Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Published medical studies: No girls allowed!

And look like an alien while you're at it!
It's safe to say that there is a lot of conflicting, misleading, and just plain wrong information regarding fitness, nutrition, and general health available to us. Just type "how to lose weight" into your internet browser and you will be overwhelmed by products, programs, machines, and diets which all claim to be the key to a healthy new you (cue skinny models in spandex and muscled men with testosterone dripping from their eyeballs). Weeding through all of this garbage is tiring and confusing (should I eat carbs never or all the time?!). My general rule of thumb has been to try to find an academic study on the specific health question I have, which the New York Times "Health" section online is often a good starting point for.

The problem I have been running into lately, however, is that a lot of these studies are sexist. No, researchers aren't telling female subjects how cute they look when they sweat -- they just don't have any female subjects. Basically, newer health studies are testing old theories and findings on women and discovering that male and female bodies are different (you mean, besides the boobs thing??). A large proportion of studies conducted regarding physical fitness and nutrition base their findings solely on male participants. For example:

Remember gym/health class in school when we all learned how to calculate our maximum heart rate? The formula (220 - age of person) is supposed to give you a goal to shoot for in the intensity of your exercise. It turns out that the formula we have always learned, which is also programmed into just about every treadmill and elliptical machine ever, was calculated based on data from men -- only men. A recent study of 5,500 women found that this formula was not helpful because it produces a maximum heart rate that is too high for the average woman to sustain without quickly exhausting herself.

Well, hello yourself...no, wait, stop targeting me!
Another commonly used fitness finding is the recommendation to eat foods high in protein after an intense workout in order to increase muscle performance. Once again, someone finally had the brilliant idea of testing this finding on women and, lo and behold, different results were obtained. The women in this study showed no benefits from post-workout protein consumption, and some even complained of increased fatigue and soreness.

Shockingly, the lack of consideration of women's physical differences from men is not just a fitness issue, it can be a life or death issue. Let's go back to our school health classes once more: remember learning the symptoms of a heart attack? Pain in the left arm, feeling like an elephant is sitting on your chest? Well, as you may have guessed by now based on the theme of this post, those symptoms often don't apply to women. As a result, female heart attack patients are more likely than their male counterparts to die in the hospital:
Doctors or emergency responders may not take women's symptoms seriously, says Suzanne Steinbaum, director of women and heart disease at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York and an American Heart Association spokeswoman.
"Women are coming in saying they're nauseous, they're fatigued, they're sweating, and doctors say, 'You're fine,' " she says. "Doctors will say it's anxiety and it's all in your head."
Yet women also may not take their heart symptoms seriously enough, she says.
"We have a tendency to downplay what we're feeling," Steinbaum says. "If you say to your doctors, 'It's probably in my head,' then the person who is listening starts dismissing it. If you think you're having a heart attack, say it. And if you're wrong, then you're wrong."
Like I said, it's hard enough finding accurate health information without wondering whether the findings of academic studies have been tested on the "other" half of the population. Women's health and lives are being compromised because of it. Why this problem exists is likely a combination of many factors: there are more male athletes than female ones, so it's easier to recruit them for studies; researchers assume that the differences between male and female physiology do not extend significantly beyond the sex-related parts; researchers subconsciously associate physical fitness with male bodies; women are hard to recruit for studies about the body because they are self-conscious and afraid of looking weak or fat; and the list could go on forever.

To conclude, from now on I'm going to blame the patriarchy for any and all fitness/nutrition/health woes I have (yes, my tummy flab is the result of sexism, now leave me alone to sit on my couch and watch The New Girl for the next 5 hours).

Saturday, February 18, 2012

An Equal Right to Selfishness

While it all seems a little 1950s-esque, you may have noticed that women's access to birth control is a hot topic in American politics right now, with some wondering if birth control policy will be a deciding factor in the 2012 election. In case you haven't noticed, here's the gist of the situation: The Obama administration's success in reforming health insurance is causing a big uproar among conservatives (big surprise), most recently because of an official mandate that birth control be covered, without co-pay, as an essential component of women's healthcare. Since some religious authorities--mainly Catholic bishops and Rick Santorum--have raised a stink by arguing that this mandate infringes on their religious freedom, Obama recently made a "compromise" that, well, was more of a polite way of telling opponents to #@$% off.

