you voted out?
Do you understand the issues, or do you just get pissed on bad wine?
Have you ever been to Iceland?
No, I – I don’t mean the shop.
Do you think the Poles have come for your job?
Do you stuff biryani into your chubby little gob
while muttering how the country you come from is long gone?
Do you go on holiday in Costa del Sol?
Is Match of the Day your favourite show?
Does an England flag hang from your window?
Do you know you know less than you think that you know
Do you build walls to our windmills as the winds of change blow?

 

Now that Guardian op-ed was a tad overdone, but I do have something serious to say:
as we intellectually masturbate, the world as we know it is being cast away;
let me explain. I feel like so-called globalisation’s embrace is a fatal bearhug.
Prem Shankhar Jha calls this age the twilight of the nation state. Sounds peaceful, right?
But it’s more of a violent heart attack of the international order,
and with every liberal free trade no tariff barrier promulgation
people are gasping for breath.
Our people! Who in this room has ever been to Oldham, or Clacton, or Hull?
Who feels more at home in Berlin or Paris than they would in the rough parts of their own city?
Where are the intellectuals engaging with the underclass?
People who are “tired of experts” and have said fuck you, fuck your degree and fuck the way
you think you’re better than us since you moved away, you effete bastard.
Our people again.

 

I’m not being funny, because it really isn’t
but most of us in this room are destined to uphold the unfair society we have a stake in
in this room, we are all legitimately functioning members of the bourgeoisie
and unless we’ve got a dealer, how much do we engage
with the crime and the poverty of this city?
At this point I should probably clear up what I’m saying:
I believe minorities should be protected but I believe the poor are the most oppressed of all
I also believe that communities need to be able to communicate
I was shocked Clinton lost. I favour independence for the Scots. I voted for Brexit.

 

You’ve probably heard someone say that out voters are uneducated
Okay. You can hold the failings of an education system that entrenches privilege
Against those very people in the underfunded crumbling schools staffed by demoralised teachers. If you want.

 

You hear it a lot that out voters are afraid, and maybe that’s right
fear is xenophobia’s natural price
but maybe the towns they call home going into decline
is a good and proper reason to be kept awake at night.
Maybe they hate the selectively gentrifying middle classes,
the hipsters and management consultants
pricing them out of their homes, outsourcing their jobs, and robbing them of their voices
Maybe we should be, in a way, heartened by popular anger.
If Goldman Sachs’s vampire squid sucking dry the Black Country, or the Welsh Valleys, was accepted without a fight
What would that say about people’s belief in their agency to create change?

 

And for what it’s worth, I don’t think that identikit town centres with a Costa and a Primark and other global brands
Is enough recompense when a nation of people wants its self-worth back
You might retort that nations are imagined. An artificial group
That’s cool, I’ve read Benedict Anderson too. But your house is artificial and you probably quite like that, don’t you?

 

Tétreault and Lipschutz contend that the emergence of corporations, many with economies larger than countries and the capacity for violence creates legitimate challengers to the state monopoly of power.
The swollen bodies of these corporations weigh too heavily on the old foundations of our societies
and the social contracts we had are sinking into the mud
just as the palaces of Venice one day could.

 

To fight back against those who hold power has always been a radical act.
We know that our privileges and oppressions overlap and we should remember that fact.
I am pissed off that TTIP and CETA would give multinational corporations who pay no tax more rights than me and you.
I care more about people than I care about the EU.
Does the brain drain of southern and eastern Europe’s best and brightest westwards
not fill you with regret?
As a Portuguese lawyer serves your latte
and a Romanian academic drives your Uber
do you literally even care?

 

Will you open your eyes if I show you photos of the refugees Merkel invited
and then marooned on Greek islands as she prioritised a political project over human lives?
Do you need me to tell you that the troika has drained the Grecian corpse of life,
oblivious to the historical irony of the birthplace of democracy being pushed past the brink
to satisfy the investor demands of German and French banks?

