Friday, June 8, 2007
The Plastic Surgery Myth
I was but a spotty teen in 1991 when The Beauty Myth, by Naomi Wolf was released, yet I read it with interest and not a little alarm.

It said women are damaged by the pressure to conform to an idealized concept of female beauty and the beauty myth is political, a way of maintaining the patriarchal system. She claims that this system keeps women under control through their own insecurities.

Fifteen years have passed and surely Wolf must survey our current preoccupation with a homogenized beauty ideal, with alarm and also depression.

In 1991 Wolf used the example of women having cosmetic surgery as an endgame of sorts, where women so insecure with their own appearance, so afraid of the aging process, so vain, self obsessed and unhappy, resorted to the surgeon’s knife to cut themselves into the shapes society deemed as acceptable.

Her vision of women pouring dangerous chemicals on their faces to remove layers of skin, filling the place where their breasts used to be silicon and injecting their foreheads with botulism (used previously in the treatment of cerebral palsy) was apoplectic – a nightmare scenario that back in the 90s seemed a bit overblown, almost hysterical. Surely Wolf was over-egging the pudding to get a few column inches to promote her book.

But cut to 2007 and her worst fears have been realised. Invasive, dangerous and ultimately vain and pointless cosmetic procedures have been accepted and normalized through shows such as Extreme Makeover and trash-bag celebrities whose chest sizes inflate as their waist measurements contract.

There has always been the element of the freakshow about those celebrities and the makeover shows and I like to think that there’s always been an element of caution in some sections of the media in relation to plastic surgery.

That is why I watched horrified on Wednesday night as the BBC aired a show called How Young Can I Get.

It wasn’t just that the 41 year-old presenter's stomach was hung before the camera, flapping in a matter of fact way, after it had been disattached from her body in a Malaysian hospital (where surgery is half the price of an op in the UK, and yippee, there’s a 5 star holiday thrown in!) but that the person presenting the program purported to be a journalist and there is something that made me feel distinctly uneasy about seeing the journalist being cut open on camera because she was feeling fat.

There was not a whole lot of balance or caution in the program. The presenter was, in the end, delighted with her flat new stomach. Her friends cooed, and even her mother – who seemed like a sensible sort – looked vaguely approving.

It is through this process and these shows, that surgery becomes normalised. This is how an ideal of beauty becomes standardised. This is where journalism – which should be an independent, impartial and balanced arbiter of the facts, becomes perverted.

I didn’t think the journalist looked better at the end. She had botox, fillers, a chemical peel and the surgery. The smile was rictus, the eyes had a grim, desperate please-love-me gleem, and her stomach was flat. So what.

We all have a different ideal of beauty. I think the people who are the most beautiful are the least self-obsessed. This doesn’t mean that they don’t care about clothes or grooming, but they are the people who accord themselves a certain measure of energy and them have enough left over to spread around to everyone else.

It’s a simple equation. The more time people spend on Project Self (excessive amount of time, money and energy into their own appearance) the less interesting they become. I’d call them beautiful bores if I thought in any way unnecessary plastic surgery makes people more beautiful. But it doesn’t.

And it is those that have fallen most heavily for the beauty myth.

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Wednesday, June 6, 2007
What you see walking to work
Walking to work: is there a more lovely start to the day?

It follows the sweet fog of yawning after a deep sleep, of lying there puzzled at the evening’s dreams. A white swan washed up on a beach and speaking in verse, running to catch some feathers that have escaped from my purse, being chased by a long ago primary school foe, and then the cliff… the cliff, the cliff.

There is a lukewarm shower, the almost sensual appeal of the underfloor bathroom heating on drowsy feet. There is musings of what to wear and retrieving the clothes from the floor. There is the small ache of regret that I had not loved them enough to hang them the night before. There is the day’s first coffee: sweet and strong, rousing my nervous system, straightening my spine. I turn off the radio. I brush my hair and get ready to set off for work a pied.

Springtime in London is perfect walking time and the morning is an ideal time for a stroll. The day’s troubles are still light on my shoulders – if I apprehend troubles at all.

Walking into work seems like a civilised way to meet the day – to walk into its brightness or its rain and shadows and say ‘Hello, I hope things go well for us today.’

