Wednesday, December 15, 2010

On eating

So I came across this post today, through a long circle of links upon links upon links, and it really hit hard for me. The post is from 2006, but it clearly is still relevant now. I think the advice in it is vitally important, and not just for when you're around people who might/do have eating disorders.

It was two things in the post (and the comments) that really got to me. One was this (italics in the original, bolding by me):

Model comfortable eating. Cook for them. Invite them over for dinner. Take them out to dinner. Make them pancakes or waffles for breakfast. Stop for snacks. Carry snacks. Go to farmer’s markets and festivals. Start potlucks or movie marathons or bakeoffs. Engage in activities which build appetite, like hiking or long walks on the beach. Make eating routine. Make cooking artful. Connect it to good company and conversation. Create safe space for food.

On the other hand, Calm down. Do not press food on your friends. Do not make your friends feel guilty for refusing food. Do not override their decisions about what, when, and how much they will eat. Do not scrutinze their portions or their leftovers. Do not harangue them about starving themselves, or make passive-aggressive comments about how they eat like birds. Most women are humiliated by this treatment; women with full-blown eating disorders live for it.

And this one, from a guy in the comments:

When I was dating, I used to worry about the women who would order small and eat sparsely: “Is she worried about becoming what she sees as ‘too fat’? Does she think eating is unladylike (and if so, what other sensual pleasures does she consider herself unworthy of)? If we end up in a relationship, am I going to have to put up with this three times a day?” This has nothing to do with a woman being at a particular size.

I want to come back to these in a minute, because I think the guy in the comments is missing something vital that is in the original post, and it's something that is integral to my own experiences. Which I will now elaborate, in order for this to make sense.

For five and a half years, I struggled with disordered eating (rather than an eating disorder). I was never anorexic, bulimic, or body dysmorphic--my "eating problem" (which is what I still call it) stemmed from social anxiety rather than from body image. When I was in public, when I was with friends, and even sometimes when I was with my family, I felt like I was constantly being evaluated by everyone else in the room. But the manifestation of that social anxiety in my relationship to food and eating specifically is, I think, is directly related to the discourses and social practices that also play a causal role in a whole host of body- and eating-related disorders.

For as long as I can remember, I have been skinny. I was skinny when I was six, I was skinny when I was 12 and I was skinny at 18 when I left for university. I'm still skinny now. I use the word skinny because I am not just thin--I am boney and often knobbly and I don't have many curves to de-emphasize that. When I was a kid, I didn't really care about it. I actually don't think I ever really noticed, until one day in grade five, a friend of mine told me that I was an anorexic. She said her mom said that skinny girls were anorexic and that they hated their bodies, and her mom was a nurse so she should know. At the time, I ate a lot and played soccer and ran around on the playground, so I told her her mom was full of it and that I wasn't. But I remember that moment distinctly, because it was the first in a long line of moments where my body and my eating habits were subject to scrutiny. I have received comments from friends and from teachers, from employers and colleagues, from significant others and from family members. And this is to speak nothing of the media, which consistently tells women that their bodies can never be good enough.

I didn't start out a disordered eater. I was picky eater, but I ate enough and until I was full, and I ate loads and loads of snack food as soon as I figured out how to sneak into the kitchen when my parents weren't looking. I just never weighed a lot. And even that would have been ok, because this society tells women that they shouldn't weigh a lot, that they shouldn't weigh a normal amount, and that they shouldn't really weigh anything at all. So I fit into that mold, just by genetic happenstance. Being thin exempts me from the effects of living in a world where "attractive" doesn't mean me. But it doesn't exempt me (or any woman) from living in a world where our bodies are up for public scrutiny at any time. And while I might have ended up with a social anxiety about public speaking or meeting new people, I didn't get those. My--sometimes overwhelming--anxiety was directly attached to eating, specifically in situations where people could see me or watch me. The anticipation of eating in public was enough to make me nauseous and lightheaded, because people would be watching me and evaluating me. And because I was so anxious I couldn't eat, and because I couldn't eat people thought I was anorexic, and because people thought I was anorexic, I got more anxious. While I'm in a much better place now than I used to be, there are still situations, comments, and moments in which I am completely overcome with anxiety in relation to food.

