This Distorted Reality

Finally, a sensible article about women’s bodies (and no, I had never heard the 1200 calorie “rule” either). Here is the controversial summary:

Women should be shown the same fitness routines as men. We should be exposed to the same messages of eating nutritious food, with lots ‘o protein, and enough calories to build our bodies into goddess-like proportions. We should not fear muscle. We should not shy away from the weight room because it is perceived as “odd” and out of place when a woman approaches the squat rack.

I like muscle: I’m a climber. I want to be strong. I want to be able to do things. I want to have a physical meaning not only a physical identity. To me, this is how you marry the mind and the body: through action. I want to act.

But I am always being told that muscle is disgusting on women, and unattractive. Mostly by other women or the media.

Unhealthy messages about women’s health can affect everybody – and in different ways. For years, I have struggled with the fear of looking like I eat too much (greedy) or too little (anorexic). It didn’t help that when I was thirteen, a friend told me I had the right psychological profile for people prone to eating disorders. Eating disorders became a thing I could be *accused* of and would have to defend against if I wanted to maintain control over what I ate. At the same time, I had to remain healthy-looking and leave food on my plate to remain feminine and not be seen as greedy (much more upsetting to me than being seen as fat) – or have other people take control, even in as simple ways as advising what I should or shouldn’t eat, or trying to get me to join in their diets.

In short, I wanted to be able to eat without fear.

Over the years, I have built on my exercise regimes and developed commitments to sports which “prove” I go beyond exercising to lose weight (e.g. climbing instructing). I have developed an interest in food, nutrition and cooking that “proves” I am genuinely interested in food and not just a glutton lacking self-control. Of course, my interests are for their own sake, but it doesn’t stop me racking up “proofs” in the back of my mind.

All this because it is too insane, too unbelievable and too fragile just to say that what I really want is to be fit, strong and healthy.

This distorted reality.

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A Leg Up on the Hairy History

The removal of “objectionable hair” is a fashion stunt. Yes. It was started by the fashion industries and slowly crept over women’s bodies invading more and more (and eventually more) private areas as fashion became more revealing. Now, few women feel comfortable sporting unshaven legs, far fewer unshaven underarms, and I have known several women who even shave their arms. Whilst selective grooming is a very personal choice, I still stand by Hadley Freeman, who, in the book my brother-in-law gave me for Christmas, says, “sexual maturity is an attractive quality in an adult”. Why are we infantilising the female body (and with chest hair, sometimes the male)?

The answer: fashion, is actually reassuring. This is just a fad.

In the thirties, wartime frugality meant women couldn’t buy stockings. In order not to look scruffy and poor, they started shaving their legs and drawing on stocking lines. As bare legs and shorter hemlines became more popular, the line disappeared, but shaven legs remained.

It’s not the first hair removing fad. History contains many odd examples, such as the use of arsenic for hair removal, or the Egyptians’ full-body shaving – a handy tactic that prevented some spread of disease.

Questions and debates about hairiness are complicated because whilst men shaving their faces is common, and fashion directs them in a particular direction, it is not socially pressured. Some peoplethink beards are disgusting (or terrifying), but they don’t try to enforce their opinion, much. But women shave bits where men have hair too, and men tend not to shave those regions. Not that even women are consistent amongst themselves. Wikipedia, for example, says, “Some women may only shave the hair below the knee – depending on the length of dress styles in fashion – while others shave the entire leg.[1] The frequency of shaving also varies, with some women shaving their legs every day, and others shaving only at the start of summer, in anticipation of the wearing of a swimsuit.”

How far do you think is too far?

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1-Sentence Theses

I have discovered Lol my Thesis. Chemistry is not very well represented by it. The basic principle is tosum up your thesis in one sentence, preferably a funny one.

I have been trying.

Tweaking Molecular sieves to absorb waste carcinogens and convert them into non-carcinogens – hopefully

Trying to suck up carcinogens into tiny rocks

You can use tiny porous rocks to suck up carcinogens!

Porous rocks can suck up carcinogenic waste – but it won’t come back out. 😦

I got some carcinogens stuck in rocks… now what~?

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Ten Better Commandments of Vegetarianism

I am still reading the Hadley Freeman book. About halfway through she introduces 10 [patronising] commandments of being an unannoying vegetarian, which basically seems to be her way of saying “Shut up! Be quiet! Put up with things: you have chosen a line of suffering, so suffer.” And encompasses some idea that eating food without meat (ever) is unnatural.

