A room designed by prisoners

Gizmodo has an article this week about a room prototype built by inmates in Spoleto, Italy, who attended design workshops. It’s not intended to be a cell though it has the same dimensions; it is built with the lived experience of people who spend each day in a 96 square foot room. While the Freedom Room lacks the style of a tiny space by IKEA, the inmates designed it to have storage and useful surfaces.  Does this remind anyone else of Sam’s “2010 Center” ideal prison in Dreaming of Psychiatric Citizenship: A Case Study of Supermax Confinement by Lorna Rhodes?


The former director of the prison had a thought-provoking reaction: 

“The heavy, mortifying restrictions placed on furnishings and accessories… tend to sharpen the wits of the detainees, who will try to make every possible use of the objects they are allowed to keep…. I sincerely hope that Prison Administrations will consider and adopt this project to promote a ‘culture’ of prison life which, for the first time, may be determined to a certain extent by the inmates themselves.”

I find myself cringing at the idea of an inmate-determined culture, but that’s because my notions of incarceration are (thankfully) shaped more by HBO’s Oz than by personal experience.  However, I think it makes a lot of sense to consult current or former inmates when designing prisons — not to make them cozy or vulnerable, but to see what basic human needs could be addressed without loss of security.  As I write this, there are 52 comments on the Gizmodo piece. Some understand the Freedom Room as a design project, but there is also a lively debate about what living conditions for inmates should be. Some examples:

“I don’t get this. They are in prison. There should be 4 bare walls and a toilet. Why should they live in nicer housing than I do? This is insane.”

“…That being said, whether you had an accidental life altering decision or your just a person who is inclined to do bad things, you need to be punished with discomfort. This is how society is enforced and why most of 360 million people in America are not in prison.”

“Holy Hell, let’s just put everybody in a box for years and see if they come out the other side sane and happy for work and living in the real world. If you place these people in an environment that promotes penance, education and learning, this- to me- seems the better nature for how to deal with those whose lives have been so damaged by their circumstances.”

Is egg freezing feminist?

Janelle Taylor just posted the following two links to H-MEDANTHRO last week; the first is an editorial piece by Marcia Inhorn on CNN’s website exhorting women in their 30s to freeze their eggs (although with some reservations about the ways this technology might be used); the second is a response by Taylor and Lynn Morgan questioning whether that’s actually good advice: as they argue, freezing your eggs “represents an individualized, private, expensive, high-tech medical solution to what is fundamentally a collective, social problem”.  See also some of the comments on the CNN site (there are some thoughtful ones within the usual CNN comment drivel).

I wish we had a response from Inhorn to defend herself, as this feels a little unfair, but I wonder where you all fall on this debate.  This is a tricky question: should women embrace this technology as empowering them to balance both career and family, or will the net effect of egg freezing actually be to reinforce patriarchy?

You are more beautiful than you think… but why does beauty matter?

In class, we’ve had occasion a few times in the past week to think about the double-edged nature of any message, from cholera statistics (Briggs) to Chevron’s greenwashing (Sawyer).  On the one hand, we have the explicit message, which might seem to run counter to the interests of those in power: cholera statistics may run counter to the government’s messages reassuring effective containment, or Chevron’s “Human Energy” campaign might call upon corporations to exercise responsibility in their use of natural resources.

But the covert subtext of these messages actually serves to reinforce systems of inequity. Briggs makes a compelling case that cholera statistics implicitly mark statistics as the most authoritative form of information in circulation, privileging the few Venezuelan institutions capable of generating statistics.  And Sawyer points out how entirely disingenuous and dangerous it is for Chevron to posit a false equivalency between the civic responsibilities of corporations (as “people”) and the civic responsibilities of ordinary consumers.

I’m thinking about this today as many of my Facebook friends, several of whom are self-described feminists, are posting a Dove commercial that is clearly designed to go viral- and it seems to be working.  It shows women describing themselves to a sketch artist, and then we see contrasting sketches resulting first from their self-descriptions, and then from how others describe them, which is invariably more flattering.  The tagline: “You are more beautiful than you think”.

I am immediately reminded of the point Kaw makes in her analysis of Asian-American cosmetic surgeries: the message in both of these examples is about gender, emphasizing that what should really matter for women is their physical appearance.  Watch the commercial again and you’ll see how clearly this is emphasized.  So if this ad is supposed to be empowering for women, it’s a kind of empowerment that clearly serves the interest of Dove.  If Dove really wanted to empower women, it would argue that physical beauty is really not that important anyway- but then they wouldn’t have a way to sell their product.  Or am I missing something here?