So what's the connection between this personal narrative and body image related disorders? I think it can be seen quite easily in quote from the guy who commented on the Feministe post. This man, whose comment went on to say that he was worried his stepdaughter would develop body image issues because of the culture we live in, opened his comment saying that he worried about women who ordered small and ate sparsely. He wanted to know if they were worried they would appear unladylike or fat, and he pondered whether he would have to "put up with this" at every meal. And this is where the problem is. Whether we are fat or thin or somewhere in between, whether we eat salads or hamburgers or steaks or soup, and whether we like our bodies or we don't, our bodies are always up for public comment and judgement. If we are thin, it's because we are anorexic or bulimic; if we are fat, it's because we're lazy or we're slobs or we don't "care enough" about our "health". Women's bodies (and our eating habits along with them) are subject to constant media scrutiny, to constant social scrutiny, and to the scrutiny of those closest to us. And we're not allowed to forget it, because if we eat "too little" someone will comment, and if we eat "too much" someone will comment, and if we don't eat the right food, someone will comment, and if we avoid the situation entirely, someone will comment. Hell, if we walk down the street, someone will comment.

That's what I loved about this article: it doesn't just apply to ways of talking or dealing with people who have body image issues or eating disorders or whatever crazy mishmash I had going on. It applies to everyone, all the time. Modeling comfortable eating is something we should all do, for everyone. We shouldn't press food on our friends, or sanction them for eating what we think is too much. We shouldn't comment on portion size or tell someone to eat (or not eat) a sandwich or try to underhandedly evaluate whether or not their choice of a salad (or a cheeseburger) reveals something sordid about their personality or their mental health. And most importantly, we shouldn't talk about weight so damn much, at least not the way we do right now. Not our own weight (unless in a safe, supportive context) and not about other people's. Certainly not about the weight and eating habits of strangers. Because part of--and it's definitely not the only cause, but it's at least significant--the reason that we have body image issues, and part of the reason we have eating disorders, and part of the reason I didn't want to eat in public is because we know, even before it happens, that we are always already up for evaluation and judgement. And we all know that in this society when women (and especially their bodies and bodily practices) are up for judgement, they very rarely come out on top.

Andy Goldsworthy's transient art

Every once in a while, especially when I'm in the generally stressed out state that grading puts me in, I like to turn on a documentary on good ol' Netflix. I've been a documentary hound for as long as I've been a non-fiction reader, but the stressed-out documentary choice has one very specific requirement: it can be about anything, as long as it's quiet.

Two nights ago, I found the perfect film for this purpose. Rivers and Tides is a joint Irish-German production about Andy Goldsworthy, a sculptor and environmentalist whose site-specific land art is some of the most beautiful I've ever seen. Working only with natural elements, Goldsworthy creates pieces that explore the ephemerality of nature and time, and often end up consumed by very environments from which he draws his inspiration:

As a sociologist who works primarily in the realm of the digital--and certainly in the realm of the modern--I don't often get the opportunity to think rigorously about nature. About the closest I manage is reading about mediated landscapes, or the social construction of frontiers. I also don't get a lot of time to think about art, although it comes up slightly more often. In spite of--or perhaps because of--this, I found myself riveted for the full two hour exploration of Goldsworthy's art. Early on in the film there is a sequence in which he attempts repeatedly to build one of his famous stone seeds, conical structures build from flat rocks. Three times in a row, the sculpture falls apart, and each time the tide on the beach where he is working comes closer to where he sits. The final product, eventually completed, ends up completely subsumed by the water of the bay, only to be revealed again when the tide recedes. It is both an astonishingly slow process and one in which we are reminded of constant movement of time.

Much of Goldsworthy's work is less permanent; he often works in ice, in leaves, and in sticks, in places not amenable to permanent structures. This type of impermanence in art can often come across as whimsical, but Goldsworthy's commentary throughout the film shows that he is interested in the ephemeral not because it is pretty, but because it is a window into collaboration with nature.

