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The Mayor, The Giant & The Bad Smell

green giant

What does New York City, frozen green beans & deodorant have in common? Stumped? They are all backing self-esteem campaigns for kids. What is a self-esteem campaign, you ask? Well, NYC, Green Giant & Secret are splashing out on media that lets kids know they are good enough gosh darn it. There are subtle differences in the campaigns however. The beans and roll-on focus is on bullying, and NYC is on the side of positive body image.

Mayor Bloomberg is telling girls he loves them just the way they are. This $330,000 initiative is partly a visual campaign exalting girls of all shapes and colors and a fitness program. Mixed message aside, the point is to combat the imagery with which girls are daily confronted. The Giant & deodorant on the other hand are focused on victims of bullying. Their’s seems a much more bland campaign with the goal of prompting conversation. (Is anyone not talking about bullying these days?!) What these three initiatives have in common are targeting the victim.

None of this bullying propaganda deals with the bully. Green Giant implores parents to; “Help Her Stand Up To Bullying.” Interestingly, bullying almost by definition, suggest more than a one-on-one experience. The bullies are almost always plural and the bullied is most definitely singular. (That’s why it works!) Simple math would suggest that more bean buying parents have a bully at their table than a victim. Forgetting the misguided calculation for a moment; what in the world does it mean to “stand up to a bully?” How is it helpful to throw such platitudes around? The way to combat bullying is to grow strong children. Children who feel confident and secure do not bully. Children who are told (through words and deeds) that they are simply the best build arrogance not self-esteem. Strength comes from mastering challenges not from trophies and ribbons. All children want to be liked (and hopefully grow out of that weakness by the time they’re parents.) It is perfectly natural for a child to crumble from bullying. As long as that child has friends, interests and activities outside of the bullying vortex they should be fine. But suggesting that he/she is somehow at fault is not fine.

A (meager) $330,000 campaign aimed at convincing girls they’re beautiful is also not fine. This drop in the bucket is ridiculous at best and patronizing at worst. Girls are raised in an overt feminized, and sexualized environment today. They are swathed in pink and glitter and bombarded with objectifying imagery. There are high-heeled shoes in toddler sizes now. Perhaps a campaign encouraging parents to turn off the television, stop buying celebrity magazines and get a little more gender neutral would have an impact. (Surrounding little girls with princess narratives and imagery is not terribly empowering.) Trying to grow strong girls in a climate of hair extensions, false eyelashes, silicone, twerking and botox is not easy. A subway poster or youtube video isn’t really gonna change much of anything. Particularly if they get off the subway and are confronted with softly pornographic posters in the station and above ground.

I don’t doubt everyone’s good intentions, but nothing short of being all in is going to work here. Focusing on the victims not only sends the wrong message but is simply not effective. If the bean people really want to be a meaningful voice in the bully conversation how about a graphic novel-esque serial of the Jolly Green Giant instigating an online attack against Sprout? This comic strip could illuminate the weakness and insecurity of the Giant and Sprout could demonstrate coping skills. If NYC is worried about the body image of its smallest female residents, perhaps Mayor Bloomberg could hire models to do before and after photos? Children could see the smoke and mirrors for themselves. At the end of the day it’s really hard to combat the 24/7 buzz. Girl children have never had so many negative messages and role models. There are so many ways and so many chances for girls to be objectified. There are new ways (every day) for bullies to hide and perpetrate their self-medicating ways. We (the grown-ups) created this and we can fix it. There isn’t one answer, it’s more of a collective of measures. Children have different needs and parents are in the best position to address them. One method that will never work, however, is to blame the victim.

 
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Posted by on October 1, 2013 in Childhood, Cultural Critique

 

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Hoarders

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Reality television is at best a cracked lens on society. The percentage of toddlers wearing hairpieces, spray tans, dentures, and artificial nails is in actuality quite small. Most women don’t call themselves housewives, implant faces and bodies beyond recognition and parent so abysmally. Whether the people who participate in these shows are mentally healthy or not is an interesting question. Voguing for a camera (and hoping to land fame, fortune and book deals) is not currently classified as a mental illness. For the official-certified-it’s listed in the DSM-V, display of mental illness you need to turn to the addiction sub-genre of reality show.

