Tag Archives: media

Why do we feel bad about the way we look?

Laurie Essig’s new book, American Plastic: Boob Jobs, Credit Cards, and the Quest for Perfection, includes a chapter on how we learn to want cosmetic surgery. She quotes Joan Rivers, from her book Men Are Stupid . . . And They Like Big Boobs: A Woman’s Guide to Beauty Through Plastic Surgery:

My abiding life philosophy is plain: In our appearance-centric society, beauty is a huge factor in everyone’s professional and emotional success—for good or ill, it’s the way things are; accept it or go live under a rock.

Heidi Montag cultural texts promoting cosmetic surgery

Essig comments:

But Rivers is a TV star. TV and movie stars have always utilized the miracles of cosmetic surgery to look good in the two-dimensional spaces they inhabit. How did the rest of us learn to desire a perfectly plastic body? How did ordinary women and men with ordinary lives and ordinary bodies learn that they need plastic? The answer: the plastic ideological complex, a set of cultural texts that are both highly contested and yet tightly on message. It is itself so ubiquitous that it might even be described as hegemonic. In other words, the “need” for cosmetic procedures is impossible to avoid. Through advertising and TV shows, movies and magazines, we learn to want cosmetic intervention in our aging faces and imperfect bodies. This need is now so firmly implanted in our cultural psyche that it has become “common sense” to embrace cosmetic procedures. Why wouldn’t we want to look more beautiful, younger, thinner, more feminine, better? The question is no longer will you have plastic surgery, but when.

Accept plastic beauty or go live under a rock. Rivers isn’t just joking; she’s also doing the serious work of enacting the ideology of plastic, an ideology that we can no longer avoid. Even if we did live under a rock, whenever we crawled out from underneath it, we would be assaulted by images of perfectly plastic beauty on billboards and the sides of buses and on TV and in movies and even the nightly news. And then there are those damn magazine racks, an unavoidable gauntlet of Dos! and Don’ts! that must be passed through each and every time we buy our food.

A conspiracy of capital to make us feel bad

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Chocolate has antioxidants but is that a good thing?

Chocolate antioxidants Valentine's dayChocolate is a perennial favorite as a health topic. Readers are eager to learn of medical research that justifies something they want to do anyway.

WebMD recently ran an article called “Is Chocolate the Next Super Food?” The excuse for this particular article was a study that found the antioxidant activity of dark chocolate was higher than that of various “super” fruits (blueberry, acai, cranberry, pomegranate).

The article’s very last paragraph did mention — very casually — that the number of calories and fat grams in a serving of dark chocolate exceeds those of fruit juice. There was nothing but praise, however, for the ability of the antioxidants in chocolate to fight free radicals. The wisdom of the widespread consumption of antioxidants has recently been questioned. Getting the word out on that subject may prove awkward for WebMD, a site littered with ads for antioxidant supplements.

Free radicals fight toxins and cancer

Health and science journalist Sharon Begley had an excellent article on antioxidants and free radicals – “Antioxidants Fall From Grace” – in a recnt Newsweek. (emphasis added) Read more


Padded bikini bras for seven-year-olds

Padded bikini bra for kids

Source: Fox News

A UK clothing chain, popular discount retailer Primark, reacted swiftly to criticism of its padded bikini bras designed for girls as young as seven. The product has been withdrawn, and Primark announced it would donate any profits from the inappropriately sexualizing items to a children’s charity. The bikinis were selling for £4 ($6).

The British tabloid The Sun broke the story last week and featured it prominently day after day. It congratulated itself on “a victory for The Sun” when Primark announced it would no longer sell the item. Meanwhile, its front page headlines generated considerable sales and not just among readers who were concerned with protecting the innocence of childhood. More often than not, the headlines drew one’s attention to the “Paedo” (pedophile) angle on the story (as in “Paedo bikini banned” and “Paedo Heaven on High Street.”) The Sun is known for its coverage of issues such as Don’t grow up too soon, Miley, complete with photos that encourage the very behavior the text claims to criticize.

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FDA video on health fraud: So boring it makes you wonder

FDA health fraud awareness

Source: Dipity

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a new video on health fraud awareness. A worthy topic. It touches on weight loss products, HIV scams, cures for cancer and diabetes. What’s noteworthy about the video is that it’s SO boring. The inflections of the voiceover are totally inauthentic. It has the pacing of a 1970s newscast. There’s almost no music. It’s not sufficiently interesting to grab and hold anyone’s attention.
News – and not just TV news — has become infotainment. I would be the first to complain that this is a tragedy with major implications. But it’s also a reality. To compete for attention, you need some creativity. The chances that this video had any input from a decent ad agency are slim.

