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Growing up

20 Jan

When I was little I grew three lemon trees which I named Socrates, Aristotle and Plato (I had just read Sophie’s World). These days I’m teaching their ideas to undergraduates…

Thank you Caitlin Moran

15 Sep


Every now and then you come across a viewpoint which you have been feeling for a while, but haven’t articulated, and then when you read it in someone else’s words it goes bang! and you say ‘that’s it!’ out loud to yourself in your empty sitting room. For me, reading Caitlin Moran’s book How to be a Woman was filled with such moments. The other day she did one of Mumsnet’s ‘Live Webchats’ (which seems to have gone slightly better than Naomi Wolf’s the week before!), and someone quoted a brief passage from her book which resonated with so much of what I’ve been thinking recently.

Overeating is the addiction of choice of carers, and that’s why it’s come to be regarded as the lowest-ranking of all the addictions. It’s a way of fucking yourself up whilst still remaining fully functional, because you have to. Fat people aren’t indulging in the ‘luxury’ of their addiction making them useless, chaotic or a burden. Instead, they are slowly self-destructing in a way that doesn’t inconvenience anyone. And that’s why it’s so often a woman’s addiction of choice. (Moran 2010: 117)

It’s spot on:

It’s a way of fucking yourself up whilst still remaining fully functional, because you have to.”

One of the more horrifying moments in my single-mum life to date was when I realised a long time ago that there is no point in a cry for help because no one will help. My daughter’s dad has on several occasions dropped her back home and literally legged it down the path to get away while I was either crying or at least very obviously having a rubbish time. One of my best friends changes the subject when the conversation moves towards a difficult area. I occasionally consider allowing myself to feel all my negative feelings, hoping that the people around me will realise that I’m struggling and give me a hug or step in to make things easier. But eventually I realised that if I let myself wallow, the only person who is going to be there to pick up the pieces will be me, so it’s best to limit the number of pieces to pick up. Because I have to remain fully functional.

I have been really dissatisfied with how I look and feel recently. I was going to the gym twice a week for several months and enjoyed it, but I stopped going when I kept getting cold after cold, and when I had not had a consistently healthy week for three months I gave up counting. So now it’s been half a year and none of my clothes fit properly. Partly I’m still trying to get used to my body after rapidly losing weight during my pregnancy, the obvious changes pregnancy brings with it, and the aftermath when everything is a different shape. Because of the serious food deprivation my pregnancy brought with it, I told myself after giving birth that I would be allowed to indulge for a little while, and after all, everyone tells you that breastfeeding uses up 500 extra calories so you have to eat when baby is eating, and what’s easier to eat one-handed than a biscuit. Three years later I’m still not out of those habits, and now I already have an answer prepared in case anyone points at my tummy and asks when my next baby is due (thankfully this hasn’t happened yet): ‘it’s my biscuit baby’.

Eating too much doesn’t affect anyone except the person who is doing it. I don’t get drunk or shag random guys, I’ve moved away from the drug dealer neighbours. I feel bad for having breakfast in my dressing gown. I am in charge of everything and it’s all sorted. I simply like a family-size bag of crisps and a chocolate bar on the sofa of an evening.

I know all sizes are beautiful, and I love the body positivity campaigned for by blogs like Already PrettyThe Beheld, and Women Against Non-essential Grooming (the latter being on the more kooky end of the scale). One huge eye-opener for me, after spending my childhood being indoctrinated by my mother that being even just solidly built inevitably signified crushing self-loathing, really bad health and a lack of self-control, was a blog post on Sociological Images about how overweight and obese people can be just as healthy as thin people if all have four healthy habits. ‘Healthy’ in this case means ‘at risk of premature death’, and the healthy habits are regular exercise, eating at least five portions of fruit and veg daily, moderate alcohol consumption and no smoking. It’s great. I started quoting the study at my mother every time she pointed out a ‘fat’ person (she really does this), and during her most recent visit she did it a lot less. Result!

