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26 July
whose fault is it?
link : thoughts (4) : track it (4) : in fat & health stuff

Over at Volokh Conspiracy, a guest blogger is bringing up all the same well-intentioned ideas about the Crisis of Fat (Egads!) that everyone trots out. [link via Crooked Timber and BFB]

Now, it turns out that:

Feminists and liberals have transformed a legitimate medical issue of the poor into identity politics for the affluent,” [author and friend Greg Christer] told me, “which I find the worst kind of narcissistic behavior.

Greg Crister, by the way, wrote a pretty good book (Fatland) that is in part an indictment of food industry and diet culture and economics, but instead chooses to focus on the lack of "personal responsibility" that fat symbolizes and the pathologization of fat as the disease (not the symptom). I think he ought to consider using some of that money from his book to travel from place to place re-educating the people who made fun of him (Jay and Silent Bob style); it might make him feel better.

But then, I think the binge and purge ethic that dominates our culture, part of the generally pornographic sale of the body, is in fact the worst kind of narcissm.

On to the problems implicit in the posts and associated comments, all of which were at least politely worded, if offbase (a vast improvement over, say, MetaFilter).

Well intentioned but misguided idea number one: fat is a disease. Fat in and of itself is not a medical issue for most people (even for some who think their fatness causes their other health problems, the causes are more complex than that). It isn't an accurate predictor of any individual's health. Are there unhealthy fat people? Sure. Are there healthy ones, too? You bet.

Treating fat itself as a disease misses the essential physical activity and nutritional issues that lead to ill health in both fat and thin folk (and sure, there's correlation between those issues and becoming fat). As Eileen touched on earlier in the comment thread, we're basically thinking of a symptom as the disease itself. That's a fundamentally flawed approach. It leads us to prescribe weightloss dieting (which for many people is a sure way to gain weight) and treat gastric bypass as a medical necessity - because we think FATNESS, not the host of things that might have led to it, is the cause of unhealth. Treating the root symptoms is something Medicare/Medicaid could and should cover (if you believe there should be government subsidies for medical care at all, as any contracted illness or injury could be considered a "lifestyle choice"). Weight loss surgery? I have a problem with that - not because of my latent libertarianism, but because it seems like stupid medicine.

Well intentioned but misguided idea number two: fat means we're a wildly out of control culture where people - particularly the middle class - won't take personal responsibility for anything. This just doesn't fit with the number of people on diets, the number of people selling diets, the number of people with gym memberships, etc. - the shear volume of things we buy to make us less fat seems to say that at least we'll take responsibility for becoming unfat (no matter the cost, and in the easiest, fastest way possible, please).

But this one is also true, just not in the way it sometimes gets interpreted. As Crister's book points out, we are pretty wild with the consumption. Ironically, though, we're wild in part for things that alleviate our embarassment about our symbolic overconsumption, those Last Ten Pounds.

Well intentioned but misguided idea number three: fat will melt away if you become physically active and eat less/better. For some people, it will. For some, it won't. For most of us, better health will result no matter what. The body is not a simple calorie machine, so healthier habits don't necessarily have any impact on weight whatsoever.

The thing is, fat hate is so engrained for many of us that we want to see body size as somehow moral, or at least indicative of health. If you're going to spend so much time and energy on what you eat, how you move, what you wear, it ought to have some greater value, right?

Fat activists and feminists who engage in discussion of body politics aren't doing so to distract from the very real problems of inactivity and bad food consumption or from the drastic socioeconomic inequality that attends those problems; what we're trying to do is dispel the notion that a judgement of someone's personal worth (including health) can be easily made based on appearance.

If a social program is to solve the Crisis of Fat (Egads!), it can't just be a promise to surgically defattify individuals - it needs to address the problems - from low wages to long work weeks to poor education to lack of parks and sidewalks and low-cost fitness facilities and a general failure to take time to play and enjoy life (including our food) - that are the joint causes of ill health (the real problem) and the phantom fat crisis.

 

08 July
whb: working it out
link : thoughts (5) : track it (0) : in feministy stuff

This week's
WHB
topic is sexism at work - how institutions perpetrate acts of sexism, based on an article about gender disparities in Boston police accomodations.

Basically, there is no comfy lounge for the female sergeants (4 of 27 seargents), and it's a problem. It is a problem for any similar institution (i.e. the military) - how do you provide equal accomodations for the women on the forefront of gender integration? It's awkward, apparently - women's quarters on ships, for instance, always seem to be either horrid or palatial when compared to similarly ranked men's accomodations.