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Keith Olbermann & the Fight against Death

The thing about Keith Olbermann is, I tend to agree with his positions far more than I care for his over-the-top, full-of-himself histrionic shtick. So I approached his “Special Commentary” on health care — one hour of nothing but the largest talking head on TV — with both interest and trepidation.
Olbermann called his Special Commentary “Health Care Reform: The Fight Against Death.” Over and over again he returned with a flourish to the word “death,” the subtext being “Look how heroic and iconoclastic I am to be talking about this unmentionable subject.” The inevitability of death was his scare tactic: “You are going to die. We are all going to die.” Yet at the same time, he accused his opponents of exploiting that same fear: The reason misguided folks are opposed to reform are the “death panel” scare tactics of the other side.

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The health care debate: Seeing ourselves through the eyes of others

Desmond Tutu

Source: The Guardian

I wonder if the behavior of Europeans is restrained by a desire to maintain their self-image in the eyes of neighboring countries. Is there social pressure in France to avoid outrageous behavior because your nation would immediately be ridiculed by England and Germany? Does national pride operate as a constraint?
That certainly doesn’t happen in the US. We have little knowledge of what other countries think of us. We get our news from American media outlets – Fox, MSNBC – that confirm our narrow point of view. It’s in the interests of these outlets to magnify events and fan our emotions so we’ll keep coming back for more. Their tactics include demeaning or demonizing those who hold a different point of view. Liberal and conservative media are equally guilty of this behavior.

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Should Obama have pitched health care differently? Will Kennedy's death make a difference?

Barack Obama

Source: The AV Club

“Obama surely has made mistakes, among them focusing so heavily on how reform would reduce the cost of medicine. Had he spent more time reminding voters that reform would provide them with the security they now lack–security from financial ruin and medical catastrophe, the type private insurance too rarely provides–he probably would have been better off.”
So writes Jonathan Cohn in a New Republic article called “Hindsight.”
In politics, it’s much easier to be a Monday morning quarterback than a prophet, of course. Cohn doesn’t blame Obama for focusing on costs. At the time, that approach made eminent sense. “[T[he evidence of unnecessary, even harmful medical care … has simply become overwhelming. And the argument that health care is a threat to our long-term fiscal health … has become impossible to ignore.” Theoretically we can spend as much as we want on health care, but that’s money that doesn’t get spent on roads, schools, public housing, and wages.

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‘Mad Men,’ the sixties and the culture war over health carepolitics

John Hamm as Don Draper in Mad Men

Source: The Insider

The current emotional polarization around health care reform is not so much about specific issues – rising medical costs, reprehensible insurance industry practices, the number of uninsured. It reflects a deep division in American culture that began in the sixties.

Forty years after Woodstock, it’s clear that a major shift happened in that decade, politically, socially and psychologically. Despite the communal love fest, Americans had begun “bowling alone.” Crime rates started to rise, as did divorce rates. Quite suddenly, in 1965, a vast majority of people stopped identifying themselves as Democrats or Republicans and became Independents.
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Obama's press conference: Health care as a herd of rhinos

Nick Brandt: Three Rhinos

Source: Nick Brandt

Click photo for larger view.

My favorite conservative columnist, David Brooks, responded to Barack Obama’s press conference on health care this week with a piece that characterizes rising costs as a “stampede of big ugly rhinos. They are trampling your crops, stomping on your children’s play areas and spoiling your hunting grounds.”
Despite our best efforts to control cost inflation — research, legislation, corporate reform — the rhinos keep coming. “They are ubiquitous, powerful, protean and inexorable.”

They feed on fuel sources deep in our system: expensive technological progress, the self-interest of the millions of people who make their living off the system, the public’s desire to get the best care for nothing, the fee-for-service payment system and so on.
The rhinos are closing off your future.

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The video of Neda Soltan’s death

neda-soltanEven though I’ve been writing about Arash Hejazi (here and here), the doctor seen in the video of Neda Agha-Soltan’s death in Iran, I have to admit I still haven’t seen the video. I realized early on that I didn’t want to watch someone die a tragic and violent death. I didn’t want to see her alive and then see her dead. Every second in real time. I don’t need to watch the video to understand why Soltan’s death is so symbolic or why the widespread viewing of it is significant.

