By Mel Campbell
Mel Campbell reflects on makeover culture and the unrealistic expectations that come with it – that a sophisticated new look will deliver a new self (and life) to match. But even when it works, who does the social power of beauty serve? And why should the approval of strangers matter more than your own personal sense of style, and self? She takes us on a tour through popular culture, from Pretty in Pink to The Hunger Games, to Snog, Marry, Avoid.
Whenever I’ve longed for a makeover, it’s because I wanted people to change their minds about me. I wanted to show up to the school formal looking so sophisticated the mean girls would all grovel to be my friend, and their boyfriends would want to date me instead. I wanted an expert to say, ‘You’re awesome,’ and to transform my appearance so the rest of the world saw it too.
I have fairytales and Hollywood romances to thank for such unrealistically high expectations. Pretty in Pink (1986) is the only movie I can think of that contains a makeover as pathetic and misguided as in real life. Poor but plucky Andie (Molly Ringwald) has spent the film pining after yuppie douchebag Blaine (Andrew McCarthy), even though her adorable best friend Duckie (Jon Cryer) is clearly crazy about her. Determined to show the mean kids at school how fab she can look at the prom, Andie spends a feverish montage assembling her dream prom dress from several different vintage garments.
We’re primed for her to look, well, pretty in pink … But on the big reveal, the dress is just an assault to the eyes. It’s a shapeless triangular sack with holes cut out for Andie’s shoulders! She looks like a piece of rolled-up ham of the sort you’d find on an antipasto platter. I’m appalled that she mutilated those perfectly good dresses for this! But somehow, Blaine smarmily accepts Andie anyway, leaving Duckie to flirt with some random extra who’s clearly been shoehorned into the film to paper over this extremely depressing dénouement.
Being plucked from unfair obscurity, and having your inner worth recognised and transformed into outer beauty, is certainly, in the words of Disney’s Cinderella, ‘a wish your heart makes’. This satisfying makeover story has been told for millennia; it has appeared in ancient Egypt, Greece, Arabia, China, Vietnam, Italy and Korea, as well as in the familiar French retelling by Charles Perrault. It’s lovely to imagine that somewhere, we too might have a benevolent fairy godmother like Queen Clarisse Renaldi (Julie Andrews) in The Princess Diaries (2001), Nigel (Stanley Tucci) in The Devil Wears Prada (2006), or Shelley (Anna Faris) in The House Bunny (2008).
But some Cinderella stories critique the social power of beauty, asking whose purposes it serves. Suzanne Collins’ 2008 dystopian young adult novel The Hunger Games subjects the protagonist Katniss Everdeen, one of twelve desperately poor teenagers competing in a televised death-match, to a comprehensive makeover that symbolises the wealthy Capitol’s power over her life. But as Collins’ trilogy progresses, Katniss’s successive makeovers become subversive, politically charged statements, and her fairy godmother – her stylist Cinna – deliberately uses the makeover not to woo the prince but to topple the kingdom.
The Pygmalion story – epitomised by George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 play of the same name – dramatises the moral hypocrisy of a socially powerful person taking someone ‘inferior’ as a protégé and setting out to ‘improve’ them. In Strictly Ballroom (1992), champion dancer Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio) discovers new passion for his art while coaching Fran (Tara Morice) from a clumsy, frumpy beginner to a tempestuous beauty. Meanwhile in Pretty Woman (1990), jaded tycoon Edward Lewis (Richard Gere) transforms the life of Julia Roberts’ spunky prostitute Vivian Ward, who ‘rescues him right back’.
Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling (1843) speaks powerfully to our conviction that we belong … somewhere. We’ve all felt awkward, unwanted and out of place, and it’s reassuring to believe that we already hold a nascent beauty – if we can just find a place or a group of people that will bring it out in us. Muriel ‘Mariel’ Heslop (Toni Collette) moves to Sydney in Muriel’s Wedding (1994); in Sabrina (1954), Sabrina Fairchild (Audrey Hepburn) blossoms into a swan by studying cordon bleu cooking in Paris.
But makeovers don’t only happen in fiction. They leak into our everyday lives through reality television shows in which self-appointed experts transform the appearance of awkward, semi-willing participants. As my housemate and I loll on the couch at night, brains numbed after our respective workdays, we trade banter about the shows we’re watching. We, too, are being trained … in their language of scrutiny and moral judgment.