 

I will admit that the decision to vote for Brexit was an agonising one,
but believe I made the most informed decision I could at the time
If you care about democracy. If you care about accountability.
How can you be so appalled with people rebelling against authority?
The guillotine of neoliberal shock doctrine goes for the poor:
And that’s woman, man, and everything in between
every antipode against which we construct our identity.
Our economic system is broken. We need a better one
but I hold this truth to be self-evident: the world that we live in shall remain a nationalised one.

 

Did I just pay to support an anti-abortion film? Nocturnal Animals and Tom Ford’s gender politics

Anonymous contributor


K: ‘Fancy going to the cinema this weekend?’

Me: ‘oo yeah.’

K: ‘What do you want to see?’

Me: ‘Fantastic beasts is out as it will have monsters in it, I do want to see I, Daniel Blake but could do with less social realism, how about Nocturnal Animals?’

K: ‘So we can just look at beautiful people instead? Done. Plus it’s got good reviews.’

And it was with this conversation that my partner and I went to the cinema on a Sunday to escape Trump, Brexit, Farage, Aleppo, and celebrity deathwatch 2016 for a couple of hours. What followed upon exiting the cinema (SPOILER ALERT! do not read on if you want to watch Nocturnal Animals without plot spoilers!!):

K: ‘Did you enjoy that?’

Me: ‘I did, it was scary though, I was surprised by that. Gosh it just played on everyone’s big fears didn’t it? Rape, isolation, protecting the ones you love. And why do you think he didn’t turn up at the end? And do you think what happened in the book happened?’

K: ‘He was never going to turn up and no, I thought the whole events in the book were an allegory for her aborting his child. He lost a child and partner in his real life, he loses a child and partner in the book he writes. He feels brutalised so decides to brutalise her by writing the book.’

SH: ‘Bloody hell, you’re right, but aborting a child is not equivalent to the brutal rape and murder of a child, how is it I never get films?!’

K: ‘Oh really, I thought it was obvious. Did you not get the big ‘REVENGE’ painting placement as a signpost?’

Me: ‘Er. No. What do you fancy for dinner?’

Two days later and I am no longer thinking about my dinner but still thinking about Nocturnal Animals. Here are the good bits about the film: it is beautifully shot, really well acted (even Jake Gyllenhaal who I’ve always thought was a bit over-rated), and sustains the suspense and nerves the whole way through. Michael Shannon is great in it. As the dialogue above suggests, I left the cinema thinking it was a good film, not what I expected, but a good film. However after my partner pointed out the obvious I am struck by the possibility that I just paid to watch an anti-abortion film set in the US at the very time women’s reproductive rights in the US are being threatened.

My reading of the film is it suggests the kidnap, rape and murder of a man’s wife and child and his subsequent revenge is equivalent to the separation of a man from his partner and her termination of an unwanted pregnancy that he does not know about. The character Edward lives the latter and writes a book of the former that he then dedicates to the partner who aborted his child. The subtext is woman brutalises man by leaving him and aborting his child, so he brutalises her by telling the story of the loss of a wife and child in the most terrifying, fearful and emotive way possible. My reading of the film is it suggests that the termination of a pregnancy is equivalent to the rape and murder of a teenager. Nocturnal Animals is an anti-abortion film.

Given this is quite a strong statement, I looked at some reviews of the film. All reviews mention revenge and terror. Some reviews muse on the point Tom Ford is trying to make. But none reflect on the way in which the film suggests equivalence to the two main narratives of the film and the purpose of the revenge. Perhaps unsurprisingly none of the reviews speak to the abortion because it is a major plot spoiler (sorry readers) but there is no reflection on the equivalence of the two major events the plot is organised around. Film critics have praised the film and given it all the stars; feminist blogs such as Jezebel have criticised it for the focus on aesthetics over content, but no mention of the big A.