It could have been 20 years ago that I watched a PBS broadcast about a women who prepared to kill herself. She filmed the entire sequence: Her thoughts, the elaborate preparations, and the actual death. What struck me was not that I watched someone die, but that the event was filmed and presented for public consumption. I believe assisted suicide can be a rational decision when there is incurable, intolerable pain. I don’t find witnessing an actual death in a documentary helpful in thinking about this issue.

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The video of Neda Soltan’s death

Neda SoltanEven though I’ve been writing about Arash Hejazi (here and here), the doctor seen in the video of Neda Agha-Soltan’s death in Iran, I have to admit I still haven’t seen the video. I realized early on that I didn’t want to watch someone die a tragic and violent death. I didn’t want to see her alive and then see her dead. Every second in real time. I don’t need to watch the video to understand why Soltan’s death is so symbolic or why the widespread viewing of it is significant.

It could have been 20 years ago that I watched a PBS broadcast about a women who prepared to kill herself. She filmed the entire sequence: Her thoughts, the elaborate preparations, and the actual death. What struck me was not that I watched someone die, but that the event was filmed and presented for public consumption. I believe assisted suicide can be a rational decision when there is incurable, intolerable pain. I don’t find witnessing an actual death in a documentary helpful in thinking about this issue.

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Paging Dr. Frankenstein

A scant few hundred years ago we began to believe we could understand the world through reason and science. Not only that, we believed we could bring it under our control. These new beliefs brought many wonderful things: Electricity, modern medicine, iPods.

Risks have always been with us: natural disasters, wild animals, accidents, epidemics, and other ‘acts of god’. But over the last century, especially since World War II, new categories of risk emerged. These modern risks follow from the negative byproducts and side effects of the very same science, technology, industrialization, and global economy that we otherwise benefit from and enjoy.

Global warming, environmental carcinogens, toxic waste disposal – all these effects of technology reach forward in time to touch future generations. Such trans-generational risk is uniquely post-industrial. Some of these, like species extinction – which can now result from human activity – are irreversible.

But modern risk has not only expanded through time. Tainted products from anywhere in the world – food, toys, or jewelry for children – can end up on any local store or pantry shelf. These modern risks are not merely medical and ecological, but psychological as well: Is this can of tuna safe to eat?

As our dependence on technology and a global economy increases, the negative consequences are more difficult to predict, or to control when prediction fails. What are the implications of mapping and sequencing the human genome? Perhaps we’ll recreate a long-extinct species. Will these make nice pets or nice nightmares?

Before and after science

frankenstein-shelleyIn the heady days of the Enlightenment we looked towards a Utopian future, the promise of science, technology, rationalism. Yet only in Frankensteinian fiction did we ever consider the down sides of this brave new world. It’s a bit like how the Bush administration failed to plan the post-invasion phase of the Iraq war. Compared to the impacts of industrialization, globalization, and mass media, that one should have been a no-brainer.

Today’s risks get defined by scientists, lawyers, and politicians, whose differing interests are often reflected in those definitions. “Yes, there’s mercury in your salmon and melamine in little Jenny’s formula, but not enough to do any real damage.”

Risks are communicated, breathlessly and repeatedly, by a media whose interests may not be identical with those of “viewers like you.” Perhaps a lack of confidence in our information sources is an even greater risk than lack of confidence in our food supply.

Humans could never control natural disasters. Now we are losing control of the man-made ones. But we try to control what we think we can. So we regularly lift weights and practice yoga, or at least try to. We buy organic food and avoid trans fats. We practice a ‘healthy lifestyle’ (or at least try to), even though behavior has less influence on overall health than genetics, social status, economic inequality, and environmental degradation. Those are all beyond the direct control of individuals. So we drink pomegranate juice instead, distracting ourselves from the complex and real issues at the root of our suspicions, outrage, and despair.

Related posts:
The earth’s scars
Negative knowledge: Remembering Alfred Schutz
Melamine, cadmium, and Heidi Montag
To make more money
Melamine update
Eat fish? Don’t read this


Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity

Deborah Lupton, Risk


Will Obama’s health policy survive a Big Pharma challenge?

President-elect Obama has made it clear he wants to change US health policy, and he appears to have widespread public support to do just that. The pharmaceutical industry, on the other hand, likes things just the way they are. We can expect Big Pharma to put up a fight to protect their interests and, in fact, the first shot will be fired this week. But the pharmas need to walk a fine line. Their public relations efforts over the past few years have been an attempt to win public sympathy. Now they need to attack Obama without jeopardizing all that goodwill.

