About Me

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My interests include veganism and vegetarianism, health, ethics, politics and culture, media, and the environment. I have three kids; I teach college part-time, study piano and attempt to garden. I knit. I blog on just about anything, but many posts are related to my somewhat pathetic quest to eat better, be more mindful of the environment, and be a more responsible news consumer. Sometimes I write about parenting, but, like so many Mommy bloggers, my kids have recently told me not to. :) Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Hell of Bra Shopping

NOTE:  If you're a guy, you might want to skip this one.  If you read it anyway, nice comments would be appreciated.

Blogging about personal experiences runs the risk of exposing one's soft underbelly and making one far too vulnerable to ridicule.  I've worried all night about this blog topic, but have decided to post it anyway because boobs are ubiquitous (50 percent of the world's population has them!) and I'm sure I'm not alone in hating most of my bra-shopping experiences.  And, as the 1960s showed us (if not earlier), the personal is political.

Yesterday, I went bra shopping. This would have been a completely un-blog-worthy experience had it gone as I had hoped (go in, find bra I like, find it in my size, buy it, leave).  It, of course, did not.

I walked directly to the dressing rooms, asked to be put in one, and for the women to bring me bras to try on (this is standard operating procedure at Victoria's Secret).

"Can you bring me some bras to try on?  I'm a size 36A."

"Oh!" (Skinny chick with big breasts and perfect skin stares at me.  Her eyebrows go up to hairline.)  "That is a really unusual size.  We don't have much to offer you."

For a second, I felt like a creature from Ripley's Believe It or Not.  I'm that unusual?  Really?

Now, I wasn't *completely* surprised about hearing this, only because the last time I went bra shopping (also at Victoria's Secret) the woman tried to convince me that I couldn't really be a 36A; I must really be a 34B.  When she measured me, she said, "Oh, you really are a 36A."

She said that in the same voice that, I imagine, she would use to say, "Oh, you really do have leukemia."

In other words, how disappointing that a) I've got small boobs and b) I've bot a "big" rib cage.  My body should know that if it has the former, it should not have the latter.

The woman had then gone on to reassure me:  "We can find something to help you."  Again, the same tone in which one would reassure a cancer patient that chemo will save her life.

I found myself, in the dressing room, actually fighting tears.  Yes, I know.  An overly emotional moment.  We all have them.  Move on.

Then, I found myself fighting anger:  who the hell trains these (buxom) twenty-somethings who work at Victoria's Secret? And why has the industry decided that it will only cater to the bell curve (pardon the pun) of bra sizes?  (I say "bell curve" because I fully realize that my sisters at the other end of the spectrum -- with very large breasts -- aren't served well by Victoria's Secret, either.)

Three of the six bras I was given to try on were immensely padded, giving the clear message that I am not good enough.  While there is a trend currently for all bras to be padded (just walk through a lingerie department if you don't believe me), many of the ones in my size had tags on them claiming to give me two extra cup sizes.

I didn't ask for that.  And the bras look ridiculous on.  It's like trying to wear a pillow across a flat chest.

I bought the two (plain -- one white, one black) that looked the best on my body and which were the most comfortable, regardless of whether they "enhance" me in any way.

When I got home, I went online.  Roughly 15% of the American population is my size.  To be perfectly frank, more women would be if there was not such an obesity epidemic in our society.  The average breast size among American women used to be 34B; now it is 36C -- attributable to obesity, the increasing presence of hormones in our environment, and the numbers of women seeking breast implants.  Reputedly, the percentage of women seeking breast implants rose an astounding 39% between 2000 and 2010.  (Of course, the more women think they "need" implants and seek them, the more the bras will be built for the "ideal" woman and not for the variety of us that actually exist out here.)

In any case, when more than 10% of the population is similar to me, it means there are MILLIONS of women with my size boobs (and rib cage).  There should be more than three choices of bras at Victoria's Secret that are for "us".

I asked if there were any of the "cute" ones in my size.  You know -- the striped ones, the polka dotted ones, the lacy ones, the ones with little bows, the ones that come with matching panties.


There are HUNDREDS of bras in Victoria's Secret.  Any of the ones that might be described as "cute" or "sexy" are not available in my size.


I went to another store to see if it had what I was looking for.


"I want a kinda sexy lacy bra in a size 36A."

Older (busty) lady with lapel pin which reads, "Certified fit specialist," looks at me, raises her eyebrows to her hairline and declares, "That is a tall order."

I sighed and gave up.