The British ‘makeunder’ show Snog Marry Avoid? thrusts heavily made-up, flamboyantly dressed women into the Personal Overhaul Device (POD), a fanciful, female-voiced artificial intelligence that, paradoxically, ‘only understands natural beauty’. (Imagine a fashion- conscious version of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey.) The candidate is confronted with vox-pop footage of ordinary British men commenting callously on whether they’d snog, marry or avoid her. (Mostly, they choose ‘avoid’.)
Then POD sets to work, forcing the candidate to adopt more understated hair, make-up and clothing. Now the vox-pop dudes overwhelmingly choose to ‘snog’ or ‘marry’ our new ‘natural beauty’. This kind of slut shaming isn’t new: Godey’s Lady’s Book, the nineteenth century’s answer to Cosmopolitan magazine, advocated only ‘moral cosmetics’, such as going to bed early. The take-away message from Snog Marry Avoid? is that women’s own sartorial tastes are less important than the approval of total strangers.
And now to Trinny and Susannah, and their repulsively invasive TV show What Not to Wear. These mean girls ambush their makeover candidates, mercilessly mocking their dress sense and sometimes even cutting their clothes up with scissors, before dispatching them on a remedial shopping spree. If the candidate fails to comply with their advice, our gurus promptly show up in person to criticise her taste.
In the guise of being honest and straight-talking, they’re more like bullies ganging up on a victim; they can be angry and rude if one of their makeover candidates timidly says she doesn’t like the prescribed clothes. But more often, orthovestia is delivered in the seductive form of kindly, well-meaning advice. We listen out of a desire to please others and be accepted, but we are really agreeing to make ourselves invisible.
The plus-size or ‘fatshion’ blogging community rejects this notion. One of Australian plus-size fashion designer Gisela Ramirez’s most popular items is a cropped T-shirt printed with the bold slogan ‘F*CK FLATTERING’.
‘If I dress to trick people into thinking I don’t have a large tummy, and that I’m not indeed 175cm tall, I am nullifying parts of my body,’ writes Brisbane illustrator and fashion blogger Natalie Perkins on her blog Definatalie. ‘These parts belong to me and even if I flatter them away as much as possible, they still exist and I still see them when I stand naked in front of a mirror.’
This is an edited extract of Mel Campbell’s Out of Shape: Debunking Myths About Fashion and Fit (Affirm Press), published this week. Mel was a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellow while writing this book.
Mel Campbell will be appearing in Debut Mondays on Monday 17 June at 6.15pm, in The Moat. Book now, before it books out.
By Mel Campbell
The obesity debate is everywhere at the moment – along with an accompanying moral panic focused on overweight bodies. Karen Hitchcock’s controversial essay in the current Monthly takes a grim look at the issue, from her perspective as a doctor in an obesity clinic. Author and commentator Mel Campbell is persuaded by Hitchcock’s arguments, but disturbed by her ‘patronising’ tone. She calls for us to keep moral judgement out of the obesity conversation.
What’s the difference between fatness and obesity? The first is a descriptive term for fleshy, larger than average body size. The second is a global moral panic that pins legitimately troubling public health issues on fat bodies. The ‘obesity crisis’ is cultural, even though its expressions of fear, disgust and shame are veiled in the language of science.
I’ve spent the last year writing about such distinctions in the context of clothing size and fit. Finding well-fitting clothes is a practical issue. Yet I’m constantly irritated by the way it becomes an ideological one. Discussions about size and fit are immediately derailed as we mash together public health, body image, nostalgia and marketing in repetitive, confused and emotive ways.
In this context, I read Karen Hitchcock’s recent Monthly essay on obesity with great interest. Hitchcock is a doctor who works in a clinic with a group of bariatric surgeons. Her job is to treat the health problems associated with patients’ weight – such as diabetes, hormonal imbalances and high blood pressure – and to suggest how they can modify their eating and exercise habits.
Hitchcock’s arguments about the adverse effects of being very fat and the fatal allure of ‘bad’ foods are alarming but persuasive, as are her clinical experiences with the strain that a large amount of weight places on the body. It’s certainly troubling that we are medicalising what is really a social issue.
