Monday, October 24, 2016

Opera in Ireland - lets stop the whinging

I finally snapped after reading the latest whinging letter in the Irish Times today bemoaning the lack of opera in Dublin.  We don't have much opera in Dublin, simply, because audiences do not support what is there.  I'm writing a fuller post, and have sent a letter to the Times, entitled "where has all the opera audience gone?" but here is a quick summary of what the real issues are, and they are not merely funding issues:

1. Audience attendance is middling.  Small productions in small venues sell extremely well, but larger venues such as the Gaiety and Bord Gais Energy Theatre are often spotty and poorly attended.  This goes for both local companies (Lyric, OTC and Wide Open Opera) and visiting companies.  THE BGE resorts to group ticket discounting in order to stem the tide.  The NCH struggles also with both semi staged, concert performances and even recitals of good international artists are poorly - sometimes very poorly - attended.  As a result box office receipts are very poor, a situation exacerbated by low ticket prices relative to international houses in Europe.  We cannot expect the tax payer to take the place of a paying audience.

2. Capital and operational costs are skyrocketing for Dublin based companies due to the sheer cost of doing business in Dublin.  This could be offset by giving performing arts groups similar access to Local Enterprise schemes offering low cost space for start-ups.  More assistance could be made available to performers who are self employed in order to improve what are probably quite modest incomes.

3. A few years ago one of the colleges in Dublin started a course in Operatic Studies despite there being no full time operatic sector in any part of Ireland.  What other discipline would get away with running educational courses for sectors which do not exist in this country?  Students are being effectively educated for export.

4. One of the most frustrating aspects of this debate is its Dublin-centric focus.  Arts funding needs to be shared outside of Dublin and yes, to more "popular" segments that might attract a bigger audience.  It is no surprise that the only viable, feasible sector in Irish opera has been Wexford Festival.  Arts funding is about all of Ireland, not just Dublin, and multiple subsectors and other arts disciplines, not just opera.

5. Other subsectors of classical arts "enjoy" even worse funding than opera: ballet, orchestral and choral groups get no greater share of limited funding, and are often largely self-financed.
Music education outside of the core institutions in Dublin and Cork receive little, if any funding from the state.  Tutors live precarious existences on contracts not dissimilar to "sharing economy" subcontractors: and have done so for decades before Deliveroo or Uber existed.  Audience expansion unfortunately seems to be persistently seen as the job of educators, eliminating a large demographic who are outside of the major cities or are weakly networked.

6. Comparisons to sports are laughable yet persist.  This is a perception particular to Dublin, where sports spectators and participants are more dissociated from classical arts.  (This is not the case outside of Dublin: spectators of Munster rugby enjoy choruses from opera on the field before games by the Supporters Club Choir, something you would never see in Dublin).  Even the risible attendances at FAI league of Ireland games often far exceed attendances at classical music events.  Sports has its own issues which it does not demand the taxpayer bankroll when attendances are poor.

7. And finally, audience management is absolutely risible.  Aside from well managed events such as the festivals in Wexford and Kilkenny, there seems little effort to get paying customers into auditoriums.  Ticket prices have been largely static for many years, yet a huge proportion of, for example, NCH RTE NSO subscription concert audiences are now increasingly recipients of the thick bundle of complimentary tickets distributed shamefully at a huge stand in the foyer of the NCH.  This is a disgrace, given the already heavy subsidy of the RTE orchestral groups by license fees and other RTE activities.

Frankly, the current whine of "not enough opera" (which really translates as "not enough money for opera") doesn't grasp fundamental issues about audience support in Dublin (and Ireland: Ireland is NOT just Dublin - this is a national issue).  It is not propelling the issue forward, and like a lot of "give me back my sweeties" simply demands a return to Celtic tiger style profligate spending without dealing with core underlying systems problems.   I will personally buy an annual Phoenix subscription to any of the letter writers who wish to contact me at where they can read all of the criticisms of the "Bernadette Gravytrain", John O Connor's embarrassing abuse of public funding at the RIAM and Opera Ireland's sheer waste.  If classical arts in Ireland are to thrive, they will only do so through a combination of organic growth and grassroots promotion.  We can't just demand money to throw on half-empty auditoria, not now.

Monday, October 03, 2016

The Etiquette of "Ghosting": couldn't we all just, well, talk?

I am increasingly finally hearing a word for the phenomena that has existed online since I started using tinernet in 1994: "ghosting."  This is where you enthusiastically communicate with somebody online (it used to be IRC or various chat services, now its mostly social media) then quite suddenly they disappear.  You are unfollowed, defriended, maybe blocked, phone calls unanswered (or changing numbers).  The person literally "disappears".  Congratulations, you've been "ghosted."

That said, with an increasing number of people multi-purposing their social media accounts for business purposes, boundaries often get blurred.  A few incidents highlight the problem of using social media for many different purposes, and especially using the same account.  One acquaintance, a slightly controversial writer and relative of somebody who has recently been subjected to some of the worst online abuse I've ever seen, disappeared off social media for quite some time after finally giving up on the snideness.  Since we'd never actually met, I didn't have a direct contact, though I'm still in touch with her amazingly resilient relation.  Though not true "ghosting" as the Americans call it, her disappearance left a gap in the lives she touched online.  I was delighted when she eventually appeared again, it showed that it is actually possible to miss folk whose presence in your life is largely or entirely mediated by technology.

Another friend, whom I have had the odd pint in London when over, has been through a few dreadful years over an online abuse case she lost, which though not as obvious as the cases of some of the other celebrity abusers, makes you wonder who was really wronged.  Either way, the interpretation of the law in England comes down viciously on the side of the accusers, and appears to disregard physical distance when considering online abuse.  This has created a dangerous precedent of many folk being charged for making threats verbally in online recorded forms, or even, in the case of my friend, repeatedly referencing somebody who didn't want to hear from her and equating it with physical stalking.  This has created a dangerously manipulable online ecology where abuse is in the eye of the beholder: powerful interests can seek to silence criticisms as "abusive" through accusations of online abuse.  The impact on her life has been truly dreadful, far worse than somebody criticising a book or theory could ever be.

Then I was rather saddened to find that a couple of folk I regarded as distant friends, but friends nonetheless, having met a couple of times, just randomly defriended me, leaving an awkward trail of connections through other services, which was actually quite difficult to know what to do about.  There is a certain etiquette about social media defriending I find, that depends on really what the offline nature is.  If its somebody you've never met in your life, and to whom there is no real connection, well then its fine to disconnect, but selectively doing so on just one service while leaving them connected on others?  The message this sends is ill-considered, to say the least, and probably says much more about those carrying out the actions.  So you took the trouble to drag through your friend list and "punish" your acquaintance by defriending?  But you think you are still being "nice" by neither blocking them, and staying connected elsewhere?  Or is that simply a provocation to "prove" how dreadful they are by hoping they'll retaliate by blocking you?  Or have you not really thought it through, and just forgotten?  Given that social media is, well, social - couldn't you just, well, talk?

