food-sweet-cake-candles-6203.jpgHappy Birthday, NHS.

Thank you for being there for us in the darkest of times; accident, injury, illness and death. For also sharing in the best of times; the all clears, the births, the recovery.

Thank you for the buttery toast you gave to a little girl whose world had just crashed down her ears.

Thank you for the banter of the paramedics who made the worst 18th birthday a girl could wish for a little bit more bearable.

Thanks for the physio and for the physiotherapists who were just too darn nice for me to hate. Physio was the worst.

Thank you for the words of encouragement. The support I needed to get back on my feet (literally and emotionally). The counselling. The firm talking tos. The discretion.

You’re not perfect and we’re partially to blame. We should reflect on how use you respectfully and fairly. To not litter your A&Es with drunkards on a Saturday night. To take ownership of our lifestyle choices. To not take what we don’t need. To not bite the hand that feeds us.

But thank you, for your tirelessness, your devotion and your dedication.

We are all very grateful.

Event/Book Review: All That Remains by Sue Black

Is this a book review, an event review or review of the author? I am not sure. There is no way this could be impartial as I have followed Sue Black’s work since I was in high school and I admire her greatly. I recently had the pleasure of hearing Sue Black talk about her first non-academic book All That Remains and she did not disappoint.

Let’s begin with the book. All That Remains is beautifully presented. The cover is understated and elegant; a lone skeleton on a cream background and each chapter is demarcated by a relevant image or illustration and quote. The beauty of the book took me by surprise – you should never judge a book by its cover but the look of All That Remains is as fantastic as its content. The book is a poignant blend of science, memoir and unintentional motivational life guide. Having penned textbooks, Black excels in her elegant descriptions of the body’s systems, which highlight the beauty and complexity of our bodies whilst still allowing the layperson to digest it. As a humanities student with no link to medical science, I felt like Black was divulging secret information that I shouldn’t be privy to – quatsch of course, but a fun thought none the less. Isotope analysis fascinated me when I was younger and saw it discussed on archaeological shows and Black’s own History Cold Case, it was amazing to hear of how this process worked and hear mind-blowing facts about how our bodies are maps of where we (and even our parents) have been. It made me laugh to think that, in an age in which we are so paranoid about CCTV and smart trackers, our own bodies will reveal our secrets to anyone with the knowledge to ask the right questions. Black reveals our bodies to us with expertise, humour and a skill for teaching complex ideas.

It’s no surprise that Black explains well as she is, amongst many other things, an educator. What you wouldn’t expect, necessarily, is the wit and poignancy with which she writes; from her descriptions of her first dissection to her ruminations on human frailty, identity and family. I didn’t expect All That Remains to have such poignancy, but one thing that really struck me was Black’s focus on the interconnectivity of not only humanity, but our actual bodies. I think because of our individualistic culture, we acknowledge that our bodies follow roughly the same spec; they share limbs, blood types and so on but focus on the divisiveness that our differences in strength cause. We ignore the commonality of our frailties or the fact that the location of our pregnant mothers can be traced through our skulls. Our bodies are a testament to the places we come from, the places we are, and will map where we will go. From our hair to our bones, we exist within a context and I find that comforting.

Now for the woman herself…

I hate the phrase down to earth. When people say it I always have the mental image of someone’s face being smushed into mud. That being said, Sue Black is amazingly gracious and relatable for someone who has done such good in the world. She held the attention of the room effortlessly, not through any artificial showmanship but by being a genuine and interesting person. Her talk wasn’t rote either – when a man coughed whilst she described her grandmother’s lung cancer, she zeroed in on him like a hawk, laughing at the misfortunate timing of his coughing fit. There were two things that I especially appreciated about Sue Black’s talk and by extension her book; that was her focus on family and her delight in the folktales that she grew up with. In her book and within her talk, she spoke about the importance of family and folktales or the spooky ways our grandmas claim to have a sixth sense. She told us to write our loved one’s stories down, not out of vanity but out of ‘family’; our children and children’s children will want to know from whom they came from. I loved this, as a girl who grew up in a family of Irish descent, I grew up with ghosts and have always found the conflict between faith and science uncomfortable. I asked Black about this in the Q&A, ‘Science and faith/the folk are presented as the antithesis of each other, how do you balance the two?’

‘Balance’ She said, ‘Is exactly the right word.’

Black’s book gave me an insight into the body, to the important work Black has done, to the poignant frailty of life. Black herself gave me a friendly memento mori, a reminder to laugh and love my family and a desire to head to Paperchase to buy a notebook in which to chronicle my family’s mad, mundane but equally wondrous tales.

Opinion Piece: OB_S__Y

Are Health Campaigns Failing Us or Are We Failing Them?

