What’s The Alternative?

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There are so many products on the market for making people feel clean and smell nice. Most of them are overcomplicated, overpriced and kind of superfluous. But making the switch to more natural and simpler bath and body products can be a bit of a minefield.

Even for those of us who don’t get into perfumes and cosmetics, or who know better than to use a shower gel or antibacterial soap, it can be hard to know where to start or which alternatives actually work. Luckily for you I have tried a few. So here are my experiences, the products I use or buy and why, and a few examples of things that didn’t work for me.

In the Laundry

For years I found that regular washing powder made me itch. Growing up we had whatever was cheapest to wash our clothes in, which was usually some kind of concentrated powder. We never had fabric softener, and to this day the smell of fabric softener is so foreign to me that I can recognise it on a person from metres away.

After becoming the mother of a child with sensitive skin, I started looking for alternatives. We tried Lux soap flakes, which helped but were a pain to use because they had to be dissolved in hot water before use and can create a build-up of soap in your washing machine. I eventually settled on ionic laundry balls, which change the pH of the water in a similar way to which soap does. I have now been using laundry balls for something like ten years.

laundry ball

You don’t get whiter whites and brighter colours, but you get clean clothes. I use a stain remover for grease stains that don’t shift on the first wash. For extra dirty things I dissolve home-made soap shavings in water and let it sit for a couple of days until it forms a sort of gel, then add this to the wash.

Between this sort of washing and hanging wet clothes out to dry in the sun you get clothes that remain fresh for years even if worn very often.

In the Shower

As you will already know, I make my own soap and use this in place of shampoo as well. It is not uncommon for us to have up to ten different soaps in use around the house, between all the hand-washing stations and the showers.

Recent studies have shown that antibacterial detergents and hand-washing products (I won’t call them soap because they are far from it) can cause skin problems and leave us susceptible to infection as they kill the microbes in our skin. The skin microbiome is a relatively new discovery, and is considered to be as important to our health as the gut microbiome. Antibacterial products kill protective microbes and there is currently a push to discourage people from using them on their skin.

Real soap, made using the natural process of saponification rather than slapping together some sudsy chemical by-products, does not kill off your beneficial skin microbes. Real soap is slippery by nature of its alkalinity, and this causes germs and bacteria to be rinsed off or rubbed off when you dry your skin after using soap. Alkaline substances will cause your skin to become dry, which is why soap is made with a lelve of what is called a ‘superfat’. Superfatting soap ensures that even after the sodium hydroxide used to create the chemical reaction with the oils is all consumed, there is enough oil left in the soap to moisturise the skin. This is where skin-loving oils like olive oil, avocado oil and cocoa butter produce a soap that moisturises as it cleans. Natural ingredients like honey, tea, milk and oatmeal, as well as clays, botanicals and essential oils, can be added to real soap for extra healing, soothing and nourishing of the skin while you wash.

I’ve had people complain to me that they use body washes and hand washing detergents because they don’t like the slippery feeling that soap leaves. But this slippery feeling is what lets you know that you are getting clean without losing all your natural skin flora and moisture.

So now that you know a bit about real soap, you can understand why we use it so extensively. For hand washing, body washing and hair washing, even sometimes laundry use. You can use pretty much any soap to wash your hair, but things like avocado oil might leave it a bit greasy. We mostly use plain soap for hair washing, but the varieties with Rhassoul clay are a nice alternative.

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Here is the shelf in my shower. It generally contains a hair soap as well as whatever varieties Matt and myself have in use at the time. Also note the apple cider vinegar. Those of us with longer hair use this to reduce tangles. It removes some of the fat from your hair and neutralises the alkalinity of the soap. And once it is dry I guarantee that you don’t smell like old apples.

I have tried bicarb and vinegar for hair washing, as well as just rinsing, but using soap works for me. And the rest of the family have adopted it as well. I have a few people who buy my soap specifically for washing hair, including one woman who says that it is the best thing she has ever used for washing her dreadlocks.

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We are still using regular toothpaste, but for antiperspirant we have settled on alum stones. I tried a natural paste deodorant, which while not preventing perspiration at all did completely eliminate the subsequent odour. Unfortunately I developed a reaction to it after a couple of weeks so had to try something else.