Thoughts on OTC's Don Giovanni...

Firstly, a lot of publicity went into Roddy Doyle doing the libretto for the translation for this.  I'm not sure how exactly this worked: I don't know if Doyle is a fluent Italian speaker, and I'm sure there's already numerous English variants around for the likes of ENO and smaller English houses.  (OTC have in the past worked with small English festivals with similar interests sharing resources).  This added a level of expectation around the production itself, inevitable, since Doyle largely writes not merely about Dublin, but a north side working class Dublin which itself is established enough to have many stereotypical tropes.

Secondly - and I think this was key - the production was placed in the Dublin Theatre Festival which vastly changed the audience.  The Dublin performance were in the Gaiety (much more friendly an opera venue than most).  Cork audiences have even more luck: two performances in the Cork Opera house.  This enables a full orchestra, and OTC have partnered with RTE for use of the Concert orchestra.  This makes a change from the small forces OTC make do with and potential for bigger audiences.

This made this OTC production both unpredictable and tantalising.  OTC was taken over at the top level by Rosemary Collier about 3 years ago (who'd come from a glorious run at Kilkenny Festival) and quickly appointed Fergus Shiel as musical director.  Both were contemporaries of mine at TCD, and I think its fair to say that Shiel in particular was 20 years ahead of the current trend of entrepreneurial musicians: I recall him setting up the TCD Chamber Orchestra to have something to conduct.  His work since then has been eclectic: from Scottish Opera to the Crash Ensemble and many others.  His direction is finely tuned and supportive.  Sometimes I felt tempi were slightly sluggish but on the whole the pace kept up.

Where OTC excelled was in its casting: a gold-plated Donna Elvira from Munich-based Tara Erraught (with chieselingly perfect English diction that meant you didn't need the provided surtitles), Alexander Sprague as Don Ottavio, Máire Flavin’s Donna Anna, and John Molloy's roguish Leporello.  The male chorus at the close was underwhelming: I would have put the men on stage, if only to incite more power against the RTECO force, which was at that point in competition with the small chorus.  The Commendatore also struggled to be heard at this point.
That aside, much of the singing was great.  While its easy to pick out the now very experienced Erraught, the others did a solid job.  What Doyle particularly excelled at was in the recitatives: his sometimes wordy Dublin slang sometimes tripped up in repeated arias, but the recits flowed, despite use of local phraseology such as "kick on the arse", "I'm legging it", "stupid slapper" and "you desperate eejit."  These brought plenty of guffaws from the packed audience, but I was left feeling that Don Giovanni is not a comedy, and Doyle egged it rather a lot this way.  Perhaps that is more the fault of others, but it remains fair to say that worldwide opera goers might not be willing to accept.
The production itself, was, as a result, dictated by the libretto: as it very much relocated the opera to modern urban Dublin, Giovanni effectively became a Dublin "businessman" - or perhaps one of those amorphous figures who uses the term to cover less licit activities.  It wasn't, however, clear what it was Giovanni actually does.  The 2nd Act opened onto a quite clear representation of Glasnevin pub "The Gravediggers", which I presume is supposed to lead into the penultimate scene where the Don is dragged to hell.  In practice it was unclear why exactly we were at the Gravediggers, aside from the plot device of introducing Zerlina and Masetto.

Another plot flaw was that Donna Anna spent most of the opera in a ball gown, for no particular reason.  It was unclear whom her father was, or what role he played, and difficult for an unfamiliar audience to link the Commendatore at the end back to the man shot by Giovanni at the outset.
Another peculiarity was the sleazy backdrop which provided a set and occasionally turned into a nightclub (which was clear).  Yet most of the quasi pornographic imagery was homoerotic and had little to with the lascivious Don's womanising.  This didn't really work.  However, the slightly tarty dress for Donna Elvira did.  It didn't make huge sense that the other women in the opera wore demure ball gowns throughout.  However, these were more plot failures than libretto.
Overall, I do think its the best thing OTC have done for years, albeit from a low bar.  It did show what could be done with a decent budget and more innovative planning from the small company and the potential for audience numbers in the event.

What I did, however, note, was that this is probably the first time in years (if not ever) that I've gone to an opera staging in Ireland that was actually a full house.  I think its fair to say that the demise of the Gaiety as a venue for opera has not been matched by equal numbers at the BGE Theatre (which holds 2.5 times the capacity, but records dismal sales for opera, even for heavily hyped events).  It really does call for planners to look more carefully at where/when they play, and to try to share and reuse existing resources: one of the biggest flaws of OTC in recent years was weak accompaniments, resulting in impoverished representations.  Re-use of orchestras from other organisations can maximise resources from a small cost base to be shared among multiple small companies.  This can, and should include the upper tier of semi-professional and student ensembles.  More careful choices of venues and associations with festivals has definitely been a scoring point in recent years: it was very obvious to me that last nights audience was more of a "theatrical" audience than a classical audience.  While this may cause a loss of a more traditional classical audience, it has worked in this instance.  I definitely think the 800 or so folk who packed the Gaiety solid had a good night out, and this is an achievement that should lead to better things for OTC.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Karma: or the great de-friending of 2008

In 2008, after the 3rd or 4th iteration of a scenario that had plagued me since 1999, I made an executive decision to cut a whole bunch of people out of my life.  Trim the little black book.  Make a harsh cut.
Most had my phone number, but by this point, only 3 of the group called with any great regularity.  Basically, it went right back to my huge drinking binge which started in August 1999 and went on for 8 months.  I collected a bunch of cronies, and hangers-on, and they, well, to use a systems concept, self-organise.

It started with one person who'd actually just done something pretty wrong.  Blocked on MSN messenger, disconnect on Facebook.  And well, it continued from there - I didn't stop, but cut off 2 of the drinking buddies in Dublin who, to cut a long story short, I really felt I had nothing in common with.  Well, it started with one person, and then I realised the other person was her friend really, so she had to go through .... slashed.  Or so I thought . . .

I remember going up to a friends house in Carrigbiste for the weekend to mind her cat, where reception was poor, having cut the chord before leaving the city, but by then at least one had noticed my defriending (HOW!!!? I thought: you've at least 1000+ friends?) and the phone calls started.  One from the original friend who had actually just done something quite, well, unfair, and the other, who had nothing to do with the whole thing (the one with 1000+ friends).  Oh no....