However, the thing is, I just don’t feel great. I never smoke and hardly ever drink, but there is a serious lack of fruit and veg in my diet, and my only exercise is walking. Perhaps I am actively sabotaging myself because two important people in my life (my mother and the man I married) have made it clear they think I am an awful person. Clearly all that negativity had to go somewhere while I was busy coping. So now it’s time to get back to the gym. All this food has been masking issues, so perhaps when I feel better ‘in myself’, everything will magically be better.


Review: ‘Feed Yourself, Feed Your Family’ by La Leche League International; London: Pinter & Martin, 262 pages, RRP £20

11 Sep

Book Review, Feed Yourself, Feed Your Family, La Leche League International, Pinter and Martin

This is a very pretty book: lots of pink and bright colours with many full-page photos of delicious-looking food and healthy happy families of various ethnicities.

The book is divided into five sections of about 50 pages each: pregnancy, the first few months post-partum, the new normality between 6 weeks and 6 months, starting solids, and family life with a toddler. It is a La Leche League book, which means it obviously takes into consideration the nutritional requirements of breastfeeding mothers, and is pro-breastfeeding throughout. Its premise seems to be that by breastfeeding your child you are giving them the best possible start in life, so once they start solids it makes sense to continue this by providing healthy meals and snacks, and demonstrating a healthy attitude towards food.

While the book might seem like an indulgent glossy-paged tome which only first-time mothers can find enough time to read, it does not forget the challenges of returning to work by including helpful tips on how to manage pumping and sorting out your lunch at the same time. La Leche League is a mother-to-mother organisation, so perhaps that is the reason the book solely seems to address mothers, and I suppose women grow babies and breastfeed them, so the final responsibility for their own nutrition during pregnancy and exclusive breastfeeding rests with mothers. Nevertheless, the title seems to imply that feeding one’s family is exclusively a mother’s domain, even after exclusive breastfeeding.

It felt really strange to read the first chapter as it seemed to assume mothers will be absolutely ravenous during early pregnancy: there are frequent references to wanting to eat all the snacks at the shop till, buying energy bars while out etc., which is of course what some women experience I, on the other hand, spent the first half of my pregnancy avoiding food to the extent that I was hospitalised three times with Hyperemesis, and four years on, the idea of feeling hungry while being pregnant is still incomprehensible to me. But if that is not your experience (which I hope is the case!), this chapter contains useful advice when you are bombarded with ‘don’t-eat-this-eat this-instead’ advice from all angles and trying to stick to a sensible diet.

The chapters are full of common-sense reminders: rather than presenting parents with fixed guidelines regarding their child’s nutritional requirements, the book takes a relaxed approach. From common worries like when to wean, to how much and what babies are supposed to eat, the book encourages its readers to look at the whole picture, so wean when it’s right for you and your baby, “don’t fret about fat”, and take the emotion out of eating. At the same time, it’s full of informative facts: did you know the size of a mother’s heart increases by 12% during pregnancy?! This is just one way in which we gain weight during pregnancy, so don’t worry too much if you’ve been putting on the pounds.

There is also a table which tells you why you need certain nutrients and how to eat the recommended amounts. This looks a bit daunting at first, but it’s reassuring to have this information in a handy format from a reliable source (all recommendations in the book are based on guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and others), just in case you ever want to check if you’re meal-planning along the right lines.

At the same time as providing reliable science-based advice, the book is also written in a friendly, warm, approachable tone, and seems solidly grounded in real life: there is an emphasis on easy-to-prepare meals which take into account the pressure under which mothers are pretty much constantly, and many recipes are fine to cook in the slow cooker, make ahead or freeze. In addition, the book also contains plenty of all-round advice, e.g. safety considerations when looking after your small baby while cooking, how to include older siblings in cooking, which food to take for quick energy bursts when you go out, how to get exercise when you have little baby-free time etc.