The simple, obvious solution to me is for us to get over our heterosexual prudishness and expect men and women to act like grownups and shower in close proximity if they have to. No special treatment for women. No half-assed "eh, I guess we HAVE to deal with you" treatment, either. But I guess world peace is as likely to successfully happen tomorrow as we are as a culture to be able to step away from our "naked women = sex. must! have! sex! also, sex = evil." mindset.

So, it's unfortunate and expensive, but I think the best recourse in this situation is for these police folk to complain (and, egads, sue) until they have a comparable place to plop their butts.

In a series of related questions, House9 asks us to consider our own experience of institutional sexism:

Have you experienced gender discrimination on the job?
How do you perceive the current status of women in the workplace?
Do you think lawsuits are the way to go to improve things, or would you recommend other strategies for counteracting sexism, institutional* and otherwise, at work?
Do you know of any movements in your area to fight workplace sexism?

I really haven't experienced equivalent sexism in the workplace. There are a few things - I've been on HMO plans that cover drugs like Viagra, but not birth control (not anymore), I've worked for companies that provided maternity leave only for a short time with no unpaid leave (somewhat biased against women) and no equivalent leave for new dads (very biased against men). It's hard to say if there's much pay inequity at my current company, because it's not like I know what other people make. We're all presumably paid within a certain scale given our tenure and experience, but I don't have proof of that.

I have worked for a small company where the women were universally paid less than the guys - mostly because we were all hired into much more junior positions (a form of sexism itself, as many of the guys with the "better" jobs were hired straight out of college). But again, it was never really clear who made what. That's a problem for employees - they don't know how fairly or unfairly they're being paid (and honestly, as long as you're making an amount you're okay with, you don't care much what others make), so I suspect wage discrimination isn't discovered until the employer breaches trust in some other way.

It seems like the variety of lawsuits around this kind of stuff have helped somewhat - they made inequality something that could cost you as an employer, essentially raising the stakes economically, which CEO's can relate to.

Unionizing in certain contexts probably helps, too. As does anything that educates people about various forms of workplace sexism - companies seem to do better on sexual harrassment education than anything else, though.

As for local movements, I really don't know of any. Hmm. Have to look into that one.

 

feminine design, continued
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What is feminine [web] design?

Others' thoughts on this question (following on my earlier gender post) have made me wonder whether I was looking in the wrong place for this definition.

That is, maybe there aren't specific elements that make a design "feminine", but there's a difference in expressiveness (see Absent Student for some thoughts on that). To put everything in Weimar-era German terms (because we can):

Masculine design is Bauhaus, emphasizing form and function. Except, if you believe your personal economist, the function is the website itself, not its content.

Feminine design is Dada, emphasizing expression and the destruction of form. Eh, maybe not. Maybe it's flat-out expressionism. Or worse yet, romanticism. Ugh. I don't really want to be Schiller or Goethe.

Or we could skip the thin-stretched comparisons to any form of modern art at all and talk about the thing itself instead of things that are like it. If you insist.

Put in web terms, a well-chosen feminine site design will be built around the site's content - possibly even the site's author or persona - and a similarly well-chosen masculine design would focus on the functionality of the site (and possibly the technical emphasis of the author).

Your gender does not necessarily play a role in which design style suits you best. I like to think that my preference for expressive but functional visuals has more to do with my identity as an artist than my identity as a woman.

However.

Our beliefs about what is "feminine" versus "masculine" affect our personal expressions of gender. Both women and men are socialized (or, if you'd like to erroneously wink wink believe, born with an innate preference for) to different types of expression. There is both a tendency to encourage certain types of emotion and to enforce certain types of expression. Put simply, boys aren't supposed to cry, and girls aren't supposed to be mad or ugly.

Kids, this is why we still need feminism. Well, this among other reasons that ought to be glaringly obvious.

Not only are boys not supposed to cry, but our culture leans towards men expressing energy and ideas and women expressing emotion or themselves. That's not to say "all boys" or "all girls" express only certain feelings only certain ways. No person of my acquaintance has ever diligently followed these gendered behavior rules; anyone who did would be somewhat freakish and hard to talk to.

Gender roles, though, do unconsciously limit our behavior and understanding of others. They also color our preference for expression and its medium, to an extent. That's why, as Absent Student says, women and girls frequently seem to dominate journalling communities while men seem to dominate in the techblogger communities. We're just expressing the things we're "supposed to".

Still. There's no rule that you can't take a functional, technical approach to describing your life on a journal, or get really emotional and passionate about issues or objects on your blog. Actually, a number of the LJ feminists I read have largely built their online personas on the latter; I do quite a bit of the same.