I had missed something that should have been entirely obvious to me: people take these systems very seriously.  Even people you find really annoying.  We all use these things for entirely different reasons, and so the response to a change in circumstances (or the delivery of the snub of de-friending) can be taken very personally, partly because it is impossible to conceal the fact that it is both deliberate and targeted.  If you're going to cut the chord on one, the only diplomatic way to do it is to do it to everyone.  Or at least deliver a proper message with it: not just the passive-aggressive jab of disconnecting on social media.  If this is somebody you actually know outside of the internet, and even if its not, its probably at least common decency to tell them what it is that has driven you to this.  If you are ultimately, being an asshole, well, so that might be, but cutting somebody off while having common friends delivers a massive snub that isn't forgotten, and hurts a lot.

In fact, so much so, that the bad feeling I generated was still in place circa 2011.  I was up in a club night at Powerscourt Centre, and started talking to the group when suddenly I realised the other one I'd defriend was standing up pugliciously and staring at me.  Next thing I knew, I was being snarled at and roared at.  Right she was clearly drunk or off her face, and those who didn't know me were so embarrassed they came up later and apologised.  I knew why, and to be honest, it was really upsetting.

Here's the thing though. To paraphrase Maya Angelou: people don't forget how you made them feel, especially if something you did made them feel awful.  Had I simply allowed all of those dying friendships to slip away into the mists of time, without actually doing anything, it would never have had lasting consequences.  I realise, looking back, that there were things I could have done, circa 2002, to discourage one of their bad habits of simply inviting herself everywhere.  I did the wrong thing by passive-aggressively inviting her along on the basis that she would turn up anyway.  It wasn't kind: it sent a wrong message about how I valued that relationship.  I didn't.

I think now, looking back, you don't really think about these things until after you've done them, and by then, the harm is done.  Its one thing if you've had a major row, or something has happened that means you both need a break, but quite suddenly selectively disconnecting people is cowardly.
So when recently, it happened to me, and I spotted it straight away, I realised how bewildered my former "friends" might have felt, and how hurt they probably were.  No wonder the anger was palpable 3 years later: they hadn't done anything, didn't know that, and had no way of knowing that.  Looking back, was it blame?  Yes.  Was it targeted insult?  Yes.  Was I wrong?  Probably.  I should never have allowed them to get so close in the first place.  I didn't draw appropriate boundaries, and inevitably, they broached every one.  Was that my fault?  Partly, yes.

We live in deeply tribal worlds, and social media is very much part of the "real world."  It is not a virtual world where people can be adopted and dropped like a Tamogochi.  They will be just as hurt as they would be if you snubbed them in person, if not more.  The answer, to be honest, is to layer your social media in such a way that you don't end up with no "inner circle" which is limited to people you really do want in your life.  If you don't do that, then you end up deserving the flood of lunacy that social media will inflict on you.

Most importantly, remember that the most important feature of social media is communication: if you are linked to somebody on a network, and you cannot be open with them about something you found offensive, then why are you linked on that network at all?

People do turn up again.  The world is a much smaller place now, and actions like this have palpable consequences.  I find myself avoiding certain places like the plague: for example I totally dropped out of Running Amach after my former cronies all joined en masse.  I was really annoyed but to be honest, I brought that on myself.  If you are going to dump an individual or group socially you better be willing to deal with running into them again later on.  Also, I should have massively turned down the volume on the pair of them on Facebook.  By going to the trouble of wading through my Friends list, and picking them out for defriending, I implied they had done something to derserve that, when really, they had not.  That I found myself still paying for that, 3 years later, in retrospect, is not surprising.

That's why I suggest being vigilant before you let people get too close.  I have a simple rule with Facebook: no friends you wouldn't give your mobile phone number to.  If you don't know them personally, let them at least be a friend of an existing friend, or somebody you've engaged with extensively on other networks.  Or maybe a former classmate or someone you've a big shared interest with.  These often turn out to become great friends.  But don't think that you can quietly turn off the link without somebody becoming upset about it.  They will be deeply, bitterly hurt, and possibly quite angry and offended.  If its just irritation or awkwardness, like my situation, its up to you to establish why you're cutting the cord.  But don't do so unless you are prepared to deal with the consequences, because there are good odds consequences there will be, even if you are fortunate enough to be banishing somebody mature and understanding.  I do believe there is such a thing as karma, and brutality you deliver, always comes back your way and "virtual" does not mean "free of malice".

And you know, looking back, was I right or wrong?  I don't know.  They tolerated a fair bit of angry drunkeness over the years.  They tolerated breakups, partners who wouldn't let me talk to them, mutual friends who then fell out with everyone.  I wasn't exactly a great friend myself.  They tolerated me, and I rejected them.  Then I rubbed salt in the wound by picking them off my social media lists.

Its no wonder then, I got that earful of abuse in 2011, and for this I still pay a price.  I left Running Amach the moment I spotted they'd all joined, en masse.  I couldn't go out for fear of them all turning up and things turning ugly after a lot of alcohol.  A couple of years ago I went out to a pride event and spent the whole night bypassing the corner where I'd spotted some of them.
I realise that while there was a need for a hiatus in the network of relationships, I effectively inflicted blame on them on a set of patterns and scenarios I'd effectively allowed to centre around myself.  I still pay for that now: these days I just go out with a couple of people I know and trust well.  My peace of mind was achieved but it came at a cost.

So next time you feel your temper and patience fraying, and your forefinger hovering over the block or disconnect button, think again.  If you are on Twitter, you can mute the person.  If its Facebook, unfollow them first, place them in the "Restricted Friends" group if they really bother you, only sever a relationship if it genuinely is a problem, if they are  really genuinely harrassing you.

Liking your posts, by the way, isn't harrassment.  Posting annoying little amorous messages, as I recently had from an online contact, is annoying, but ultimately harmless.  (Attempting to invite themselves over to stay with me was starting to push a boundary but straddling it. Its not a crime to like somebody a bit too much.)  If you've any kind of public profile, either realise you're going to be inundated with people liking you, and have a proper strategy for that.  Don't fall into the trap of allowing your personal account to merge with your professional online presence.  What you say WILL drift off into the world.  Your every gripe might as well be public announcement.  It might be time to get your agent to setup a website and a Facebook group for yourself.  (If you do this, after having several 1000 anonymous "friends" announce you are splitting off your account by the way - PantiBliss did this beautifully on Facebook a few years back.  He simply explained that he had hit the 5000 friend limit and was moving to a page, so don't be offended.  It worked).

Now don't get me wrong.  A periodic cull isn't a bad thing.  But if you've been interacting with somebody for 4 or 5 years, you'll hurt their feelings.  Be careful how you do these things, because, there is such a thing as karma, and as they say, what goes around comes around.