Naturally, many people are grateful for Obama's resoluteness, especially in an election year. Coverage of birth control has been soundly defended on the basis of women's rights to equal health insurance and reproductive choice. However, Pamela Haag, at BigThink.com, thinks we should be defending birth control for less euphemistic reasons:
Birth control isn’t about my health unless by health you mean, my capacity to get it on, to have a happy, joyous sex life that involves an actual male partner. The point of birth control is to have sex that’s recreational and non-procreative. It’s to permit women to exercise their desires without the sword of Damocles of unwanted pregnancy hanging gloomily over their heads.”
Her article acknowledges the political expediency of using "choice" and "women's health" as rhetorical devices in the public sphere, but she laments the lack of straightforwardness about the fact that most women who use birth control do so to have sex:
“So here’s the subject I advocate for, because no one dares to speak her name: It’s the 20-something unmarried heterosexual woman who wants to have sex, has sex, enjoys a good sex life with her boyfriend, and, in that sex life, uses birth control. Or, she accidentally gets pregnant. She doesn’t get pregnant because she’s a victim of non-consensual sex. She gets pregnant while enjoying sex. She doesn’t use birth control to regulate her menstrual cycle. She uses birth control because she has sex.”
While I agree that this fundamental issue is generally left out of polite tabel conversations--or impolite political conversations--I don't think it is the most important issue that we should be using as a "rallying cry." Yes, women's sexual liberty is not as accepted as it should be; slut-shaming and victim-blaming still plague popular discussions of rape, abuse, abortion, and birth control. But that doesn't change the fact that, in the privacy of their homes/cars/clubs/backyards/kitchen tables, premarital sex is the norm in our country and most people approve of it. And, since (unfortunately) most people think of heterosexual couples when the topic of premarital sex comes up, we can safely conclude that most people approve of women having premarital sex--a.k.a. exercising their libido for non-procreative purposes.

So, given the basic assumption that most people don't pray for hell's wrath to descend upon American women for having recreational sex (even Catholic ones), it is sort of a no-brainer that birth control facilitates these practices. Again, I agree with Haag that we're not really talking about this underlying assumption, but I don't think we need to. In fact, there is a much more crucial result of women's access to birth control that should be emphasized even more than either female sexual liberty or women's health, and that is economic viability.

I'm sure you've all heard about the gender pay gap. But a lot of people are unaware of the pay gap between mothers and non-mothers, which is actually larger than the gap between men and women. Sure, some of these mothers voluntarily sacrificed a career for the sake of building a family (how "voluntary" this choice was and the fact that a lot of women have to choose between work and children is a whole problem in itself, but one too complex to delve into here). However, a lot of these mothers may have made a different choice if birth control was freely available to them: either to delay pregnancy or avoid it all together.

An issue in gender equality that, in my experience, often goes unsaid is that, no matter how socially equal men and women become, women will always be biologically required to put in a little extra effort if they want to have a family, a.k.a be pregnant for 9 months, give birth, then breastfeed for a while (most women don't want or cannot afford to adopt or get a surrogate). Women have uteruses, men don't, end of story. Granted, this problem could largely be solved if employers didn't discriminate against mothers, if childcare was affordable and available for everyone, if paternity and maternity leave were required, etc. etc. But, again, that's a whole other issue.

My point is that the biological imperative that women be the ones to carry a pregnancy is, in our current social/economic/political world, a large financial disadvantage for many, even most, women. And, since having children outside of marriage is now very common and single mothers increasingly characterize this country's population of the extremely poor, it seems especially relevant to point out that free, accessible contraception could go a long way toward preventing needlessly common unwanted and unplanned pregnancies. I'm all for sexual liberty and women's health and stable families, but shouldn't the primary rallying cry be that of economic equality? Some argue that the introduction of the pill has accounted for "30% of the convergence of men's and women's earnings from 1990 to 2000." Additionally, a study has shown that the earlier a woman starts taking birth control, the more likely it is that she will earn higher wages later in life. Talk about a smart economic investment!

