Thursday, 29 July 2010

The Naked Canvas

Artistry in one form or another is a dream we all wish to achieve. Who doesn't want to unleash the artist within? You might be a talented singer, graceful dancer, or impoverished actor just waiting for your moment to be discovered. Or you may demonstrate skill in writing, public speaking, or in the healing of others. None of us are talentless, but skill is not enough these days to generate success or happiness. There's a flourishing art form in town and it's called the naked body. Essentially a blank canvas to doctor, mold, and market your natural or modified wares. The world takes pride in the products it produces and the body has become a part of that conveyor belt.

Functional by design, bodies could be described as beautiful for this purpose alone, but in our skin-shallow era beauty takes precedence. The demand for cosmetic surgery has increased dramatically over the years, a bit of botox here, a nip and tuck there... Under the surgeon's knife anything is possible, even if the results are more plastic than fantastic. Natural is out and fake is in, and like Pringles, once you start you just can't stop. The pressure to conform to this model of perfection is huge with no age group, race or gender left untouched. Young teens are those most affected. Not yet fully developed and at an impressionable age, cosmetic surgery appears the obvious answer to solving all their bodily concerns - the instant “ugly duckling to swan” transformation. Showing them botched ops may be a too-late deterrent in our body and celebrity obsessed culture. “You're worth it!” is the media's message. Why live with normal when the benefits of enhancement far outweigh the risks?

I'm not the only one questioning how we value our physical selves and our definition of beauty, but my opinion like many others is no match against the delusional inhabitants of Ken and Barbie world. I had hoped the Channel 4 body-focused series -“The Ugly Face Of Beauty” would advocate body happiness, but it fails to do anything of the sort. Fronted by Dr. Christian Jessen of “Embarrassing Bodies” and “Supersize vs. Superskinny” fame, it is more of an educational guide to achieving the best surgery. A basic list of dos and don'ts. What it does reveal however is the unscrupulous practices of some cosmetic surgeons as well as our false perceptions of self. The programme makers have chosen a “do or die” position i.e. It's better to be armed with knowledge and do the surgery, than to be uninformed and die trying. My problem with the series is this – shouldn't it be addressing our superficial attitudes, instead of how to mask our body insecurities further? Isn't this playing devil's advocate?

The assumption that beauty is about flawlessness is mistaken. There's beauty in our imperfections and quirkiness. These are as individual to the owner as are their thoughts – we're not all designed to look and think the same. Cosmetic surgery can mask the outer, but it cannot change the inner. Change your mind, not the body, and be proud of the natural form you've been given.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Blow The Candles Out...

Blow the candles out and make a wish! Who hasn't as a child been fed this line before the applause and cutting of the cake. It's a time honoured tradition, although when you think about it a pretty disgusting one at that. Who wants to eat a slice of cake generously sprinkled with somebody else's saliva? Put like that and a colourful iced sponge instantly loses its appeal, unless you're the said spittle-maker. Harmless as it may be, I'm surprised our germ-phobic society hasn't yet thought to ban this ritualised huffing and puffing.

Birthdays are just that though – rituals. A rite of passage. A passing of time. For the younger generation, puberty, adulthood, and new adventures beckon, while for the grown-ups it's one more year filled with responsibilities and “you should know better” tone of voices. Where does that magic go? Parents are all too keen to create and re-create this “magic moment” for their offspring and for themselves. No expense is spared in pursuit of its briefness. Commercially, children's birthday parties are big business and parents think nothing of indulging their little darling's every whim. Little they might be, but their wish-lists can be extravagant! Some of you may have seen the BBC1 documentary, “My Child's Big Fat Birthday” earlier this week, which followed different parents planning their child's big day. I was both astounded and appalled by the excessiveness parents were prepared to go to. The parties portrayed were wedding-scale affairs with venue hire, entertainers, props and costumes, and spiraling costs. Granted, the families featured may have had more funds at their disposal, presenting an unrealistic view, but don't all parents have a duty to set the boundaries and raise responsible adults? Nothing appeared to be off limits and there was a selfish and competitive edge. An opportunity for the host-parents to be triumphant and for the attendees to attempt to better it.

What has happened to the humble birthday party? It made me reflect on my own childhood celebrations. It was only then I realised that of my generation I was probably one of these very children – a spoilt little madam! An only child, I could be a real “Amelia-Jane”, with stamp-your-feet or sit-down tantrums. When I was good, I was very very good and when I was bad I was horrid. Thankfully I grew out of those very public displays, but I was indulged. Birthdays were magical - traditional with party games, jelly and ice cream at home or held at a venue of my choice, such as a local roller disco or Rock Circus in London. Tame compared to today's expectations, but nevertheless a gold standard back then. Gone are the days where a child will be satisfied with a brown paper package tied up with string in a game of pass-the-parcel. Now an adult, the magic has well and truly faded. I dread my birthdays almost with relish. I hate celebrating and being expected to “ooh” and “aah” appropriately in good humour. Give me a nice simple day without any interruptions – nothing more, nothing less.

