Thursday, 26 July 2012

Quick Hit: The Men Who Made Us Fat

This documentary can be found in 12 parts on Youtube, and it's an interesting romp through recent food history, from Nixon's agricultural policies to Sunny Delight turning a child orange.

In three episodes it looks at the rise of fast food chains and the impact of high fructose corn syrup, the economics and behavioural psychology of 'super-sized' portions plus the invention of snacking, and the impact of food packaging, legislation and 'health' foods. There's a lovely degree of paranoia around businesses lobbying MEPs and MPs (and a reminder that Andrew Lansley, when looking for a way to reduce child obesity, sat down with the people marketing, selling and profiting from unhealthy food to discuss if they could possibly maybe see a way forward to cut their profits voluntarily), but also a level of recognition that there is economic logic behind enticing people to buy more food that they like.  Some of the interviews with people who were in the industry thirty or forty years ago were fascinating - a discussion with a farmer in Indiana about the change to over-producing corn, and chatting with the man who introduced counter service in the UK.

Mostly, watching it made me very hungry.

In terms of fat-shaming, it skirted the edges a lot.  In its defence: there was a whole section on the neurological and biochemical responses to food - that sugar can stop people feeling full, that people don't notice if portion sizes are gradually increased, that our brains reward us more for eating sugar and fatty food, that we are duped by marketing etc.   (Consumers are portrayed to an extent as being entirely motivated by biological motivations for sugar and shiny packaging - but that is pretty much as they tend to be seen by sciences and economics anyway)

While 'being obese' is presented as a universal negative, the whole series is dedicated to unpicking structural causes and patterns in food production and marketing as the cause, and there is a lot of talk of people who are trying to eat healthily and lose weight, but are unable to do so due to the food industry itself.  A couple of interviewees do start to head off into individual-blame territory, and are redirected.  Despite that, there were a hell of a lot of stock shots of walking headless bodies

Conclusion: Nice enough basic documentary series, interesting interviews, some of the footage was overused enough to irritate when it was watched as a block rather than (as I suspect was intended) with a week between episodes.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Magical Intent Strikes Again!

I was in London not long ago, and I made my regular trip to Lush in Covent Garden. While I was there, as well as the usual demonstrations of bath bombs and face masks made of porridge oats, I was asked to sign a petition regarding the EU prohibitions on animal testing for cosmetics. The person who asked me to sign was, admittedly, a little hazy on the details other than that they considered animal testing for goods which are not medically necessary to be a Bad Thing.

Well, I signed the petition, and then investigated a little more. So far as I can tell, the EU has been gradually introducing legislation to prohibit using animal subjects to test for particular reactions to cosmetics. In 2013, the third phase of this is supposed to kick in – though let's be clear: a lot of it has already come into effect. The legislation was agreed in 2003 (though it had been in the works since 1998), and a wide swathe of tests have already been banned. The particulars of the last bit of legislation include prohibiting the import of cosmetics which have been tested on animals and banning the remaining toxicity and carcinogenicity tests.

The outcry from the cosmetics industry, and the basis on which they are appealing for a delay to the legislation, is that there are not viable alternatives for carrying out these tests. This does sound like an almost valid reason for people who aren't strongly committed to animal rights – after all, you can argue that it sounds far more practical for toxicity tests to be carried out on animals, rather than people where the effect of failed trials could be horrific. But this is exactly the same argument that was made in 2003 and 2009 – when other toxicity and irritancy tests were prohibited. The industry has been accused of dragging its feet – after all, there has been a 14 year warning that this will happen. A last minute claim that there are no viable alternatives (but that, maybe, there just might be one by 2017 if you delay the legislation...) sounds like a last attempt to delay standards that they do not want to comply with.

 So, after that research, I was pretty happy with having signed that petition. But that wasn't what I wanted to write about. Today, I saw the video of the live performance 'endurance' art [trigger warning for violence and abuse] that Lush put on in a shop window, in which a woman playing an 'animal subject' was put through various tests by scientists, which included restraints, shaving her head, injections, forcing substances into her mouth and which concluded by having her carried out of the shop and placed on a pile of bin bags by the side of the road.

Well, damn. Suddenly, I'm kind of regretting signing that petition. The video talks about how shocking it was to the passersby, how they got so many people signing their petitions, so I will have to agree that it can be effective, but the whole thing leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Like the PETA adverts have for years, this is using a woman as a reasonable stand in for an abused animal.

Even worse, the Lush campaign manager is apparently fully aware of how problematic the performance was – she has already faux-pologised in a blog post, in which she explains that nothing other than a woman being abused by a man in a shop window could possibly have accurately represented the systemic abuse in animal testing. The “important, strong, well and thoroughly considered” decision to have an abused woman at the centre of the piece was apparently deliberately made with an awareness of the context in which images of the abuse of women have been used by campaigning groups in the past, which said campaign manager of course entirely condemns, because she sees this one as being different due to there being no intent to titillate or capitalise on the attention it would get due to being a ten-hour display of violence against a woman.

 Is this really a case of intent being not-as-fucking-magic as people think? I would challenge that campaign manager to analyse why precisely it made so much sense to carry out the performance in that way – why, for instance, there weren't images of animals instead (surely just as horrific and rather more to the point).

What on earth makes her think that HER campaign makes this acceptable, when she is doing the exact same thing as PETA? And, if a campaign features a man hurting and humiliating a woman for ten hours, is it okay to reap the attention so long as you didn't mean for it to benefit from that? If you don't WANT your art/protest/campaign piece to be seen as part of a wider cultural context in which images of violence against women are are used excessively for advertising and campaigning, does that mean that it shouldn't count?

 Well done for being aware of the problems, Lush, but saying that you were aware that it was problematic and then went ahead anyway doesn't get you any brownie points.