There are a million funny things about bodies.  Your tummy is fat.  Your thighs are too big.  Your eyebrows are too thin or too bushy.  Your ears are too big or they stick out.  You have an uneven skin tone.  You have acne.  Your teeth are yellow.  That hair on your upper lip is a little too noticeable.  Your breath is bad.  You are too tall or too short or too sound or too skinny.  Your hair is too curly or too straight or too wild.  That cowlick of yours is a bear to handle.  Your nose is too prominent.  Your eyes are too close together or too small.  You have weird toes.  You have fat feet.  Man, you have BIG feet!   Those varicose veins are ugly.  Your ass is WAY too big.  It really isn't attractive to have your crack show.

Some of this attention to our bodies might, arguably, be good:  we should take care of ourselves, exercise more, show some pride in appearance.  A certain degree of civilization demands that.

But when an entire fashion industry essentially shuts out  more than 10% of the (normal) population, it's time to make the personal public.

Lingerie manufacturers:  we are not all a "C" cup.  And the answer to that "problem" is not to tell us to get implants to fit your image of the ideal, or to wear hugely padded, uncomfortable, ugly bras.  We would like to, once in a while, have the same bra style options as our sisters have with their "ideal"-sized assets.

There's nothing wrong with us; there is something wrong with you.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

How much is a boy's life worth?

Saw this article today from The Washington Post.  It's an old article -- from 2007 -- but a 12-year-old boy DIED because, essentially, his mother couldn't find a dentist that would take care of his toothache. See his family had lost their Medicaid and, well, even when they had Medicaid, dentists were not easy to find.

Dentists prefer not to take patients with Medicaid.  Even kids.  I'll summarize the article for you:  The boy's tooth got so infected that the infection spread to his brain and...he DIED.  The total cost of the medical care he DID receive (in the ER, in intensive care, in surgery) was over $250K.

Wonder how much a tooth extraction or a filling would have cost?

The article doesn't say, so I did a little sleuthing.  According to this website, a simple extraction should cost between $50-150; an impacted wisdom tooth can cost as much as $650.  Another website has similar data.  Yet another website also gives similar figures.

What about fillings?  According to this website, metal fillings run between $75-145.  Composite fillings (my dentist calls them "hollywoods") are more expensive:  between $150-200 per filling.  Another website on cosmetic dentistry has virtually identical figures; though another website's stats are slightly higher:   $110-200 per each amalgam fillings, versus $135-240 per composite ones. 

This family essentially lost their child for want of no more than $650.

Beyond shameful.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Egypt's Sexual Harassment Problem and Media Coverage: How Academics (and the Media) Screwed Up

NOTE:  The title of this post was updated May 28, 2011 to reflect the content more accurately.  I criticize the media and poor scholarship.

I had not intended to post anything else here about Lara Logan or her case.  I have been writing an article (not yet published) on mob violence, in which Logan's case will be mentioned and, in doing research for that, I decided I needed to see the well-publicized 2008 study on sexual harassment in Egypt, done by the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights (ECWR).   The media (CNN, CBS, Salon.com, Washington Post, LA Times, and others) all had articles or news segments where they highlighted the punchline of that study:  98% of foreign women visitors and 83% of Egyptian women had experienced harassment in Egypt; 62% of Egyptian men admitted to harassing women and that 53% of Egyptian men blamed women for “bringing it on”. 

The media got that much right.  That was, indeed, the major finding worth highlighting.

The media’s rather direct connection to the Logan case was that Logan was assaulted, in part, because Egypt clearly has such a problem with sexual harassment.

Uh.  That is kinda right.  

Maybe it’s because I teach methods.  I needed to see the study itself, because something about those astounding statistics didn’t sit right with me; you see, we hardly ever see 98% in any study of human behavior.  Even 83% is high.  Those are the kind of stats that make one want to sit up and make sure the study was done correctly or, at the very least, to figure out how those statistics could be arrived at even in a well-designed study.

It took me a couple weeks to get my hands on the study (ironically, once I found it, I wondered why it had taken me so long…).  The title, Clouds in Egypt’s Sky:  Sexual Harassment, from Verbal Harassment to Rape, suggests that indeed, the authors are going to document rape in their study.

That should be a big indicator to all of you that they did not.

If you want to see the study, you can download it from this site.

The media didn’t take much time to see whether the study was well done.  They saw what most people would have seen:  big sample size (1010 Egyptian women, 1010 Egyptian men, 109 foreign women), multiple cites (three), and big impressive, shocking finding (see my first paragraph).