I had been uncomfortable using commercial antiperspirants for a while. Roll-ons only really work for bare armpits, and the spray options caused an alarming stinging sensation that made me feel like my pores were shrinking away in terror. I believe that antiperspirants cause your pores to pucker up so that you don’t actually sweat, which can’t be good for you. Also, despite all the claims of offering ’48 hour protection’, not one antiperspirant I tried was able to keep me dry for much more than a few hours. Add to that my increasing distaste for the marketing around these products – I once found myself having to choose between two varieties named ‘Sexy’ and ‘Invisible’ and the irony struck a little too close to the bone.

We tried naturally formed alum stones, but these tended to erode, break and leave sharp edges. More recently I bought a stone from eBay, which you can see in the picture. It is dense and carved to a useful shape and it has been really great to use, as well as durable.

When I am at home working around the farm and garden I don’t use any form of antiperspirant or deodorant, I just sweat freely and rinse it off later. Often I can go a whole day without applying anything to my armpits and as long as I wear something well-ventilated, like a singlet, I don’t even smell at the end of the day. I think having actual armpit hair might work in my favour in this regard. Let the body do what the body does.

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Some other products I use are made by friends with goats. Both the Glenafton Goat Milk and Alpine Goatsmilk moisturisers are beautifully light and last for ages. Which one I buy basically comes down to who I see at a show when I need to stock up. I leave lotions to the experts and stick to basic soapmaking, because these producers make great quality and excellent value products. I also have arnica salves from Glenafton and Alpine that I use on my frequent bruises.

You will see also in this photo that I use a body spray. I have a bit of a paranoia about people finding me smelly, so I still use a body spray in social and work situations. Many body sprays have dodgy names and creepy themes (like ‘Temptation’, ‘Tease’ and ‘Instant Crush’…), but I found one called ‘So…?’ which sounds like an awkward silence or an expression of ambivalence, and decided that was the one for me.

Due to the way I live and present myself there are a lot of things other people buy and use that I just don’t. Things like disposable razors or make-up removal products or protection for heat-treated hair. I don’t have a complicated personal maintenance routine, I just wash with soap, condition my hair with cider vinegar, apply some goat milk moisturiser and run a comb through my hair. It’s pretty minimalist, but it saves me heaps of time and money, and I’m not unnecessarily applying chemicals to my body.

 

When Soap Gremlins Attack!

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I have been making soap for two and a half years now. That’s quite a long time. I wrote a post about the first batch of soap I made way back in March 2013. You can check it out here.

Since then I have made about 800 bars of soap. I’ve got my NICNAS registration and started selling to family, friends, workmates and at the very occasional public event. In a couple of weeks I’ll be at the school Christmas market, which is quite exciting.

In that time my soap has gone from looking like the ones in the link above to single colour swirls and basic natural scents to complex themed essential oil and colour combinations.

Original Fairy Garden

Original Fairy Garden

Fairy Garden Mk2

Fairy Garden Mk2

And until last week I hadn’t lost a single batch.

Soapers talk of a phenomena known as ‘soap gremlins’. It’s when soap develops a mind of its own and things go awry. Seized (super fast thickening), discoloured or overheated batches, dropped mixing bowls, missed fragrances, anything that stops your masterpiece from manifesting as you had intended. And they tend to come in a series of two or more disasters.

I’ve been stocking up on a lot of old favourites with Christmas, the school market and next year’s Rural Lifestyle Expo in mind. Two popular natural varieties, Holy Guacamole and Bee’s Knees, should have gone off without a hitch. But I made a couple of bad decisions.

Holy Guacamole features avocado oil and the flesh of a whole avocado in the mix. It turns out a kind of booger green. It is probably the ugliest soap I make, but it is super moisturising and leaves that dewy feeling on your skin without being greasy. I usually let it heat up naturally to gel phase to speed up the cure, but this time it didn’t heat up on its own. So I gave it a bit of help by putting it in the oven.

When I unmoulded it the next day I found that I had burned the edges. It had a thin layer of nasty brown goo around the top. The rest of the soap was fine, but it looked bloody awful. The best option was to slice off the top layer, leaving a smaller bar. To compensate for this, I cut the batch into 12 bars instead of 16 to make up for the lost weight. So the bars are nice and fat, with flat tops. And they should still work perfectly well.