To make a film that provokes a direct comparison between rape and murder of a teenager with the termination of a pregnancy, at a time when reproductive rights are being challenging in the US, is deeply concerning. The cinematography and suspense deserves the praise it’s getting, but this to me is not enough to buy the silence of critics over a pertinent political issue. Either I have completely missed the point (entirely possible, as the above dialogue suggests), all film critics are anti-abortion (unlikely), or no-one is calling this problematic element out. Tom Ford stresses the importance of aesthetics, but as he no doubt knows all too well, aesthetics intersect with politics to shock, traumatise, and transcend. In Nocturnal Animals, Ford uses aesthetics to frame abortion as a brutal act against the male that makes the audience engage with the act as equivalent to the rape and murder of a teenage child. Ford has used aesthetics to produce the anti-abortion film of 2016.

‘But what about your health?’ The fat body, austerity and the faux concern of the state.

Milly Morris

This week Dame Sally Davies, the government’s chief medical officer, has stated that school letters sent to parents “telling them their children are overweight should not be watered down” in order to act as a necessity for encouraging healthy habits. At the Childhood Obesity Summit in London, Davies stated that the word “obese” is a “physical description” that needs to be used in order to support unhealthy children, claiming to be worried about “how we have started to normalise” obesity (Boseley, 2016). Throughout the West, government officials have made it their priority to ‘rid courselves’ of obesity, citing it as a ‘national threat’ on par with terrorism. In the UK, the Conservative government have considered a variety of proposals to ‘target’ the problem of fat, ranging from a Sugar Tax on drinks and withholding welfare support from individuals who cannot work because of their weight and do not ‘accept help’ (Mason, 2015).

Within the mainstream media, ritualistic humiliation of fat people is commonplace; shows such as Fat Families and Secret Eaters film their contestants in their underwear whilst staring into the mirror, forcing the fat individual to “understand” the “damage they have done to their body” whilst simultaneously permitting the audience to gasp in disgust at their naked flesh. For example, one episode of ‘You Are What You Eat’ films the contestant – Lisa – in her swimming costume to the sound of ominous music and a voiceover reciting all the junk-food she has eaten in a week. In another scene, the presenter – Gillian – aims to demonstrate to Lisa “how much she is really eating” by laying out “her weekly consumption of junk” on a table. Whilst staring at the spread, the “no nonsense” Gillian asks “what imbecile would eat this?!” before calling Lisa “disgusting” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=giUZoZSoLwY). Likewise, viewers of The Biggest Loser will recognise the “workout scenes” in which audiences are invited to point and laugh at the fatty trying to run laps, with trainers Jillian and Bob screaming words of ‘encouragement.’

However, it isn’t just “trash” TV that wields these tired stereotypes of fat people as out of control and in need of a hand to guide them towards a “purer” way of living. As Charlotte Cooper notes, fat individuals are silenced and disembodied through the use of the “headless fatty” ; an image used by reports about obesity that is accompanied by an unaware fat person with their “head neatly cropped out of the picture.” For Cooper, this creates incredibly powerful imagery of fat body, encapsulated in the following quote:

“(…) we are reduced and dehumanised as symbols of cultural fear: the body, the belly, the arse, food. There’s a symbolism, too, in the way that the people in these photographs have been beheaded. It’s as though we have been punished for existing, our right to speak has been removed by a prurient gaze, our headless images accompany articles that assume a world without people like us would be a better world altogether” (Cooper, 2007).

In this sense, rather than fat people being viewed as possessing individual thoughts and feelings, their agency is replaced with a symbol to be wielded by the government and the wider media. As a “diseased” body that is a “drain” on the NHS, fatness acts as an “easy target” for a government that is ruthlessly trying to dismantle the state; representations of the fat body throughout the mainstream media as gluttonous, lazy and unsuccessful equip politicians with a useful tool for presenting themselves as proactive on health. For example, is it not paradoxical that the same government who preach their concern for our poor health have simultaneously pledged to cut £1.1 billion from the NHS in 2016? (Broomfield, 2016).