It turns out, even with these seeming strengths of the study, the study itself is seriously flawed.   And that knowledge should give us all a big dose of caution in how to relate it to something as heinous as Logan’s experience.


1)      The definition of sexual harassment is very broad.
The authors defined it as “unwanted sexual conduct deliberately perpetrated by the harasser, resulting in sexual, physical, or psychological abuse of the victim regardless of location, whether in the workplace, the street, public transportation, educational institution, or even in private places such as home…it may include behavior such as ogling, gestures, offers to perform sexual acts, questions of a private and sexual nature, displaying sexual photos or pictures, unwanted touching, etc.” (pp. 2-3). 

Whenever a concept is defined broadly you inevitably increase the number of people who will fit the criteria for that concept.

While I do agree that there are many forms of sexual harassment – and thus am not offended by a broad definition per se – it is very problematic to add together so many disparate experiences without also reporting their incidence individually. 

To lump together “explicit comments” with “assault” – which is exactly what these authors do – is akin to counting candy bar theft alongside tax evasion. 

2)    The authors do not report the different types of sexual harassment individually.

There is no way, from reading the report, to know what percentage of Egyptian women or foreign women in their sample experienced each type of harassment.  Or what percentage experienced multiple types.  Or which type was the most common.  These are rather important details that most researchers would have known to include.

3)     Though the subtitle of the report mentions rape, the authors do not report actually documenting a case of rape
They write that they uncovered seven forms of harassment:  touching, noises (whistling, hissing noises, kissing sounds), ogling of women’s bodies, verbal harassment of a sexually explicit nature, stalking or following, phone harassment, and indecent exposure.  Why did the authors indicate that their study included rape if, in their report, it appears that it does not?

Note that in both the definition of sexual harassment AND in the description of the seven kinds of harassment they claim to have uncovered, a case like Logan’s does not “fit “.

4)     The authors rely on a convenience sample, not a random one.
I am sympathetic to the reality that random sampling is expensive and time-consuming.  But any methodology student knows (or should know) – and certainly anybody with a Ph.D. should know – that if your sample was not randomly chosen, you cannot assume your data are anything more than suggestive.  Though many people misunderstand this, “random” is not equivalent to “talking to random people on the street”.  There is actually nothing random about random sampling – the most simple explanation of one type of random sampling (there is more than one) is that a random sample is selected in such a way that all samples of the same size have an equal chance of being chosen from the population.  Everyone in the population theoretically has an equal chance of being in the sample.

When you have a random sample THEN you can say (within a calculated margin of error) that you have uncovered a pattern in the larger society. 

The authors have a nice sample size (2129), but “big” does not mean “representative”.

These authors did not have a random sample so they cannot say (and the media analyzing their study cannot say) that “98% of foreign women in Egypt experience sexual harassment”.  The authors did not randomly sample from all of Egypt.  In fact, they did not randomly sample from the three sites they did use. 

ALL they can say is that in their sample, they found that 98% of foreign women had experienced at least one type of harassment.  Instead, they write up that finding without the absolutely necessary caveat of “in our sample”.  And then it got reported that way…I’m assuming some journalists need a crash course in how to read academic studies.

I’m volunteering.

5)    The three cites the authors sampled from are all in the same part of Egypt.    

This should be fairly obvious:  you cannot claim to have uncovered patterns of sexual harassment for a country as huge as Egypt with only three sites, particularly when the sites are all basically within miles of Cairo.

Their three sites were Cairo, Giza, and Qalyubeya. I googled several maps of Egypt; Cairo and Giza are right next to each other and Qalyubeya is 28 kilometers North of Cairo.  Egypt is a big country. 

I’d rename the study “Incidence of Various Types of Sexual Harassment Reported In a Convenience Sample of Egyptian and Foreign Women Living In and Near Cairo.”
But that’s not nearly as appealing as the title they used.
I know.  We academics are such kill joys.


I get that the media doesn’t have time for lengthy analyses of studies (although, honestly, isn’t that *part* of their job?).  Even if the media didn’t want to unpack all the problems in this study (there are more than the ones I’ve detailed here), they should at least have unpacked two:
1)    The Definitional Problem:  you define something very broadly, you predictably find many who fit the definition.  When this happens, you have to question whether the definition yields meaningful data.
2)    The Reporting Problem:  the authors presumably collected data on individual types of sexual harassment.  But they did not report it.  Without that data (it is nowhere in the report), we do not know which types of harassment are most common or whether the most severe forms are even often seen.