I'm not a parent, so I'll be the first to admit that perhaps my understanding of the role is flawed, but I hope at least my opinions are objective. Being a parent is tough - I get that. My parents like so many others worked full-time and tried to overcompensate for their guilt, but at what price? Understandably parents want only the best for their kids. For them to have what they didn't, but where do you draw the line with this lavishness? What are we teaching the children of today – the future generation? You can get what you want when you want it no matter the cost could be the everlasting legacy.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

The Corporate Face Of Fairtrade

Are veggies and vegans more environmentally aware and socially responsible? I could sum the answer up in one word: yes, but that would be both biased and untrue. Those on a greener path may set an example and have a keener awareness of the issues that really matter – a more moral code of conduct if you will, but it does not necessarily follow that vegetarians and vegans are the instigators. Many people, regardless of their individual beliefs or motivations, are conscious of how their actions impact the rest of humanity. There is no escaping it nowadays. All of us are hounded every day wherever we go with ethical dilemmas and besieged by guilt when we fail to make the right choice. But what is the right choice? Nobody seems able to definitively answer this question and I'm not about to put myself forward for the task either!

Food shopping is a prime example of the daily ethical nightmare. Where to shop? What and what not to buy? Surrounded by a sea of aisles and conflicting choices – air miles vs local produce, seasonal vs organic, fairtrade vs exploitation, it reminds me of the classic Cadbury crème egg phrase, “How do you eat yours?” With a spoon was usually my reply. I would relish scooping out the sticky sweet goo before devouring the outer chocolate shell. If only the choice to lead an ethical lifestyle was as pleasurable. Instead, it's a heart vs head battle of who do you wish to benefit more – the workers or the planet, and can you afford to pay the premium. I've lost count of the number of approved logos I'm expected to recognize. Retailers are aware of our plight, but they all want a piece of the fairtrade pie. All the big name players are cashing in. Cadbury's, Starbucks, Tesco, and Asda etc each have their own fairtrade approved products, and many commercial businesses make ethical claims. As a consumer I don't whether whether to applaud or cry. Couldn't this just be another gimmick to get us to buy? A win-win situation for all? The consumer experiences the feel-good factor, while the manufacturers increase their profit margins and brand loyalty. Why then do I feel like a pawn in this game of chess?

The reason is simple - fairtrade and ethical living has become more than just a movement, it's a fashionable trend. Acquiring smaller, ethically run companies as part of your global portfolio adds kudos, as well as bumps up your market share. Coco-Cola has a 58% stake in Innocent Smoothies, Green & Blacks is owned by Cadbury Plc (now Kraft Foods), and the Body Shop continues to be run by leading cosmetic giant L'Oreal. As an independent business, is it better to sell-out to the competition rather than struggle on the outside? Affirmative, as science fiction fans would say. The deal is done not in the best interests of the consumers or labourers producing the goods, but is an acquisition of more – a game of monopoly on a global scale. At this point, you might be thinking I'm overly cynical in my views, but how many of us look at a company's credentials beyond the glossy marketing strategies? Nowadays it pays to be a savvy shopper, even if it's for your own peace of mind.

The reputation of fairtrade hangs in the balance. It's fate depends not on the corporate role of money and men in suits, but on a collective face of conscience and integrity.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

The Bare Necessities

How would you define the bare necessities of life? Food, water and shelter are surely the most basic human requirements, but nowadays even these are scorned at. Needs met, it's never enough. We want bigger and better – a bigger house, a better car, all the food we can eat and a luxurious lifestyle. The Big Brother house is one such example. Even this has got more opulent over the years. Bringing together people from all walks of life, it's a social experiment that's captured my attention each season. A fan of the show is not how I would describe myself, but rather as a passive observer looking in. I don't care about the latest story in the tabloids or the fame aspirations of those inside, it's the experiment itself that intrigues me and the inmates responses to situations they cannot control. Like puppets on a string, they dance to the whims of Big Brother and are co-creators of the dynamics unfolding within the house. Unlike other years though, I am finding my passivity escaping me, none more so than in the basic ration debacle. Why this sudden reaction from one of neutral engagement to active annoyance? Is it because I fail to identify with the chosen few or am I in danger of empathising too much with those that are opposed?

