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Male suicide rates, closed mines and scalding hot water

What makes the men in the north-east of England so violent, both to themselves and to others? British artist Grayson Perry suggests it is because they have a history of doing tough work. But his question may need to be turned around.

In the first episode of his sensitive TV series on masculinity, All Man, currently running on Channel 4, Grayson Perry visits several communities of men: Durham ex-miners, mixed-martial-arts fighters, and the mates of a 30-year-old man who has unexpectedly killed himself. He asks himself why violence plays such a large role in their lives; and in particular, why the north-east of England has the highest suicide rate of England. It’s all to do with machismo. These men are not comfortable talking about their feelings. Nor are they attuned to listen to their own feelings. They bottle up fear, anger, and unhappiness. This explains why the professional fighters whom Perry interviews have a much more healthy mental life than the other men: they have an emotional outlet.

A photo taken in another place of high unemployment and (apparently) machismo: the south of Spain (Granada, May 2016).

A photo I took in another place of high unemployment, and apparently machismo: the south of Spain (Granada, May 2016).

But why the north-east? Because the work the men there used to do in the mines was so tough – the physical exertion, the risk of injury and death, the regular loss of friends and colleagues. Silence was the easiest way to deal with this toughness. And this silence has survived the closing of the mines.

This provides a fairly convincing explanation, except for one thing: the women’s work was tough as well. They lived in tiny cottages or cellars, dark, cold and damp, in most cases working longer hours than their husbands, which work involved things like carrying heavy buckets of water and handling scalding wash and laundry tubs and irons – even more than elsewhere, the men in the mining regions needed a daily scrub and change of clothes. They continued work throughout pregnancy, gave birth many times in their lives in very difficult circumstances, and saw many of their children as well as other family-members and neighbours succumb to disease and accidents. In sum, there is no reason to see their working lives as less tough than that of the men in their communities. And yet, they did not develop the same machismo, the same emotional silence, that Perry sees in men.

The bigger question therefore, is probably not why the men of the north-east are so tough, but why the women managed to stay ‘soft’ and in touch with their feelings. If soft is indeed what they are – they certainly commit suicide less often (three times as little, in the UK). But maybe we need a further explanation for that, one that goes beyond being able to work through one’s unhappiness by talking about one’s feelings: an explanation that includes social roles.

It may have something to do with feeling a useful and valued member of the community; with feeling that your continued presence is necessary for the survival and well-being of the people around you. Social expectations for men and women still differ: working-class men and women in the north of England face different responsibilities. Unable to function as mothers or housewives, when men’s task as breadwinner falls through because of unemployment they may have a harder time than women finding accepted roles in their community.

The cage-fighters have found a marvellous solution to this challenge in their role as knight or gladiator.

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Thou shalt clean more

Remarkable view on cleaning in a magazine this week:

I’m noticing young people spend less and less time on cleaning their homes. They are too busy or do not enjoy it.

[…]

I want to put back the fun in cleaning. As far as I’m concerned, a house cannot be too clean.

This is from an interview with professional cleaner Liesbeth Verboven. Clearly, she sees the same demise in young people’s cleaning time as I do, only she values it negatively.

You would think that as a professional cleaner, she’d be happy with all those over-worked, well-paid yuppies. But she also has a book to sell, in which she wants to teach these kids how to do the job themselves. So she promotes the idea that cleaning is fun. (It’s not quite clear how the title of the book should help in this endeavour: it’s called The Cleaning Bible. But let’s not assume the author could help this.)

Now a second question is whether the majority of housewives ever thought of cleaning as ‘fun’. Perhaps they did. Or perhaps they (also) wanted to feel useful.

This still leaves us with the question: if nowadays, cleaning is no longer fun; nor needed to fill our time; nor even possible, because we are so busy: why then should we encourage ourselves to do more of it?

Sounds like a typical case of finding a problem for a solution.