Moreover, despite claiming that they have “saved this country from disaster” through cuts to the public sector (Ryan, 2015), figures from The Trussel Trust – the leading charity of Food Bank providers – reveal that one in five parents are struggling to feed their children. This links to the wider concern from charities surrounding the dramatic rise in people being admitted to hospital with malnutrition (Pugh, 2015), with cases of diseases “rife in the Victorian era” including “scurvy, scarlet fever, cholera and whooping cough” being reported to have risen since austerity was introduced in 2010 (Kirby, 2015). However, when a series of reports “drew links between government welfare policies” and “increased food bank usage”, the Department of Work and Pensions dismissed these claims as lacking in evidence (McBain, 2015).

Thus, the government crusade against the “obesity epidemic” should not be viewed as a genuine concern for societal health, but as laying down another stepping stone towards the privatisation of our health system. Likewise, Davies’ proposal to send “honest” letters to the parents of overweight children does not represent a “brave” action against the “PC” left, but another cowardly scapegoating of voiceless individuals. Consequently, perhaps it is time for us to stop looking at our waistlines as the sole reason for our ill-health and start considering that it is the wider atmosphere of austerity and neoliberalism that is really making us sick.

Work cited:

Boseley, S. (2016). Health chief: obesity warning letters to parents must not be watered down. Date accessed: 4th November 2016. Retrieved from: www.theguardian.com: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/nov/03/chief-medical-officer-obesity-school-warning-letters-parents

Broomfield, M. (2016). Budget 2016: George Osborne cuts £1.1bn from NHS repairs fund. Date accessed: 4th November 2016. Retrieved from: www.independent.co.uk: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/budget-2016-george-osborne-cuts-11bn-from-nhs-repairs-fund-a6942301.html

Cooper, C. (2007) ‘Headless Fatties’ [Online]. London. Date accessed: 4th November 2016. Retrieved from: http://charlottecooper.net/publishing/digital/headless-fatties-01-07

Kirby, D. (2015). Malnutrition and ‘Victorian’ diseases soaring in England ‘due to poverty and cuts.’ Date accessed: 4th November 2016. Retrieved from: www.independent.co.uk: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/malnutrition-and-other-victorian-diseases-soaring-in-england-due-to-food-poverty-and-cuts-a6711236.html

Mason, R. (2015). David Cameron calls on obese to accept or risk losing benefits. Date accessed: 4th November. Retrieved from: www.theguardian.com: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/feb/14/david-cameron-obese-addicts-accept-help-risk-losing-benefits

McBain, S. (2015). Why are so many people using food banks? Date accessed: 4th November 2016. Retrieved from: www.thenewstatesman.com: http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2015/03/why-are-so-many-people-using-food-banks

Pugh, R. (2015). NHS hospital to offer food parcels to patients at risk of malnutrition. Date accessed: 4th November 2016. Retrieved from: www.theguardian.com: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/oct/28/nhs-hospital-tameside-food-parcels-patients-risk-malnutrition

Ryan, F. (2015). Under austerity, deprivation in the UK is becoming normalised. Don’t vote for any more of it. Date accessed: 4th November 2016. Retrieved from: www.newstatesman.com: http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2015/05/under-austerity-deprivation-becoming-normalised-don-t-vote-any-more-it

 

The Problem with ‘Mindfulness’ Consumerism

Emma Harrison

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I have started to notice that almost every time I leave my house these days, I stumble across some form of marketing display crammed full of the new “in” thing: ‘mindfulness colouring books for grown-ups’. I snorted to myself as I stumbled across one particular title a few days ago: The Mindless Violence Colouring Book from Modern Toss. “Perhaps this a bit more representative of what’s actually going on in everyone’s heads”, I thought cynically to myself.

Earlier in the week, I’d been scrolling through Facebook to find a series of personalised ads telling me to subscribe to online counselling, or to buy a new ‘self-help’ starter kit from new mental health businesses such as the Blurt Foundation. Got a friend who’s depressed? Cheer them up with this thoughtful box of pre-packaged ‘mindfulness’ treats! Are you depressed? Buy one for yourself!

After going through several spurts of anxiety, panic disorder and depression over the past five years, I have become reasonably well acquainted with the concept of ‘mindfulness’, having been pointed in that direction by a series of doctors and counsellors. ‘Mindfulness’ is a therapeutic technique, whereby one achieves a calm and undistracted mental state by applying focus to something in the present moment. It draws on physiological traditions rooted in Buddhism, but is now used in non-secular practices in the West.