Friday, December 11, 2015

I'm fine, and you are too

Just a quick note to everybody who actually bothers reading this (thank you for your time and attention, whoever you are), that I'm ok.  My social media hiatus is now on it's 8th day, and frankly, I'm keeping it going for at least another week, if not longer and probably will entirely change how I use social media after that, when I do return.

I realise two things:
1) An awful lot of people linger under the false notion that what happens online is not "real" and therefore inconsequential.  No matter how much you understand this is not the case, it is still possible to fall into the trap of forgetting that well, there is no hiding online and increasingly less room for ambiguity.  This colours an awful lot of what goes on via social media, especially in a world where a lot of folk still linger under the illusion that they can "manage" their own self-image online towards others.
2) Otherwise there is a hell of a lot going on in our heads that is just in our heads.  We are incapable of reading each others minds, detecting agendas, rationales, etc.  We tell ourselves stories to suit our identities, beliefs and desires.  This often conflicts with the stories others, similarly, compose for themsevles.  This leads to a lot of misunderstanding and unecessary conflict.

A lot of what I'm working on at the moment is about item 2.  (Honestly, I'm not in trouble or anything, something seemingly very small happened online that triggered very deep hurt.  That's all I'm going to say about it).  Its requiring a lot of silence of different kinds, and a lot of reflective space.  I will be back soon, I promise, and will be dropping the odd blogpost to remind you that yes - I'm fine!

Monday, December 07, 2015

My advice to my 27-year old self

1. Don't overcommit - there is a limited number of hours per week.  Some of those jobs you are committed to are not as committed to you as you are to them.  (Remember Wexford?)
2. Give up smoking - now.  You'll save a fortune in time, money and feel a lot better.  Its going to get a lot worse as you get older.
3. Lose weight. You'll enjoy the health benefits and that look of disgust you see on some people's faces will disappear.  Start exercising now.
4. Those "friends" you drink with - only two of them are true friends.  This will become evident very quickly.  You're spending an awful lot of time on people who do not care about you, though you might thinkg you do.
5. Don't throw away your values or family for empty promises: they don't materialise or run when things get tough
6. Don't be mean.  Don't make explicit or implicit promises you won't keep and don't lead people to think otherwise for the excitement of a brief affair.  Its not fair.
7. Never, ever compromise on giving away your time or company to anybody who doesn't reciprocate.  Those people who you regard as losers but feel bad about looking down on: don't buy into the guilt-trip of faux compassion.  They will bleed you dry and leave you with nothing if you let them.  Don't hang around people you don't like out of guilt.  Don't feel compelled to inherit everybody elses annoying drinking buddies.  Anybody who forces you to do so is not your friend.
8. Cut your drinking.  It often ruins a good night and you feel the pain the next day.  Learn to stop drunk texting and don't say mean stuff you regret later.  Don't brag about your exploits.
9. If you feel unhappy or uncomfortable, never apologise for slipping away.  If you feel angry or hurt, turn off the phone and start walking home.
10. You're going to learn that music isn't everything, but neither is money, status or having a lifestyle.  Grab every chance you have to learn: there is going to be a lot.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Banishing the Shame paradigm, the orthorexia myth and rewarding exercise

The Orthorexia Myth & Paradigms of Shame in Popular Health Culture

There is something I want to get off my chest.  No really.  Too often, when you talk about food, dieting, obesity, etc., the conversation is too frequently being shut down with catcalls of "food fads", "over restriction" and obsessive eating.  I have many friends who are vegan.  I've been out to dinner in public with them and noticed how difficult it is for them, and to be honest, way beyond what its like for me as a meat-eating low-carber.  Yet nobody, nobody ever describes a vegetarian as faddish or orthorexic.
Last week I booked myself onto my first ever IT roadshow.  It’s a hybrid cloud development multiday event for professionals.  It will be, unfortunately, probably dominated by largely male developers, designers and founders.  Food is provided and they kindly have a checklist of dietary needs.  Everything is there: gluten free, vegan, even kosher.  There were 8 categories, mostly dominated by religious affiliations and a welcome nod to gluten intolerant attendees.  But not 1, not a single category suggested catering for reduced calorie, never mind paleo, low carb never mind, orore!, ketogenic.  No.....because ANY kind of non-religious or non-disease related caloric or food group restriction is "faddish", and thus "shameful."

The Shame Paradigm

We keep hearing about projections of "body shame."  We make women feel "guilty" about not having perfect bodies, alongside older people, trans folk, people of colour and those with disabilities.  But god forbid an obese person dares to try to change anything, suddenly they belong to a whole new wall of shame: the dieter.  A few years ago I heard a fancy pant restaurant owner raging about being asked to put nutritional details on his menu.  You'd think he'd been asked to print his menu in blood and print a photo of his bare arse on the front, such was his ire.  Yet McDonald's, who clearly don't worry all that much really about general health, have no problem sticking detailed calorie counts on menus (and very detailed information on local websites).  The message was clear: catering for what Delia Smith delightfully describes in her 1980s cookery classics as "slimmers" is as shameful as actually being one of that shame-ridden group.
Like the lady (alcoholic & overweight) who tried to tell me 10 years ago that I couldn't "deny" myself with the fairly straightforward and not overly restrictive diet I led at the time (basically low to moderate carb, high protein and low fat - on which I lost about 70 pounds and kept it off), many of the origins of these missives are themselves either failed cyclical dieters or those gifted with metabolisms of stern stuff who never had to bother.  Imagine telling an alcoholic that they are "denying" themselves by not drinking?  Or maybe the recovered heroin addict?  For some stuff there is no such thing as moderation – it’s a slippery slope.  If you are an ex-smoker you'll know this: you either do it or you don’t.  And if you go back, it’s not for one sneaky fag a day, it’s like you never stopped.
So I understand when somebody like Jimmy Moore talks about being entirely unable to tolerate carbs because he ate an entire lifetime consumption of the entire carb group before he was 32.  I understand when somebody says X or Y diet didn't work for them.  Low calorie/low fat doesn't work for me.  I simply cannot get my protein low enough to get keto to work.  But I do very well on Dr Maurice Le Roque's Motivation diet or Tim Ferris' Slow carb.  I think it’s perfectly ok that Moore has to eat a particular way, just as I do, or just as some other combo might work for somebody else.  That’s fine. We are all different. Shoehorning us into methods that are unsuitable will unsurprisingly, have poor results.  There is no "fixing" the person who has a low sensitivity to sugar or wheat based products.  Just let them eat differently.  The problem is that we increasingly have added very high protein intakes to diets that suited people who were largely dependent on very different foodstuffs.  Then we added horrendous processing.
Just today I read the label on a product I've loved for years: surimi.  This is basically processed Pollock, with added starch to make sticks.  Now granted I had a very low quality product from Lidl (and for all the praise you can give Lidl, some of their produce is truly AWFUL).  I was quite shocked to realise its huge carbohydrate content, and resolved not to eat it, at least not the Lidl version. This is the problem of misleading labelling, a problem which impacts everybody. I would regard my resolve as prudent, but I am aware that some folk would describe my decision as obsessive.