If there is a subset of the blogging community that disdains journalling sites and the design style associated with them, there is an at least equally large community of journallers who aren't interested in the Who's Who of blogging - if they're even aware of it enough to be actively uninterested. Right? And if the Who's Who are mostly men, and the journallers are mostly women, what difference does it make?

Well, there is the issue that diversity in any community can help it thrive, shake it up a little intellectually. And a group that lacks representation from women or any other subgroup limits itself in this way.

To me, though, the big difference is that the Official Media Representation of the Blogging World is drawn mostly from that Who's Who. The depiction of the internet is therefore focused on this alternate source of news, the blog, and forgets the feminine (not necessarily female) side: the gorgeous, self-involved poetry of journallers. It seems a devaluing of yet another "women's" medium - not so important in and of itself, but damned depressing in a long historical line of dismissals of women's media.

Besides. In forgetting/marginalizing the online journalling medium, we also negate the beauty of design that emphasizes equally poetic (even florid sometimes) visuals. Spare and functional isn't the only visual elegance on the web, and news and technology aren't the only topics being discussed.

 

07 July
poor people don't diet?
link : thoughts (3) : track it (0) : in fat & health stuff

I've been reading to find more information on who diets, partly because I've seen a lot of people imply recently that poor people are fatter because they don't diet and exercise (which wildly contradicts my own experience as a former poor person) and partly because I just wonder about things.

Something interesting from my first round of research:

Dieters segmented by HOUSEHOLD INCOME

less than or equal to 130% of poverty
Percent of total: 16.2
Percent dieting: 15.2
Estimated total dieters at or below 130% of poverty (based on US census data): 5.07 million

more than 130% of poverty
Percent of total: 83.8
Percent dieting: 16.7
Estimated total dieters above 130% of poverty (based on US census data): 28.8 million

[from: Journal of the American Dietetic Association, Sept 2002 v102 i9
p1247(5)
Americans on diet: results from the 1994-1996 Continuing Survey of
Food Intakes by Individuals. (Research). Sahasporn Paeratakul; Emily
E. York-Crowe; Donald A. Williamson; Donna H. Ryan; George A. Bray. Calculations based on the study excerpted from Google Answers.]

So, as of 1996 at least, poor people were only a tiny bit less likely to be on a diet than non-poor people.

Interesting, huh? Of course, we still don't know what those diets are specifically (and I haven't located the full text of that study for free yet), and it's still clear that poor people seem to be fatter.

So why is that? More to come as I find it.

 

the town of dieter
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Now and then a word will just invert in my head.

Like, I was searching for information about income levels of dieters, and I came up with this: the township of Dieter, Minnesota.

Because die-et-ter is also dee-ter. And is German. And makes perfect sense as the name of a Midwestern town.

 

06 July
design, gender and equity
link : thoughts (5) : track it (1) : in feministy stuff

I'm starting to feel really silly categorizing my blog entries. It's as if, each time I select from the list, I'm randomly selecting one of the items when every possibility is somewhat valid.

Which is to say. This is in part my musings on our response to design, and in part a theory on inequity in design and our response to it. It isn't just about geekery (as it's design in all forms) or just about media (though it's sort of essentially about the medium and means of conveying a message) or just about gender (though I'm thinking a lot about the difference between "masculine" and "feminine" versus "male" and "female" and our failure to separate these things from each other).

Yeah. Let's rethink my entire category system later.

Now, let's talk about the fractal explosion of ideas about gender and design that came from my reading of this comment from Eris's blog: overtly feminine style signals diminished credibility to many.

There are, of course, many perspectives one could take on this. There's the possibility that "feminine" stylings don't equate in people's minds to a less credible product; there's the possibility that they do. Speaking of which, for the rest of this discussion, let's assume your product is information, and the "femininity" is in your visual presentation only - there are other "gendered" cues in language and organization.

So, what is a "feminine" design element?

The problem with "feminine" as a word is that, divorced from your perception of what women as a group are and/or want, it doesn't have a lot of consistent meaning. We have ideas about what it means to be "feminine" (soft, nurturing, enduring, devouring) that contradict each other.

But. I think we do mean something specific when we talk about design being feminine. I'm simply not sure what it is.
It could be a pale color palette and swishy fonts (web design)
It could be floral patterning (gift wrap)
It could be smaller, more curved, and available in a wider range of colors than its "rugged" counterparts (backpacks)
It could be hot pink and scripty and Venus-symbolic (feminist t-shirt)
It could be what a variety of people are touting online as "feminine web design" (example 1 : example 2 : example 3)
It could be the sort of brand identification of products like tampons or Oprah or "women's television".