So I want to go through her points.

  1. Don’t define yourself by your dietary choices: agree. Do not let this aspect of your life define you. As with any factor, you let that define you, you begin devaluing yourself.

  2. Don’t talk about your poo. As a lifelong vegetarian, this is very strange to me. The only people whom I know talk about their poo with respect to diet are meat eaters who temporarily eat a vegetarian diet. They rave about it. They can’t get over it. But presumably they would if they kept eating vegetarian food, as other vegetarians I have met who once ate meat never talk about their poo. I think Hadley is preaching to the wrong park.

  3. Don’t preach. Really, really agree. Nobody likes anybody else’s views shoved down their throats. But the length Freeman goes on about this for you would think it’s the most important thing. It isn’t. You can express your views and you should: but you should also respect other people’s views and not crowd them. Anyone who thinks vegetarianism is about anything else is doing it wrong.

  4. Don’t talk about your weight loss. If you experience weight loss on changing to a vegetarian diet, either you are doing vegetarianism wrong, or you were doing meat-easting very, very wrong.

  5. Don’t make your non-vegetarian foods eat at vegetarian restaurants. The key word here is “make”. This is where Freeman preaches about the selfishness of vegetarianism and expresses your obligation to martyrdom. Don’t listen to her. Do not “make” your friends eat anywhere they don’t want to, whether vegetarian or otherwise. But feel free to invite them to eat somewhere vegetarian, because remember, meat eaters can actually eat meals that do not contain meat (shock! horror!). It’s actually very unhealthy if they don’t. You, meanwhile, do not have to feel obliged to eat at a restaurant that doesn’t do vegetarian food, living off side dishes and eating properly afterwards at home. You are not a social recluse and you do not have to “suffer” either. Friends should be able to work round each other so that everybody is content. Yes, you can ask for a meat dish with meat taken out: they can only say no. This does not make you a selfish or despicable person, whatever Freeman says.

  6. Don’t eat meat substitutes. WHY WOULD YOU WANT TO DO THIS ANYWAY???

  7. Prepare your responses. Freeman does not make as big a deal of this as I think she should. She admits people will grill you about vegetarianism and suggests you laugh it off, change the topic and avoid discussing it. Vegetarianism, you see, is something indefensible that you should be ashamed of. Personally I think that propagating this attitude only makes it okay to attack people on the basis of vegetarianism, calling them selfish, which as far as I can see is exactly the opposite point: it’s like fundamentalists attacking homosexuals: mob mentality: attack the few to avoid facing your own shortcomings. Whilst laughing it off may be one legitimate way of dealing with attacks on your choices, the real problem is the attacks, and I strongly advocate making people aware of any kind of bullying or victimisation, not shutting up about it. There is asking, and there is grilling. Know the difference.

  8. Help animals. If convenient. Remember, animal suffering is not the only reason for vegetarianism, all dietary choices are a compromise not an absolute, and you do not have to “prove” your allegiance in order to justify the “inconvenience” of your diet.

  9. The world is not your personal caterer. This is basically a repeat of 3. and 5. Freeman wants to make sure that you recognise that by not eating something, you consider yourself entitled and above everybody else. It does not require an extra bullet point.

  10. Don’t go to Eastern Europe. You should consider your dietary choices an imprisonment. Or, you should make yourself aware of limitations such as lack of vegetables in some countries and make sure you factor that in if you do plan to travel. Alice Roberts did it.

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Hatty New Year

We stayed up for the New Year and celebrated at home. To keep us occupied, we had a drink, some exciting snacky foods, and watched films. But this wasn’t going to be enough tokeep me busy, so I made miniature top hats as well. Out of yoghurt pots.



For the hat brim and slanted top I used stiff cardboard like the kind on the back of a notepad, glued onwith woodglue. The black netting is made from an old pair of tights.



The red spotty hat is unfinished and I want it to have a large white flower on the side. The material is extra from a dress in the same fabric.



This hat is designed in the style of “My Fair Lady”, the races.

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Caring at Christmas

This year, I Christmassed in Bristol for the second time. I’ve spent all my life living in cities, so it seems strange that I’m not usually stationed in one for Christmas, but I’m not. But being in a city opens out opportunities not always available outside them, especially if you don’t have a car and are not the host of festivities.

I write this as if it’s about me: it is. I wanted to go help the homeless and cook them Christmas dinner, and this year my husband and I did it. We went to Caring at Christmas at St Paul’s, and it was great fun.

