Friday 25 April 2008

Binge nation pt 2: a scuffling retraction....

My, what a can of worms. If I’m not willing to admit I’ve messed up occasionally, then this blog and all of my journalism is just wanking; so, my last post, which was accused of ableism and fat-bashing, was poorly explained and based partly on navel-gazing personal experiences of bulimia and anorexia, and has been duly edited down. Now, let me try to explain better:

Eating disorders are mental illnesses generated by personal and, to some extent, political disempowerment. They are reactions against an erroneously-perceived inner grotesquery: a feeling of being out-of-control, shameful, ugly, powerless and ‘fat’ as a cipher for all of those feelings.
It is fascinating, therefore, that a white, rich, middle-aged man who has held a high-profile public office and is famous – pretty much the defininition of empowerment in western culture – has suffered in relative silence from the same disorder for twenty years. Prescott represents and embodies a violent, headily consumerist political overculture – not because of his weight, but because of his conduct – and even he is suffering undeservedly.

It was this passage that drew the most criticism:

‘John Prescott represents everything every eating disordered person is frightened that they are personally: grotesque, violent, out-of-control, self-indulgent saddled with enormous responsibilities that they did not earn, and as if to symbolise it all, obese. Every bulimic, anorexic and bulimarexic thinks that this is what they are like on the inside.’

Yes, the language is vile. This is because the concept is vile. This vileness is what obesity symbolises for the eating disordered, and it’s a violent, painful way of turning that horror inwards. I have been deep down into the bulimic mindset and that feeling of inner foulness and grotesquery is despicable, choking, so deeply fucked-up that even now, three years later, I’m sitting at my rickety kitchen table with snotty tears rolling down my face. Bulimia, all eating disorders, are dreadful, and I reacted with aggreived consideration against a cultural sickness that I once internalised like so many others, and now see everywhere around me.

I can’t help but see a link between the feelings of grotesquery associated with eating disorders and the literal grotesquery of corrupt officials and white male consumerist hegemony. The medical profession is fairly unanimous that sufferers of eating disorders and other addictions are responding to external pressures and frustrations – both individual and cultural pressures. Unable to control their personal and political circumstances, bulimics turn that controlling impulse inwards. It is therefore highly indicative that a man like Prescott, who seems to embody that violent overculture, also has to fall back on disordered and dreadful coping mechanisms to deal with himself and with his job.

I have known so many fine, beautiful, thoughtful, talented young men and women cut down by eating disorders: confused, disenfranchised, bewildered by the ridiculous demands of a grotesque and hostile hypercapitalist culture, many of them –male and female - reacting to the increased demands of forced feminisation and gender fascism. The fact that some of the very people complicit in enforcing the overculture – people who, like Prescott, necessarily take on some of the characteristics of that culture –have turned to the same terrible methods of stress control should tell us a lot about how fragile the whole system is.

There is a lot of ugliness and violence out there, and one of the worst parts of recovering from bulimia - apart from the shame, the self-disgust and the terrifying weight gain –is that you start to see that ugliness and violence outside of yourself, in a political and ideological sense, rather than internalising it.

But the fact that our political leaders suffer in the same way tells us that there is no conspiracy going on here. Nobody has forced a grotesque hypercapitalist overculture on us: we have all sleepwalked there together, and even the most powerful cannot deal with its demands. And if we can sleepwalk there, we might just be able to stumble back.

Thursday 24 April 2008

The face of power in a binge nation

John Prescott has made eating disorders news again by coming out as bulimic. This, of course, is a perfect opportunity for me to lash myself to my favourite look-at-this-damn-issue-flogging horse. Eating disorders need celebrity chic to be news these days, but they don't cease to be a dangerous epidemic when someone famous hasn't just bared their soul in a lucrativebook deal. The thousands of brilliant young, and not so young people who are killed or mentally crippled by bulimia, anorexia, bulimarexia, binge-eating and other disorders every year fail to make regular headlines for one reason only: it's a 'girl's illness.'