Holy Guacamole, not a beauty even when successful, but feels great to use.

Holy Guacamole, not a beauty even when successful, but feels great to use.

My next mistake was on the honey soap. The batch stayed beautifully cool and kept the creamy look. I had the bright idea of putting it in my cute new 12-bar mould with the goat kid on it. The soft, sticky soap stayed in the detail parts of the mould when I popped it out, and left sad blurry goat kids on the top of each bar.

I had never done a rebatch before, but a newly made, otherwise perfectly good batch of milk and honey soap seemed like a good place to start if I wanted to save all the ingredients and have a saleable batch of a popular variety. I did some research and decided to go with the stove top method.

I grated up the soap, put it into oven bags and put the oven bags in a big pot of boiling water. Once it had all melted down I snipped a corner off the bags and squeezed all the molten soap into the moulds. Then it was fingers crossed and don’t look at it for at least 12 hours.

It turned out okay, some people have even said it looks better than the original (thanks guys). I’ll test it in a day or two and see how it goes.

Rebatched honey soap

Rebatched honey soap

Then on Saturday I woke with an idea. I pictured a creamy, mostly white soap, with a light brown and lilac swirl. I had been trying to figure out a way to lighten-up a combination of frankincense and patchouli essential oils, and I had the idea of adding lime. I decided to risk a hanger swirl with two colours. The essential oil combo turned out better than I expected, it smells amazing, and applying the colours turned out to be a bit of a learning experience. But in the end I am happy with how it turned out.

New, still unnamed variety with frankincense, patchouli and lime.

New, still unnamed variety with frankincense, patchouli and lime.

Here are a couple of my recent creations that I am a bit proud of. I’ve never really been much of a crafty person, but I enjoy making things that are useful, good for you, enjoyable to use and also look good sitting on your sink or in your shower. I’ve been able to help a few people with skin problems along the way.

Tie Dye - four colour in-the-pot swirl with clary sage, patchouli and lavender.

Tie Dye – four colour in-the-pot swirl with clary sage, patchouli and lavender.

Plain four-ingredient goat milk soap, dressed up just a little with this cute goat kid mould.

Plain four-ingredient goat milk soap, dressed up just a little with this cute goat kid mould.

The Miracle of Colostrum Soap

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Kidding time is always tough on my hands.

The combination of milking, feeding, cleaning pens and constant hand washing always leaves my hands very rough and dry. It usually takes months for them to return to some kind of normal.

This year I took some excess colostrum from one of my does at 12 hours post-kidding. It was amazing, thick, yellow stuff. After her three kids had consumed all they could for 12 hours, I milked off about a litre and a half. Enough for an emergency supply and two batches of soap.

Colostrum is the first milk produced by mammals, usually formed in the weeks to days prior to giving birth. It contains important antibodies for the offspring, which are absorbed through the gut in the first few feeds. This is referred to as ‘passive transfer of immunity’ from mother to baby. It provides the antibodies specific to the environment that the animal is born into.

I had not soaped with colostrum before, but I had read that it was even more of a challenge to use than milk. Milk, if you are not careful, will burn and discolour during the soapmaking process. I froze my colostrum solid and expected to get a fairly manky colour in my soap. I wanted to fast-track part of the batch by allowing it to heat up, so I decided to add activated charcoal to give a black soap and hide any discolouration. Activated charcoal is used in soap for its ability to absorb toxins from the skin, it is also a safe and easy way to get a uniform black colour.

The frozen colostrum did mix in very slowly and very thickly with the lye. I split the batch and added the charcoal to one half. I had a bit of black batter left over after pouring the uncoloured half, so I drizzled it on the top and made a bit of a contrasting swirl. I put the black one in the oven just long enough to make sure it had heated all the way through, causing it to ‘gel’ and speed up the cure.

The colostrum soaps in the moulds.

The colostrum soaps in the moulds.

But surprisingly, the white half stayed pretty white. It got an hour in the freezer to make sure it stayed cool, but it played very nicely. The large particles in the colostrum made both soaps slightly rough in texture, but once cut they turned out to be quite attractive soaps.

Colostrum soaps cut.

Colostrum soaps cut.