I didn’t do it because I felt overcome with guilt or pity, because I felt obliged, as a kind of penance to qualify my life. I didn’t do it to feel morally right or superior or get that warm glow of satisfaction and good deed. I did it because I knew I would enjoy it. Good deeds are good, but they are also things that should get done. Do you feel a warm glow of righteous satisfaction when you brush your teeth, make dinner, or hoover the house? I thought not.

I like to get things done, and do them well and enjoy the work. It doesn’t feel like a chore to give up some of my Christmas day to help create ones for scores of other people; it just seems like part of the division of labour, part of the festivities, part of the human connection. It is my turn – the opportunity is there – we seize it.

I want to wish good luck to all the other Caring at Christmas volunteers and guests, and a very happy New Year. It was a pleasure to work with you all.


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The Quick-Fix

I’ve just watched this video and wanted to share it with a couple of thoughts. It discusses the principles of freedom in education and the importance of health and happiness. More crucially, and more linked to some previous posts of mine, it mentions the idea that schools teach us to make a living, not a life.

One of my comments is that I am shocked these things are suggested as gaps in education. We are learning all the time. Everything you do at home is part of your life and learning experience, and whatever the % of learning that you remember or influences your later life, it is only one, formal element of it. We can do these learning experience things as an extracurricular learning experience. I know – I did. It never occurred to me I didn’t have to go out there and find stuff like this to survive, that education would be enough to see me for life. Why? Because I’ve seen it fail. Again and again. Being intelligent and having good grades doesn’t make you happy, doesn’t get you a good job and even more importantly, doesn’t make you safe.

My other comment is about Roger Walsh’s concept that spiritual or religious involvement is necessary for happiness and healthiness. You know what this makes me feel? Sad. Depressed. Angry. Excluded. Frustrated. All the negative feelings in a sea of confusion. And yes, I know “spiritual” has a very broad interpretation. But that doesn’t matter. Why? Because I’m not religious, I’m not spiritual, and the idea that I would have to do any of these things that I hate, which I find repulsive, untruthful and often prejudiced or be punished with an incomplete sense of happiness underlines to me not a true understanding of the nature of happiness, but the level to which a person’s own experiences and choices are so interlinked with their research that tehy cannot separate the two.

I find “belief” shallow. To me, it feels like a cheat or a shortcut that gets results, like a quick fix of drugs in place of real emotions and understanding. It reminds me of when I was at school and was constantly asked for who my heroes were. I tried to explain that I didn’t idolise people but they wouldn’t let me say that. I used to feel bullied by teachers to complete this exercise because it was good for me to have a hero and a role model. I wasn’t allowed to see people for the massesof positives and negatives they really are, to understand their complexities and diversities and know no one single person is everything you would want to be; I wasn’t allowed to want to be myself – a child with potential before me – rather than somebody else, a person who had achieved something I would never conceivably achieve. Why is this healthy? Why would it make people happy to teach kids to take shortcuts and go for quick fixes? Why not teach them to delve in deep, understand, analyse like a good science and develop a critical and compassionate brain?

I don’t think this kind of learning is enough either.

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A recent article has emerged on brain connections research: “Men and women’wired differently'”, that claims all our cultural stereotypes are in fact founded in neurology. The moment I read it I got suspicion signals (a bit like creep signals, but for dodgy science rather than dodgy men), so I have been browsing the web on the search of a little more neurosciencey insight.

For a start, the whole men versus women debate is not one I feel comfortable with. Some people deny categorically that there is any difference between men and women except for sex and won’t hear anything to the contrary – and who can blame them, really, when others are so sure men and women are fundamentally different that the delegation of the woman to the home and historical domination of women by men is justified. In religious circles, this is the concept of complementarity: that each person has their place, determined by their sex, and they should just suck it up, bitches: god made you to do that job, how dare you say a word against HIM?

(of course, there is no need to be religious to hold this view, and it is less and less common amongst religious followers: it still persists)

So you can imagine I am relieved when I am reminded of all the studies which measure how much bigger men’s brains are than women’s (and yet found no relationship to intelligence) or that men have more white and women more grey brain matter. In fact, as Mo Costand puts it:

“Subtle observable differences exist between male and female brains, but how exactly these relate to differences in behaviour is unknown. Such gender variations in the brain are often exaggerated and misappropriated, not only by the mass media but also by scientists, to reinforce stereotypes and perpetuate myths”

What’s scary about this?