Recently, two public health campaigns about obesity have come under fire for being insensitive and potentially dangerous. One of these, Change4Life, is a project of Public Health England and aims to instil a healthy lifestyle in young children, whilst educating parents on the impact their bad habits have on their family. The other was a campaign from Cancer Research UK which aimed to inform the public that obesity is a major preventable cause of cancer. Vicious arguments have lit up social media between those who have expressed their hurt and those who think people are being too sensitive. The backlash surrounding these campaigns has made me ask the question, are these campaigns failing us or are we failing them?

The Change4Life Campaign

The Change4Life campaign launched in 2009 with the aim to initially target families with children from 5-11. Due to its success, the campaign has become multifaceted with branches such as Start4Life, which is aimed at pregnant women and new parents. The 4life campaigns are all focused on providing health information to each demographic in an age-appropriate way. Their resources for children are fun, brightly coloured and explain the health risks of an unhealthy lifestyle in a non-scary but informative manner. In a clever move, they also utilise the marketing strategies that have previously used by fast food companies to appeal to children. For example, they have partnered with Disney to create fun ’10-minute shake up’ games which include much loved Disney characters. The National Social Marketing Centre reports that the Change4Life has been a monumental success and in its first year reached 99% of its target audience, 413,466 families joined Change4Life and had 1.9 million responses via the web, post, face-to-face and through phone calls.

Their most recent advert, however, has been met with angry responses from the public and from eating disorder charity Beat UK. The advert encourages children and parents to choose snacks which are a 100 calories each and to limit snacks to two a day. The advert has an accompanying jingle which sings the phrase, ‘100 calorie snacks, 2 a day max.’ Critics of the advert have argued that it equates restricting calories with being healthy and encourages behaviours which may evolve into disordered eating. The delivery of the advert has also been challenged as the jingle has been used as a Spotify advert replaying in between songs. If someone vulnerable to disordered eating were to hear this over and over it may reinforce any intrusive or compulsive thoughts that they may already be experiencing.

The Change4Life campaign as a whole has consistently delivered in providing a holistic view of nutrition which by no means champions calorie counting as the be all and end all of health, but this particular advert ignores other important factors involved in choosing snacks, such as satiety and nutritional impact. For example, A 100 calories of chocolate and a 100 calories of chicken have the same calorie count but are vastly different in terms of protein content and amounts of saturated fat. The campaign also ignores the idea of activity levels affecting calorie requirements. Eating disorder charity, Beat, released a statement which argued that ‘It is important that messages aimed at reducing obesity consider the impact they may have on individuals at risk of developing an eating disorder’ and asked that ‘Public Health England to listen to concerns about the impact this campaign could have on those at risk of developing an eating disorder and change the campaign to focus more on healthy eating rather than calorie counting.’ Beat has publicised petition against the Change4Life ‘100 calorie snacks, two a day max’ campaign and a response video made by blogger and eating disorder survivor Tallulah Self.

Cancer Research UK

The second campaign which has come under fire is Cancer Research UK’s obesity campaign, which aimed to raise awareness of obesity’s link to preventable cancers. As part of the campaign, Cancer Research UK put up billboards featuring the word obesity in a hangman style with some letters missing. Underneath the word, the advert asks readers to guess what the second largest cause of cancer is, after smoking. An online torrent of criticism was spurred by comic Sofie Hagen labelling the advert as fatshaming, saying, “Right, is anyone currently working on getting this piece of s*** CancerResearchUK advert removed from everywhere? Is there something I can sign? How the f***ing f*** is this okay?” One twitter user even suggested she would stop any support of the Cancer Research charity if they did not remove it. The angry response to the campaign has been visceral and heated and this was only furthered by those mocking those who expressed their hurt on social media.

The billboards are designed to raise awareness of an objective fact, and a fact which the UK’s public didn’t know. There is a lack of nuance and complexity to the advert, but how much nuance can you put on a billboard? If you google the campaign, the page features detailed information about the cancers linked to obesity and how to make healthy changes to reduce your risk. As the site explains, the cancers to which obesity is linked, such as oesophageal and pancreatic, are complex and difficult to treat. Not making the public aware of this for fear of backlash would be unethical. People should know the risks of obesity, just as they know the dangers of smoking.

The advert itself succinctly highlights the response to it — the word OBESITY presented with gaps in place of some letters. It is these gaps which are filled by the viewer of the advert. Those that feel that it is fat shaming are filling that space with their previous experiences. Whilst the advert itself is an objective fact (studies and data are provided on the campaign’s website), we live in a culture where those who are overweight are bullied, whether it be in the school ground or the workplace. Another fact that Cancer Research UK’s research has discovered; fat shaming is not conducive to weight loss and ‘may even exacerbate weight gain.’ Perhaps if there were less bullying be it on the playground or elsewhere, the campaign may have produced a different response.