The white soap will get the requisite six weeks’ curing time before use, but I’ve been using the black version already. I put an offcut piece on the soap rack in the laundry and I use it every time I come in from tending to the goats or gardening. To be honest, it gives a very grey lather, due to the charcoal, but this rinses away easily.

I wasn’t expecting much, but it didn’t take long for my hands to notice a difference. Usually I try things like large amounts of hemp cream left to soak in while I watch a movie, or regular applications of my usual facial moisturiser. But all I have used for the past week or so has been the black soap. And my hands almost feel like hands. They are steadily improving, and while still a little rough they are not cracked or sporting areas of ground-in dirt.

Colostrum’s claim to fame is a component called lactoferrin, which some go as far as to claim can cure cancer. It is widely accepted as being a great immune booster. Applied topically, as a cream or in soap, it is meant to be great for eczema and psoriasis.

All I know is that my colostrum soap seems to have made a big difference to my hands.

The Magic Number

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The other day I read this article about a woman who didn’t weigh herself for a year and I thought, gee, it has been a while since I weighed myself.

So I jumped on the Wii Fit to see how long it had been.

288 days. That’s about nine and a half months.

That’s two new jobs and a new house ago.

And in that time, without the scales to keep me in line, had I totally let myself go?

Not really.

I’ve gained a couple of kg, but still in what Wii Fit considers to be the ‘ideal’ range.

Which is not bad considering that nine and a half months ago I was mixing swimming, running and yoga. Now, with finishing work later, I don’t get an opportunity to go to the pool regularly. And my ongoing knee problems have vetted me out of running even semi-regularly. But I have managed to schedule in yoga two to three times a fortnight.

On one level I think it shows that I eat pretty well and I have made some progress when it comes to listening to my body and giving it the nutrients it needs without overdoing the calories.

But I think a lot of it is also the fact that I don’t feel the need to look a certain way any more. Or, that I don’t expose myself to as much media that tells me that I have to be young, thin and blonde in order to be a worthwhile human being. Or a hefty dose of both.

Yeah, I lay off the sugar, I don’t eat when I am not hungry, and I don’t keep eating when I am full. But I also don’t expose myself to as many airbrushed images of unrealistic ‘desirable’ bodies.

I feel good, my clothes fit, I am well. What else matters?

At my size, it is fairly low-stakes to be alright with my size. I don’t suffer the judgement, ridicule and even outright rudeness that bigger women have to deal with. The looks, the sniggers, the assumptions that they are lazy, stupid or both. I don’t profess to know what it is like to be what there doesn’t seem to even be a polite, neutral word for. Plus sized? Overweight? Big? Obese? Fat? None of them have the same ring to them as slim, skinny, athletic, leggy.

I have watched so many of my loved ones tie their self worth to a number on the scales, one that is the sum of so many variables but must always be lower than the previous measurement.

And the strange thing about that number on the scales is that even though nobody else knows what it is, even though it is thought to be rude to ask someone what they weigh, it still has so much power. A secret shame that really means very little. A figure that, like age, is just a number, and one that you very rarely have to own up to.

But we have all been told forever that we are supposed to look a certain way and that if we don’t fit that mould we are failures who possess all kinds of personality defects.

If you are otherwise able-bodied and you can do all the things that a person needs to do, if you can tie your own shoes and fit through doorways and get in and out of cars and walk up a flight of stairs, then you are probably fine. If you eat fairly well most of the time and spend a reasonable amount of time on your feet, then you are probably fine. Most of us don’t exercise as much as we should, but if you are going to have a go at increasing your exercise, don’t do it to be thinner. Being thinner is fairly low on the list of benefits associated with exercising.

I didn’t read all about what happened to the girl who didn’t weigh herself for a year, but I am pretty sure she didn’t die, she didn’t become morbidly obese, and she didn’t ‘let herself go’. What she probably did was eat a piece of cheesecake without worrying about what the scales would tell her the next day. She probably exercised for the health benefits and bought clothes that fit her now, not that she would fit into when she lost weight.

Even as a fairly slim person, I was for years a slave to the scales. I thought that the number meant something profound, that it could tell me how good or bad I was. But it is just a number.