If the media had examined just these two flaws in the study, I think somebody would have suggested the obvious:  Would not a study done in the US with such a broad definition of sexual harassment also result in similar statistics of between 80 and 98% of American women reporting to have experienced at least one kind? 

To just use my life as an example, I've experienced (all in the US):
  • men exposing themselves to me
  • unwanted sexually explicit comments
  • sexually explicit photos shown to me
  • gestures
  • sexual propositions
  • unwanted touching

While all of these instances were scary and threatening, they pale in comparison to what Logan experienced.  Yet they appear to be exactly the kinds of harassment uncovered in the ECWR study, which was then used by so many news outlets as a way to partially explain why Logan's assault happened.

The analogy needs a very strong emphasis on the word "partial," for Logan's experience bears, frankly, only faint resemblance to the "everyday" kinds of street harassment uncovered in this study. 

I’m not questioning that Egypt has a serious, endemic problem with sexual harassment.  Other data easily convince me of this.  Read Leiby’s Washington Post article on sexual harassment in Egypt, or Amnesty International's article on the “virginity tests” forced on female Tahrir protesters or look up harassmap.org to see how women in Egypt have documented where and at what times of the day they have been assaulted.  Finally, read up on the UC Davis professor who was beaten up by a mob in Tahrir Square the week before Logan.  Of course, if you haven't heard of Logan's case, I'm going to assume you've spent the last three months under a rock somewhere.  
Egypt has a big problem with sexual harassment and sexual violence, and I've only given you a smattering of the data sources out there that confirm this. 

But the ECWR study was overused by many media outlets because, frankly, its main finding was easily digestible for both media consumers and media creators.  Who could stay away from a statistic showing that between 80-100% of women in Egypt, domestic and foreign, experience sexual harassment?

But would the media have been so complacent about a study done in the US with the same finding?  Probably not, or at least I hope not.  I think media would have immediately suspected that something about how the study was done may have affected the finding.   They should have seen the red flags with this study, too.

These statistics were used in a careless way, without attention to the fact that the study itself was methodologically weak, mostly due to a problem in operationalizing the term "sexual harassment" and in failing to report percentages of women experiencing each kind of harassment.  To rely so heavily on one poorly designed study in order to try to understand Logan’s case is methodologically suspect, but was still convincing to a vast majority of media consumers.

I’m giving the media a “C” on this one.  We consumers deserve a little better.


Shoukry, Aliyaa, Hassan, Rasha Mohammad, Komsan, Nehad Abul.  2008. Clouds in Egypt's Sky:  Sexual Harassment:  From Verbal Harassment to Rape, A Sociological Study.  Egyptian Center for Women's Rights.

Leiby, Richard.  March 2, 2011.  Women's rights marchers in Cairo report sexual assaults by angry mob.  Washington Post.

Egyptian women protesters forced to take 'virginity tests'.  March 23, 2011.  Amnesty International.

Johnson, Angella.  February 20, 2011.  I was a mob sex attack victim in Tahrir Square...just like Lara Logan.  Mail Online  at http://dailymail.co.uk.

Anonymous.  February 11, 2011.  Huge crowd of guys harass two foreign girls.  http://harassmap.org.

Mayton, Joseph and Ammar, Manar.  October 9, 2008.  Sixty percent of women harassed on a  daily basis -- Cairo.  Online at www.womennewsnetwork.net.

Hart, Anne.  February 4, 2011.  UC Davis female comparative literature assistant professor beaten up in Egypt.  Sacramento Women's Issues Examiner.  Online at www.examiner.com.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Perceived Social Support: A Lesson from Lara Logan's Interview

As some of you know, I'm both a sociologist of mental health and a journalism junkie.  A few of you may even know I'm working on two books, one a co-edited (with my husband) volume on immigration and the other on the sociology of mob violence.  These three things have come together, in the most unexpected of ways, in the past few months, with the publicity and news surrounding Lara Logan's horrendous assault in Egypt and the gang rape of Iman al-Obeidy by Qaddafi forces in Libya.    Both women have shown INCREDIBLE courage in telling their stories publicly.  One, because she was able to escape and go home, has been the rather lucky recipient of a great deal of support -- medical care, letters from strangers, notes from colleagues, pictures drawn by school children, stories shared by other women, notes from soldiers, even a phone call from  President Obama.  The other, however, has been denied the most basic human right of going home and, according to the Free Iman al-Obeidy Facebook page,  has suffered greatly by being denied that access to her support system.