This is a deeply feminist issue, of course. Although eating disorders are not, in fact, a 'women's problem' -10% of those afflicted are men and boys - is is a highly feminised disease in western culture, not helped by the fact that women and gay men make up the majority of sufferers, and this has everything to do with how it is handled by the state and press. Much was made of Naomi Wolf's erroneous statistics in 'The Beauty Myth', but she used them to make the very salient point that if an equivalent number of men and boys were suffering -even the real statistics, as the charity Beat "currently believes the number of people receiving treatment for anorexia or bulimia in the UK to be near to 90,000, while many more people have eating disorders undiagnosed, in particular those with bulimia nervosa" -there would be a national public health outcry, rather than a series of intermittent media farts.

Prescott having the disorder strikes a violent, on-air media punch of representation for the thousands of men whose lives are destroyed by the disease, and for that one can be reasonably grateful. Prescott does not merely 'represent a sick society', though. He was actually in power, actually helping to build and shape that society. It stuns me that the effect of Prescott's bulimia nervosa upon his role as a key political agent has barely been questioned. For myself, it was only after winning my 6-year battle with anorexia that I was able to properly engage with political power again, as a radical writer and an activist. This is because you cannot engage effectively with outer, political space when all your energies are being focused on fighting interior, emotional battles.

And this is perhaps the most worrying part of the Prescott affair: the fact that we have just been told that government was until not so long ago partly run by a politician who was deeply affected by a serious, chemically addictive mental illness, but because it's 'a girl's disease' that's somehow unremarkable. Charles Kennedy was only third-party leader and he was eventually forced to step down over his alcoholism, but because it's a a feminised concept, nobody takes bulimia nervosa seriously. In fact, it is one of the most physically dangerous psychoses, with a 5% mortality and 20% permanent relapse rate. But noone has yet questioned whether those years of nightly binges, vomit-swollen cheeks and emotional disturbance affected the former deputy Prime Minister's ability to govern during the years of the Iraq invasion. It's 'a women's disease' - of course it didn't affect his mental robustness, not a gruff old bulldog like Prescott!

All this talk has made me hungry, so I'll go and make dinner and muse on this more. If you, too, see John Prescott in the mirror from time to time, don't hesitate to call this helpline.

Monday 21 April 2008

Ask a Feminist...

Have you got worries?
Are you struggling to deal with the hefty demands of modern womanhood?
Are you unable to sleep in patriarchal space?
Are you exhausted from supervising the intricate gender fuckeries of your friends, family and pets?
Are you probed by Margaret Thatcher in your dreams?

Help is at hand, as Pennyred turns feminist agony auntie. Post your woes, rants and distressed frothings in the comments, or email to and my secretary will deal with you, once he's finished ironing my thongs. Replies shall be swift and terrible.

Friday 18 April 2008

These people are sometimes allowed guns.

Back in the meatspace I'm now a journalism student, and I learnt something very interesting at hack school today:

You do not fuck with the police.

No, really.

See, if you're a journalist, you can say whatever you like as long as you can prove that it's true. And there's the catch. If the person you've got, say, a corruption story on can cast any doubt at all over the absolute truth of your claim, you're going to have to pay them a lot of money in the civil claims court. Especially if they're rich, determined and have good representation. The Metropolitan police have the best lawyers in the country, the Police Federation, and a whole lot of litigation money -so unless you have a lot of sweet, sticky DNA-flavoured evidence in your hands, you and your paper are going to be bankrupt fairly soon.

And not that the police are ever brutal, bullying, thug-like centurions with over-inflated impressions of their own personal power, but if they ever did behave in such a despicable way, it would be incredibly difficult to prove. If someone gets beaten up in the cells, you'd better have a signed and dated testimony, not to mention copies of all their medical records, or no editor will risk going to press. If someone gets arrested without provocation - you'd better have dated, traceable photos, or you're going down.