My walk to work takes me from Bloomsbury to Soho. It is a walk in two acts- from some of London’s loveliest squares, bookstores and the British Museum (pictured above), through to the back streets of Soho and the sex district of Little Amsterdam, before arriving at CNN. In forty minutes there is so much life teeming in the squares and on the streets that four novels could be plotted all before 11 am.

The First Act: parklife, gentile old Bloomsbury, ever-green squares, tourists with wheelie suitcases, men with museum faces, school children in red uniforms walking in pairs, stretched and moving along the street like a bloody river.

In Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, the narrator, a Bloomsbury native, now in a correspondent in pre-war Saigon, says, “I thought I was tied to what was left of a Bloomsbury square and the 73 bus passing the portico of Euston and springtime in the local in Torrington Place. Now the bulbs would be out in the square garden and I didn’t care a damn.”

But I am still new enough in this part of the world to be agape at the wonder of it all and “care a damn” about the flowering bulbs.

First square I walk through is Tavistock Square opposite the British Medical Association. The mood of this square is almost always quiet, reverent even.

People sit alone on benches, some reading, some smoking and taking in the morning’s newspapers, but many just sitting, eyes fixed above the shady plane trees, lips persed in silent communion with the conversations playing out within.

On the unoccupied benches, I stoop to read the dedications hammered into silver plaques. “For Martin who loved music and London: 1954 – 1987," "For our darling daughter, who lived in New York, loved London and worked all her life for peace.”

The next square on my walk, that Greene sometimes referred to in his novels as Bloomsbury Square is Russell Square.

It has none of the melancholy that tinges Tavistock Square- instead everyone who passes through it seems to be grinning like a loon.

There is a cool Rasta type dude that works in the square doing the garden including the almost hyper-real beds of tulips. He talks to everyone. There are little dogs off leads and children on leads, and squirrels that are unafraid of people and a sprawling café in the shade.

Even in deepest winter, it is a happy square. The first time I saw snow in London was walking through this square. It flew like ash through the air, and still people walked through the square with those huge grins plastered across their faces, the ash melting into their clothes.

Cross the road and there’s the British Museum. Each day outside its gates, someone asks me where the British Museum is.

Then along past the book shops, where I linger outside the London Review of Books bookshop and dream about all the books that I will read when I retire.

Usually around this time a man with baggy yellow trousers and dreadlocks passes on the other side of the road. He has a loping stride. I see him everyday – always at the same place, crossing at the same point in the road. We don’t say hello. I guess his name to be Leon and suspect he is a Hari Krishna who works the graveyard shift at community radio station. He always looks tired.

The Second Act: ‘The past is another country, they do things differently there,’ and so it is with Soho. It’s another country within London. And I love it.

Poised at Cambridge Circus outside the giant signs for Spamalot, I take a deep breath and brush the Bloomsbury blossoms from my hair and enter the grime zone.

There are men unloading dead chickens from crates, cleaners smoking in the streets, their industrial vacuum cleaners sprawled, spent and exhausted on the footpath.

I step over dried out puddles of sick, before taking a detour to Bar Italia for a coffee and a look at the Sun. On the outdoor tables are men with creative hair and women who got dressed in the dark and don’t give a damn.

Then its along an alleyway, up the proverbial arse of Little Amsterdam. This morning on the small shelf of cobblestones, Japanese tourists took each others photos in front of a sex shop while a man dressed in black rubber, his arms covered in tattoos and half his black hair missing from the left side of his scalp, is sweeping the dust from his shop and whistling. The sun is out.

Some times at 9am furtive looking men come and go from these shops, that sell DVDs, whips, poppers and SEX - but they never look as furtive as you imagine they would be.

Just before the fruit market there is always one menacing man or another speaking to a friend or into a phone about how he “wants to bash Harry. That dirty, filty, c***!” Each day by the fruit carts it appears to be a different man threatening to harm Harry or Barry or Larry. I shrug and buy blueberries.

And so the day starts. A bit of exercise, a bit of high-brow, a dash of low brow. Thinkers and children and dogs and squirrels and dominatrixes and hitmen and fruit-sellers and porn addicts and American tourists with squeaky wheeled cases and bicycles couriers and cleaners and me – walking through it all on my way to work.

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Tuesday, June 5, 2007
Organics: middle-class drug of choice?
I have this friend called Lee (not her real name) who’s little eyes glow like Christmas lights each week when the organic vegetable box arrives.