The interview appeared in Eigen huis magazine, May 2016, p. 7. N.B. I don’t want to discourage anyone from reading the book who has to clean anyway, and wants to find out how to do it.

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CV of Failures

Public domain. Placed on Wikimedia Commons by Fry1989.

Public domain. Placed on Wikimedia Commons by Fry1989.

We live in a market economy – a market economy in crisis, where jobs are scarce – which means that in our work, just doing our job is not good enough. We have to ‘excel’, ‘stand out’, in short: be the best. Employers are spoilt for choice. In many sectors, a single vacancy will routinely receive a hundred applications.

How can workers make sure they don’t lose their heads in these circumstances? (‘Workers’, that’s most people in this case: everyone who earns a living through working, rather than through winning a million and living off the interest. Even small entrepreneurs have to compete in ruthless market and application processes.)

One worker in the academic sector has just shown how: by demonstrating that no one is perfect – that no one is ‘the best’. Alongside his ordinary CV, economist Johannes Haushofer published his CV of Failures online. (Other academics have done similar things, some of them inspired by this article by Melanie Stefan.)

Have a look. It will

  1. make you feel better about your own failures;
  2. show the marketeers of ‘excellence’ how misguided their concept is: as Haushofer explains, his successes and failures have always been largely a matter of chance rather than a matter of belonging to the best or not;
  3. inspire solidarity: if employees share their failures, corporate employers have less ammunition to play them off against each other (as in ‘look, Haushofer has had a 100% success rate, so why don’t you?’);
  4. make us rethink whether the current system of grant and subsidy applications that governs many sectors of work, is really the most efficient system we can come up with: a lot of productive time is wasted by it.

    CanadaDeadend

    Public domain. Placed on Wikimedia Commons by Fry1989.

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The ‘no milk, no sugar’ generation

CC BY 2.0, Voedingscentrum, 2016

CC-BY-2.0, Voedingscentrum 2016

The Dutch government-funded Nutrition Centre just published its new guidelines on healthy eating. One of their most important recommendations: drastically limit the intake of sugar. Strikingly, many Dutch people have already been doing this. Not by refraining from cake or biscuits, but by no longer taking any milk and sugar in their tea. Even the coffee is blacker than ever. The difference this makes is 6 to 8 grams of sugar per cup.

A striking proportion of young people nowadays prefers to take their drinks ‘straight’. We might call them the ‘no milk, no sugar’ generation.

They do not do this for overt health reasons; they just think adding milk or sugar is not really necessary. Since a variety of loose-leaf green and black teas and freshly ground coffee seem more widely appreciated and easier to get by again these days, it makes sense to get a good taste of the drink itself, unobscured by extra flavours.

Green tea, CC-BBY-3.0 Lisa Amy 2015

Green tea, CC-BY-3.0 Lisa Amy 2015

I suspect that some people find such preferences ‘difficult’, but the no-milk-no-sugar people actually seem in search of ways to make life simpler. Not easier: they can spend quite some time looking for the right shop, or at home grinding their own beans. But simpler: consisting of fewer things.*

The same people who form the no-milk-no-sugar generation, may for instance also choose not to have a car (of course, the example for this was set years ago, but it seems that a greater proportion of affluent people is participating this time); or choose to do less housework (as I suggested in a previous post). They seem to eat less salt as well.

Has a no-milk-no-sugar generation also risen in other countries, I wonder?

 

* Remarkably, the same people often do not like the taste of milk, unless it has been turned into yoghurt, hot chocolate, etc.

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An unkempt hair from a bushy tail

A reader of the posts on the hairy-women scale and Life of Brian, sent me another example of the horrors of hair. Or rather, of the horrors of people’s imagination around hair. She had spotted a painting on the same theme.

At the moment, the city of Den Bosch in the Netherlands is hosting a big Jheronimus Bosch exhibition. This exhibition contains the restored painting of Saint Wilgefortis, a saint venerated in western Europe since the late Middle Ages.

Jheronimus Bosch, Crucified martyr.