This generally friendly and easygoing approach extends to the recipes. There are those which have the potential to become family staples (such as the versatile La Leche League Baking Mix which can be turned into muffins, pancakes, corn bread and waffles!) as well as recipes for each season (stir fries, quesadillas, soups, various pot pies). The recipes encompass a range of cuisines, including curry, different kinds of salsa, pasta accompaniments, even a split pea soup for the Germans among us. I would say that there is something in there for everyone, vegetarians (Quinoa Pilaff, anyone?) and meat fiends (e.g. Pork Tenderloin and various chicken and fish recipes), and easy treats have their place too (One Bowl Chocolate Cake, clearly thinking of frazzled and tired parents here).

I haven’t tried many recipes as a result of being thoroughly stuck in a food rut at the moment in combination with lots of uni work, so this book arrived just in time. However, the recipes I did try out, such as the Homemade Macaroni Cheese, Celeriac and Potato Puree, the aforementioned Chocolate Cake, and Apple-Pear Sauce, were very easy to follow. Most of the recipes seem utterly simple, and many of them are what I would call modular: you can substitute your own choice of vegetables if you want to mix things up and the recipes function as suggestions as to how you could prepare them to make them more interesting.

What I really like about this book is its no-nonsense ‘don’t panic’ message. There are so many books out there urging mothers to stick to routines and strict guidelines, from how much weight they should gain during pregnancy to how much their children should eat at what age, and when they absolutely must wean. Feed yourself, feed your family reiterates throughout the five chapters that as long as you employ common sense and practise moderation, it’ll all be fine. It is a very comprehensive book, regarding both the information and the recipes: if you have this book, you won’t need another nutrition-related or recipe book.

Intriguing article on gender and reading

20 Aug

I came across this article via one of my PhD supervisors. It’s about gender and reading: the challenges children face when choosing which books they want to read, socialisation, and books as bibliotherapy for transgender children. Also includes a huge list of gender-diverse books for children.

Review: ‘You, me and the breast’ by Monica Calaf and Mikel Fuentes; London: Pinter and Martin, RRP £6.99

1 May


It’s time for another book review!

You, me and the breast by Monica Calaf (text) and Mikel Fuentes (illustration) is a beautifully illustrated book. The pages are bold and colourful, and very engaging. One aspect I thought was great was that the illustrations of the characters (Mum, Dad, non-gendered baby) are so over the top (in a good way!) that it is difficult to tell their exact ethnicity, which means children and parents of most, if not all, origins are hopefully able to recognise themselves in the different scenarios.

The story covers most aspects of breastfeeding, from birth, via co-sleeping, babywearing, coffee mornings, feeding in public, to teething and finally weaning. It’s great for a gentle playful overview of how convenient breastfeeding is – you can do it while swimming, gardening, cooking, even exercising! – and how it contributes to a close bond. One thing I wasn’t sure about was the sudden change in register on the third page: the sentence “My nipple darkened so you could see it better and gave off a rich smell, so that you could find it with your tiny nose”, while obviously admirably accurate for a children’s book, also seems slightly too technical for a child, and also, to be honest, perhaps a bit too cringe-inducing for me to read to my daughter in public places. Other people might have more courage when it comes to reading about bodily matters out loud.

The book provides lots of talking points: while my daughter seemed non-plussed by the idea of babies coming out of their mummies’ tummies, she was more inquisitive about why the Mummy in the book has flowers in her hair (umm, quick, think of an answer that doesn’t make her think she has to make herself look pretty all the time! Perhaps that they smell nice and that makes her happy?!), and greatly concerned by why the Daddy has hurt his arms (he hasn’t really, it’s just that his arms have a sort of texture to them).

Another lovely aspect of the book is that it presents attachment parenting as a completely normal way of life: parents and baby snuggle up together at night, baby is carried in a sling, and it’s also nice to see an image of Dad feeding Mum while she is feeding the baby, to show that he is also caring for someone.

I think it’s great to have a book especially dedicated to breastfeeding. Books are usually very useful when it comes to specific life events (books about moving house, getting a new sibling, going on holiday etc etc) in order to explain things to children in a way they will understand and provide them with an opportunity to think about events and ask questions. Breastfeeding is something my daughter has been doing every day (and night!) for three years so far, so it’s about time we had a book about it!