That there is an audience at all to watch people struggle with a mental illness is itself disturbing. But evidently there is, and the proof is the shows focusing on obesity, drug and alcohol addiction and hoarding. You’ll note that there are no shows about mental illness that have a less quantifiable or compelling visual behavior. There’s yet to be a “Watch The Narcissist” show, and to be fair it’s probably due to the redundancy factor. There’ll never be a “Depressed Divas” show as depressed people are never entertaining. A “BiPolar Bonanza” would demand a far too attentive director and shooting schedule (dammit his mood just shifted, where is the camera!) We, the audience, are not very interested in mental illness per se, what we like is wacky behavior. And if that behavior stems from a syndrome all the better. We love nothing more than hearing from a person with questionable credentials (‘therapist’ needs a modifier to mean anything) spout psychobabble about the behavior. The hoarding shows center around this very phenomenon. We see a ‘therapist’ gently talking the hoarder into parting with the petrified pet. In the next scene she actively listens to distraught and frustrated family members and explains ‘the process’ to them. We sit in our over-accessorized homes, eating chips and dip out of a chip and dip bowl, as we wear our ‘tv watching’ outfit and snort over the wasteful accumulation. “That’s f*&^ed up” we say as we accidentally tip over the tower of DVDs.

This interest in wacky behavior doesn’t just guide free cable programming decisions. It also seems to guide political policy and expenditure. There are currently 85 communities across this country that consider hoarding to be a serious public health hazard. Hoarding, of course is not necessarily a health hazard. No one has been physically harmed by a Madame Alexander doll or Thomas Kinkade collection. Possibly a more apt description for the kind of behavior with which the authorities are concerned is ‘filth’. There’s a method that’s been used since the dawn of filth for such scenarios; it’s called condemning. There are no soft-spoken ‘therapists’ or understanding fire chiefs necessary. If a home poses a genuine risk to the public, shut it down. Anything else is utterly disingenuous. Hoarding and living in filthy squalor is only the presenting behavior. There’s a reason people engage in barricade building. Convincing someone to part with a few carcasses and some urine soaked newspaper may make the helpers feel better, but dollars to dozens and dozens of donuts, that home is going to fill the hell up again. And why shouldn’t it?! What business is it of anyone’s how someone else chooses to live? This is when someone pipes up and says “It’s a public heath issue”. Is it? Not always. If the person lives rurally it’s not. If it really and truly is then shut it down. But wait, what’s to become of the hoarder? Well, if we really believe that the person is a danger to themselves and others (and if they’re not we have no business bothering them) than they need to live in a protected environment.

That homes are being cleaned out, very slowly and often at taxpayer expense, by community officials is troubling. On its surface it appears that we care about our most fragile neighbors. If that is even remotely true why aren’t the same resources being used to remodel shantytowns? Surely people living in doorways, under bridges and in tunnels are also worthy of a clean dwelling. It stands to reason that people living on the street, presumably without access to health care also pose a public health hazard. It is always better to err on the side of helping, but it is the responsibility of the strong to be clear about who exactly they are helping and why. Wrapping ourselves in rhetoric to impinge on someone’s autonomy is not helping anyone but ourselves.

 

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Tackling College Athletics

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Spelman College has dropped all sports and has picked up fitness. They plan to use their athletic facilities and budget to create healthy bodies and habits. Dr. Beverly Tatum, Spelman’s president, chose this path after making disturbing observations about the dollars spent per student athlete and the physical condition of students and young alumni. No doubt every college/university administrator has made these observations at some time. But Dr. Tatum has made an unpopular but wildly responsible move to create meaningful change.

Higher education costs have been rising exponentially for some time. At the same time, a bachelor’s degree has become a minimum requirement for most jobs. College, which was once for ‘some’ people, has become necessary for most people. Colleges and universities in the race to remain competitive have felt compelled to spend extraordinary amounts of money on features giving them an edge. For some schools, an edge means stellar facilities, for others it means technology programs that by their very nature are an insatiable repository of funds. Smaller programs, particularly liberal arts programs, fall to the wayside in some schools as they don’t provide the most obvious return on investment. An institution can sacrifice language programs, performing arts and soft sciences with its eye on higher education dominance.(Nobody ever got on a Top 10 University list by virtue of its wonderful poetry department.)

There has been a collective consensus in recent years that higher education is no longer simply an institution of thinkology. There are only so many resources (public, private, endowment) to go around. Yet athletic programs are still an assumed part of the college experience. Why is that? Why at a time when student debt AND the level of obesity is skyrocketing, do we think higher education athletics is simply a given? Now before you start waving your pennants or foam fingers at me; let’s have a word about school spirit. Piffle. Nobody ever got a better education or a leg up in life from painting their face and wearing overpriced sweatshirts. Is playing on a team fun? Yes, and so is performing in a play. Is cheering on ‘your’ team a kick in the pants? Probably, but so is watching the debating team wipe the floor with the competition. Do team sports teach team skills? One would think. But if we agree that team skills are important (and I’m not convinced they are) can’t they be built in class or on a Habitat For Humanity project?