Jheronimus Bosch, Crucified martyr, detail. On display in the Noordbrabants Museum, 13 February – 8 May 2016. Usually, the painting can be seen in Venice, in the Galleria dell’Accademia.

According to her legend, Wilgefortis was a princess who had dedicated her life to Christ. Then her father sold her to be married; to a pagan husband, no less. She prayed for Christ’s assistance. This was given her in the form of a beard. Apparently, it made her so repulsive that the pagan king refused to marry her. Her unfemininity had liberated her! (This is what her name indicates in many languages – ‘Liberata’ etc.) Of course, the story is not over yet. In his anger, her own father killed her in the same way her spiritual husband had been killed: on the cross. After death, she continued to work various miracles and to help innocent people whose liberty had been taken away from them.

On the recently restored painting by Bosch, and especially on the infra-red images that have been made as part of the Bosch Research and Conservation Project, a subtle beard and moustache have become visible.

In a double irony, Wilgefortis’s beard not only turned her into a monstrous woman, but also gave her the power of a man, that is, not to be wed without her choosing. And yet, this was only a very limited power, dependent on her real husband – Christ – and restricted to the negative ability to say ‘no’ to her father, but not extending to the positive capability of saying ‘yes’ to a religious life (she was murdered). She was still a woman, an underdog. But isn’t that just what you would expect from a Christian saint?

The fact that Wilgefortis’s story probably stems from a misunderstanding of images of a crucified Jesus in full robe and with crown (even Bosch’s painting might in fact picture a different martyr altogether!), does not make her subsequent veneration through the centuries any less real or any less significant. It even adds a layer of interest by showing how difficult people find it to deal with gender ambiguity.

Bosch’s painting is more than five hundred years old, Wilgefortis’s story even older. The fear and fascination with ‘hair in the wrong places’ go back a long way.

For more on bearded ladies, see my column on Conchita Wurst.

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A bushy tail to a hairy story

Last week’s story about the hairy-women scale was triggered by something a friend said.

We were watching Life of Brian. Enter a naked Brian and Judith. At seeing Judith my friend commented: ‘I feel like we’re watching a 70ies porn movie’.

It was disturbing enough to find out that my friend, in his thirties, categorises women primarily according to the kind of porn they might feature in.

But the point here is of course that he was referring to Judith’s bushy triangle. In his voice: a mixture of ridicule and anger. Apparently, a woman’s body is impossible on a woman these days; a prepubescent girl’s body is what’s needed. Now I know that body aesthetics in the media have been shifting since Life of Brian was made, in 1979. But I was still surprised to see a university-educated, grown-up man uncritically repeating what he sees on the telly.

The scene shows well what it's all about: something with fear and shame and being brave.

The scene itself shows just what it’s all about: fear and shame and being brave.

This is exactly what I argued last week: outside of science, too, most people chime in with old-fashioned doctors and ethnographers in shaming ‘women’ (as identified by them) for not being ‘women’. As nice a bit of circular reasoning as ever you saw.

Many people contend that what you do with your body hair is your own business. But this is not true. Unsolicited criticism like my friend’s turns it into a social business. A recent article on the experiences of women in the south-west of the US convincingly shows this.

The UK, 2016. Photo by 9×6. Clearly, the beauty industry has a stake in this debate.

 

When asking women why they remove hair – mostly that hair associated with ‘hirsutism’ of the previous post – the response by and large was: ‘because I choose to’. When asking them to respond to other women who did not engage in conventional shaving or waxing practices, however, they expressed a strong disgust: these women were ‘dirty’, ‘gross’. A quote from one of the interviewees that shows this contradiction:

I think it’s a personal preference. [When they] don’t shave their armpits […] it grosses people out. Typically, if you’ve got a lot of hair, it looks like a man and it’s not very attractive on women, but I don’t think I make total judgments on it. I might just stand ten feet away from them! (Fahs, 171)
That already sums up nicely that some women exert strong pressures on other women. In other words, shaving is not a free choice at all.
In the same study, women who let their hair be, reported similarly contradicting reactions by others. From boyfriends for example:

First I got, ‘‘Ew, no. I won’t let you do that.’’ Then I got a joking but upsetting ‘‘I will not engage in any sexual acts with you until you shave.’’  […] he went on to say how ‘‘it was pointless’’ and ‘‘women can do whatever they want now because it is 2011.’’ (Fahs, 174)

Women also invent excuses to justify their hair removal. One woman in the study argued that pubic hair would be dangerous for her partner: ‘You can actually hurt the other person’. That’s quite a different story from the warnings by one GP that shaving in fact introduces health hazards.

Luckily, counter-activity is in the air. With the Free Your Pits movement, for example, with hair dyed in outrageous colours.

Perhaps I should take my friend to the hairdresser’s.

 

The article quoted is Breanne Fahs’s ‘Perilous Patches and Pitstaches: Imagined Versus Lived Experiences of Women’s Body Hair Growth’, published in 2014.

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The hairy-women scale

Do you have hair on your face? Of course you do. All over your face. All over your body in fact. Hair is everywhere. In some places it is darker (terminal hair), and in others lighter (vellus), but there are few places on your body where it doesn’t grow, except if your skin or follicles are damaged.

And except in places where you have shaven, plucked, threaded, or burnt it off. After all, we do things to make ourselves look nice. But what’s nice? Part of the answer lies in what scientists have been telling us, which is what this post is about.

The seemingly innocent activity of grooming gets less innocent when we expect everyone to do the same; when we start judging people because of their hair. It sounds silly, to take such an insignificant part of a person and make it the basis of our judgment of them. But it happens all the time.

It all begins with making categories. Categeries based on hair.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, European ethnographers went into the ‘bush’ looking for primitive people. They stripped these people naked, measured their every limb, and eventually their methods resulted in the following: the Ferriman-Gallwey score.

Ferriman and Gallwey scoring help (unknown clinical source, published on

A Ferriman-Gallwey scoring diagram (unknown clinical source, published on what-when-how.com/acp-medicine/hirsutism-part-1/)

The idea is that women’s body parts (not men’s) should be scored for terminal hair on a scale of 1 to 4. Adding up these scores tells a doctor whether a woman deviates from the standard. This is another representation:

Ferriman-Gallwey scale, modified by Hatch (1981). Published on medical-learning site http://www.e-sanitas.edu.co/Diplomados/endocrino/modulo_9/causas_hiperandrogenismo.html.

Ferriman-Gallwey scale, modified by Hatch (1981). Published on medical-learning site http://www.e-sanitas.edu.co/Diplomados/endocrino/modulo_9/causas_hiperandrogenismo.html

Black fur has crept over this ‘healthy female’ like an extraterrestrial species over Sigourney Weaver. Is it comical or disturbing?

The woman on the left, numbered ‘1’, displays only slight signs of being ‘too’ hairy.

The woman on the right is fully ‘abnormal’. She is a hirsute! (Not all parts of the body need to grade ‘4’ for this diagnosis.)

Scientists devising scales like this start out with the whole breadth of human variation (they have rightly seen that we are not all the same), but then they do two things:

  1. They put everyone in line so they seem to fit a single ‘scale’.
  2. They attach a judgment to this scale.

For the early ethnographers, people on the left end of this scale were civilised. People on the right-hand side: primitive. It was one of the many instruments Europeans had in assigning ‘races’ to people. (How about the 1922 article titled ‘A Study of Facial Hair in the White and Negro Race’?)

But you have even more reasons to be nervous if your own hair patterns resemble a score ‘4’.

Ferriman and Gallwey were two medical doctors who took up these ethnographers’ ideas, and applied them to medicine. The Ferriman-Gallwey score is now the measure commonly used by doctors who want to assess whether a woman is not ‘too hairy’. (Other scales also exist.)

So: women with a low score: healthy, feminine women.