To be honest, I'm not great at control. I struggle to get out of bed in the morning. I struggle to keep running when I'm out running and have to will myself back into a pace. I cave in easily in the presence of cake, dark chocolate, or shortcake biscuits. I'm not food superheroine. I try to practice mindfulness, gratitude and tolerance, but I often fail. At the same time, I realize that it is all too easy to write something off as too hard, or not worth the effort.
That's the way I was 14 years ago, just as my life fell apart in my hands. I'd made a few decisions and a commitment to a relationship, that turned out not merely damaging, but truly personally destructive. It took a lot to rebuild a life after all that, not least in losing face, something which I had to grit my teeth through. Tell me all about shame because I know it, I did and said things that were wrong, made dumb decisions that turned bad situation into bigger messes, fell into the trap of blaming others and the environment. Digging myself out was hard. Facing the demons was harder.
In December 2011 I remember going to an NHS clinic for one of my several times a year asthma induced chest infections. They weighed me and tested my blood pressure. At just 29 I had high blood pressure and was 3 stone overweight. My BMI was well into the obese range. Within 2 years I'd go from 33 on BMI to 38, which was within sight of morbid obesity and all the inherent health problems.
Now in that 2 years I'd left the emotionally abusive relationship I was in, moved back to Ireland, moved to Cork for perm job in a company I was mostly happy in. I do think, regardless of what your state of health or other situation is, if you are in an abusive relationship, even if it's not physically violent, you've got to make it your number 1 to extricate yourself from that relationship and out yourself out of reach of going back. That's why I moved to Cork. For reasons I've long since forgotten, I knew it was one of 2 places my ex wouldn't follow. There are lots of services for domestic violence but really not much for men or gay women leaving female abusers. That's another story, however. You just have to find it in yourself to stop listening to them and listen to yourself. You deserve more. I had bigger things to deal with and my weight continued to drift up.
Thing is, we are bombarded with so many contradictions when it comes to guilt and shame, especially around the body and health, because health is related to consumption.  Even exercise has a consumption element – my local shopping centre has no fewer than 3 large sports and leisurewear stores and 2 more big stores with large stocks of sports clothing.  Now a lot of it is drawn around what is perceived to be healthy and unhealthy habits.  Much of it justified because if you do stuff that's wrong it's correct to feel bad about it, that's why we feel awful even if we inadvertently cause offence or harm in interpersonal relationships (though, interestingly, in the world of work it appears to be a “good” thing to say things that would be considered unacceptable interpersonally). This is where my feelings about the current anti shaming campaigns bristle. If you hurt another person it's only right to be ashamed. If you damage or destroy other people or their possessions, or damage a thing others depend on it's not wrong to feel guilty. Reparations are a healthy, good thing, even if they seem superficial.
I do agree, however, that's it's bad to comment on other people's bodies, food choices or exercise habits, but that's pain rudeness and intrusion, not an attempt to create a culture of shame. Describing it as shameful may be closing down a badly needed debate about misinformation around diet, nutrition and exercise, and creates false dichotomies between well intentioned folk on both sides, between which suffering people are stuck. The misinformation in itself hurts so many people, especially describing perfectly good lifestyle changes as "fads" with demonization of last ditch strategies such as elimination of problematic food groups. This actually creates even more guilt and shame around desperate attempt to stabilise weight among people who really need it.
One of the hardest things, for example, is the pressure to drink alcohol. Anybody who has had any degree of success from low carb approaches will find a special level of vitriol if they live in a country where social drinking is the norm. People sometimes assume you're a recurring alcoholic rather than accept that you don't drink for any other reason. I've had some teetotal friends down through the years who had a lot of questions about their masculinity because they didn't drink. This should be respected as a choice, whether it's for health reasons or any reason.  Likewise, the obsession about carb restriction: avoid bread, potato, pasta and rice as well as alcohol and you’ll be a pariah.  The anti-gluten movement within the paleo community hasn’t been helpful here, as a lot of people think it’s a wrong self-diagnosis of gluten intolerance rather than other aspects of wheat that might be problematic for some.  I even found myself lectured (well-intentioned no doubt) by a nutritionist who told me that weight lost through carb restriction was just “liquid weight.”  This I doubt: I suspect the reason that carb restriction works so well is because it removes you entirely from the traditional menu and forces you to build up meals from scratch while simultaneously removing a group that tends to be more calorific than protein.  Fat, for example, while high in some foods, is often the main constituent of certain ingredients (such as olive oil or butter) so unless you have an insane palate you won’t simply base your diet around tablespoons of MCT oil.  Unless you have a diet based on cheese it’s likely that you’ll find it easier to restrict fat.  Furthermore, there is a correct assumption in the perception that many “diet” versions of popular dishes and products simply replaced fat with carbohydrate or sugar, thus offsetting one kind of food type with another.
There is a case to be made, also, in metabolic syndrome, so-called “pre diabetes”.  I do hear anecdotes of those who swear, like myself, that the only successful way to lose weight and maintain that loss is through restriction of carbohydrates.  The only question for me is not whether it works: it absolutely seems to be the best way for me personally, whether or not accompanied by high protein or high fat variants, the only question is how much I need to restrict.  While experimenting with ketogenic (high fat, very low carb) I did test for breath and urine ketones, and on the whole struggled to get above 40%, which is poor.  I admit I probably still habitually eat too high a protein level.  However, I also run about 30km a week, which requires a fair amount of energy, and I think that may be a factor as glycogenic stores deplete quickly on enduring runs.