But it’s hard to have a constructive public discussion about obesity when scientific research and medical authority are used as moral justification to shame and blame fat people.
In my book Out of Shape, I identify a rhetorical mode in public debate that I’ve dubbed ‘scienciness’. Just as ‘truthiness’ is something that feels intuitively true without requiring any evidence, sciency writing uses the language of science to normalise the judgments we make about other people’s bodies.
Hitchcock’s essay was frustrating for me because she understands the way culture works on us, yet in her position of authority as a doctor she also regurgitates its worst messages. She lists the tools of her trade – ‘our ears, our voices, our hands, our pills and our scalpels’. But she leaves out the most important – her eyes.
‘I do not wish to humiliate them or shame them. I do not wish to turn my fat patients into freaks,’ she writes. But does Hitchcock realise how appallingly patronising the gaze she turns on fat people is?
For a start there’s class snobbery, as an American named Emily is ‘the fattest person I had ever seen outside a caravan park’. Emily’s husband is ‘some kind of professional; I didn’t know they even made suits that big’.
Obesity debates often reference class in a simplistic way, as if sedentary lifestyles and copious consumption of processed food were somehow native to the poor. But poverty and obesity don’t correlate nearly as neatly or strongly.
A 2011 Northwestern University study found that people who feel socially powerless tend to choose larger portion sizes to bolster their status. Conversely, those who feel powerful associate status with smallness and slimness.
It’s no accident that slim body ideals are fostered and policed by those who possess socioeconomic privilege and cultural capital. Journalists. Advertisers. Celebrities. And doctors. These ideals are ingrained through the act of looking – whether we’re looking at celebrity gossip, makeover TV shows, stock images of ‘headless fatties’ illustrating obesity stories (cop a look at the pics The Monthly used!), or at our own bodies in the mirror.
In my book, I coin the term ‘orthovestia’, from the Latin for ‘correct’ and ‘clothing’. Orthovestia is the notion that only ideal bodies are fit to be seen in public. From an early age, pop culture teaches us that some body shapes are ‘good’ and others ‘bad’, and that to be socially successful, anyone with a flawed body must change or hide it using diet, exercise and ‘flattering’ clothing. Orthovestia often comes disguised as kindly, sensible advice, which we’re supposed to accept gratefully.
To do otherwise is to be immoral, irresponsible, even hypocritical. Hitchcock summarises orthovestia perfectly when she writes, ‘Today when we look at those who are thin, part of what we see is a triumph of will over gluttony, so the beauty is a moral beauty; it has little to do with health.’
So it’s disheartening to see her set that insight aside to indulge in grotesque, abject vignettes of fat people being irresponsible with their health.
The hospital bedside of an ‘educated’ patient is decadently ‘piled high with literary novels, open blocks of chocolate and teddy-bear biscuits’ as Hitchcock’s stethoscope sinks into the patient’s ‘soft white flesh’. Another patient ‘struggled to lie flat on the examination table’ and ‘could not even see’ her ‘unkempt’ feet. And as Hitchcock watches a very fat doctor deliver a conference paper, ‘his face got red and stains of sweat spread from his armpits. Obesity is genetic, he argued, wiping his brow: obesity is a disease.’
Recently, New Jersey state governor and Republican presidential hopeful Chris Christie – who is very fat – good-naturedly mocked himself by munching a donut on the Late Show with David Letterman. However, former White House physician Dr Connie Mariano sparked a political drama when she told CNN, ‘I’m worried about this man dying in office.’
Kim Beazley, that ‘big fat so-and-so’ with no ‘ticker’, would be sadly familiar with this dovetailing of physical fitness and fitness to hold public office. Much as Beazley’s bulk dogged his political career, Christie was forced to call a press conference to outline his ‘plan’ to lose weight.
But the governor came out swinging. ‘I find it fascinating that a doctor in Arizona who has never met me, never examined me, never reviewed my medical history or records, knows nothing about my family history, could make a diagnosis from 2400 miles away,’ retorted Christie.
I’m not a fat activist, but I believe the fat-positive community can usefully remind us that people deserve joy and basic human respect at any body size. And the Health at Every Size movement offers some good ideas about fostering that joy and respect.