Lunches will be cancelled, plans forestalled, life itself put on hold while she waits for the vegetable box man to knock on her door.

Later there will be breathless emails: “In the vegetable box this week were leeks and strawberries and bananas!”

The next week it may be carrots, apples or dewberries. It's all organic with the little particles of pesticide free soil still clinging lovingly to the skins.

The beauty of the box, says Lee, is the surprise element. The contents change each week depending on the season and availability of produce.

I have long mocked Lee and her vegetable box. Organic foods, I argued, were the drug of choice for the health conscious middle classes. And just like drugs they sucked away all your money leaving you nothing to show for it but a mouldering compost heap and memories.

But the Project: Life health kick has forced me to reconsider my negative view of vegetable boxes. Maybe if I ate organic vegetables all week I would feel better.

I even went so far as to look up one company on-line. At £10 per week per small box, I’m not sure if its good value. Also what if I don’t eat at home that week? I’ll have a filthy steaming compost heap of whole vegetables and no fond memories of eating them (the vegetables that is, not the compost heap.)

Have any readers had positive experiences or otherwise with vegetable box schemes or are they just marketing hype?

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Monday, June 4, 2007
Dearth of diet books

I am writing this from the Welsh border town of Hay-on-Wye, here for what is billed as one of Britain’s premier book festivals.

But when I scan the heavy program there seems to be some serious omissions. If this is the top dog book festival, where are all the authors with diet books to promote?

Books about fitting into a bikini in 12 weeks consistently top the best seller list yet their names don’t appear. And where all nutritionists promoting their low GI diet books? That diet is like, so hot right now.

Martin Bloody Amis - what does he know about calorie controlled diets? It’s all gulags and terrorists with him.

And what about Kenyan Nobel Peace Laureate Wangari Maathai? Sure she’s done a lot for African development but can she run a half-marathon?

The dearth of health related writing at this festival is obviously not a priority for anyone here.
The festival goers are a pallid lot.

I’ve observed them for four days now. They move from tent to tent at the pace of ewes. They drink cappuccinos whilst reading newspapers. In the afternoon they switch to Pimms and signed volumes of poetry. They are fond of shawls.

On sunny days, they sit in tents that double as lecture theatres and talk about the erosion of civil liberties in the wake of new anti-terror laws. But what about the place of carbohydrates in the modern British diet, I feel like screaming at them. Forget powers of political resistance! What about hot chip resistance?!

No wonder there is an obesity epidemic in Britain. Here are some of the country's greatest thinkers (all penned neatly into one Welsh field) and yet they are not being asked any health related questions. All anyone seems to care about here is the war in Iraq and use of the third person plural as a viable narrative voice.

I decide to take action and ask health related questions from the floor, thereby getting diet and ‘lifestyle’ issues back on the agenda.

I sit up the back of Derek Walcott’s lecture. He is a Nobel Laureate whose Odyssey version of Omeros is hailed as one of the great poems of the twentieth century. He looks quite good for his age. "Mr Walcott - what’s your skin care regime? Do you support facials for men…. mencials I think they are called in some parts of west London. Do you ever think the current gross beauty trend of colonic irrigation will make it into any of poems? And finally, Wordsworth in his poems celebrated the countryside. Why have we never spawned a great poet of the gym? Why are there no lyrics eulogizing the treadmill?"

To Mr Amis; "How do you stay so lean and avoid middle aged spread? Is it because writing about gulags makes you lose your appetite?"

To Marina Lewycka, "You’ve written about Ukrainian tractors and caravans. But what are your views of on the Ukrainian cabbage diet?

To Thomas Keneally, "In your book, the Great Shame, you write about the Irish potato famine. What lessons can we learn today about losing weight the Irish way?"

Actually I didn’t ask any of those questions. There is always some nerdy type on the front row (usually wearing a shawl) wanting to talk about the book.

Boo - I say. Books are making us fat. If we are going to read them they should impart useful things like how to live on a raw food diet and ‘Two weeks to a flat stomach!’

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Welcome to the diary of a reluctant exerciser. Having previously shunned fitness regimes in favour of bacon sandwiches, Brigid Delaney vows to finally shape up, get fit and eat more healthily. Over the next three months read how she gets on in a brave new world of gyms, exercise classes and no bacon sandwiches.
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