Shame & the Dieter

It's implicit that dieting is in itself a shameful activity. Food restriction is perceived as giving in to societal pressures, rather than real efforts to reject the awful norms of the standard western diet. Even efforts from ostensibly ethical food producers are criticised for pandering to guilt and shame, and usual complaints about the horrible gendering despite the fact that so much food information caters badly for anybody not male and 5 foot 10 with a strong metabolism.  For example, check the “Safe Food” website run by the Irish government and try to figure out what calorific count is right for you.  If you can’t, don’t feel foolish, for years I had no idea what I required, in fact until this year I only recorded my food intake on paper without working out the nutritional content.  It took the advent of smartwear and a boom in related applications to realise that I really only needed 1400 calories a day on sedentary days – a frightening though when the “recommended” intake is 2000 a day.  On the basis that it takes an additional 3000 calories to gain 1 pound, for somebody like me who averages around 122 pounds, the kinds of weight swing I saw in the past were unsurprising.  If I consumed just an additional 300 calories per day, that would add 1 pound every 10 days or 30 pounds a year!  That explains how my weight easily ballooned up to 12 stone – all I had to do was eat “normally” and within 5 months I’d be there.  Within a year I’d be a frightening 15 stone.
Bear in mind that most restaurants, canteens, packaged processed foods, all base their calorific needs on this ideal of 2000 calories per day, and that’s before snacking, and other poor habits.
A lot of folk have made a lot of progress adopting low carb/high protein or low carb/high fat approaches. These include a lot of people who suffered for years as I did, with a rake of health problems, who never even did anything about them because they were "normal." Tell anybody you eat this way and you'll be barraged with accusations of faddism, shame, unhealthy restriction and the latest imaginary mental condition of orthorexia. This is basically a suggestion that highly disciplined dieters are suffering from an eating disorder.
Ok, if you cannot bear a lack of control around food and/or exercise to the point of obsession I don't deny it’s not a problem, but we already have diagnoses such as OCD for these conditions. We don't need to start labelling folk who work hard to get their diets and exercises right any more than the existing stigma that exists around food and exercise.
The core issue is the obsession with stigmatizing everything outside of the perceived norm, even though there are patently huge problems with that norm. Western countries are on roller coaster rides to huge levels of obesity, with English speaking countries leading the way. So why the denial, and obsession with marginalizing those who try to fix the problem?
It's tied into the fact that much of the biggest efforts come from women, who are hit hardest by bad dietary advice and a sporting culture from childhood that excludes many girls and women from participation.  The worst thing we can do is to keep creating imaginary mental health conditions for folk who are doing nothing more than trying to improve their own lives. We need to start supporting those who cannot follow typical lifestyles instead of stigmatizing their efforts. If standard advice doesn't work for some at least assist people with proper monitoring systems to check things are ok.
In 2004 I found a diet (low carb, high protein, which I cycle now with ketogenic to ease my liver) and exercise regime (alternating cardio/running and weights/bodyweight) that works for me. For most of the past 11 years I've kept most of the 5 stone I lost off, in the last year slightly more. Eating out can be difficult: there is a real resistance to catering for even reduced calorie diets, as I mentioned in the opening paragraphs. How can it be that we continue to ignore the needs of a huge number with weight problems?
Then there is the exercise problem. Many schools in Ireland offer only GAA sports or other team games to students. GAA is notorious for gender elitism, the men's game enjoying massive support and funding while the women's games are relegated to second fiddle. That doesn't even tackle the problem of individual exclusion or the horrible culture of social privilege afforded to GAA players off the field (even poor performers!)  One of the biggest problems I've seen with well intentioned "team building" efforts at corporate level is they really privilege fit young men who are used to team sports, perpetuating already discriminatory structures.  In fact, one thing I ask now in interviews is if there is a soccer team.  It gets me strange looks, but what it often indicates is that there is a boy’s club culture in the workplace where men bond at football after hours, excluding women and non-conforming men.   In contrast, if the favoured sport is running, Pilates or tag rugby, it means there are deliberate efforts not to exclude women from extra-curricular activities.  This often indicates a more inclusive workplace.

In Defence of Willpower, cooking and shopping

Attacking individual discipline is deeply misplaced in environments where other structural problems do far more harm.  Resisting temptation is increasingly difficult in a consumer society where choices for commodities like food tend to place poorer quality of food at cheaper prices, even more, than, for example, entirely unprocessed items like fruit and vegetables or raw meat, fish and poultry.  At the height of my impoverishment in 2001, I recall being down to being unable to afford more than 2 meals a day, and at one stage, that meant an evening meal of a half tin of baked beans or Tesco tinned baby potatoes.  These cost a mere 10p and could be heated on the hob.  Of course, I couldn’t cook at all – I only learned to cook in Cork the following year thanks to the English market and the example of who not only largely taught me how to eat by example, but very thoughtfully fed me regularly while I was getting back on my feet.

Also there was a friend whose floor I crashed on in London, who taught me, literally, how to shop.  This turned out to be a useful skill when I moved to Cork, because I could pick out fresh meat and produce from the market, and then whatever additional items I needed from the city supermarkets.  Being able to walk to all of the major players in the city was great, although I do remember once putting my bag on the side of Brian Boru bridge and losing my shopping into the Lee with the next gust of wind!  It helped me a lot when myself and the ex went on the successful diets a couple of years later.  By then we were living in Midleton, which really is Foodie paradise, with Darina Allen’s legendary weekend Farmers Market, and a range of wonderful food shops, including a good fishmonger (Ballycotton Seafood).  We experimented with every vegetable and fruit we could find in Lidl and Aldi, as well as local grocers.  I’d never cooked aubergine, butternut squash or done much with a courgette aside from sauté in butter.

It seems incredible, in an age of endless TV programmes about food, and books galore, that so many people are nutritionally ignorant, unable to cook, or both.  I have a sibling who “doesn’t believe” in cooking and lives entirely off M&S convenience foods.  (In all honesty, M&S have always been one of the better players in the healthy convenience market, but at a price).


The second issue is that of exercise.  As Krista Scott-Dixon in her wonderful website has long since lamented, the discouragement shown towards women interested in strength training is one problem.  The second problem, as others have occasionally pointed out, is the societal perception of women as delicate flowers who shouldn’t do anything “too strenuous” which appears to include doing anything at all.  I’m frequently berated by family members for “doing too much.”  (I work out at most, 6 hours a week).  I work over a “Curves” gym which is an education.  Sometimes while walking past I glimpse older women barely moving at all.  Yet it’s always busy.  In fairness, most of the regulars seem trim enough but I suspect it attracts a clientele who don’t fundamentally have difficulty with eating and weight control.

Those worried about post partum exercise or exercising while pregnant should read Ruth Field, the hilarious “Grit Doctor” and author of several books including “Run Fat Bitch, Run”.  While I don’t agree with everything Field says, she does boil down the situation to two things: you either do something about your situation, or you don’t.  Her motivation is largely based on reverse psychology which may suit some of the more, well, hesitant.  Running, is, of course, a good start for some.  It’s free and just requires a pair of runners and an open road.  For me, in 2004, unfortunately, that wasn’t enough – I was simply too overweight to even run for more than a minute.  I used to sneak into the work gym at 1am on night shifts and could only run for 1 minute at first, on a pace as slow as 4km per hour.  In fact, my total workout was just 10 minutes, 3-4 times a week.  With this and the simple food plan, I knocked off 2 stone in 3 months.