From those examples, we could say that "feminine" design is strongly visual but also non-confrontational. It's frequently ornamented, not necessarily floral (though there are many extreme examples of that), and is rarely spare and minimal. It favors the figural and human over the abstract. Pastels are definitely a theme, but dramatic or extensive use of any colors might be construed as feminine.

Okay, fine. Given those criteria, I'd say this site is a good example of "feminine" design. It's not ragingly floral and scripty, but its palette is colorful and its main graphic element is figural (and pink/red in and of themselves are instand "feminine" cues).

Let's assume we're agreed on this definition of "feminine" as far as design is concerned.

There are aspects of "feminine" design, then, that diminish usability on the web. Our eyes read certain fonts better, for instance, and scripty fonts are not among them. Color, used in excess, can become a distraction for the eyes (not to mention issues of colorblindness and contrast for various folk). The same is true of graphics.

Yes, shockingly, feminine design, misapplied, is as hard to deal with as any other form of bad design. Perhaps more so. But why would that in and of itself result in dismissal of content presented in (good or bad) a feminine visual style?

I'd theorize that it's because "feminine" styles in general are considered less reasoned, less rational, and less intelligent. Western society values rationalism. While we can now, for the most part, accept that women aren't inferiorly soft, emotional, and instinctual, we still seem to think that emotion and instinct are negative. It comes into play with debate style as well as design on the web. And - because we frequently confuse the feminine with the female, the masculine with the male - it often results in women being dismissed and excluded.

Which brings me to the next idea: are women at a disadvantage on the internet?

Well. It depends. Every internet community is its own bubble. There are certain bubbles that are considered representative of the entire blogging world by other media, and those bubbles consist of more recognized male voices than female or genderqueer voices (they also consist of more straight than queer, more white than other colors, more middle class than poor, etc.). The figures known for pioneering web design and development are predominantly male. You have to look to find the women.

That is not equity. It's analogous to the wage gap between women and men. You can argue that the inequity is by choice, not design of the system, you can be happy or unhappy with it, but there it is, still - inequity.

But, step outside those certain bubbles, and you're in a community of, say, exclusively female Pinoy bloggers between the ages of 20 and 25. There is a bubble for nearly every subset of internet-connected person.

I'm coming from a rather odd place on this one, because I consciously and intentionally don't exist in an online environment that dismisses "feminine" styling, as it is overwhelmingly female (though not particularly feminine). The people I hang with out here are talking about gender and sexuality as a continuum and debating radical versus liberal politics and calling each other on our privilege and are generally on a page about the fuckupitude of the How Things Are (though given to disagreement about the degree and nature of that fuckupitude). So, when I run into bits of sexism elsewhere in the blogosphere, it's always a bit of a surprise that we're still so simpleminded. Oh, I say to myself, are those people still talking about how women are versus men?

Apparently, they are.

In reading the comments and links the spun off Eris's blog entries on gender disparity in the web design bubble [also, see the follow up on Eris's site, if you're interested], I saw people going back to the "women and men have brains that function differently" argument, for instance. It's an argument that I don't have a ready refutation of anymore, because I see it so rarely in my bubble. [Note to self - revisit books filled with studies proving this brain function thing dubious at best.] I saw a few guys arguing that inequity didn't exist, because they didn't believe it existed or because reverse inequity existed in some other way in some totally unrelated context. Dude, that is such an emotional, feminine way to argue your point. Tee hee.

It seems such a basic tenet of polite living that, if the majority of people belonging to a group you don't belong to attest to feeling their group is excluded or dismissed, then you ought to listen to them. I don't believe most discrimination, sexism included, is intentional. I'm not even sure equity is always desirable, but I do think we need to develop an awareness of these gaps.

So, it bothers me that a person can say "yeah, if my site design looks too female, no one will believe my words" amid a discussion of gender inequity and no one will even acknowledge that. Is it tacit agreement? Disregard because she's female? I don't know.

I don't believe women are underrepresented in the blogosphere overall (certainly not if the predominantly female bubbles I come across are to be taken as a cross-section), but I do suspect we're underrecognized in the concept of blogging, just as we're underrepresented in the tech world in general (although, again, not so much in my own tech career).

Is this a problem? I think so. You may think otherwise. It's not an easy problem to solve, though - affirmative-action-style promotion of a few women by the "cool kids" bubble is only a symbolic nod, and confronts the symptom (underrepresentation) but not the systemic issue (association of the feminine with inferiority and females with the feminine). And systemic issues are usually solved one person at a time.

Fortunately, there are an awful lot of smart women and men having this conversation about sexism on the web. They'll get there eventually.

In the meantime, I suppose I ought to step out of my bubble more often.

 

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