We don’t know stuff. We can see there are differences, but we can’t appropriate those differences to a given result because we have no evidence to connect the brain to the behaviour – just note differences between complex individuals on the basis of one fatcor. Yes, there were plenty of participants: 428 males and 521 females aged 8-22. But all of the adults recruited from the University of Pennsylvania, and all of them from the same cultural background.

Sex was the only factor examined. How can we be sure the differences result from sex biology and not sex culture? This is the nature versus nurture debate again. And the problem is that brains are not hardwired, they are flexible and the connections develop as the sum of our experiences. Eight years is a long time for brain development, and yes, the study noticed increasing male and female diversity with age, but how influenced is an eight year old by gender stereotypes, compared with, say, a fourteen year old? The cultural influence is vast. And I don’t say it is culture. Culture and biology are in any case massively interdependent – hence the debate. But I do say the study doesn’t check that it isn’t, so it can’t make any claims.

Dr Dean Burnett points out that scientific literature sports evidence for greater differences between brains of different ages than sexes. Over time, our brains change hugely. There is huge cultural influence – of some kind.

So the scary thing is that it looks like this study was analysed with the aim of reinforcing cultural stereotypes: i.e. “prove me right” science. Of course, by the time the story gets to the media, it may have been so warped that the original scientists who conducted it no longer recognise their work. I wouldn’t know. But they have still made the faux pas of coming to conclusions that have a huge social impact, and publishing them irresponsibly, given the evidence. Perhaps too much pressure and encouragement to publish results has resulted in these kinds of publications – where editors can handpick studies that reinforce cultural beliefs and create a stir. Because boring results which confirm what we already “know” are what the public really want.

I would be interested in reading the original study to answer some of these questions and learn how they quantify the male and female differences. But I haven’t found a link to it… Hm.

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A Science Note

I have just been researching Bright Club and am loving Dr Mo’s perspective on crystallography: the science of frying the living fuck out of painstakingly obtained microscopic crystals.

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Peer Review Review

So more thoughts on peer review? And after yet another discussion on the subject at the recent SpotOn conference for online scicomm, I have some notes.

The problems with peer review are clear (or, as said at the conference, “the peer review system is broken, or at least severely dysfunctional”):

  • peer reviewers are overloaded with too much material to read through and not enough time to read it
  • completing peer reviews does not carry any reward, so there is no motivation to do a good job
  • impact factor abuse: competition to place articles in positions of high impact, not positions to reach the audience
  • it is too highly praised: the peer review system is held up as the fulcrum of scientific equity, this makes it hard to accept that it is faulty or that big changes might be made; it is too well imbedded
  • anonymity is doubtful – researchers often know other members of their field so well, there is no true anonymity in whose article you are peer reviewing, or who really reviewed yours
  • reviewers do not repeat experiments, so the contents are not fully reviewed: some stuff is always taken on trust
  • the speed of the publishing process and how this impacts upon pressure to peer review and pace of dissemination

I’m sure you can think of more, but there is a bare bones version.

So what to do? The problem with this is, there are lots of ideas, and whilst pooling ideas together and piloting new things sounds like a winner, in practice it doesn’t come out quite so cuddly. What we have now is a wealth of new ideas competing rather than collaborating to be add-ons to the existing system, each plugging their own sale. The hardened capitalists may say that competition is good, it will increase the quality of the product. So far, however, it sucks. Because of competiting priorities and the need for big changes, there is overwheleming choice, none of the systems are completely stable and none can be widely implemented. And remember, these systems are all add-ons; they are peer reviews of peer review; they slow down and add steps to the system

For example, here are just a few of the bizarre things that have come out of peer-review ideologies under the pressure to radically reform it. Just think about the implications…

  • a second wave of peer review – DOUBLE PEER REVIEW
  • being able to choose your own reviewers, especially for controversial subjects
  • peer reviewers obliged to repeat experiments to check they are replicable (with no extra funding)

So much for the greater good.

And yet there are some ideas which are much more ambiguous. What do you think about, for example:

  • doing away with impact factors (!)
  • being allotted a publication by your reviewers (!)
  • rewarding peer review similarly to publications (…)

It comes down to a compromise between making people happy and pushing for quality – something that doesn’t seem to be weighed out by the revision systems: you either make peer reviewers work harder for less returns and have a rigorous review system, or you start handing out candy and open up the reviews for abuse and neglect.

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