From personal experience, I can certainly vouch for its benefits: reluctant to become dependent on medication for a series of mental health problems that seemed to be persistently in flux, mindfulness as a form of self-help seemed like a far preferable option for keeping me afloat. And indeed, in a culture that places heavy emphasis on working on one’s physical health, it seems only logical that we too take time to look after our mental health.

However, I can’t help but feeling as though something has gone amiss somewhere. While the abundance of self-help products available on todays market is, in some ways, indicative of the notion that we are finally growing more accepting of mental illness as a culture, it seems as though the first arena to grasp this idea fully by the throat is the consumer market. Everywhere I look now, I’m stumbling across new ways in which mental illness is being profited from.

On the one hand, perhaps this the only way in which we can respond – with austerity cuts to NHS mental health services instigating an “unsolvable crisis”, maybe these commodified remedies are the only solution in our current climate. And while colouring books may be an accessible gateway into ‘mindfulness’, I have begun to start asking myself if we’re wading into dangerous waters in dressing up mental wellbeing as a purchasable asset.

In refracting mindfulness through the lens of consumerism, is it not simply becoming embroiled in the quick-fix neoliberal paradigm that encompasses the rest of our culture? Is it really helping, or is it just whitewashing the issues at stake through providing tangible, buyable objects that allow us to reason ‘I’m helping myself’, or ‘I’m making progress’? Should we not be asking ourselves why there is suddenly a booming market for consumer goods dressed up in the name of ‘mindfulness’?

While I am by no means insinuating that it is a bad thing to dedicate time to looking after ones mental health, I can’t help feeling that we are losing sight of the very notion of ‘applying focus to the present moment’ by constantly scrambling for the next ‘mindfulness’ gizmo to throw money at. It’s like the very concept of ‘mindfulness’ is becoming a contradictory mishmash of ‘focusing on the present moment’ and snatching the next consumer-enabled dopamine hit.

The glittery exteriors of these mindfulness trinkets are masking a much deeper seated problem: that there is a stark lack of help available, and we’re desperate for other options to help keep us afloat. But the solutions shouldn’t be coming from market moguls dishing out quick-fix consumer items: we need better mental health services, unions, and more attempts at destigmatisation from outside of the consumer sphere. Depression is not cured with a goodie-box.

Patriarchal entitlements and Western society’s two cents on female bodies

Charlotte Godziewski

I was recently harassed on the street. A few weeks ago, some French cities tried to impose a ban on burkinis. My sister shared her annoyance about feeling judged for having stopped breastfeeding after 2 months. These events are completely unrelated, yet all three are symptomatic – and demonstrate the omnipresence – of an important patriarchal characteristic of Western societies: the entitlement to exert control over women’s bodies.

 Part 1:

Policing motherhood – pregnant bodies as public goods

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“Fertility is a common good” Poster produced by the Italian Health Ministry released on the occasion of Fertility Day.

As the Italian Ministry of Health reminded us with its uncalled-for fertility campaign, women’s fertile bodies are often, albeit not always consciously, considered a public good. Society thus tends to feel comfortable to comment on it, criticise, give advice, congratulate and what not. Several studies and testimonies stress the feeling of pregnant women being constantly judged, some also reported having received unsolicited lectures and critiques by strangers (Meneses-Sheets, 2013 ; Longhurst, 2005). How is it that everyone seems to have an opinion on what a pregnant woman should and should not do?

You eat raw vegetables? That is irresponsible!

You don’t eat raw vegetables? Aren’t you a little paranoid?

Why does society feel entitled to shame a pregnant woman for having a glass of alcohol or smoking cigarettes? Don’t get me wrong – I am not denying the risks of alcohol and tobacco consumption during pregnancy. Information, prevention, advice and help from a gynaecologist or other relevant (para-)medical staff is crucial, it’s often welcome and sought by the women themselves.