In a week where I've spent the majority of my work time thinking about technology, risk, and retaining a sense of 'place'-fulness in theories of the virtual, and most of my play time reading Rutsky's High Techne and Tichi's Shifting Gears (both about technology and art), Rivers and Tides was a profoundly beautiful reminder that the modern can be natural, and that the ephemeral and the eternal are as present in nature as they are in culture.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Quick Hits

The selection of NSF as the first target will send a chilling message to researchers. The YouCut Citizen Review site includes a link to the NSF's Award Search site, and a form for people to submit examples of offending projects.

'If you find a grant that you believe is a waste of your taxdollars [sic], be sure to record the award number,' participants are told. '[W]e will publish a report outlining the grants identified by the YouCut community.

The suggested search terms – 'success, culture, media, games, social norm, lawyers, museum, leisure, stimulus' – and the contrast drawn between 'worthy research in the hard sciences' and 'questionable projects' hint that researchers funded by the NSF's Directorate of Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences have the most to fear.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

James Schell on games and real life

Carnegie Mellon professor Jesse Schell on the intersection of games and real life. He starts at Farmville and ends up somewhere entirely different. I recommend watching the entire half-hour -- the takeaway from the talk is not what you'd expect at the beginning, and part of the enjoyment of the video is watching him get there. The future he imagines is both terrifying and appealing, and, I think, also very possible. Definitely worth the watch.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Quick Hits: tooling around on the internet edition

  • Chuck Klosterman's NYTimes piece on How Modern Life is Like a Zombie Onlsaught has been making the rounds on Facebook this morning. In a piece packed full of cultural insights, this one may have been my favourite: "Zombie love, however, is always communal. If you dig zombies, you dig the entire zombie concept. It’s never personal. You’re interested in what zombies signify, you like the way they move, and you understand what’s required to stop them". 
  • Early on in the Klosterman piece was a link to Alice Gregory's Sad As Hell in the literary mag n+1. While I am generally not a fan of "the internet is ruining society foreverrrr", I do enjoy a good piece of criticism on the subject of digital life. This falls into that category for me, as does an earlier NYTimes article by Gary Shteyngart, the author of the novel reviewed in Sad As Hell. 
  • And, just because I find it entertaining, check out the book most often purchased in combination with n+1's What Was the Hipster on Amazon. 
  • This makes me want to move to San Francisco
  • Garland of Tiger Beatdown (one of my very favourite feminist blogs) on the Privilege Denying Dude meme: "In social justice, not all tactics that are divisive are effective, but all tactics that are effective are divisive. That doesn’t mean we should set our phasers to “divide,” but when a tactic is labeled as “divisive” or “radical”, there is a chance it might be one worth considering. Effective tactics are divisive because the majority is most comfortable with activism that is ineffective." 
  • Sady, whose baby Tiger Beatdown truly is, also on the Privilege Denying Dude Meme: "It’s not like there are no problems with Privilege Denying Dude; our tendency to oversimplify ideological opponents is something I’ve spoken at tiresome length about, whilst being treated like an extremist bitch who subsists on a diet of sensitive dudes’ testicles and wants to personally come over to your house and burn everything you love and yell at you until you cry burning hot tears of shame...But at a certain point, you can’t hold enough public symposiums about your inner conflicts and your ideas about responsibility and your intentions. You can’t ever apologize enough; you can’t ever be careful enough; you can’t ever make enough Sympathy Faces and phrase enough statements as questions and say “that’s a reasonable point, but” enough, because there are always people who want to listen until it turns out they’re implicated." 

Friday, December 3, 2010

Merry Christmas! Have a book, Part I

My mother has a rule when it comes to Christmas time gift-giving. It goes like this: we are the family that gives books. When every other member of our extended family is engaging in a toy shopping extravaganza for the younger cousins, we are in our local Chapters (that's the Canadian Borders equivalent for my more southerly friends), stalking the aisles for the perfect book.