Instead of patting people on the back for losing kilograms, we should congratulate them for making healthy lifestyle changes. For taking up a physical activity, for eating more natural foods, for spending more time outside or even dedicating themselves to going to bed earlier. These are the things that will make you healthier. These are the things that will improve your mood.

Weight is just a way to judge yourself. Seriously, not a single other person cares whether you are heavier or lighter than you were yesterday or last week, and they won’t even know because you won’t tell them and they won’t ask. You are not obliged to be thin. Throw away your scales. Don’t worry about the number. Go by how you feel and what you are doing, or if you are really concerned talk to your doctor about it. Losing weight is not the most worthwhile thing you can do, and gaining it is not the worst thing.

The Gender Price Gap

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http://genderpricegap.tumblr.com/

Look at that link. It will open in a new window for you. It won’t take long, and the rest of this post won’t make any sense if you don’t look at that link first.

Did you look? Are you furious? You should be!

Have you ever gone shopping found yourself accidentally looking at a shirt in the section of the store that was not intended for your gender and thought ‘Oh dear, I shouldn’t be looking at this, it is not for me’?

Have you ever picked up a toiletry product for a family member not of your gender and felt self-conscious at the checkout because someone might see it and think that you had stupidly got yourself the wrong one?

Have you ever gone shopping for children’s clothing and had an uncomfortable moment where you were not quite sure which section was appropriate for you child’s gender, knowing you could not possibly bring home a girl t-shirt for your son?

I have done all of these things. What I remember most is that feeling in my gut that someone would see me and judge me for not knowing the difference between men and women.

One time I even paid extra for black ink pens because I wanted pink and purple ones. I am not very proud of that…

It took a conscious effort to realise that you can actually buy an item of clothing from the Men’s section for yourself when you are a woman. That there are some perfectly good deodorants out there with a neutral or minimal scent that say ‘For Men’ but are cheaper than the pink and flowery ones marketed at women.

Next time you are in the supermarket, have a look at the names given to deodorant for men, versus the equivalent item for women. I did this recently, and it is absurd. There is an actual variety of deodorant marketed at women called ‘Sexy’. *shudder* These gendered labels give a very disturbing insight into how commercialism views the roles of men and women.

But to bare-facedly charge women more for an item because it is marketed at women or girls? That is reprehensible. When women go to buy toiletries or clothing or toys, does it even cross your mind to check the price of the equivalent item for men? Of course not.

Now that I know this happens, I am going to make sure that anything I buy that has been pinkified is the same price as the equivalent ‘For Men’ product. And it if is not – I will buy the cheaper one.

I don’t need my deodorant to smell like flowers, I need it to stop me from smelling like sweat and not leave residue on my clothes. And razors, not that I use them, do the same thing whether they are pink or blue. My hair is shorter than my partner’s, so why should a haircut be cheaper for him than for me?

More, more and more evidence of how we are shoved back in our gender boxes every day and women are penalised for being women.

We are taught that there are things for boys and different things for girls and we must never cross that gender line or we will be laughed at, teased, considered stupid, whatever.

But it is all lies. Gender doesn’t matter. ‘Beauty’ doesn’t matter. Just be people, preferably kind people, and we will all be much better off.

 

On Choice, and Why Body Hair is a Feminist Issue

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You know that thing where a topic keeps popping up so I write a blog post about it? It is happening right now.

Be thankful I am not doing a rehash of all the things wrong with Fifty Shades of Grey. Nope, I am not touching that one with a barge pole.

Instead I am going to launch into an attempt to organise my thoughts on choice, beauty standards and armpit hair.

This is a little bit more political than a lot of the stuff I post on here, but as I gain confidence I am becoming more comfortable with sharing these ideas with my audience, rather than hiding them in my secret feminist blog.

As women, we are constantly told that the things that happen to us are a result of our choices. That we choose to date or marry abusive men. That we choose to be single mothers. That we choose to work in lower-paid jobs. That we choose to drink too much or eat too much or act in ways that make us targets for violence. This way we are left in no doubt that whatever happens to us, whatever predicament we find ourselves in, we have only ourselves to blame. The flip side of this, that nobody talks about, is that those who harm and oppress us are absolved of all responsibility.