What I find disturbing is this widely accepted notion that anyone, including random acquaintances or complete strangers, can feel free to advise and judge pregnant women. As if a healthy pregnant body was “everyone’s responsibility”. This strikes me as odd, particularly in a Western cultural context which usually emphasises individual responsibility.

As Longhurst (2005) explains, pregnancy is a phenomenon conceptualised within a socio-economic, cultural, political and sexual paradigm. In that sense, it is much more than the mere biological process and relates to practices, social norms, believes, emotions, rules, laws and so on. In the Western context, it seems like society is placing itself in a supervising position over the pregnant women and expects to have agency over their body. Pregnant women can sometimes experience the feeling of being under surveillance, or even being objectified as a vessel for a foetus (Longhurst, 2005).

Besides the bulk of unsolicited advice and opinions, a striking example of how pregnant bodies are considered “public” is the classic touching of the belly. Many pregnant women experience people touching their bellies, which is of course not always a problem. However, people that have a relationship with the woman in which physical contact is normally not included (for example: Lecturer/student, Employee/boss or shopkeeper/customer) sometimes still take the liberty to touch the pregnant abdomen without the woman’s permission (Longhurst, 2005).

And after pregnancy, comes infant feeding. Breastfeeding is a case of culture and public health clash, as well as a complex ideological dilemma. With breasts being over-sexualised, breastfeeding in public is sometimes strongly stigmatised, from people insulting the mothers to others ridiculing them for trying to pump milk at work (Feministe, 2012). There is thus a very strong case for promoting breastfeeding, from a health as well as from a feminist perspective.

But this can be a double-edged sword. Nowadays breastfeeding promotion has become very powerful… with the unfortunate consequence of bottle-feeder shaming.

“Oh, so Mummy couldn’t be bothered to continue breastfeeding?” [comment to my sister]

A simplistic but dangerous dichotomy has crystallised from an initially well-intentioned public health message:

  • Breast is best, so breastfeeding mothers are good mothers
  • Formula feeding is “poison”, so non-breastfeeding mothers are bad mothers. (William, Kutz, Summers et al, 2012)

Of course medical professionals such as gynaecologists, who have a nuanced and comprehensive knowledge on the topic do not usually think in terms of such binaries, but very often society at large does. In turn, women who do not breastfeed tend to feel judged, stigmatised, ashamed of being seen as “a bad mother” (William, Kutz, Summers et al, 2012)

The female body ends up being subjectified as a battlefield for societal issues: Public health promotion, the fight against over-sexualisation of breasts, the de-stigmatisation of breastfeeding in public, the fight against “profit-driven pharma industries” …

I do not doubt the evidence that breast milk has many advantages over formula milk, and providing support for women who want to breastfeed, transforming the public sphere into a safe space for breastfeeding is paramount. However, good quality formula feeding with clean water is not poison, nor does it “merely keep the baby alive”; it is actually healthy, too. The advantages of breast milk are real, but they are given proportionally too much weight compared to the importance of mother’s mental and physical wellbeing (British Pregnancy Advisory Service, 2015).

The combination of stigmatising breastfeeding in public and condemning formula feeding as a moral failure implies that women should not expect to enjoy the same access to the public sphere as men. People expect a woman to breastfeed, but it goes without saying that this should be hidden. It is a patriarchal reminder that at least some parts of a woman’s life are socially expected to be confined in the private sphere, at home.

It is unfair of Western society to turn deaf ear to all the reasons why a woman might choose not to breastfeed, and to make any normative judgments on her choice (Dailey, 2012). Society is prompt to declaim its lectures on the benefits of breastfeeding, but few people, other than healthcare professionals and mothers themselves, are much aware of the prevalence and symptoms of plugged ducts, breast engorgement, mastitis, fungal infections, soar or inverted nipples, low milk supply, oversupply of milk, or breastfeeding-induced pain more generally. There are a variety of valid reasons to choose not to breastfeed (work-related, health and pain related, negative lived experience…) (Schmied and Lupton, 2001).

