Diet is political

I can tell that you are rolling your eyes already, but bear with me. This is not an article about being vegan or animal rights, although those are interesting topics of discussion. This is also not an article about the fact that women's diets are surveyed and commented on more than men's, although this is clearly a political issue. This is an article about the way we talk about diet and what assumptions underpin these discussions.

Diet has a lot in common with politics; there are competing, sometimes radically different, ideologies fighting for dominance. What you eat says a lot about how you view yourself and the rest of the world. Not caring about diet is itself a statement about diet.

The people who hold the political opinion that we would be better off if we raised or lowered taxes want their views to be more widely adopted. Similarly people who endorse one diet or another have an agenda, an opinion they think would improve humanity if it were more widely adopted.

People who endorse one diet or another wish to alter the behaviour of others to help them and to help all of society, which in itself is noble. However there is an air of judgement when we talk about other people's food that is often cloaked by claiming that we want to help them. We do not make the same judgements when talking about other aspects of a person's behaviour, or health. Diet seems to be special in this regard. It is seen as more socially acceptable to comment on someone's diet than their appearance or body odour.

There is an expressly political aspect to the way we talk about diet. This arises when we talk about the obese using too much of the NHS’s resources. Using more than your fair share of health resources is seen as very bad in an age when we have a limited NHS - mainly due to Tory austerity. This overlooks the fact that not everyone is issued with the same set amount of health care, some people will need more and some will need less and the taxes of the people who need less will pay for the healthcare of the people who need more. This is the only fair way to run a health service. Despite this we still talk about the obese selfishly using more of the NHS than they are entitled to and there is even talk of the obese people being denied basic rights of free healthcare.

The way we talk about the obese as a society is similar to the way we talk about benefit claimants. Most people agree with the idea of benefits but a lot of people say that those on benefits are taking more than they deserve because of lifestyle choices. The same air of judgement is used in both cases. We talk of unemployment as if it is a lifestyle choice, much the same way we talk about obesity as if it is a lifestyle choice. Underpinning both these beliefs is the cold view that other people are lazy and society should not allow laziness to go unpunished.

If you hold this view that a lifestyle choice has entitled someone else to a greater share of society's scarce resources then this changes how you view other people’s behaviour. It changes other people's personal choices into social issues, which is what makes people feel entitled to comment someone else's diet. Talking about someone’s body odour is rude, but talking about someone’s diet is good for all of society because it could prevent someone from getting more of their fair share of scarce resources.

This is the language of the deserving and undeserving poor, and is linked in the mind of those who believe that bad diet and unemployment are solely the preserve of lazy poor people. People with this opinion generally do not mind rich obese people, it is poor obese people they object to. Incidentally unemployment is seen as a lifestyle choice based around laziness whereas wealth is not seen as a different lifestyle choice but a superior state of being, which we should all aspire too. This is the same way we talk about being thin and healthy.

This view is based on a classist assumptions that poor people are lazy and do not look after themselves. They sit around, not working, drinking lager, eating badly and then expect all this to be paid for by other people's hard work. In reality most benefits are claimed by people with jobs but on low wages. People who work hard jobs and are raising a family on a low income do not always have the time and the money to eat well. Bad diet and benefits are often not a factor of being lazy but of working hard and being paid little money.

Rather than saying that the poor should change their behaviour, we need to change their circumstances through better wages and working conditions. It is not enough for middle class people to say "I eat well so what is the problem?" This is based on the assumptions that poor people are lazy and it refuses to acknowledge the difficult circumstances other people face. It implies that poor people need to be forced to change, for the good of themselves, whereas in reality society needs to change to better accommodate the needs of the less well off.

Telling someone what you think their diet should be assumes that everyone else is in control of their own lives the way that a wealthy middle class person is. A lot of people are not, they are dependent on irregular work, they depend on benefits due to their low wages and increasingly they are dependent on the charity of others because of benefit cuts. If we want to make a positive difference in the lives of the less well off, and thus the health of the nation, then we need higher wages, more benefits and greater taxes on the well off to pay for all of this.

This is not an argument I hear people making very often, an argument for more government and more welfare, but it is the best solution to the problems caused by people not being on control of their lives – problems like obesity.