We are told that women choose to be prostituted, that women choose to act in porn. That to take away these choices would be taking away women’s choices, and that would be bad.

The lie that we are told every day is that women choose to be oppressed, and that men are doing us a favour by oppressing us.

We are told that women don’t want the hard/dangerous/high-powered jobs because we would rather stay at home and have an easy life while our husbands earn the money. That we want to be treated as sex objects. That we want to be abused and humiliated. That when we leave abusive partners we have chosen to break up our family, deprive our children of a father and be poor and stressed with limited opportunity to improve our lot. I hear it all the time. Women don’t want to work, they want to stay at home and be treated like princesses. Women like rough sex, but they are ashamed to admit it. Women think ‘nice guys’ are boring, so they always go for the ‘bad boys’. Women have it so easy. Women are their own worst enemies.

We are told that we only dress up to compete with other women. That we can choose whether or not to wear make-up, whether or not to wear high-heels, whether or not to remove our body hair.

And sure, you can choose not to do the things that society tells us we MUST do. But what happens if you don’t?

Body hair on women is one of my pet topics. To me it is a core feminist issue. I cannot count how many times I have been told that it is a ‘first-world problem’, or that women can ‘do whatever they want’ and most just ‘choose’ to remove their body hair for no practical reason.

And then when i argue the point I get told that it is insignificant, unimportant, that being allowed an opinion on what I do to my own body has nothing to do with feminism, that I should shut up and be glad I don’t live in Afghanistan.

I have got into countless discussions on the topic and been told countless times that body hair on women is unacceptable. The words most commonly used to describe underarm or pubic hair on women are: gross, nasty, disgusting, unhygienic, dirty. Who is going to volunteer to be considered all of those things, when simply picking up a razor can prevent it?

Admit it, just reading this you are wondering why I am writing about such an icky and insignificant topic. You’re thinking ‘ew, I just had lunch, I don’t want to hear about your armpit hair’.

Ask yourself, would you grow your armpit hair? Would it be okay if your wife or girlfriend did? Why? Why not? Because it is gross or dirty? Is it really? Why?

Yes, we have a choice. But choosing to go against the majority is difficult. And it shouldn’t be.

When I chose to stop removing my armpit hair I did it for a number of reasons. I get bad razor rash, which leaves me with nasty red spots and sometimes big lumps, especially in summer. I wanted to see if not shaving would prevent this. It did. I also realised that I had been shaving the hair off since before I even started growing it. That I had never had more than a couple of millimetres growth. I had no idea what it would even look like if I let it grow.

But mainly, I wanted to see if I could. If I could really choose.

And do you know what? This tiny choice was incredibly difficult. I had to deal with worrying about what everyone thought. Would they think I was disgusting? While most people won’t come out and say it, if you ask them they will tell you that they find it a bit yuck. You certainly don’t have to travel far on the internet to find out that whether it is on Madonna or Sofia Loren or the woman next to you at the train station, 99% of people think armpit hair on women simply should not exist.

I have not personally encountered a single woman who would even entertain the idea of not removing her underarm hair. And when challenged, the women I have talked to about it all tell me that they choose to do it.

It took me months and lots of self doubt to finally be comfortable with my decision. My partner pulled faces and told me it was ‘manly’, but he has learned to live with it. Wearing singlets, raising my arms in public and letting the rest of the yoga class see it took some real guts on my part. This tiny decision, this thing I do for me and me only that anyone can do at any time? It was a real eye-opener. A real consciousness-shifter. A pivotal event in learning how to really make my own choices for myself.

Having our appearance micromanaged by society blocks us from dealing with the ‘bigger’ issues. The lipstick/body hair/skirt arguments are all manufactured by the patriarchy. None of those things should matter. But ‘choosing’ to shave your legs and ‘choosing’ to be a stay at home mother are two sides of the same coin, and go hand-in-hand with ‘choosing’ to be a prostitute. We are told we have a choice, but those choices are laden with threat and consequences. To you or me, feeling like you have to wear make-up  to fit in at work is a lesser hardship than feeling like you have to let men pay to rape you so you can pay your rent, so you just do it. But a win is a win. Oppression is oppression, and the ‘little’ oppressions are supposed to keep us obedient and teach us how to submit to the ‘bigger’ oppressions. You have to teach a horse to eat from your hand before your can teach it to carry a saddle and rider. And you have to teach women to ‘choose’ to shave their armpits before you can teach them to ‘choose’ to be owned, abused, humiliated and discarded.