When so many other barriers exist for women--or anyone, for that matter--to achieve independent economic stability, shouldn't we be given the basic resources to control our own fertility, to not have our prospects in a career, a degree, or just a trip around the world be derailed by an unwanted pregnancy? It's right there, in the name: birth control. In the end, birth control gives us the power to be what economically successful men with wives at home caring for their offspring have always been able to take for granted: selfish. No matter who tells us it's not lady-like, we should at least have the right to selfishly pursue our own economic empowerment. And access to birth control is the most basic step toward that.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Coffee Copy

To the copy writer who composed the description on the back panel of Trader Joe's "Costa Rican Tarrazu" coffee:

I realize you probably have a lot on your plate with the task of writing unique descriptions of every variety of Trader Joe’s delicious, yet affordable, coffee. After mindlessly enjoying a steaming cup every day for the last few months, I was startled when I finally read the back panel of my latest favorite, “Costa Rican Tarrazu.” My two years working as a writing advisor to university students has given me a certain knack for spotting awkward sentence structure, grammatical errors, and lack of brevity, all of which appear in your description.

Let’s start with the first sentence: “The microclimates of Costa Rica are well known for their high-grown, hard bean and superior flavor profiles.” The subject of this sentence is “the microclimates of Costa Rica;” as such, “superior flavor profiles” necessarily refers to this subject. However, microclimates themselves do not have flavor profiles, coffee beans do. So, really, the first sentence should read: “The microclimates of Costa Rica are well known for producing superior flavor profiles in their high-grown, hard beans.”

Moving on: “It’s fertile volcanic soil, shady conditions and elevation all contribute to a bright and well-balanced cup.” A classic misuse of “it’s” instead of “its” was the initial sore thumb that stuck out to me and convinced me to inspect this description with more attentiveness than one would usually devote to a coffee can. Also, I know it’s (it is) all the rage right now to cut out the Oxford comma in lists, but many have been too quick to nix it altogether at the expense of the meaning of the sentence. The lack of a comma between “conditions and elevation” would, if interpreted correctly, mean that both the conditions and the elevation must be “shady.” However, as elevation cannot be “shady,” it would be more accurate to write: “Its fertile volcanic soil, shady conditions, and high elevation all contribute to a bright and well-balanced cup.” If one wanted to be really picky, one would point out that the sentence should begin with “Their” and not “its” since the subject of the previous sentence, highlighted in the last paragraph, is plural: “The microclimates of Costa Rica.”

The last three sentences are not obviously incriminating, but they could use a little condensing. Any Trader Joe’s customer wanting to know more about their coffee purchase is going to want that information to be conveyed to them in as few words as possible. They’re on their way home from work, the check-out lines are getting longer, so they don’t have time to stand around reading elaborate product descriptions. The conclusion currently reads like this: “This wonderful brew is from a co-op established in 1960, making it one of the first co-ops in Central America. The co-op is located at an altitude of 6,000 feet in a subregion of Tarrazu, the most well known and highest elevation coffee region in Costa Rica.” These last three sentences are packed with specific detail and sound repetitive with their overuse of the word “co-op.” Some of this information could have been spaced out throughout the paragraph by incorporating it into other sentences. Here’s how I think the whole, finished description should have been written:

“The microclimates of Costa Rica are well known for producing superior flavor profiles in their high-grown, hardy beans. Their fertile volcanic soil, shady conditions, and 6,000-foot elevation all contribute to a bright and well-balanced cup. This wonderful brew comes from one of the first co-ops in Central America. Established in 1960, this co-op is located in a subregion of Tarrazu, the most well known and highest elevation coffee region in Costa Rica.”

Not only is this description clearer and grammatically correct, it is also 8 words shorter.

Once again, I love Trader Joe’s and their coffee, but blatant and recurring grammatical and stylistic errors make any company look sloppy and unprofessional. I will close my remarks by noting that I am currently available for employment at a rate of $25.00USD per hour as a copy writer or editor.

Thank you for your time and consideration,
MacKenzie Fuentes