But what of the schools who actually make a significant portion of their budget from playing sports at an elevated level? Quite frankly I would say; huh?! Is that really what we want higher education to be in 2013? If we really want to train young men and women to be professional athletes, can’t we just create technical sport schools? If we had a crystal ball we may very well see that these schools with profitable athletic programs will in essence become technical sport schools. But for every other school allocating large parts of their budget to athletic programs while their tuition skyrockets, it’s time to reevaluate. Yes the alumni will be up in arms, and yes perhaps some students too. But part of being a charismatic leader is being able to communicate why change is beneficial. The Spelman athletic director (with 25 years on the job) is on board and in agreement with Dr. Tatum’s directive. Dr. Tatum is currently fielding calls from college/university presidents questioning the value of athletics to higher education.

Great leadership should involve more than getting one’s institution’s name in the paper. Great leaders must make difficult and at times unpopular decisions for the betterment of the institution and the people it serves. Cutting costs by cutting sparsely populated (but wonderful) programs is not an act of bravery or long-term solution to higher education costs. We are now into overtime with the issue of higher education affordability. Too many qualified students cannot afford tuition (which is why they have such debt.) Pulling the plug on an expensive program that is not an integral part of a baccalaureate or graduate degree should be a serious consideration.

 
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Posted by on April 14, 2013 in Cultural Critique, Education

 

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Just Say Know

A new diet pill is about to be approved!  All our cares are about to be over.  This magic pill (approved by our very own Federal Drug Administration) will put an end to our nation’s demise d’jour; obesity.  The drug is not new, its approval is though.  The drug hasn’t changed.  It’s still a wonder pill which; a) causes tumors in rats b) damages (human) heart valves c) and doesn’t cause much weight loss.  Happy Days are indeed here again!

So why, after 13 years of diet pill drought, is the F.D.A. approving a drug they previously deemed not worthy of approval?  Why do we think.  Peer pressure is not just for teenagers.  There are (to my way of thinking) only two diet pill designs that could work.  A medication can either prevent or eradicate the absorption of calories or it can render a person incapable of eating (i.e., create permanent nausea.)  It’s hard to fathom how either of those approaches can be safely achieved (not to mention why anyone would want to risk malnutrition of feel permanently car sick.)  Why then, with all the diseases out there, would the F.D.A. (or any drug manufacturer) spend time and resources on this endeavor?  Money.

Insurance companies would be all over a diet pill.  Individuals will be clamoring for it.  Can you imagine the advertising?  I’m picturing men and women being unchained from their heft, the sound of angels, an appearance of a rainbow, and the hushed rushed intonation of “may cause tumors, death and does not lead to significant weight loss.”  Good times.  (An aside: There was a time when cigarettes were marketed to Americans as a weight loss device.)

Might I suggest that if the federal government has fear of being left behind in this 21st century scourge, that the Department of Agriculture steps up?  A simple labeling policy that sets a limit to the processing a food can undergo and still be deemed food, would change our country.  There is precedence for this kind of intervention.  There was a time when anything could be sold as juice.  It was only through the intervention of the government that our nation began to enjoy “drink.”  If ultra-processed foods were deemed the equivalent of “drink” they could no longer be served to children in federally subsidized programs.  These ‘food-like’ products could not be purchased with any funds linked to the government at all.  Food-like items and purveyors would be limited in their advertising and marketing.  The trickle down would mean a shift in product placement in movies and television.  Amusement parks, movie theatres and other holding tanks for children would identify food and food-like products.  Children would grow up knowing the difference between; whole foods, processed foods, and food simulated products.

It seems so easy doesn’t it?  No chaos, no chastising, no food pyramids getting mauled into new shapes.  So why isn’t this happening?  Money.  It is very hard to become morbidly obese from eating real (21st century) foods.  It is also not all that profitable to grow/produce and sell whole foods.  But you know what’s really profitable?  Selling products as food (with all the subsidized benefits that implies) with enormous mark-up, that’s what.  There isn’t much room for mark-up on a head of broccoli, but on frozen and boxed food, the sky’s the limit.  Without sounding too cloak and dagger, there is a lot of money at stake and not just for the pockets of the food producers (conspiratorial wink here.)