Buying books for people can be easy or it can be hard. It's easy enough if the person you're buying for has a John Grisham habit or is a fourteen year old girl with a penchant for the undead, but things get a little more difficult when you're trying to find a book for someone whose tastes are a little more diverse. Buying someone a book isn't just about what they like to read -- it's also a representation of who you think they are and what you want to share with them. If they don't give you a list, sometimes you have to do a little scrounging. Luckily, I spend over 9000 hours per week in bookstores because I have poor coping mechanisms and flipping pages keeps my heart rate down and my mood elevated, so I've seen a lot of books in my day. In lieu of the paper I'm supposed to be writing, here's your handy-dandy 2010 holiday book shopping guide, Part The First (what, you thought I could restrain myself to just one post?). Note: the one thing I am bad at when it comes to books is staying current, so this list might hop around a bit.

For your literary father who likes his prose poetic and his landscapes cinematic: 
Gil Adamson's The Outlander was a semi-finalist in last years Canada Reads competition (the winner, Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes is another excellent read), and for good reason. Set against the backdrop of the early 19th century West, Adamson's novel follows Mary Boulton, a 19-year-old woman who murdered her husband and is on the run from his two brothers. Tracked by bloodhounds, and wracked by her own delirious mind, Mary retreats from her crime, and her culture, to the wilderness of the Rockies. Adamson's style is lyrical, but her pacing is tense and her story populated with well-wrought portraits of the people who lived and died in the Canadian West. If you like your cinematic landscapes with a lot more blood and a lot fewer x-chromosomes, try Cormac McCarthy's masterful Blood Meridian. Or pick up Guy Vanderhaeghe's The Englishman's Boy.

For your teenage cousin whom you are trying desperately to keep away from Twilight:
There's been a lot of hullaballoo lately about Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games trilogy being the girl power answer to Twilight-mania, but for this recommendation I'm reaching back to my own past for Tamora Pierce's excellent (and empowering) Song of the Lioness quartet. Pierce is one of the few YA authors who openly deals with gender, sexuality, relationship violence, and feminism in all of her novels, but her first quartet of books, about a woman, Alanna, who disguises herself as a boy to become a knight (and a gifted mage to boot!) is the gold standard for fantasy novels about kick-ass women and the choices they make. I'd spend my time recommending the rest of her novels (The Immortals and The Protector of the Small quartets are much beloved), but there's only so much space for gushing, so instead I'll also recommend Maria Snyder's highly entertaining Poison Study. Biggest benefit of all of these recs? None of them contain sparkly vampires who watch you in your sleep.

For your history-loving grandpa who already knows everything about everything:
Philip Dray's There is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America showed up at just the right time for me -- I'd been publicly complaining about the lack of a popular history of labour not written by Studs Terkel when all of the sudden this book appeared on the Daily Show to satiate my desire. The book fulfills the promise of its subtitle -- at 784 pages, it is, indeed, an epic tale -- meandering through the early days of American industrialism all the way up until the 21st century. Dray's narrative is both panoramic and intimate, and never strays too far into polemic, maintaining a healthy attitude toward the tensions that have characterized the American labor movement from its very beginning. If your grandpa is less into unions and more into intellectuals, Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club has the benefit of being both an intellectual history and a rollicking good story.

For your younger brother who finished Harry Potter and is looking for something a little more grown-up:
The best thing that I can say about M.T. Anderson's The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation is that it is essentially perfect. The story of a young black slave living in Boston at the time of the Revolutionary War, Anderson's book is nothing short of brilliant. His characters are fully realized, his history is impeccable, his plot is compelling, and his politics are subtle enough not to overwhelm the narrative, but progressive enough to make this book a standout among YA fiction. Anderson's previous novel, Feed, is an equally accomplished futuristic dystopia, and both novels are worth reading no matter how old you are. Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book is also excellent. And, at risk of breaking my own rule, Nickelodeon's Peabody award-winning Avatar: The Last Airbender is a brilliant TV series that, like Octavian Nothing, transcends its YA status to tell a complex, harrowing, and beautiful story.