‘This is where we are heading now: fatness, outside of morality,’ Hitchcock concludes gloomily. Well, good! We do weight-related illnesses a terrible disservice when we entangle medical treatment with moral judgment.
Mel Campbell’s book, Out of Shape, will be published by Affirm Press in June 2013.
Today, ideas of national identity, patriotism, community and equity come to the fore in the Australian imagination (sharing real estate with flags and barbeques, perhaps). Drawing on events held during the past year, we’ve put together a list of viewing recommendations for your public holiday.
Prior to the arrival of Captain Cook and cohort, Australia’s indigenous population carefully managed their environment, making use of fire to rejuvenate the land and manipulate the movement of fauna, historian Bill Gammage explained.
The appearance of European colonialism planted the seed of today’s reconciliation debates. We explored this debate – covering treaty, social justice and opportunity – in our Not Sorry Enough discussion. Larissa Behrendt discussed the challenges of overcoming indigenous disadvantage, while Sarah Maddison presented an argument for how mainstream Australia can move beyond white guilt.
Iconic storyteller Thomas Keneally presented his take on early nationhood and Australia’s regional racism in his Lunchbox/Soapbox presentation in December. Race and Aboriginal politics were amongst the myriad topics addressed in a marathon two-hour interview between Paul Keating and Robert Manne, with some of Keating’s sentiments echoing Manne’s earlier polemic regarding our national political complacency. Also cautioning against complacency, Susan Mitchell spoke of the potential disaster of a Tony Abbott victory.
We held many discussions on the state of our democracy. We asked whether it was broken, dumbed down or going nowhere fast, and for how long we might remain the lucky country. Tim Soutphommasane presented his case for why progressives should embrace National Service, and one of our Intelligence Squared debates focussed on the question of whether our soldiers should be in Afghanistan.
In a series of events, we paid tribute to our country’s literary heritage, whilst writerly alumni of the University of Melbourne’s Janet Clarke Hall celebrated their colleagues. As for contemporary literature, the 21 titles comprising the 2011 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist provide a compelling picture of our nation’s writers today.
Finally, in our So Who the Bloody Hell Are We? series we explored the stories we tell ourselves about who we are. Doubtless, many such stories are being shared as you read this.
If you’ve been reading the Fairfax press (or surfing social media) recently, you’re probably familiar with the debate about writer and activist Melinda Tankard Reist – and whether she has the right to call herself a feminist.
Tankard Reist is the author of two books by Melbourne feminist publisher Spinifex Press, Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls and Big Porn Inc. (edited with Abigail Bray). She runs an activist group, Collective Shout, that works against the objectification of women and sexualisation of girls for commercial profit.
She’s also a conservative Christian who is anti-abortion (or ‘pro-life’) and spent twelve years working for Tasmanian senator Brian Harradine. [missing asset]
Tankard Reist has long been a controversial figure – particularly in feminist circles – but the current furore began with a front-cover profile in Sunday Life magazine on 8 January, nearly two weeks ago. The profile writer, left-wing feminist Rachel Hills, says she interviewed Melinda because she ‘thought it would be interesting’. She wrote on her website, ‘Like many journalists, I spend too much time thinking about what goes on in other people’s heads, and Melinda was a public figure I found particularly perplexing … I still didn’t “get” her. And I wanted to.’
This weekend, iconic Australian feminist Anne Summers argued that you need to sign onto certain principles in order to be a feminist – and abortion rights is one of them. ‘As far as I am concerned, feminism boils down to one fundamental principle and that is women’s ability to be independent. There are two fundamental preconditions to such independence: ability to support oneself financially and the right to control one’s fertility … To guarantee the second, women need safe and effective contraception and the back-up of safe and affordable abortion.’
She concluded of Tankard Reist, ‘Just because she says she is a feminist does not mean she is.’
In a past Wheeler Centre debate, Summers' contemporary Wendy McCarthy recalled abortion in the 1960s – before social pressure from feminists and others made it legal – as potentially fatal. ‘In my own experience, to get an abortion required furtive phone calls, 63 guineas (a large amount of money), cops patrolling up and down the road, hoping someone would give you advice when you left…’
Yesterday, Kate Gleeson said the most significant argument against Tankard Reist’s identification as a feminist is her involvement – through her work as Harradine’s adviser – in restricting the approval of the abortion drug RU486 and ushering in Australia’s adoption of the ‘global gag rule’ that dictates AusAID’s overseas family planning guidelines.