Normally the trick to get around this is simply not to name the people you're accusing. You'd say 'officers at Hackney central station' or 'A WPC from Guildford'. However, there's a sneaky catch in libel law whereby to prove that something is libellous, it doesn't have to refer to you - it only has to look as though it might. This comes from a judgement way back in 1826:

'It is not necessary that all the world should understant the libel; it is sufficient if those who know the claimant can make out that he is the person meant.'

So unless you were very careful you'd find yourself with a publicly-funded lawsuit from every single officer from Hackney central, every single WPC in Guildford. And that's a lot of lawsuits. During the 33 months to March 1996 the Police Federation fought 95 libel actions and won all of them, recovering almost two million in damages. You do not fuck with the police. You roll over, please, and you call them 'uncle'.

Thursday 17 April 2008

In case you were wondering....

The latest post has been removed for copyright reasons and will return shortly, as will normal service.

Yours in stress and decrepitude,


Sunday 6 April 2008

Notes on NUS reform...

Radicalism is a dirty word in British youth politics today. Three days ago, the NUS threw out a proposal to drastically restrict its campaigning and representative powers by an approximate ten-vote margin. Frustrated by this slim defeat at the annual conference, Labour Students, ‘independent’ Labour affiliates and other centre-right groups have already drawn up plans for an extraordinary conference to attempt to pull the changes through.

NUS radicalism has been so eroded over the past decade, however, that there’s barely been a murmur of fuss has been made about all of this outside the narrow alley of student politics: as a former NUS rep for Goldsmiths commented, ‘It’s been coming for a long time.’

Whilst all of this has been going on, massive cutbacks have been tabled to funding for higher education, particularly second degrees.

The worst-hit organisations will be Birkbeck College and the Open University – traditionally where hard-up students and young people go for re-training, for a second chance at broadening their personal and economic potential through education. That second chance is now being scavenged to divert cash to other parts of an already under-funded education system, by a government which recently shelled out £28bn to float Northern Rock. Over 170, 000 mostly part-time students will be affected. A spokesperson for Birkbeck university, where over a third of students have ELQ status, said, “these cuts will have an immediate and detrimental effect on all part-time students and the government’s skills agenda. Classes will be vulnerable to closure, choice will be reduced and the student experience will be impoverished.” For the NUS, however, this news is firmly on the back-burner: why bother criticising a Labour budget when the next gurning Labour-Student star has just been elected?*

Young people under 30; people in training or looking for work; the inexperienced and exploitable. We are people in desperate need of representation and support, and we are being staggeringly let down on both fronts, by the NUS and by our government. The reasons behind this are simple. We are an extremely valuable and wide-ranging market demographic, and we are, for the most part, politically docile: it's the stuff policy planners' wet dreams are made of. In any society with finite resources, it will always be easier to shaft someone royally rather than make long, expensive and unpopular moves towards the sort of systemic change that would make things fairer. This time, it's the under-30 slice of the population pie who are being shafted, and we ALL know what BASTARDS are to blame, don't we?

That's right. Us.

Yes. We are partly responsible for what has happened to youth politics in the UK today, conspiracy theorise though we may. To pretend otherwise would be immature and pathetic. We allowed ourselves to be bought. We allowed the adults to fob us off with booze, toys and gadgets, and then, because they made us panic that those things might be taken away, we allowed ourselves to be scared into a life of frantic commercial servitude - taking more exams, doing more and harder work and fighting harder for our places in the food chain than any generation has had to in the past. We made that choice. We made it when, in the last two general elections, far more of us 18-to-20-somethings than any other single group chose not to turn up to vote. We sent a message that we didn't care; we told them that they could fuck us any way they wanted, and we promised to secretly love it.