For your budding-feminist daughter who isn't quite ready for an encounter with Judy B.
Susan Douglas' Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism's Work is Done is a Backlash for the digital age. Just when Faludi's seminal work was starting to feel a bit outdated, Douglas' book asks how we square persistent gender inequality with the media message that feminism is done. With a glut of nth-wave feminist books out there by everyone from Feministing's Jessica Valenti to Ariel Levy, Enlightened Sexism stands out as a book that moves away from asking why young women don't identify as feminists and towards a critique of the culture that tells them that they don't have to. Or, do what I did when I was 16 and pick up a copy of bell hooks' Feminism is For Everybody. For the dude in your life looking for a little gender theory of his own, you can't get much better than Michael Kimmel's excellent Guyland. Or just pick up Justice and the Politics of Difference and admit you're a theory junkie from the start.

And with that, I'll leave be until tomorrow. Coming up: books for that friend of yours who "really likes music" but won't stop fucking listening to The Wall sixteen hours a day. Etc.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Backscatter machines and the management of risk a completely administered world, superelevated safety standards and bureaucratic claims to perfection turn hazards that pass through the finest technological sieves into an internal threat to social rationality and systems. On the one hand, economy, law, science, policy with their present constitution and aims are not in a position really to dam up and forestall the hazards; on the other, the institutionalized safety pledge they furnish constitutes the embodiment, as it were, of the non-existence of hazards. Thus proof of the hazards becomes a proof of institutional failure. -- Ulrich Beck, Ecological Politics in an Age of Risk
Beck is, of course, speaking here about ecological risks, but when I first read this paragraph, my mind turned immediately to the current uproar over the implementation of new airport security measures.

Although I've expressed my opinions on the backscatter machines (as well as the enhanced pat-downs) privately, I've been trying to think through the airport as a site where multiple risks are subjected to different types of management. The most obvious of these risks is that of terrorist attack, which is subject to management by the Transportation Security Administration. But, as we've seen over the past few weeks, airports are also sites where other risks -- medical, sexual, and personal -- are managed. And I think one of the best ways to approach the issue is by looking at the backscatter machine as a risky artifact.

So what are the backscatter machines, exactly? Beyond being a piece of technology that emits x-rays and then produces an image from the radiation that bounces off the object to be imaged, what does a backscatter machine actually do? Reading the machine as an artifact in the context provided by Beck, we can think of it as a device that embodies both the presence and management of risk.

In Beck's formulation, the institutions of modernity are ill-equipped to manage both hazards (which are naturally-occurring) and risks (which are man-made). The technologies of governance are not designed to eliminate risk -- even if they were, they would be incapable of doing so. The discourses of contemporary science and politics necessitate a constant moving-forward, and it is this momentum that generates situations of risk. But a part of this moving-forward is a promise -- sometimes implicit, but often explicit -- on the part of these institutions that they will make the world safer, that they will guarantee safety. That they will eliminate risk. The problem, says Beck, is that when risks and hazards are proven to be real -- when the underwear bomber sets his pants on fire, or a terrorist plan is stopped before it is even begun -- this is evidence not of an averted catastrophe, but rather of an institutional failure to live up to their promise. Risk still exists. Therefore the institution has failed.

The backscatter machine is designed as a technical solution to this problem. Design a machine that will catch terrorists, and the risk is eliminated. But everyone knows that the backscatter machine cannot possibly catch all terrorists. It manages the risk, but does not eliminate it. And in doing so, it becomes a problematic artifact.

The backscatter machine also negotiates other risks, one that are not directly under the purview of institutionalized protection from terrorist attack. It is at once a manifestation of fears about radiation and health, as well as fears about privacy and embodiment. The arrival of the machine in airports, meant to alleviate the risk of a terror attack, brings to center stage the risk of cancer, the risk of sexual assault, the risks of surveillance and the sacrifice of privacy. The enhanced pat-downs accomplish a similar feat, at once working to manage terrorism while at the same time creating the circumstances under which women, children, people with disabilities, and other vulnerable populations are forced to decide which interventions they are willing to accept. In this sense, the airport becomes a site of the management of multiple, intersecting, and competing risks. A pregnant woman trying to manage the risk of radiation exposure and sexual assault is confronted by an institution attempting to manage the risk of terrorism. This problem can only be solved one way -- deciding which risk is more important and privileging the management of that over all others. This should be, and is (I think), an unsatisfying conclusion.