Last night, like millions of others, I watched Lara Logan's interview on 60 Minutes.  Having followed the story carefully, I have to say I wasn't all that surprised by the details.  My first clues to the severity of the assault were actually in the original CBS news statement itself:  brutal and sustained sexual assault, on next flight out of the country, four days in a hospital.  You don't have to be a mind reader or a genius to have figured out that it was a horrible, possibly life-threatening assault.  Nobody -- least of all a war correspondent with 18 years experience working in the most war-torn places on the globe -- leaves a foreign country in the midst of celebration  for something minor.  Nobody -- even somebody with means -- spends four days in a hospital for the trivial.  Hospitals just don't do that anymore.  Nonetheless, hearing her tell her own story and seeing her tears made my heart race, my body turn cold, my tears flow.  I wish I could do more for her than simply leave the notes of support that I (like hundred of others) have left on her official Facebook page.

In some ways, however, the part of the interview available online at 60 Minutes Overtime was actually the more heart-wrenching.  Logan emphasized in that segment exactly how grateful she was for all the letters and cards she has received.  She, unlike so many other victims of similarly horrible crimes, has tangible evidence that people care.  Not just that her immediate family and friends care, but that strangers care.  How unbelievably wonderful.  Though Iman reportedly knows that she, too, has supporters, it is unlikely that she has the same amount of tangible evidence that people are on her side.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if all victims of violence could receive abundant evidence that people care?

Conveniently for me, I was already scheduled to lecture today on perceived social support.  I used a portion of Logan's 60 Minutes Overtime segment in my lecture; the students were silent and clearly moved.  The segment made the point:  perceived social support matters.  Various sociological studies have shown that it is perceived social support that matters most to people's mental health -- even more than tangible supports that are more easily measured (such as how often people make meals for you or take care of your children).  Those who perceive they have more support are better at coping, more apt to seek help if they need it, and have lower rates of both mental and physical health problems.  Those with higher levels of perceived social support also report what psychologists call post traumatic growth -- a trend among trauma survivors to report (in retrospect and only after much time has passed) that there was something good that came out of their healing.

We cannot make the traumas go away.  We cannot make the traumas themselves "good".  The traumas always will be indescribably evil and horrifying and they tend to stay with people in some way or another.  But we can, by supporting each other, make it possible for people not only to survive a trauma, but to thrive afterward.

Logan has said she does not want this assault to define her.  Of course not.  And of course it doesn't.  She, like all survivors, is so much more than what she survived.  She's an amazing reporter.  An incredibly brave, honest, intelligent woman.  Somebody who by her courage and brutal honesty has managed to launch herself into my pantheon of heroes.

And now, for those of us who are her fans, it's up to us to do two things:  continue to show her our support for as long as she needs it (these traumas don't disappear very fast, I'm told), and keep our promise to her that we won't define her by this event.  We might define her by her bravery, however.  But I think she'd be OK with that.

And we owe Iman the same thing -- to define her by her strength and not by her victimization.  All survivors of the unimaginable are due this.

Got a little free time today?  Drop a card to somebody.  Remind them how strong they are. Remind them that they are loved. Such things matter.

It's the least we can do.
Suggested Readings:

1.  Thoits, Peggy. 2011.  Perceived social support and the voluntary, mixed or pressured use of mental health services.  Society and Mental Health 1 (1):  4-19.

2.  Joseph, Stephen and Linley, Alex P. 2008.  Trauma, Recovery and Growth:  Positive Psychological Perspectives on Posttraumatic Stress.  New York, NY:  Wiley.

3.  Lian, Tam Cai. YEAR.  Perceived social support, coping capability and gender differences among young adults.  Sunway Academic Journal 6:  75-88.

4.  Cadzow, Renee B. and Servoss, Timothy J.  2009.  The association between perceived social support and health among patients at a free urban clinic.  Journal of the National Medical Association 101(3):  243-250.

5.  Wethington, E. and Kessler, R.C..  1986.  Perceived support, received support, and adjustment to stressful life events.  Journal of Health and Social Behavior 27:  78-89.

6.  House, J.S.  1981. Work Stress and Social Support.  Reading, MA:  Addison-Wesley.

7.  Vaux, A. 1988.  Social Support:  Theory, Research and Intervention.   New York:  Praeger.

8.  Turner, R.J. and Lloyd, D.A.  1995.  Lifetime traumas and mental health:  The significance of cumulative adversity.  Journal of Health and Social Behavior 36:  360-376.

9.  Turner, R.J., Wheaton, B., and Lloyd, D.A.  1995.  The epidemiology of stress.  American Sociological Review 60:  104-125.