If, when we talk about other people’s diet, we really have their best interests at heart then we need to make an argument for better living standards and not just changing an individual's behaviour. Diet is political and my politics is about helping the less well-off and not just assuming they are lazy.

Page 3 reveals the ingrained sexism in our society

"It's a newspaper's duty to print the news and raise hell," or so said Wilbur F. Storey of the goals of the Chicago Times in 1861. Most British newspapers do not fit this romantic fantasy of plucky reporters digging up facts, uncovering corruption and exposing the wrong doings of those in power. Newspapers are a product as much as anything else and one that exists in a very competitive market place. Beyond this they are part of our public psyche and form a key part of how we view the world. Most of us still get our news from newspapers, it may be in the form of articles published online, or downloaded onto smart phones but still newspapers are powerful players in the news market. They decide what is news or not news but deeper than that they decide what is normal or not normal.

When headlines denouncing 'Booze Britain' and the dangers of binge drinking were splashed across front pages, they reinforced the idea that most people drink excessively on a regular basis. Through the foggy lens of journalism we look at ourselves as a nation and we find out how we behave and what our hopes and fears are - mainly our fears. When newspapers are outraged at politician’s expenses or light penalties for sex offenders, so are we as a nation. As such it follows that when newspapers are casually sexist, we become a bit more casually sexist as a nation.

Sexism is rife in newspapers - especially tabloids. Women are constantly assaulted for being ugly, fat, having too much power, crying wolf in rape accusations, not breast feeding their children enough, having bad taste in clothes, for speaking out of line, for breast feeding their children too much, causing cancer and making house prices fall.

However, one aspect of all the misogynistic rubbish printed in tabloid papers stands out above the rest: The Sun's Page 3. Since 1969 The Sun (Britain's most popular and least trusted newspapers) has printed a picture of a glamour model on its third page. Initially clothed and later topless, these photographs show a misogynistic image of women as young, good looking, sexually available and silent.

Recently an online petition on the website, No More Page 3, has sought the removal of Page 3 from the Sun. At the time of posting this campaign has picked up 46 thousand signatures, as well as press coverage in The Guardian, The New Statesman and on News Night. Social media is buzzing with the very real possibility that this No More Page 3 could be a success. The campaign is well managed, has picked up support from several public figures, including MPs and is targeting The Sun's advertisers such as Lego, Tesco and Sainsbury’s in an attempt to put added pressure on the tabloid. This campaign has attracted criticism from those who go out of their way to defend casual sexism. Unsurprising as this is, I wanted to take a moment to address a few of the misconceptions shaping the arguments in favour of Page 3.

The first strand of criticism mainly comes from a position of middle-class broadsheet superiority. Some argue that Page 3 does not really matter, as the Sun is not a newspaper but a news comic. It is difficult to argue that the Sun is not taken seriously as a newspaper. Certainly it's the main source of news for the 13.6 million people who pay to read it every week. Its power to affect the opinions and actions of the general public was evidenced in the infamous 1992 election day front page, which allowed John Major to narrowly secure a majority. The Sun is clearly a newspaper and what it prints – both news and otherwise – clearly has an effect on its readership.

The problems caused by Page 3 go beyond those who read the Sun, as any newspaper so widely read sets a standard. Page 3 is often the largest picture of a woman in the newspaper. Those other images of women in The Sun are used to shame women for their failings in either being ugly, overweight or having an opinion differ from The Sun's right wing agenda. Page 3 sets a standard of how women are treated, i.e. either ogled or mocked.

The campaign simply seeks the abolition of Page 3 and invites people to support for it for their own personal reasons. People of many different ideological backgrounds have signed the petition. My own objection to Page 3 does not come from any perceived negative psychological damage caused by looking at naked women. Nor does it stem from a puritan desire to cover up women’s flesh. It comes from a desire to liberate women from the casual sexism in our society that Page 3 epitomises. I feel my goals are very much in line with petition’s creator who has demonstrated a desire to bring society to a place where casual sexism of the Page 3 variety is no longer acceptable.