Yes there are greater nefarious doings going on in the world.  But every time a government entity waves the banner of the “Obesity Epidemic” we are reminded that we are supposed to keep our eyes on the banner, and never ever look behind it.  It seems that whenever we declare “war” on a social ill, it’s actually a sign that we’re giving up.

 

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The Food Desert Mirage

Recently two studies have published findings disputing the popular wisdom of “Food Deserts.”  (A phrase just begging to be misread, or perhaps I am just far too fixated on cake.)  For some time now; health experts, food security advocates and the like, have maintained that diminished access to whole foods has contributed to increased rates of obesity and obesity related illness.  Arguments go further, suggesting that inexpensive fast food is often the only food choice in lower income neighborhoods.

It’s understandable where this theory comes from.  Poorer neighborhoods have more fast food establishments (and liquor and check cashing stores.)  People with lower incomes tend to be in poorer health and suffer higher obesity rates, ergo…  But viewed from another angle, say at 180 degrees, there is a “sexual assault occurs more in the summer therefore ice cream must be to blame” aspect to this theory.  For food desert theory to be true, a couple of factors must be in place, chief among them lack of access to whole foods.  (“Whole Foods” is an apt phrase to use, as anyone who’s ever been on the subway can report that people travel quite some distance to lug home shopping bags from a store filled with tastefully displayed organics.  Proving that proximity to groceries is a relative concept.)  Second to the issue of lack of access is that of fast food being less costly than whole food.  Excluding any clearance sales of shamrock shakes, prepared food is always more pricey than (very healthful) dried beans and rice.  Lastly, if the income level is low enough, children will be eating two meals a day (for ten months) in the public school.  (Ketchup as vegetable aside, school lunches are more healthful than fast food.)

So then how do we explain the rise in obesity levels in lower income neighborhoods?  How did a country which once demonstrated wealth by the enormity of one’s waistband become a mirror image of itself?  First we look at the nation as a whole.  It is not just lower income people who are growing.  Second, we focus on where we can make an impact; the children.  Why are children, across a wide swath of economic levels, growing in size?  What has changed?

In the 1950s (or even 1960s) a child’s day may start with a nutritionally balanced and perhaps even cooked breakfast.  Eggs, hot and cold cereal, real juice and milk were often the order of the weekday.  Fancy carbohydrates (pancakes, waffles and french toast) were a weekend treat.  Many children came home for lunch, often to a sturdy hot meal.  Lunchbox toting tots unpacked portable versions of home lunches and augmented them with a carton of (whole) milk.  One thing was noticeably absent from the average child’s day: a Wonkaville world of processed snacks and treats.  “Sugar” cereals were relatively new to the game and made rare appearances on breakfast tables.  Microwaveable or toastable bakery-like confections were yet to be invented.  Once out of the house, children were not barraged with processed snacks as they are now.  Vending machines were in factories and offices, and issued more sandwiches and half-filled cups of coffee colored acid, than they did snacks and candy.  Pocket money (if a child had such a thing) would be spent on a favorite candy bar, comic book or gum.  If fast food (which was in its infancy) made it into the house as an evening meal, it was a treat (for the children) and a respite (for the parents.)

The proliferation and availability of processed food snacks has changed our culture’s orientation towards “junk food.”  Ice cream and cake were often the highlight of a child’s birthday party (versus the bespoke goody bags and Vegas entertainers of today.)  Edible treats are now viewed as an integral part of a child’s day.  (Just try and find a playground, zoo, or museum that doesn’t have a snack bar perimeter.)  Children have money to buy snacks on the way to and from school, not to mention IN the school.  Those that do engage in organized play are supplied snacks during their 15 minutes of actual activity.  From the earliest of ages, children are being taught to prefer the taste of processed foods.  Baby yogurts(!) line grocery shelves.  Yogurt IS baby food (what’s next? baby-baby food?)  Toddlers cannot make it one full block in their stroller without carbo-loading on goldfish crackers or cheerios.  Special toddler meals now join baby food ranks.  Plying children with food stuff in nugget form is the norm.  For at least a decade now, a portable lunch rich in nitrates and sugar can be purchased and tossed into a backpack.  All of these “foods” came from a grocery store, not a food desert.

To really understand what’s going on and how to ensure we’re not on the brink of being an obese nation suffering from malnutrition we must let go of the notion of food deserts.  There is enormous special interest and billions of dollars involved in this issue.  It is no wonder we are loath to really examine what is in essence a “food amusement park.”

 
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Posted by on April 18, 2012 in Childhood, Cultural Critique, Well-Being

 

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