Disclaimer: I was sent this book for free by the publisher as part of their reviewers’ book club.

Book Review! Gabrielle Palmer: Complementary Feeding: Nutrition, Culture and Politics, London: Pinter & Martin (128p., £9.99)

2 Mar


Having helped established Baby Milk Action, co-directed the International Breastfeeding: Practice and Policy Course at the Institute of Child Health in London, and served as HIV and Infant Feeding Officer for UNICEF New York, Gabrielle Palmer can speak with authority on infant feeding. At just 128 pages (including appendices and references) her 2011 book is much briefer than the impressive Politics of Breastfeeding (Pinter & Martin 2009; originally Pandora Press 1988), but no less thought-provoking.

The book is divided into three sections. Part one, ‘The Big Picture’, covers aspects such as entitlement to food and water, as well as an explanation of what Palmer means by ‘Complementary Feeding’: she decided against the use of the word ‘weaning’ as this suggests that food replaces breastmilk in the baby’s diet – ideally, babies continue to receive breastmilk while trying out their first foods.

Part two, ‘A Closer Look’, gives an overview of the industrialisation of food systems: how brand power exploits consumers’ trust, and de-skilling and poor access to healthy food leads to dependency on processed products.

Part three, ‘Processes For Change’, discusses the importance of clearly-worded legislation (‘fresh’ and ‘natural’ can be used in surprising ways) and the benefits of eating primarily locally grown food. This section also contains a brief overview of Great Britain’s food distribution policy during the Second World War which led to remarkable improvements in mother and child health. The success of this policy is contrasted with the US Special Supplemental Programme for Women and Children (WIC) which despite preventing undernutrition in economically disadvantaged people, Palmer states, is likely to have had a negative effect on breastfeeding rates and contributed to obesity problems in the US.

Particularly fascinating was how Palmer neatly linked a discussion of the complexities of Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Foods in developing countries with children’s malnutrition in richer countries due to marketing and misinformation: in developing countries babies starve when breastmilk is replaced with substitutes which cannot be prepared safely because of inadequate water supply or watering down; in developed countries babies are overfed when breastmilk or formula are replaced too early with baby rice or mashed food.

Palmer repeatedly highlights the fact that healthy and adequate nutrition is not simply achieved through the provision of food: complementary feeding is also a learning process for the child during which she becomes part of the community, forms taste preferences and learns appetite control. An astonishing fact mentioned by Palmer is that our oxytocin levels increase and the digestion and metabolism of food becomes more efficient when we eat together with others.

Palmer states several times throughout the book that her aim is not to be prescriptive, but rather to stimulate thought. In this she is certainly successful. At no point does she admonish parents for their feeding choices; instead she places blame for both starvation and obesity on political decisions and companies’ unethical behaviour. The tone of the book is factual: it is for information purposes rather than an attempt to make mothers feel good about their choices, thus I would imagine that, for example, puree-feeding mothers would be uncomfortable with hard-hitting facts such as “[p]ureed, semi-liquid and diluted foods are unnecessary, because if a child cannot chew, he is not ready to have anything other than breastmilk (or the best possible breastmilk substitute)” (49).

I was pleased to see Palmer repeatedly mention the benefits of delayed cord-clamping as this is a rare practice whose benefits do not seem to be widely known outside ‘earth mother’ circles. The volume of blood a baby receives when the cord is cut only once it has stopped pulsating provides a vital amount of iron. While babies are born with sufficient iron stores to see them through ca. the first six months of their life and breastmilk provides a large percentage of a baby’s micronutrient requirements throughout the first and even second year of her life, delayed cord clamping makes a significant difference to the baby’s long-term iron stores: Palmer notes that 100ml of blood from a newborn is the equivalent of taking over a litre from an adult.

All of Palmer’s statements are backed up by a solid grounding in research, details of which can be found at the end of the book, together with an index. This makes Complementary Feeding a good choice for readers who have a special interest in nutrition and its politics.