Reading a daily paper is a very normal, very British thing to do and putting casual sexism in a daily paper clocks the misogyny in normality. It reinforces the idea that a sexist attitude to women is the normal way of behaving. It also fixes in the general psyche the view that women exist only to appear sexually desirable to men and when they do not fit into this neat bracket they are worthless. This the normality of of female objectification and the views it support hold back women across the world from gender equality. The campaign wishes to end the normality of female objectification in part through abolishing Page 3 and the way it normalises sexist attitudes.

Another argument used in favour of Page 3 is that it is a harmless hangover from a bygone area, much like Benny Hill or Naughty Nuns postcards. In some ways this is true. Page 3 is from the past, it would not be started today; it would be considered crass and sexist - which it is. The fact that Page 3 would not be started today indicates that it does not reflect the values of our modern society. It is worthy of note that the Daily Mirror used to have Page 3 photographs but stopped the practice in the 1980s because it was seen as demeaning to women.

Some wish to protect Page 3 because they naively yearn for a mostly fictional past age that was free from political correctness. An age where sexism was rife, traditional gender roles were strongly enforced, and any deviation was met with social exclusion. Although most people who look back to the past with fondness will acknowledge that it was sexist, they argue that sexism has been abolished from our modern society. To them, Page 3 is a harmless relic of the past to be preserved so that we do not lose all contact with tradition.

This argument holds little weight as sexism has clearly not been abolished from our society. In place of Benny Hill, Family Guy is making weekly rape jokes. Women have made social and economic progress since the 1970s but the playing field is still not level. Women are poorly represented among heads of state or chief executives of large companies. Where women have risen they have had to endure the ridicule and low esteem in which they are held. This is mainly a result of the institutionalised sexism that Page 3 normalises.

Page 3 reveals how deeply ingrained sexism is in our society. The fact that some wish to defend it is sexist in itself. It shows there is still work to be done in rooting it out misogyny. So long as Page 3 continues the objectification of women will be normal and natural. This in turn maintains the uneven playing field on which women compete for jobs and political power. In the past individual's racist behaviour went unchallenged because broader racist attitudes in society appeared normal. As the idea of racism being the normal state was challenged it allowed individual's be challenged for their racist behaviour. The same is true for sexist. The standard bearers for sexism need to be brought down before sexism can be challenged on an individual level. In the battle for gender equality Page 3 is Tank, ploughing its way across the field, shielding sexism from oncoming fire with the armour of normality.

Page 3 is complexly unacceptable in today's modern news market place and I cannot imagine the writing of Woodward and Bernstein next to the image of a topless woman. Tabloid newspapers use their power to create a culture that publicly shames women. The above example of the public outcry against binge drinking is a perfect example of this as the criticism falls more heavily on women who drink excessively than men. This sexist tabloid culture cannot be stopped until Page 3 and other examples of ingrained sexism are abolished. When the Chicago Times were doing their duty in printing the news and raising hell, I doubt they thought the quality of their work would be increased by daily images of topless women.

Feminism and class consciousness

The world needs feminism. In the western world one in four women will be affected by sexual violence in their lifetime and in developing economies women are more likely than men to have a lower standard of living. Any efforts to improve the living conditions of the world's poorest people will only benefit 50% of these societies if greater work is not undertaken to improve gender equality. The work of feminists is essential to our continuing social progress, not just bringing genders in line with each other but also working to combat racism, homophobia and transphobia.

There is broad support for the goals of feminism but there is also a good deal of debate as to the methods through which these goals should be accomplished. Due to the low social status of women around the world there are many factors which prevent them from uniting into a powerful political movement, as generally the politically less powerful do not engage with the political establishment as they feel the have less to gain from dong so. What I have set out below is my thesis on one way in which we can move towards accomplishing the goals of the women’s movement.

People who broadly identify as feminist come from a wide variety of backgrounds and bring their own experience to the debate, not just as women but also members of other minority groups. Feminism is in itself a Universalist ideology about readdressing the balance of power between minority and majority groups. As an inclusive movement it has many crossovers with similar struggles and causes, however here in lies a challenge that faces feminists, namely in building female class consciousness. Women (and indeed feminists) typically primarily identify as belonging to a more specific socioeconomic group, rather than simply identifying as being 'a woman'. More prevalent class signifiers incorporate a combination of class, race, sexuality and sub-culture as these have a large impact on someone's identity as well as gender.