Women with a high score: sick, masculine women.

(It is true that certain hair-growth patterns can also be a side-effect of a health problem, but this does not need to be the case – and a lack of hair can as well. My point is that we are not dealing with a neutral diagnostic tool named ‘patterns of hair-growth’, but a morally charged classification of ‘hirsutism’ as a ‘disorder’. Ferriman and Gallwey themselves tended to the former, by the way, but they are commonly used in the latter, pathologising sense.)

Many women do in fact count as ‘hirsute’ according to these medical standards: 10, 30, even 50 % of participants in various studies, depending on how they were scored and what part of the world they were from.

I have already mentioned the racist implications of this scale. Yet it does not only simplify and moralise the differences that exist between people in different parts of the world. It also simplifies and moralises the differences between women and men. Women with hair-growth that in the European world is considered feminine, are ‘civilised’ but also ‘healthy’. Masculine women are ill. And if they don’t fix this ‘illness’, by shaving, or taking hormones, then they are inconsiderate, selfish, dirty – is the wider social opinion.

Take a look at the exaggeratedly feminine body in the second picture: no nose, broad hips, narrow waist, and a tiny mouth. (Is this perhaps how the doctors who write this medical textbook prefer to see women?) The use of such a feminine model makes her moustache and hairy legs extra freakish. She is like the bearded woman. These pictures have a rhetorical knack of juxtaposing two ‘opposites’, in order that the reader will instinctively feel this is ‘just wrong’. The first image does a more neutral job in this regard.

Calling hair on women masculine – and masculinity in women a problem – also happens in descriptions of the scoring system. The same educative website instructs the learner to compare a female patient’s hair-growth with that of the men they know (hardly an objective measure), and see whether it is ‘equivalent to an adult man’ (scoring 3 points) or even to ‘virile healthy adult men’ (4 points). What happened to sticking to commonly observable facts and identifying actual hair? Instead, writers jump to the conclusion that patients’ very identity, their femaleness, is at stake.

A moral judgment is also implicit in the many medical descriptions of hirsutism calling these women’s hair ‘excessive’.

A somewhat older study that went through the trouble of examining two thousand patients, is particularly naive about it own assumptions. It writes:

a disperse upper border of the pubic hair is only found in men and never in normal women.

In a sublime example of circular reasoning, healthy women are defined by being… ‘normal women’!

Later researchers sometimes acknowledge this problem – a little:

Determining what is an abnormal amount of terminal hair growth, and thus what is hirsutism, is difficult.

Ok: so because there is simply an enormous amount of human variation, we cannot tell what should count as abnormal. Still, these writers did not wonder whether the endeavour itself of ‘determining what is abnormal’ may therefore be flawed.

Again, there is this huge urge to put people into categories: either you are (self-contradictively) masculine and therefore primitive or ill; or you are feminine and therefore civilised and healthy.

Interviews with women show that they are up against a lot of hatred and disgust if they show to be ‘hairy’. This freakification of hair also gets formalised, for instance in the world of sports. The International Association of Athletics Federations has even used the Ferriman-Gallwey index to see if they might disqualify sportswomen from competing because of an assumed unfair advantage. Apparently, women with uncivilised amounts of hair are really men in disguise. (If they really try to fool us, why don’t they shave? For this example from sports: see the book cited below).

As medical doctors and their lay disciples continue to use grading systems such as Ferriman-Gallwey on their patients and subjects, and to diagnose them with the serious-sounding ‘disorder’ of ‘hirsutism’, they only perpetuate the idea that the hair scare is justified. They make life harder for the hairier woman, creating unnecessary anxieties and feelings of guilt. May I then be excused in deeming the following reassurance to patients a little hypocritical?

Usually, excess body hair is only a […] psychologic concern.

 

Thanks to Ellen Samuels for showing how hairy sexism is tied up with hairy racism, and both with ableism, in her book Fantasies of Identification (New York, 2014), chapter 9.