Cancer Research UK have stood by their campaign, stating that there were no plans to change their campaign surrounding obesity’s link to cancer and that “This is not about fat shaming. It is based on scientific evidence and designed to give important information to the public. Only 15 percent of people are aware that obesity is a cause of cancer. Cancer Research UK has a duty to put that message in the public domain” (PR Weekly, 2.3.18).

What now for health campaigns?

The response to Change4Life’s campaign highlights the need to include an element of sensitivity these campaigns, especially where children are involved. One sentence highlighting other aspects of choosing healthy snacks, such as protein or vitamin content, could have made a world of difference. The mode of transmission is equally important too – to have that jingle repeating over an over through a vulnerable person’s earphones could have catastrophic consequences for their health.

The obesity campaign merely stated a fact rather than encourage a potentially dangerous dieting method and Cancer Research UK’s response to the controversy highlights the difficulty involved in creating health campaigns. The campaigns have to be short, snappy and memorable and so there is little room for nuance. A health campaign is by definition a campaign to change the public’s behaviour and so has to be somewhat shocking or motivating. Cancer Research UK’s billboard is nowhere near as graphic as the campaigns which aim to encourage people to stop smoking. Clearly, a balance needs to be struck between a scientific neutral fact and the way that fact will be received in our society. The message of the Cancer Research UK’s campaign has been completely overshadowed by the controversy over its reception. Are we heading for a situation where public health campaigns, fearing a backlash, dilute their message to the point where they are rendered completely ineffective?

Book Review: From Here to Eternity



Book Review: From Here to Eternity, Caitlin Doughty

I was first introduced to Caitlin Doughty by a friend who recommended her YouTube channel Ask A Mortician. Due to experiencing both a bereavement and a personal brush with death within an eighteen-month period, I was paralysed by a fear that something bad would happen to me or someone I cared about. I was anxious that it was negatively influencing how I was living (read: not living) my life. I was pretty sure the last thing I needed was to listen to someone talk about death, but I was quickly proved wrong. I was being incapacitated by a fear of the unknown and it was Caitlin Doughty, with her perfect bangs and cheerfulness (and taxidermy), who opened the door on the world of death literacy. Through her videos, Doughty broke down the stigma around talking about death and gave me a space to confront what was troubling me. Remember, Deathlings, you will die.

It is unorthodox to start a book review, a piece which is by nature about the book you are reading, by talking about yourself. However, I think it highlights the profound effect that Doughty has on the lives of those who follow her. In a Western culture which deems any talk of death a taboo, most of us have become ill-prepared for facing the death of loved ones and ourselves. Doughty’s debut, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, is a moving account of her journey into the funeral business. Her second book, From Here to Eternity, is a global tour of death practices, shedding light on the differences between cultures but also highlighting the universal qualities of mortality and bereavement.

There is always an element of voyeurism to learning about another culture’s rituals, but Doughty is aware of this and approaches each chapter with the sensitivity it deserves. What makes From Here to Eternity stand out from the online listicles and videos on ‘weird death rituals’ is precisely that she does not sensationalise or fetishize these practices. Instead, Doughty takes us on her travels as a guest, grateful and appreciative to be allowed into these private moments. By providing the stories of the people featured within the book, both deceased and living, we are reminded that it is the same deep love and respect for the deceased behind each practice, despite how different they look to each other.

Following suit from her debut, From Here to Eternity does not flinch away from difficult topics, such as the loss of an unborn child. Doughty shares the moving and poignant story of fellow death acceptance activist Sarah Chevez, whose reconnection with her Mexican heritage gave her the space to grieve her loss. From Here to Eternity covers expansive ground, both geographically and thematically, exploring not just the practicalities of different death practices themselves, but the tensions and issues that arise from them. From the contentious relationships between traditional magic and religion to the use of technology to honour the forgotten dead, Doughty provides a comprehensive and nuanced depiction of each culture’s practise. Woven throughout the book is Doughty’s trademark humour. Humour and death may seem like strange bedfellows, but many of these death rituals are times of celebration and gaiety as well as poignancy. What’s more, sharing a chuckle with Doughty felt like a small subversive triumph over death itself; you can’t be afraid of something whilst laughing at it.

From Here to Eternity is also a visually stunning book. Landis Blair’s illustrations capture the beauty of the death traditions. Some are busy scenes of ritual celebration, some are quiet and meditative. I sincerely hope that the frontispiece illustration is available as a print because it is a striking Memento Mori. Not just a traditional ‘remember you will die’ but a ‘remember you can return to the earth. There are options out there aside from those encouraged by the mercenary funeral industry.’ A sentiment which very much encapsulates the message of From Here to Eternity.