Deemed a punishment, basic rations often prove to be the undoing of the house, provoking shared commiserations and outright war at Big Brother or amongst themselves. Naturally this makes great entertainment for those watching from the wings. Sadly it's here my fascination ends. Detest is a strong word, but I feel justified in using it here. I detest the housemates attitudes when so-called basic rations are imposed. The food provided (usually rice, lentils and chickpeas), does not deserve the expletives it's given. Spare a thought for those living in third world countries where this is their staple diet - you don't hear them demanding junk food or refusing to eat. Often their “bread and butter”, they're thankful for the bounty that mother nature provides. Are pizza, chips, fags and coffee now considered the staple Western equivalents? What a depressing thought. What's so wrong with good wholesome food? We wonder why the parameters of health are constantly being stretched when the answers are in fact staring us in the face and settling on our waistlines. For the house, rations are enforced for limited periods, but even the vegan balked at the challenge, preferring instead to eat crisps. I truly want to understand other people's mindsets when they seem so different to my own, but with this I have struggled. Is my judgment of this moment clouded by being on the outside? Would I exhibit this same behaviour if dealt the same hand? Such a response seems laughable, but if forced to live on a veg-and -bean-less diet I might very well revolt! My controversial nature ends here - rice, lentils and beans are sacrosanct and that's final.

The other Big Brother storyline that incensed me was the lack of dietary consideration shown towards vegan Sunshine. When rewarded with more food, the other housemates were positively bristling with hostility and kicking up a fuss. Defeated and forced to share her quota I desperately wanted to argue her corner. If that were me, I wouldn't have budged. Call me all the names under the sun, but as I cannot partake in your meaty feast you're not sharing mine. Is it really so difficult to understand that vegans have increased nutritional and energy needs? It makes perfect common sense to me, but perhaps this is asking too much of the BB contestants. Maybe survival becomes too great a force to resist, with those considered different being easy pickings. I, for one, am glad that Big Brother will close its doors for the last time this Summer. As an experiment, it has failed to represent broad society, instead unmasking others hidden contempt for the simple bare necessities of life.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

The Road Less Travelled To Veganism

Is the veggie path a stepping stone to veganism? Some vegans would contest this notion, but to disciplined veggies it is the holy grail – the imagined and unattainable pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The next logical footprint to aspire to. If this is true however, then how come so of few of us dare to mirror, signal and maneuver down this crossroad? Is veganism's presumed rigidness in terms of lifestyle and the individuals who follow it a turn-off? Do we veggies judge vegans as harshly as others judge us? I'd like to think the answer is no, but I can only speak from a first-person perspective.

Veganism is, for me, so near but yet so far. Just within my reach, but not strong enough to sway me completely from the veggie path. A veggie veering vegan is how I like to think of myself - I dabble in it, but fail to go the whole hog. Yes, I'm aware of the irony - I chastise people who call themselves veggie when they're not, when in reality I'm really no better. My only saving grace is that I ignore my ego's call to follow suit. Should I become a fully-fledged vegan (and only then), do I deserve to make use of the term. In the interim, I greatly esteem vegan principles and constantly bargain with myself. For a number of years, I have forsaken dairy products, particularly cow's milk, butter, yogurt and cheese. Initially, this was reinforced due to health issues, as I found I could no longer tolerate these. A big ask considering I could easily nibble my way through a block of cheddar in one sitting! A picture of health, I have now adapted to the loss and only mourn it occasionally. It's rare that I will purchase such items to stock my larder, preferring instead the many alternatives available, but there are exceptions to the rule. I will opt for the dairy-laden, (goat's cheese preferably), if out and there really is no other choice, or if someone's gone to the trouble of preparing a meal for me. My justification being that I'm too polite to cause a fuss. At home it's a different matter, with the one omission being a quarterly craving for eggs which I ensure are free-range and organic. It's far from being a guilt-free pleasure, but until I have a house in the country and a backyard filled with hens, it's a choice I'll have to live with. In a town flat without a balcony this just won't work!

The vegan lifestyle poses a ethical dilemma for me – I dislike contributing to the meat trade and its animal suffering through said dairy products, choosing instead to vote with my purse and my feet. Scrupulously checking the small print on packaging can be a chore, but it's a necessary evil if you wish to stand by your convictions, and can be surprisingly revealing too. Eggs and honey are the barrier to the pearly vegan gates. I can easily live without both, but I also recognize their dietary and therapeutic properties. I don't feel it's wrong in itself to consume or use these in cosmetics. Both are perfect examples of what nature is able to provide and their benefits testify to that. It's the food processing and factory farming industry that is in need of an urgent makeover. Mock meat is also an area I'm uncomfortable with. Do we really need to substitute our diets with meat-free versions shaped, textured and flavoured like the real thing? Ironic, but then life is full of contradictions like McDonald's being crowned the official sponsors of the World Cup and the 2012 Olympics.

Unable to overcome my cravings, I may never attain full vegan status. I prefer to think of this approach not as a road less travelled, but what Buddhists declare the middle way. A path of moderation between the two.