Gleeson said this had ‘profound implications for women’s access to contraception in our donor destination countries’, contributing to ‘the two-tier system in which Western women have mostly unfettered control over their reproduction, while those in the developing world are at the mercy of dangerous abortions’.
Today, Cathy Sherry takes issue with all those who’ve questioned Tankard Reist’s right to call herself a feminist. She says ‘I have long considered myself a feminist and been disturbed by the parts of the sisterhood who operate like the nasty in-group in primary school … I do not know Melinda Tankard Reist and I am not pro-life, but I defend her right to express her opinions, call herself a feminist and prosecute her own beliefs … The real test of tolerance is tolerating those with whom we strongly disagree. We will never have a right to express our own contested ideas if we do not defend others' rights to do the same.’
A somewhat baffled Rachel Hills (who says that the huge response to her profile – including five separate opinion pieces last weekend – has been both ‘a bit of a dream’ and ‘challenging’) reflected this week on what she’s learned from the experience. She concluded, ‘if you want people to listen to what you’re saying – whether you have a big platform or small one – you also have an obligation to engage in good faith’.
Hills’ approach to the profile was to avoid a hatchet job, but ‘to write something critical (in the sense of making analytic judgments) but still human’.
While perhaps not all the arguments being traded are useful (or indeed respectful), the broad debate is teasing out some big questions.
New York is like some kind of enormous share house, with 2.3 degrees of separation and no way of getting away from other people. Step into Central Park and the elegant, arcane setting is riddled with exercisers, cyclists, infants with nannies or nanas, strollers, joggers, runners. Two women pushing baby carriages are urged by a third woman – their trainer, presumably paid for this bollocks – to stretch their arms and twirl their hands as they push their hapless toddlers down a small hill: “Take advantage!” she cries. “Take advantage!”
There is no privacy in New York anyway, so New Yorkers have essentially persuaded themselves that privacy is a kink, overrated and unnecessary. They have loud and involved conversations loudly on the streets with each other in person or on mobile telephone devices. “I was essential to that company, I mean, empirically!” asserts one twentysomething dude on his cell.
Middle-class Australians reared on Woody Allen films no doubt have their own picture of the city (or at least of Manhattan), perhaps not realising that (1) Allen amplifies certain elements of the place for satirical affect and (2) Allen is of a generation soon to pass and (2[a]) a rarified class. But there are some elements of the city that do undoubtedly work and have done so for a century or so. The subways are quick, although they demand a little mental exertion (particularly the assumption that you know which line you’re on at all times, so that every other possible connection will be mentioned on the overhead boards when you alight at a station, but not the one you’re connecting from). Street food is often a joy, and I hold to that despite one particular morning’s disastrous hot, stale, cardboard pretzel. Thankfully bagels are everywhere.
We are often told that New York is not really America (this is, of course, a snob’s whimsy). Anyone who tries the standard coffee will know that, of course, it’s totally America: the coffee right across the USA invariably invokes the sensation of drinking a cup of hot water from a vessel that once contained coffee. That is, unless you can find a place that does espresso, in which case, you can pay top dollar for a teaspoon’s worth of actual coffee.
As we’ve found all week, however, the dog index is the one that seems most pertinent to judging New York’s liveability. Manhattanites love their dogs, and dogs big, small, huge and tiny can be found – always accompanied by doting human – on the streets at all times. They are often pampered like dollies, or perhaps – can this be true? almost certainly! – have been sculpted by a hairdresser to give them coquettish, Disneyesque faces. Where the humans – mostly – recognise they must abide one another, the dogs will occasionally have severe responses to each other. At such times, the owners don’t acknowledge each other. They just tug their errant charges away.
I have a bad feeling that there are many (new) urbanists who look at New York’s über-built-up apartment lifestyle as the ideal way to live. There are – quite clearly and undeniably – some who relish the place. Even I was settled in within just a couple of days: I was peeved just like a local when the Wholefoods near where my wife and I were staying in Upper East Side didn’t open its automatic doors with joy when I came by at 7:40am (it opens at 8, stays open ‘til 9).