It seems heart-breaking to me now that I would only crawl into the gym when I was sure nobody was looking, and I didn’t have a gym induction because I was afraid of what an instructor would think of somebody as FAT as me going there.  I had tried walking but after a few weeks of walking up to one hour a day and seeing no results I called it quits and snook into the gym.  It was terrifying.  We had really good equipment and intuitive too, so I was able to do something straight away.  A lot of people are cynical about weights machines but honestly, they stop you hurting yourself.  What scares me now was that I think I was actually more embarrassed to be a fat person in the gym or on a diet than I was about being overweight per se.

It also strikes me that of the 4 or 5 doctors I saw regularly thanks to my avalanche of chest infections from 2001 to 2005 (they tapered rapidly as I got fitter) none explicitly told me to lose weight, nevermind how, suggested exercise, or suggested anything that would have helped.  My mother, a diabetic, sees a dietician once a year, who for only the first time in about 10 years has started to come out in favour of cutting sugar and carbohydrate levels.  This proves an enabling system for those who want to blame societal finger pointing and mockery of the obese as well as the shamed overweight folk who really just don’t know what to do.

Where to?

Sadly, I don’t think this is ending with a happy ending.  As I write this, the South African high fat, low carb advocate Dr Tim Noakes is facing an unprofessional conduct hearing in South Africa, for giving unconventional breast feeding advice over social media.  I repeatedly find that much of the shame and blame advocates who attack non traditional diet and exercise advice as faddish are pretty bolshy about unconventional practitioners such as Noakes, Westman, the late Robert Aktins and others.  There is almost a determination to discredit them, even for small items.  Yet as I pointed out above, average GPs are allowed to ignore dreadful weight related conditions like mine and get away with it.  (In fairness, the one exception was my late GP from home, Michael Cox, who used to repeatedly lecture me and the rest of the family to “keep the weight down.”)  Instead of trying to justify bad eating, lack of exercise and demonising “body shame” while vilifying those who try to help themselves as fanatics, fad dieters and “orthorexic” obsessives we need a culture of reassurance and support, one where those who fail and helped up to try again.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Clothing does not the woman maketh

 "Perfect body" - you're kidding me, right?  I flicked through the news item about a petition "forcing" Victorias Secret to modify an ad campaign with a sense of bemusement.  For a start I don't know this retailer at all.  I don't visit underwear retailer quite simply because I feel, well, I'm not exactly their target market.  M&S will do for me.  Or Debenhams underwear dept, maybe.  But something makes me feel "unwelcome" in the likes of VS and its far preceded this AD campaign.

Not that I really have a case to answer for.  I'm probably thinner now than I have been for 28 years.  I weight in at about 9 stone (and I should ad, have probably been around this weight for about half of the last decade).  I'm only 5 foot so that's about exactly right for my height, but thin - well, you know, as I've discovered after nearly 9 years of successful if what some would regard as extreme eating and exercise regimes, well actually I'm not a perfect shape.  I have a middle that is perfectly , well, middle aged, no matter what I do.  I've figured that, yes, I could continue on a relentless mission to reduce my unflaggingly resistant beer gut to nothing, but by which stage I'd probably have to be about 7.5 stone and a size 2 if not zero.  Given that I already have a problem with finding a wristwatch petite enough for my slim wrists, I'd probably be skin and bone by that point.  So while yes, I still work out every day if possible, and very carefully manage my diet on a rigorously low-carb base, I'm not actually trying to lose any more weight, just maintain it.

Anyway this isn't about me, its about you.  Its about all of us.  This obsessive overemphasis on body image doesn't just hurt people who are genuinely overweight, or underweight, or suffering from an eating disorder: it hurts all of us.  It hits our perception of ourselves and others.  It creates unfair distinctions between those who can and cannot attain certain sizes, without any regard to the fact that those shapes are merely the arbitrary result of nature.  It doesn't take into account the shifts and changes an average person experiences over a lifetime, nor does it take into account normal occurrences such as illness, childbirth, poverty or genetics.  It rewards somebody solely on the grounds of having a certain kind of genetic makeup, while punishing somebody who doesn't.

Yet we routinely buy into a whole subculture of fashion, media and society simply on the grounds of this.  We don't really question it, and what is worse that instead of correctly simply ignoring it, we actually reinforce the damage by ridiculing and degrading those who do meet the stringent criteria of this unfair judgment set, instead of elevating those beneath (references to "stick insects" and various other barely-hidden misogynist comments are rife).  It comes through every walk of life, even including areas previously assumed to be immune (the now notorious "Octaviangate" scandal where 5 male critics lacerated an operatic performance by a young artist simply because she didn't meet their psychical criteria).

The reality though, is that we still shop in the very same stores that promote exactly this culture, we still buy the magazines they advertise in, and we often make choices on a day-to-day basic, often unconsciously, that reinforce the very system that hurts most of us.  Why?

One thing I've persistently complained about in the last couple of years is the infantilizing setting in which women's fashion is sold: the blaring teenage pop music, the uncomfortably awkward displays complete with plenty of unreachable rails designed to humiliate anybody under 5'4", the overwhelming overemphasis on sizes for so-called "adults" that are "normal"  only for 12 year old girls.  You are infantilised in so many ways: from unrealistically tiny sizing, from the music and lack of service, from the humiliating communal changing rooms to designs that only flatter a (very thin) 12 year old teenage body.  And yet 95% of women's fashion is STILL sold in exactly this way.

This doesn't even take into account the near slave trade which exists around manufacturing.  The Bangladesh Accord is a great starting place because it explicitly shows you gaping holes where manufacturers choose local, ethical manufacturing rather than sweatshop offshore labour (note the entire absence of Portugal, and the very few Italian designers for example).  It is laughable that what is supposed to be a signatory of a more ethical system is in fact almost a calling card for those accused of exploiting cheap labour the most.  (Which incidentally, isn't unique to manufacturing: IT service providers just LOVE countries without labour standards so they can deny workers breaks, leave of absence, sick pay, holiday pay and cut wages by around 80-90%).  While it is excellent to move as much work as possible into the developing world, it is of little value if it is merely a cynical attempt to undercut workers rights and exploit lower living standards merely to increase net profit margins.

I had a discussion recently on Twitter where I was expounding my desire for a fashion shopping experience based on the more "adult" male experience where shops have a quiet, adult like ambiance and customers are treated as such.  A contact suggested what she described as a "radical" proposal which, when you think about it, sums up the problem: why don't we have female dress sizes that actually reflect female body sizes?  I mean, male clothing sizes take several things into account: waist size, height, chest size and neck size.  Incredibly, men even sometimes have the luxury of being able to select multiple sleeve lengths, as if (laughably) women somehow all have identical length arms.  In contrast, unless you are buying a bra, chest size is basically assumed to be the same in all female sizes, your waistline and hips are also assumed to be similarly proportionate, which incidentally doesn't even take into account height, which often means that if like me, you're short, means that you end up buying a shirt 2 sizes bigger than your shoulder size in order to fit the waist and hips, which fall in the wrong places.