But most importantly, women shouldn’t have to give an account of their reasons to society at large.

 

References:

Longhurst R (2005) Pregnant Bodies, Public Scrutiny. In: Embodied Geographies – spaces, bodies and rites of passage. (2005 Edition) Edited by: Kenworthy Teather E. Routeledge Taylor and Francis Group. London

British Pregnancy Advisory Service (2015). Breastfeeding and formula feeding. Retrieved from: https://www.bpas.org/get-involved/advocacy/briefings/breastfeeding-and-formula-feeding/

Feministe Blog, Guest “Blue Milk” (2012) Why Breastfeeding Is A Feminist Issue. Retrieved from: http://www.feministe.us/blog/archives/2012/08/26/why-breastfeeding-is-a-feminist-issue/

Dailey K (2012) Formula v breastfeeding: Should the state step in? BBC News Magazine, Retrieved from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-19054045

Meneses-Sheets M (2013) Pregnancy, Politics and the Policing of Women’s Bodies. Truthout Op-Ed Retrieved from: http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/16243-pregnancy-politics-and-the-policing-of-womens-bodies

Schmied V, Lupton D (2001) Blurring the boundaries: Breastfeeding and maternal subjectivity. Sociology of Health and Illness Vol. 23 p.234 – 250

Williams K, Kutz T, Summers M et al (2012) Discursive constructions of infant feeding:
The dilemma of mothers’ ‘guilt’. Feminism & Psychology 0(0) 1–20

 

Acknowledgements: 

Thank you to my sister for sharing her experiences and allowing me to mention her.

 

 

“The new me!” Weight-loss, re-birth and the immorality of fat.

stock free

by Milly Morris

The young woman leans over, sobbing and shaking, begging Jillian to make it stop. Jillian only gets closer to her face and screams: “UNLESS YOU FAINT, PUKE OR DIE…KEEP WALKING!” The woman continues to walk, tears and sweat dripping down her face as Jillian shouts directly into her ears. (The Official Biggest Loser Season 6 Channel, 2008).

Another man is bent over wheezing as Jillian tells him that she will “break every bone in his body” unless he continues to run. A look of contempt and disgust crosses her face as the man begins to vomit, she tells him to “do it in front of her” so that she knows that he isn’t faking it (Jillian Michaels is god, 2008).

No, these are not clips from a bad prison drama. They are scenes that fans will recognize as normal to the prime-time reality show, The Biggest Loser. The premise of the show is that a group of “morbidly obese” individuals are sent to a ranch where they will compete to lose weight with the help of Jillian and Bob, the show’s personal trainers. Viewers of the show will recognise the “scale” scenes in which the contestants are stripped, weighed and forced to look at “what they have done to their bodies.” Likewise, on YouTube, fans of the show can be treated to an array of clips from past shows showing the contestants “first workout”, which usually involved the group crying and vomiting to the sound of Jillian’s “motivational” screams. At the end of each season, contestants are brought out in front of a live studio audience to show-off their achievement of re-shaping their bodies.

The Biggest Loser sets the standard outline for weight-loss TV; shows such as You Are What You Eat, Secret Eaters and Fat Families all follow this narrative of an “inspirational journey” where contestants can “better themselves.” Along the way on this journey, the audience relishes in the public belittling of bodies that have strayed from the norm. In scenes that are reminiscent of spectators at a Victorian circus, we gasp from our sofas at the up-close shots of their naked flesh, crying: “how could you let yourself get like that?!” and “why don’t they just stop eating?!”