Hell, I'm not patronising: even *I* wasn't there. As I recall, I was wired on Jameson's whisky and caffeine pills, trying to study for my summer exams whilst bingeing, starving myself systematically and hurting myself in some childlike effort to weed out a particularly virulent attack of SYAT (Standard Young Adult Trauma). I regret a lot of things, and a few people, that I did when I was eighteen; I could pretend that I was so distressed that I didn't even remember to vote, but that would be utter rubbish - I remembered all right, I just didn't care, and I’ll have to live with that hypocrisy until GE 2009. I lay down and let the system fuck me for far too long as a kid; it won't happen again. I'm not saying it's easy. I know it's not bloody easy. But we can't give up on the notion that things can change, or that our votes and actions and decisions count towards what our political leaders decide to do with us.

We have been cheated - we have allowed ourselves to be cheated - of our political identity, and the NUS reforms that are still on the table emblematise that cynical, fuck-me-please-if-you're-going-to attitude that we've developed towards the older generation. What’s happened to the NUS over the past few years is this attitude in action. We’ve turned from what had, since 1922, been an important locus of comment upon government policy, particularly education policy, towards deliberately working with New Labour and not criticising their fantastically divisive and unhelpful education reforms in order to further the careers of NUS politicians, bring in cash through advertising and other schemes, and win countless establishment pats-on-the-head for our tireless delegates.

Barring a few hard-working revolutionary splinter groups [ENS LINK], the NUS has become as politically vacuous as the model United Nations or those dreadful Young Enterprise corporate-training schemes. It has functioned since 1997 as a finishing school for aspiring toe-sucking Blairite sycophants, set on making their own careers in politics not because they want socio-political justice but because they believe that they themselves deserve power. This is not what we need, as young people trying to stabilise our lives, struggling through university or other forms of career development. What we need is cross-border representation and our own, enfranchised political voice. What we need is a trade union – a real, enfranchised trade union – focused on the needs and specific problems of young workers, including but not restricted to students. But it won’t happen unless we want it badly enough.

*As a drinker and a gentleman, I feel obliged to mention that newly-elected NUS golden-boy Wes Streeting did once buy me a vodka-and-orange in a bar after a rally. Wes, wherever you are: I’m not on board with your politics, and I think you’re a dangerous sellout, but I undeniably owe you a drink. Put your people in touch with my people.

Tuesday 1 April 2008

Techfemme conference '08: your roving reporter...

Microsoft, it seems, do a damn good sideline in chocolates. I was rather jigged up to be able to go to a conference on women in technology at the company's London headquarters tonight and, what can I say, they knew their target audience. Here are my lovely chocolates:

And here are my nice pink pens:

The offices were so terribly shiny that I mistakenly disposed of a wad of gum in what turned out to be an automatic umberella-wrapper-upper. The speakers were mostly accomplished and interesting, but the gestaldtmind of three hundred professional tech-ladies was perhaps even more fascinating. Maybe it was the end of a long day, maybe it's something about women in 'men's world' careers - but when it came to the stand-up-if-you're-wearing-prada excercises, not one of them spoke, laughed or sat down until they were told.

There were interminable talks about 'work-life balance', which one American speaker truly suggested that we 'celebrate as work-life harmony.' As I was shooting him an 'I'm menstruating, don't give me this bullshit' look, I noticed the rest of the back row quietly doing the same. Noone was fooled by the pro-family rhetoric; if they were, it wouldn't have been, as I overheard an events manager commenting to an usher, 'the one event this year where we haven't had a 40-per-cent drop-out rate.'

The women technologists at Microsoft were anxious as anyone else to be treated as true professionals in their own right, and not as professionals handicapped by the biological and social facts of being female.

Coming home toThis piece of news, however, threw the feminist subtleties of the evening into sharp relief. Not far outside the sparkling boardrooms are the streets, where we can be raped and told that we enjoyed it and that it'd be more of an inconvenience to lose our handbags. We are living in the dark ages, and the most privileged and successful of us had best not forget it whilst trading subtleties over management techniques: there is still a long, long way to go.