I buy my clothes at a variety of different retailers, mostly mid range ones, in an effort to find a balance between my day to day clothing needs and the sizes and pricing available to me.  It was an extremely depressing experience when I was (very) overweight as the vast majority of retailers just had nothing for me at all.  My purchases were for a few years basically dictated by the very limited choice available, not what I would have liked.  Now that's different, with a bigger disposable income and a small size, I find most retailers have something to offer.  However I still find a lot of them simply pointless.

Thing is, right, even though I'm now a lithe size 8 in trousers mostly my bloomin beer gut means I need a size 12 in a shirt, and sometimes bigger.  Problem is, (thanks to lots of press ups and lateral pull downs), I've very well toned shoulders and upper body, so shirts in standard sizes just don't fit.  Next are good for this, as are Zara (who I suspect cater better for the shorter woman even in their standard ranges).  So I find that even in Mango, I could be wearing any size from Small/8 to large/14, which is annoying.

H&M are another culprit of the cult of "normal sized equals FAT" disease.  Try going in there at any size over a slim built, tall 10 and you won't find anything at all.  I was at the size 8 before I was able to find a single item to buy in this store.  In retrospect I question why I persisted.  If a shop isn't going to cater for me, why should I even WANT to spend my hard earned cash there?  What is wrong with us that we get angry about persistent displays of impossibly emaciated physiques but still want to consume their wares?  Why do we simply not walk straight to the next store and buy there?

A big part of the problem is the lack of choice.  Sure, you can skip the vile Abercrombie & Fitch, but most people who do so simply end up walking into a store with a less aggressive sizist stance, but the same absence of service for anybody over a size 10.  You go home then with magazines and newspapers full of glossy ads of the same emaciated bodies and if you walk into an office you quite probably compete as much on clothing as you do work quality and productivity.

On the last point, its extremely interesting to note the huge variance in individual workplaces.  As a contractor, I have spent a lot of time in 4+ years visiting very different kinds of workplaces with massively different values.  One thing I've noticed is that where there is a largely male workforce, like in a technical company, there is a massive diversity of dress styles for women and no real dominant "types."  However, one thing I've noticed is that in commoditized services companies, like retailers and banking services, where there is a large proportion of women and a workforce bigger than 500 or so, there is a huge swing towards hyperfeminized styling for women.

To suggest this is oppressive would be to oversimplify the gender and social dynamics at play on such sites.  While it was interesting to note that during my time subcontracting at a series of client sites in retail sectors, there was a marked difference between how women dressed on, for example cash and carry outlets (casual), and in purely administrative offices (hyperfeminine).  At least one of my female colleagues noted the same.

The significance of this is linked to the kinds of jobs being done by the women on different environments.  On the sites with less hyperfeminisation, women broadly were doing the same type of work as men.  However, on the hyperfeminised workplaces, women were frequently doing "admin" roles only.  In my current client site, there is a marked difference in style between the women in my own department (largely male and technical), compared to the most administrative service roles in other departments.  Funny enough, one all-female department is actually very diverse.  Otherwise, its extreme girlie for the women, especially in the less specialist teams.  Its not the first time I've seen this.  I wonder sometimes is it an age/education thing?  Generally I find that more educated women tend to be more individualist about fashion, but I could really be generalising there.

Anyway, if we really rejected the subliminal messages of Victoria's Secret and other fashion houses, they would cease to exist, because we'd skip them in favour of old school Bustenhalter retailers of Triumph and other makers that cater for "earthy" women.  But I think there are still enormous gaps in the market where larger or more differentiated women are being failed.  My ex partners current partner told me that she simply cannot buy a bra to fit her at any high street retailer and has to resort to ordering from a specialist mail order service.  This isn't somebody who is especially large or unusually shaped, yet she is forced into the psychical anomaly of "difference" in order to buy a very common clothing item.  Why is this even acceptable?

In fact this question is in itself begging an answer as to why it is OK that the ONLY differentiated women's clothing item is itself in danger of being commoditised to a narrow range of sizes.  For example, recently I was in M&S and delighted to find a very nice design at a reasonable price in the underwear dept that fitted snugly.  But here's the thing, I couldn't help noticing that the basic band size was the smallest on offer.  So it struck me: what if I did actually lose more weight?  Would I then be condemned to mail order retailers?  This is hugely problematic as it would mean being unable to try on in advance of purchase.  You wonder why in this age of increasing diversity of populations, retailers are in fact moving in the opposite direction: catering only for an ever narrowing centre of consumers, while at the same time, struggling to compete as competitors do the same.

In fact, the entire direction that fashion houses are taking is directly the opposite of the phenomenon which Michael Porter et al ( describes in his latest HBR missive: that companies are increasingly catering for the outcomes of customer needs instead of just providing a product.  Yet none of this is hitting the fashion industry, which I suspect is being increasingly hurt by increased re-use, the re-skilling of populations in traditional crafts such as dressmaking, and a tendency to re-use rather than treat clothing as disposable.  Why is fashion failing so badly to move with the times in terms of customer needs?  And why is this almost entirely a gendered tendency, as fashion houses that cater for men continue to carefully cater for a wider range of customer needs?

I suspect the problem is connected to the delusion of savings still linked to the obsessive off shoring of manufacturing in textiles, which is still preoccupying a commodity-minded fashion industry as it tries to cope with the negative CSR implications of job displacement, worker exploitation in the developing world, not to mention the almost complete collapse of end product quality which is the big dirty secret of noughties off shoring mania.

Yet in an industry which actively excludes many consumers, not to mention failing to gather proper information regarding its remaining customers, is there not a huge gap for a more heterogeneous experience, coupled with better quality products, better customer outcomes and in the long run, more customer loyalty?  Increasingly, I am starting to see kickstarters for clothing houses looking to cater for very specialised niche customers (for example, a clothing house in San Francisco which designs masculine styled clothing for butch women and transmen) and I suspect that fashion will eventually be disrupted by such niche businesses.

Also, I suspect that as it becomes increasing more obvious in the textile industry that off shoring has been a failure (as it has long since been quietly recognised by IT services), resulting in lower quality products, more patent abuse, worker accidents and returns that ultimately hurt customer loyalty, manufacturing will slowly be returned to more reliable areas such as the middle East and niche areas in Europe (Portugal for example) in order to restore consumer quality.  In doing so there will also be resumed emphasis on preordering with the end store acting as more of an order house for pre-placed orders, which will enable not only more pithy customer data gathering, but restored trust.  The current trend for ultra cheap but very low quality mass produced clothing may turn out to be nothing more than another fad.