One aspect of the book about which I’m not quite sure is its structure. First, the purpose of the appendices is not clear: they are written in the same style as the main part of the book and contain information which simply could have been included in the chapter to which they pertain. Similarly, the inclusion of both an introduction and a foreword is confusing, especially as they are separated by the acknowledgements.

Second, although Palmer’s arguments in general are very clear, I find that in some instances the chapters’ internal structure is not strict enough for my taste which makes it difficult to understand the particular chapter’s aim (e.g. why are the benefits of fermented milk products included in the chapter on cereal?). I suppose the book’s great strength, the wealth of information it contains, means that it is sometimes difficult to separate interlinked facts in favour of structure.

I can’t help the impression that most of the book consists of the paper which Palmer wrote for the International Baby Food Action Network mentioned in the introduction with added black and white photos of eating children to make it marketable to the average reader. This is not necessarily a bad thing though, as thanks to Pinter and Martin we can have access to this information too. It is worth having a look at the other books by this publisher, by the way, as they include influential works by Grantley Dick-Read, Sheila Kitzinger and Ina May Gaskin.

All in all, then, in my opinion Complementary Feeding is a great book: Palmer’s accessible style, as well as the short chapters and lists of key points at the end of each of the three sections (both presumably leftovers of the book’s original purpose), make it easy to read in short bursts while Palmer’s arguments and the way in which she questions public policy makes it particularly satisfying.

Although the style of Complementary Feeding is very matter-of-fact, Palmer occasionally uses humour in a way which reminds us that, despite being fact-heavy, this is not a book about dry biological processes, but about children – small vulnerable people with funny quirks who need our protection to let them develop into strong adults with healthy attitudes and access to good food.

Disclaimer: I was sent this book for free by the publisher as part of their reviewers’ book club. (But I probably would have bought it myself at some point anyway as I enjoyed The Politics of Breastfeeding!)

The Medium vs. the Message

7 Oct

The other day I was reading a chapter by the translation scholar Luise von Flotow for my PhD. She is one of the bigwigs of feminist translation theory, and her chapter dealt with a German translation of Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology. She wasn’t a big fan of the translation for numerous reasons and noted that the translation was so difficult to read as the result of footnotes and explicated puns that German women formed reading groups in order to read the text together and discuss it.

It is important to note that the translator added all this paratextual material out of her admiration for the book – she wanted its German audience to be able to understand exactly what Mary Daly was saying even if some puns and phrases were difficult to bring across in another language.

While von Flotow acknowledged the translator’s laudable aim to educate women and make it possible for them to read this influential text in their own language, she made a very important point: the translator lost track of the text’s audience. Mothers rarely have the time for regular meetings, to sit down for a couple of hours, and to spend this time deciphering a complicated text. It might be a generalisation, but as someone who has struggled for months now to find time to go to the gym (no excuse), I think it’s true to a large extent. I don’t mean to insinuate that women can’t cope with complicated texts, it’s just that sometimes you need to cook dinner, sort out Dr’s appointments, perhaps it’s someone’s birthday, then a child is unwell… This problem is multiplied when a group of women all need to find time to attend meetings. So texts which can be read quickly are more convenient.

Enter The Internet. Twitter and Facebook were the message-spreading tools of the protesters in Egypt and the rioters in the UK. One of my friends is even writing her MA dissertation on this subject, that’s how effectively they worked. And I would say that is also how they are being used by feminists and mothers: I see breastfeeding advice by trained IBCLC every day on Twitter, birth stories encourage women to attempt a VBAC, or forego an induction; when a mother is prevented from breastfeeding her baby in public, the story is immediately circulated so action can be taken.

Obviously books are still important, and I would love it if there was a feminist mothers’ discussion group in my town! But at the same time, the internet has done a lot for women.

I’m not sure what I mean to say with this post really. Mostly I wanted to bring von Flotow’s realisation to your attention because it is a good point.