I think about this every time I see a bank advertisement announcing that they don’t care about the money, they care about you and your well-being.  This is not in the nature of banks, at least not those banks who are seeking to maximize profits for their shareholders.  But it is a very effective way for corporations (who are not actually human!) to package human values (altruism, compassion,  environmentalism, women’s empowerment) as a way of selling themselves to consumers.

What do you think? Is Dove’s message really empowering, and I’m just cynical?  This is the new mode of advertising, and in many ways I find it far more insidious than the overt commercials we’re used to.  For example, there’s a recent, feel-good Coke commercial designed for viral consumption that I also find incredibly sinister, but for other reasons.

More thoughts on unnecessary gluten avoidance

I was going to respond directly to Kristen’s post, but I don’t think WordPress lets you put hyperlinks in response comments.

It’s an interesting question, worth unpacking a little. If we agree that it’s important to respect phenomenological and subjective experience, does that mean that individuals should be free to adopt any medicalized identity as long as it doesn’t cause them harm (there are no clear negative health effects of avoiding gluten unnecessarily)? This is complicated by the way that illnesses do important work of identity formation, with illness subjectivities providing potential access to valuable forms of community and social capital- particularly in the age of internet fora and support groups (we’ve looked at this a little bit in class with Nguyen). It’s a fascinating new world of bottom-up creation of categories that are simultaneously illness and empowerment- Gillick’s analysis of jogging is a kind of precursor to this new proliferation of medicalized subcultures that are only taken up by the DSM once they reach a critical mass online. Are these conditions counterhegemonic, or just another example of technologies of the self ultimately serving the interests of governmentality? Lots of good possibilities for future research here.

Just to be provocative, if you’re OK with claims of gluten intolerance whether or not there’s a biomedical justification, how do you feel about pro-ana? Or about body integrity identity disorder, the conviction that one is healthy apart from the burden of a limb that does not feel like it belongs on your body?

The bioethicist Carl Elliott (always worth reading) wrote a great essay on BIID several years ago, and pointed out that the disorder really grew only once people were able to discuss it laterally on the internet, unmediated by the medical establishment. It’s as if the discourse actually created the symptoms in people’s bodies, in a kind of Sapir-Whorf effect.

There are lots of examples of this. This American Life just did a nice piece on the strange world of ASMR, a condition (labelled and given its properly medical-sounding acronym not by doctors, but by the online community) that makes videos like this intensely pleasant to watch. Do new illness communities develop because individuals first have symptoms, and can now discover similarly-wired people on the internet, or does the category to some degree create their somatic experience?

Why is there a gluten-free version of everything now?

Killer homemade wheat bread   (c) Kristen Pierce

Killer homemade wheat bread, literally?

When did we all develop problems with gluten? Slate considered this question a couple of months ago. The article links to a five year old article in USA Today with a quote from the executive director of the Gluten Intolerance Group of North America, “Marketers estimate that 15% to 25% of consumers want gluten-free foods — though doctors estimate just 1% have celiac disease, the best-defined and most severe form of gluten intolerance.”  The Well blog of the New York Times also took on the issue of gluten intolerance vs. a health delusion based on a fad.

The vast majority of people who have problems with gluten are self-diagnosed. I know several people who are gluten intolerant, and I’m not impolite enough to ask to see a doctor’s note when they choose something other than my baked goods. Are these self-diagnosed people making a trendy health choice based on medical rumor and the placebo effect, or are they displaying agency and individual awareness of their symptoms that the medical system doesn’t recognize?  From the Slate article:

… a randomized, blinded trial in Italy just showed that one-third of patients with gluten intolerance clearly felt better with gluten-free diets, which confirmed “a distinct clinical condition.” (Since most people can tell wheat-containing baked goods from their gluten-free substitutes, the investigators cleverly had all patients follow gluten-free diets and then take capsules containing either gluten or a placebo.)

Personally, if someone chooses and can afford to eat a gluten-free diet, and it makes him or her feel better, I don’t care whether the condition is “really real” or not. It gets a bit challenging trying to accommodate every dietary restriction, but viva la potluck. What do you think?

Blog by a doctor with Alzheimer’s disease

I’m a devoted fangirl of intelligent autobiographical blogs that attempt to capture events and emotions as they happen to to share them with a wider audience who might not have access to that experience. This is why Watching the Lights Go Out is now in my regular reading list.

Dr. David Hilfiker was diagnosed with “mild cognitive impairment, almost certainly Alzheimer’s diseaes” last September and outed himself with the creation of this blog on January first. His account is insightful and inspirational, and he says he hopes to help banish some of the stigma of the disease. Take a look.