Traditionally class consciousness is viewed as the Marxist idea of the proletariat becoming aware of how they are exploited by the bourgeoisie and banding together against their oppressors. In the 21st century where the struggle against oppression has taken on many different forms I feel the concept is still valid but needs to be expanded. We need to stop thinking of class in a rigid way of factory owners and labourers and apply this model to the various different power relationships in society that can be exploitative. In this case the privilege men have over women. This is not to say a means of pitting women against men but a way to spread understanding of how women are opposed by the patriarchy.

Earlier this year, noted feminist blogger Helen Lewis wrote about the challenges facing feminism as a movement in 2012. The piece, which focused on the need to keep the feminist debate current, can be found here. Central to the article is where she asks "What is the biggest, most important single issue for feminists in 2012? What should we get angry about?" I agree with the conclusions Helen Lewis reaches and want to now add my own answer to the question which that it is important to create the idea of women as an oppressed class and to show that the same patriarchal systems which oppress poor black women in developing countries also affect rich white women in the OECD. However there can be problems in creating united class identity as there are a lot of differences between poor black women and rich white women, for example access to affordable childcare. Instances of rape and domestic violence are an example of an issue which affects women as an entire class and poor support for victims is an example of how women as an entire class are oppressed by the patriarchy.

In America, African Americans have been very successful in building a class consciousness that transcends economic background. This is partly through the emergence of an African American culture uniting the class, a culture which places emphasis on exploring how the current system oppresses African Americans and on overturning the barriers society places against members of ethnic minorities. For more details on this see, the documentary The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975.

If this example of how African American culture transcends the gender and economic divides within African Americans then it can be used by feminists to develop a women's class identity. There is already a women's culture which is as diverse as women themselves but feminists need to use this culture to openly explore how women are oppressed and what unites them together in their oppression, much in the same way African Americans have used their culture to advance their liberation. Many feminists are already doing this, so in answer to the question posed by Helen Lewis above, I would say an important challenge and opportunity is supporting the work of these feminists in creating a women's culture to unite diverse women together in a single political movement. In other words developing a united female class consciousness.

Class consciousness makes a diverse movement a more effective political force. The high level of African American class consciousness creates social pressure to tackle issues which affect African Americans such as poor funding for intercity schools and gang outreach programs. The status of Africans Americans within American society is still low but the government programs to tackle racial issues receive more funding than those designed to reduce gender equality. Programs supported by feminists such as women’s shelters or outreach programs to victims of domestic violence less finical support. Most of the hard work in these areas is performed by charities with little support from the government.

Developing the idea of 'woman' as class consciousness will help  bring political pressure on governments to address social and economic issues which affect women. However there is a problem with class  consciousness which is the homogenising effect it has on the class. In other words it creates pressure for the entire class to conform to the opinions and values of the prevalent subgroups within the class. A good example of this is seen again in African American culture where there is a lot of pressure within the class to identify as heterosexual. Class consciousness has created a hegemony of people identifying as heterosexual African Americans which makes it difficult for the oppressed class to connect with other oppressed classes in America to effect social change. For example homosexual Americans. An indication of this effect was the passing of Proposition 8 in California during the 2008 election, California being a state which also voted for Obama. Millions of African Americans went to the polls to support someone from their class but also support a law against another oppressed class because people identifying as African American also prominently identify as heterosexual.

One of the great strengths of feminism is it is a movement that can incorporate people from a variety of different oppressed classes. There are many crossovers in ideology between feminism and movements to liberate ethnic minorities, LGBT people, the poor and the disabled from the constraints that society places on them. This broad background is a great strength to the movement but also a handicap as it inhibits the emergence of a single united female movement as a class consciousness.

The development of woman as a class consciousness will create political pressure to improve the status of women the world over. This is no easy task but a good way of developing class consciousness is through the development of a feminist culture which would use the strength of the movement (its inclusiveness) to explore the problems being faced by women of different backgrounds and create a desire for political change. Hard work is already being done in this area and it is important that this work is encouraged and supported to protect the future of the movement. The world needs feminism, without it we cannot progress socially as half of society will be born into a world which restricts their freedoms.