By making that one tiny choice, I learned how to make an actual choice about what I do with my own body, regardless of the collective attitude and outside influences. Maybe next I will get a short haircut on my head or go out without a bra or shop for clothing somewhere other than the women’s section of a store.  You have to learn how to choose what you do with your own body, before you can choose to demand to be treated like a fully-fledged human being.

 

Hiding in Plain Sight

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Sometimes I go looking for trouble, sometimes it finds me.

The other day I was sitting in the waiting room at the hospital waiting for my pacemaker review. I glanced at the stack of magazines on the table next to me, pushed aside the ‘Women’s Weekly’ and ‘That’s Life’, and picked up a glossy beast innocuously titled ‘Women’s Health’.

I started to flick through. I don’t know exactly what I expected, but I really thought there might be something in it actually beneficial to women. Clearly my years of avoiding commercial media have made me soft. What I saw was a manual for making yourself sexually attractive to men.

The quick-fix diets, the fashion and make-up tutorials, and most disturbingly, the ‘what men really think’ article that could be summed up as ‘men want women to pander to their every requirement, and be decorative and sexy but also faithful and not slutty, while men do whatever the hell they want’. I pulled a face and put the magazine back on the stack at this point.

Seriously, this magazine doesn’t even try. It is just another waste of paper telling women how to fit into the tiny box of ‘acceptable’ that has been created to control how we look and how we live.

So of course, I went looking for trouble. I visited the websites of both Australian Women’s Health and Australian Men’s Health to see what kind of message these publications are peddling.

Women’s Health in a nutshell – how to get your chocolate fix without getting fat. How to drop a dress size – fast! How to zap belly fat or get great legs. The Fitness section had subheadings for Running and Yoga – activities that are not likely to cause increase in muscle mass and therefore affect your apparent femininity.

Men’s Health had different subheadings in the Fitness section – Muscle Building and Cardio. Because apparently muscles are only for men. Weight loss short-cuts also feature, and under the heading Sex and Women is a section on how to ‘improve your game’, also known as ‘getting women to have sex with you’.

Where Women’s Health has recipes and nutrition information, Men’s Health has supplements and cooking tips. Apparently women know how to cook, but men don’t.

One of the first articles I saw on the Men’s Health page was about ‘ticking off your bedroom bucket list’. This is an article about getting your partner to indulge your sexual fantasies. And it begins with the author doing ‘what any man would do’ – plying his partner with alcohol to make her more receptive to his suggestions. According to Men’s Health, manipulation and coercion are an important part of the male sex life. Good to know.

Presumably that is why Women’s Health is dedicated to making women decorative and sexy and fuckable and educating them on how to do what a man wants in bed.

The covers and images of both these magazines are so bland and generic as to almost be sterile, yet the air of casual harmlessness hides a disturbing theme. They tell men that they must be buff and tanned and healthy in order to get all the women. They tell women that they must be slim and tanned and healthy and wear just the right amount of make-up in order to be seen as acceptable.

These magazines are the media equivalent of that moron internet troll who tells everyone that fat people are gross because they are unhealthy. They are the published version of the constant reinforcement of the gender binary. Their titles suggest that they care about the wellbeing of people, but their content perpetuates the sterotypes that harm every person who does not look like the airbrushed models in the photographs.

Why can’t there be a magazine simply called ‘Health’, which is gender neutral and doesn’t set out to divide the population? Eating well, getting enough sleep, exercising and managing your mental health are issues relevant to all people.

On the topic of mental health, I did a search for ‘depression’ on the page of both magazines. Nothing showed up in the links for either on the main pages, so I had to do some digging. It seems that mental health is not sexy or cool enough to feature in these publications, despite it being a huge health issue for men and women.

I think what bothered me the most about the content of these magazines, is that they seem to represent the attitudes of society in general. Rags like Cosmopolitan and Cleo make a point of being racy and over-the-top, but these Health magazines present as wholesome advice for everyday living, rather than the manuals for slotting seamlessly into the patriarchal abyss that they actually are.