But the point about a place like New York is obviously that there’s no place like New York. Nice place to visit. Surely no-one – aside from those 8 million self-selecting antpeople who already do – could possibly live there?
David Nichols' liveability series ends Monday with a look at Baltimore.
“This year two thirds of all world growth has come out of the developing economies. And we think we can have a debate about the circumstances of someone’s birth and their complexion and how they look. I mean, it’s sick, sick, sick. It’s truly sick.” Paul Keating’s recent conversation with Robert Manne at the Melbourne Recital Centre revealed a man still passionate about the value of conviction politics. It also allowed a born political storyteller space to tell his stories – and there were several major themes.
In classic Keating gladiatorial form, the former Prime Minister reiterated his belief that, were the federal electoral cycle four years rather than three years, he would have beaten John Howard in 1996. “I just needed more time,” he told Robert Manne. Keating blames a Royal Commission involving Carmen Lawrence in Western Australia that took up most of 1995 – at the time he called the commission a political stunt. “By the time I got on to Howard, I had him a blithering wreck … He didn’t know whether he was coming or going. If I’d had another year I would have done to him what I did every other day, was tread on him. He never got on top of him in the polls … and I would have massacred him in 1996 if I’d had another year, but I didn’t have the time. I just didn’t have the time.”
On the issue of illegal refugees, Keating berated the ALP for not having the courage of its convictions. “One of the primary duties of a Prime Minister is to protect a country from prejudice,” he says. At the time of Tampa, Keating recalls having advised the then Labor leader and opposition leader Kim Beazley that the ALP couldn’t hope to outflank Howard’s conservative reaction: “The Labor Party should have stood its ground.” This leads Manne onto the topic of the Labor Party’s mixed fortunes since Keating. He asks, has Labor lost its way? “Labor hasn’t lost its soul, but it has lost its story,” Keating replies. “This is another transition. This is perhaps the biggest transition in 300 years. This is the transition to the establishment of China’s position of primacy again in the international system. A change in the way the world works, from West to East. And … here we are, a primary exporter to this.” The Labor Party, he adds, should be “constructing a story of transition”. The transition “should also be a cultural one”, he says, and thus Keating comes to the tagline that made the papers the next day: Australia should derive its security in Asia, not from Asia.
This is Keating’s biggest theme, one he returns to repeatedly in the course of the conversation. The rise of China is the great story of our generation. “All great states claim strategic space. And if you don’t give it to them they take it.” Keating warns that refusing to accord China the strategic space it demands may lead to catastrophic results. “Accommodating China a new construct is … the most important thing facing Australia.”
Keating concludes his Wheeler Centre appearance with another classic aphorism that summed up his political fortunes: “You don’t necessarily give the public back what the public wants. You give them what the public needs. If you give them too much of it they get sick of you.”
Today is the day the United Nations Population Fund has deemed the day most likely the world’s population hits the seven billion mark. We’ve just uploaded the video/podcast of our recent event, ‘Seven Billion: It’s Getting Crowded in Here!’, presented in partnership with the ABC and hosted by Radio National’s Natasha Mitchell (click the image below to watch the video).
In reality, it’s impossible to know where the seven billionth person will be born, but statistics favour India. The Fund’s State of World Population 2011 report has warned that a lack of investment in education, infrastructure and employment will stunt the life opportunities that would otherwise be potentially available to almost two billion young people across the world. The Guardian’s infographic tracing the history of human population begins 72 millennia ago.
It’s a subject we covered about three weeks ago but we’ve found a bunch more on the web to bring to your attention. The Herald Sun covered the story with an infographic that’s fun to play with. It graphs the rise in population from 1950 to the present day across the world, with the biggest rises in East and West Africa. The population of each of these regions now comfortably surpasses the billion mark.
In 1999, the Guardian invited Salman Rushdie to write a letter to the world’s six billionth person. Now, the newspaper has asked its readers to do the same. While it took only 12 years to jump from six to seven, the population growth rate is slowing. By mid-century, we should have topped nine billion, and by century’s end should only have grown one billion more. But the tiniest variation in fertility could see the 2100 mark hovering closer to 15 billion.