Yes, fat is unhealthy. But why is it that we allow the humiliation and dehumanisation of people because it is “good for their health?” Can it be good for an individual’s health to have “entertainment” shows repeatedly insinuate that someone of your body type is lazy, gluttonous, out of control and – that all important catchphrase – a “drain on the NHS”? Why is it that we prioritize the physical over the mental, ignoring the fact that self-hatred and body-shame are not good for one’s health either? For example, Secret Eaters supports the notion that fat people are not to be trusted, claiming to show individuals “what they think they eat and what they really eat” for the benefit of a smug audience who can rest assured that the fat woman in the office who eats a salad at lunch “isn’t just eating that.” Likewise, Fat Families – a UK reality show based around Steve Miller’s attempt to “wipe out the obesity epidemic that is sweeping the UK” – shows Miller travelling around the country raiding fat people’s fridges as “proof” that being overweight is the responsibility of the individual. As Miller states, they need to “get off their wobbly bums and melt that lard”, implying that fat people need a stern hand to guide them towards the right way of living (Kaibigan, 2015). Once they have completed their weight loss, the “new” individual is subsequently cast off into the sunset to live their more-fulfilled lives “re-born” as a hetero-normatively attractive citizen, reminding the audience that they too can escape the “threat of obesity” and lead a “cleaner” life.

Since the rise of social media, individual’s “weight-loss journey” has been easier to document. One only needs to type in the hashtag “#beforeandafter” or “#weightloss” to find an array of images documenting an individual’s “journey” to a new and shiny body. Whilst these posts can act as a connector to a community struggling with body-shame, they can also obsessively document an individual’s “journey” to a more socially acceptable body and their “re-birth” as a health-conscious citizen that will no longer be a “drain upon society.” Alongside these images, the “clean-eating” movement has become a prevalent part of Instagram; kale and chia seed smoothies, avocado on toast and no-sugar diets all represent individual’s documentation of their “pure” existence. Whilst it must be stated that there is nothing wrong with enjoying a healthy lifestyle, the posts all possess religious undertones that allude to the moral superiority of the “clean eater.” For example, the notion of “clean” foods – vegetables, fruit and grains – compared to dishonest or “sinful” junk-foods play into the concept that those who possess a slimmer body are living a more virtuous life.This can be seen in posts by “clean-eating” Insta-famous individuals, such as Clean-Eating-Alice. Her book, “The Body Bible”, aims to support dieters on their journey to a “cleaner” life and her Instagram feed is decorated with an array of colourful foods to “cleanse” the soul (clean_eating_alice, 2016).

Thus, it is no wonder that we feel it is acceptable to shame fat bodies into “cleansing themselves” of their sins. We have given meaning to each morsel of food that we eat; a chocolate bar is laden with gluttony, shame and weakness whereas a piece of kale represents truth, confidence and will-power. Yet, why is it that the person that relentlessly documents their salads and smoothies online is considered to be any healthier than the person who secretly eats chocolate late at night? The glorification of thinness that pervades our culture has allowed us to view the former as acceptable, as a trait to be praised as inspiring. Social media is based upon the presentation of the “best” version of ourselves, a “highlights reel” in which we gloss over the tarnished aspects of our characters with a pretty filter. The documentation of a “clean-life” or a “journey” to thin body simply reflects the sentiment of what shows like The Biggest Loser – as well as the wider media’s obsession with the “obesity crisis” – have drummed into us about how we are supposed to be happy. However, perhaps the time has come to reconsider our stance on health and happiness with self-acceptance being prioritised over what clothes we can fit into. Likewise, in 2016, compassion and empathy shouldn’t be determined by one’s body size and so rather than pointing and gasping at the fat people trying to run on TV or struggling in the street, maybe it is time for us to look inwards and ask why we are tuning in to watch in the first place?

clean_eating_alice. (2016). clean_eating_alice. Date accessed: 6th August 2016. Retrieved from: www.instagram.com: https://www.instagram.com/clean_eating_alice/?hl=en.

Jillian Michaels is god. (2008). “…I’m proud that I made him vomit”. Date accessed: 5th August 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.youtube.com: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V19C6ohkZPU

Kaibigan, K. (2015). Fat Families S01 E03 Season One. Date accessed: 5th August 2016. Retrieved from: www.youtube.com: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JPxWiJPTEYk

The Official Biggest Loser Season 6 Channel. (2008). Biggest Loser 6 – Jillian’s Hell & the Yellow Team. Date accessed: 5th August 2016. Retrieved from: www.youtube.com: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RAAPKdQg9hk