What Beck provides us, I think, is not so much a solution to the problem as an alternative way of thinking. The management of risk by technoscientific means has been a consistent (and consistently problematic) feature of modernity. By shifting our focus away from technological approaches to the management of risk and towards a more reflexive understanding about how risks are generated and how we can talk about them, we might be able to move away from always reaching for the scientific fix. Of course, this would require not only a rethinking of airport security, but also an overhaul of our entire institutional framework to drag it into a century where our problems are perhaps not best dealt with under the rubric of the nation-state.

Or we can just keep yelling at each other about porno-scanners and underwear-bombers. It's not up to me.

Stuff I've been listening to

It's the end of fall semester, which means burying myself in a pile of books and holing up until I emerge with two literature reviews and a pile of graded papers for my undergrads. While my go-to technique for dealing with the workload in the past has been to sit in front of a computer screen for 48-hours, injecting coffee into my veins and lamenting my poor time management skills, this year I've taken up the musical strategy. This involves picking at least five CDs and having them on non-stop in the background until you stop hearing the lyrics and start doing some work.

In other words, it involves inordinate amounts of time spent making playlists and the self-deception that this process is actually important for my work. Major players in this year's ongoing war between productivity and my sanity include:

Old Man Luedecke
Old Man Ludecke is the stage name of Chris Luedecke, a definitively not-old singer-songwriter and banjo player from Nova Scotia. His albums Hinterland and Proof of Love fit squarely in the Canadian branch of the folk-revivalist movement that includes performers like Gillian Welch and everyone who showed up on the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack. I'm a sucker for the banjo, and a sucker for the Maritimes, but even if I wasn't, Old Man Luedecke would be worth a listen. Check out a video of his song The Rear Guard here.

Old Crow Medicine Show
In keeping with the first recommendation (I really do have a thing for banjo and bands with 'old' in the name, ok?), Old Crow Medicine Show is another folk revival band based out of Nashville. Their songs -- which combine an old-timey sound with an excellent sense of the modern and absurd -- have been rotating on and off my playlists since 2007, but I haven't ben able to get enough of them lately. Their video for Wagon Wheel comes with healthy doses of irony, Americana, and a Dylan-penned chorus.

The Tallest Man on Earth
The Tallest Man on Earth (Sweden's Kristian Matsson) sounds like an early Dylan who decided to abandon the politics in favour of breezy, melodic tunes and cracklingly sharp lyrics. Like almost everyone I listen to on a regular basis, he clearly spent a lot of time taking inspiration from the American South, and, like a lot of folks coming from the outside, seems to have an ear for what exactly it is that makes that music so compelling. Matsson spent the last few years opening for Bon Iver and Jon Vanderslice, so if that's the kind of thing that floats your boat, check out one of my favourite of his tracks, A Field of Birds.

And lest you think I only listen to men who sound like they learned everything they know on the front porch of their grandfather's Kentucky homestead, never fear: I listen to women who sound that way too.

The Be Good Tanyas
The Be Good Tanyas have been my go-to band for times good and bad since my last year of high school, and I haven't gotten tired of them yet. Their song Light Enough to Travel was the soundtrack (along with Basia Bulat's The Pilgriming Vine) to one of the happiest and most important periods of my life. Frazey Ford's unique warble on The Littlest Birds has been my constant companion on roadtrips towards and away from friends and lovers, and Human Thing is still one of my favourite music videos of all time. But its Ootischenia, with its vaguely feminist lyrics (so tear the pages from the family Bible/it came down upon the women for survival) and its earthy, messy rhythms and harmonies that is the soundtrack to my paper-writing at 4:00 am on a Thursday night. If that hasn't convinced you, I don't know what will.