Meanwhile, this collection of photographs published on the Atlantic’s website brings home what would otherwise be a somewhat abstract milestone.
For centuries, it was been the privilege of Westerners to define the Other – essentially anyone whose skin colour wasn’t white. The privilege rested on a technological and material dominance that allowed European and post-European societies to impose their cultures, laws and institutions on others. Now, that dominance is increasingly contested, and the rise of Asia promises a future where the Western gaze won’t be as privileged as it has previously been – begging the question, how does the Asian gaze look upon Western culture?
In his recent Wheeler Centre appearance, Tanveer Ahmed – psychiatrist, columnist and author of the memoir, The Exotic Rissole – traced a history of the Asian critique of the West that stretches from the agrarian fascism of WWII-era Japan to current-day jihadism. It has four themes: the city (urban civilisation, commerce, sexual license, leisure and wealth); the bourgeois (an anti-hero who priorities personal gain and safety, who lacks conviction and is essentially mediocre); a soulless and mediocre emphasis on reason; and feminism (the lure of feminine sexuality as a threat to discipline, self sacrifice, austerity and worship of the leader).
But it’s not all negative. Ahmed quoted a 2010 Forbes magazine survey that found modern-day Indians hold the US in higher esteem than any other country in the world for its consumerist middle-class lifestyle, while in China a new field in education is emerging called ‘success studies’.
According to most estimates the world’s population has just hit – or is just about to hit – the seven billion mark. A United Nations estimate has the world’s population peaking at about 9.3 billion in the middle of the century. That’s roughly a third as many human beings on the face of the planet 40 years from now as there are today, and that’s going to present nations already straining to meet the resource challenges of the 20th-century population boom with all kinds of additional challenges. Add to that the task of decoupling the global economy from fossil fuel and Houston, as they say, we have a problem.
The world’s human population only hit the one billion mark around about the time a young Queen Victoria acceded to the throne. It took an another century to hit the second billion. Billion three took 35 years, the fourth a mere 15, and for a while there it looked like we were going to breed ourselves to kingdom come. Then the rate of growth began to slow. China’s one-child policy began to kick into gear. Education and birth control began to reverse the trend in some countries. Others, like Nigeria, the Philippines and Indonesia, began to recognise the crippling effects of a surging population. After peaking at just over 2.1% in 1971, the world’s population growth rate slowed to just 1.2% in 2009 (this graph lets you plot the growth rate of just about every country).
It’s not all one-way traffic, however. Many countries face the opposite problem: population decline. This table indicates most countries facing population declines are characterised by a strange combination: high education and mounting poverty. Nations in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union benefited from excellent education and health systems during the Cold War, leading to high life expectancy rates and low birth rates. High levels of education tend to result in lower birth rates – birth rates so low they are deemed sub-replacement fertility rates (SRFR). An SRFR means simply that more people are dying than are being born. In developed countries, the SRFR is about 2.1%. In developing countries where life expectancy rates are lower (in Swaziland, which has the lowest life expectancy in the world, it’s just under 40 years), the SRFR can be as high as 3.4%.
The end of the Cold War has impoverished many former Eastern Bloc countries, lowering life expectancy rates and encouraging emigration. For developed countries, immigration can mitigate a sub-replacement fertility rate – but who wants to emigrate to a poor country that’s only getting poorer?
The Wheeler Centre is hosting a panel discussion tonight in partnership with ABC Radio National on population called ‘Seven Billion: It’s Getting Hot in Here’, hosted by Natasha Mitchell.
“In constituency, it’s most similar to a prison riot: what will happen is that, usually in the segregation unit, nobody will ever know exactly, but a rumour will emanate that someone has been hurt in some way. There will be some form of moral outrage that takes its expression in self-interested revenge. There is no higher purpose, you just have a high volume of people with a history of impulsive behaviour, having a giant adventure.
“Of course, the difference is that, in a prison, liberty has already been lost. So something pretty serious must have happened in order for young people on the streets to be behaving as though they have already been incarcerated. As another criminologist, Professor John Pitts, has said: ‘Many of the people involved are likely to have been from low-income, high-unemployment estates, and many, if not most, do not have much of a legitimate future. There is a social question to be asked about young people with nothing to lose.’”
Taken from Zoe Williams' column in The Guardian.
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