One change in health policy already singled out by Obama is the federal government’s ability to negotiate Medicare drug prices. This particular item could cost the drug industry as much as $30 billion. Not surprisingly, PhRMA, the largest pharmaceutical lobbying group, has been preparing for this moment and last week announced a new public relations campaign.

“We’re going to do an ad campaign that is designed to make people aware of the importance of preserving your free-market health care system.” This from Ken Johnson, a senior VP at PhRMA, quoted in the Washington Times.

In a post titled “Is big pharma preparing to shoot itself in the foot?”, David Williams had this to say:

[The PhRMA ad campaign] may try to have the same impact as the famous Harry and Louise ads of 1993 that undermined the planned Hillary Clinton-led reform bill. … If that’s really the aim, someone is misjudging the mood of the public. People aren’t looking for “free-market” anything at the moment, especially when what the pharmaceutical industry really means by “free market” is pricing freedom for themselves. … Here’s some friendly advice to the pharmaceutical industry: don’t make the mistake of attacking the policies of our new President. Such a move is likely to backfire.

The Harry and Louise ads.

PhRMA polishes its image

PhRMA hasn’t been sitting on the sidelines during the election campaign, waiting to see who wins. PhRMA’s Johnson also had this to say:
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The election, the common good, Starbucks, and driving safely

There’s been plenty of coverage of the Obama and McCain health plans during the presidential election campaign. I debated whether to contribute my opinion and decided against it. I think everyone is exhausted with media coverage. There’s a nice Time Magazine article this week on “The 24-Minute News Cycle.” It was reassuring to read that I’m not alone in refreshing the Google News page.

I can recommend some sources on the health care debate that go deeper than the rivalry of two candidates. There is a page put together by The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) called Election 2008. I especially liked the article “Three ‘Inconvenient Truths’ about Health Care” by V. R. Fuchs. I may write about that article later. Health care is not an issue that’s going to disappear simply because the election frenzy is over.
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Get your health news here

As promised in the last post, I have a recommendation for a source of health news. It’s a site called Behind the Headlines. It comes from the National Health Service (NHS), the publicly funded health care system of the United Kingdom, and it’s available on the Internet at Behind the Headlines.
The information in Behind the Headlines articles comes from Bazian, a company that provides evidence-based information to publications and healthcare systems. I won’t go into all the pros and cons of evidence-based medicine (EBM) in this post. Just a brief overview, and why it’s useful in analyzing the news. (EBM has a poor reputation in the US because some insurance companies have used it to deny benefits to patients.)

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Health news and competitive journalism

Do you eat trans fats and high-fructose corn syrup? If you know the ingredients of what you’re eating, you can choose to avoid certain foods. But what about the consumption of health news? There is an enormous appetite for the latest medical findings, but no labels to tell us the ingredients: how are the stories selected, what are the sources of information, how accurate is the reporting. If we knew the ingredients, would we choose to avoid the majority of stories on medical research and health? In this post, I’ll discuss the ingredients of health news and, in the next post, I’ll suggest a reliable source.

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"I" Is for Innocent: Health obsession in fiction

i-is-for-innocentThe rise of the health culture in the seventies and eighties was not gradual and imperceptible. It was abrupt and noticeable. Many commentators – journalists, doctors, sociologists – tried to understand its significance and implications. Here’s an example of how preoccupation with health made its way into fiction, from a Sue Grafton mystery published in 1992.

Kinsey Milhone’s dapper, 83-year-old neighbor, Henry, is a featured character in many Sue Grafton mysteries. In ‘I’ Is for Innocent, Henry’s brother William comes to visit. Over drinks at Rosie’s, Henry complains to Kinsey about his brother’s preoccupation with his health:

His health regimen occupied our entire day. Every hour on the hour, he takes a pill or drinks a glass of water . . . flushing his system out. He does yoga to relax. He does calisthenics to wake up. He takes his blood pressure twice a day. He uses little strip tests to check his urine for glucose and protein. He keeps up a running account of all his body functions. Every minor itch and pain. If his stomach gurgles, it’s a symptom. If he breaks wind, he issues a bulletin. Like I didn’t notice already.

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My personal odyssey through the health culture

When I taught at City University of New York in the seventies, I had a student who used to tell me not to eat chicken. I don’t recall the specifics, except that it wasn’t about cruelty to animals. It had to do with what chickens were fed (probably antibiotics and hormones) and what we consequently ended up eating ourselves. I didn’t stop eating chicken at the time, but I find it curious that I still remember the intensity of that student’s convictions. In retrospect, I think it was one of those “something’s happening here” moments, when you know something important is going on, but you can’t quite put your finger on it. Read more