This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
When watching the show about the men of Vanuatu, I became curious about the state of women on Tanna. In the show, there are no interviews of any Tannan women. In fact, the women aren't mentioned much at all, except when the Tannans are commenting on the housework practices of the Western families. The Tannan men say that in their culture, such housework (cooking, cleaning) is something only women do.
So I started reading more about the women of Vanuatu. The situation is complex because, as usual, most of the earliest accounts are written by Westerners, but luckily we have the accounts of both missionaries AND anti-missionary tradespeople. They are remarkably consistent in some ways, so it seems that the people once practiced widow strangulation after the husband's death, something similar to the Indian Sati widow immolation. Colonialist efforts to stop the practice were mostly successful, though it persisted in some areas for a long time. There are also accounts of women being beaten by their husbands.
Vanuatu now seems to be in a situation where some of the tribes were Christianized by missionaries and others are part of a traditionialist reactionary movement called "Kastom." Based on the practices portrayed on the show and their religion, it seems that these men are part of "Kastom" tribes. There is good evidence that Kastom has had some harmful effects on women as people have become more strict about taboos. A huge burden of the taboo system lies on women since many taboos are about childbirth and menstruation. If a woman does something improperly, like gardening during menstruation (they are supposed to seclude themselves in menstrual huts), she may be blamed for misfortunes that befall the village, particularly if she does not sacrifice pigs to repair the violation.
Vanuatu is not completely isolated and their are women's movements in islands across the Pacific (which I'm aware is a very diverse place). This interesting article gives a voice to some of their concerns.
I am not a bra-burning person; I never wore a bra, so, I do not know why bra-burning is so important to the feminist. —Participant in “Women, Development and Empowerment” workshop, Naboutini, Fiji, 1987
It's clear that many women in these places feel that Western feminism is concerned with very trivial things. I would confess that I agree, having most recently been in an argument with a feminist tech writer over whether or not the face that we give little girls "gendered" toys leads them to not chose careers in tech and science (I don't agree.)
Many women's writers in the Pacific, such as Tongan writer Konai Helu Thaman, in fact reject the feminist label. This phenomenon is not just Pacific, a growing number of young women in the West, even those that hold classical feminist ideas, also reject this label.
Interviewing 82 people in Guam in order to gauge their thoughts on feminism, Laura made the same mistake that I had made in my interview with Thaman.14 We had both used the term feminism without first defining it. Laura recalls asking “Are you a feminist?” “What do you think of feminism?” “Without exception,” she states, “they said: Please don’t call me a feminist”
Like many Western women who are further quizzed on their rejection of feminism, Thaman later qualifies her statement “when people ask, are you a feminist, if feminism is about equality, equal worth, then, yes, I am a feminist”
I think it's quite interesting that Western social conservatives often lament the decline of the nuclear family, often pointing out that children that grow up without a father are worse off. Many Western feminists spend a large amount of time critiquing the nuclear family as being oppressive to women. But the nuclear family is a modern invention. As Folese, a Samoan writer, says:
The origins of western feminism arose out of suburbia [sic] depression and the need women felt to “get out of the house,” leave the kids behind, burn bras, overcome depression and addiction to things like valium etceteras. In life in a Samoan village, the extended family acts as a support system for mothers. The trap of the nuclear family simply doesn’t exist in the village situation.12
To me, the Western nuclear family has many parallels to Western agro-monocultures, in that it represents a less robust and rich caricature of the natural human family structure. Furthermore, the Western nuclear structure often is packaged with a belief that it is bad for women to work outside the home. Pacific women have always worked, tending their crops and animals.
In the Pacific, feminism is perceived as being hostile to the communal and family values. As a women in the Guam workshop put it:
… “feminists” do not want babies and yet women’s lives are defined in terms of their children. Some respondents did not want to have anything to do with women who wanted to live only with other women, or who rejected the family. In their view, the base of women’s lives was the family. (Griffen with Yee, 1989, p. 8)
Furthermore, traditions that the women do not view as oppressive, which involve separate complementary spheres for men and women, are often labeled as oppressive by Western feminists. As Tupu, a Western Samoan women says: “We don’t seek a social structure of total “equality”—we don’t want to do the same things as men. We have a social structure that has reciprocal power relations in different forms."
The women often do not want to do away with traditions like menstrual seclusion (something not alien to the West certainly. Less than a mile away from me in Williamsburg there are Hasidic Jewish women who do the same thing). Among Maori feminists, there is currently an argument about whether or not the traditional Maori culture was oppressive to women. Some Maori women believe that women were powerful in their own way in the traditional culture and their goal is to reclaim this from Westernization. It seems that in some ways traditional cultures were better, such as in Tonga where women had access to land which was prohibited by colonial governments. In other ways they seem worse, such as the widow strangulation in Vanuatu.
Having grown up in the South with some of my family being very traditionalist, the skepticism of the Pacific women towards feminism is very familiar to me. However, I find that such skeptical traditionalist women in America are often belittled, whereas feminists are willing to listen to non-Western women, though their voices are often conspiciously absent, perhaps because they do not toe the party line.
Still, Annette Dyar Sherman of Eureka, 91, says she "just sort of coasted" into becoming a vegetarian eight years ago.
"Since I live by myself, I find I no longer really care to cook meat. I go by the meat counter and it looks repulsive," she says, adding that her son, who is an animal rights activist, also has influenced her. "I eat mostly vegetables, yogurt, a little milk - I'm not a vegan."
She doesn't keep sweets at home - "too tempting" - and she gave up pasta a year ago. She also doesn't eat much bread. "I like to put a little cheese and tomato on an English muffin and broil it."
This diet, combined with daily walks, has contributed to her health, but Sherman says she's always been healthy - even though she ate meat for most of her life.
"I'm 91, but nobody believes that I am. I say 90 is the new 80. I don't take any medications. I take an aspirin a day to prevent a stroke. That's all.
"I'm not bragging, but that's the way it is," she says.
Oh come now, be a little holier-than-thou. You've earned it.
I can personally report that grandma is not a vegetarian and had roast beef for Christmas. So much for credible newsmedia. I've highlighted the good stuff ;)
Earlier I posted about my maternal grandmother, who is over 90. Some of you asked what my maternal grandmother eats. She's never eaten a particularly special diet, but I called her to clarify. Grandma A grew up during the Depression with many siblings in Eureka, Illinois. She moved to New York City and then during the war she moved to DC to work on something classified. Later she moved to Florida, then to Georgia, and now she lives in a retirement community back in Eureka. When we visited her as children she always had good snacks: shortbread, bowls of nuts, jello, yogurt, and fruit were some I remember. Here is a short interview with her, roughly transcribed:
What did you eat growing up?
Mostly fruits and vegetables from my father's garden, which mother also canned for the winter. We drank raw milk and cooked with butter. Mother liked to bake pies and make fudge. We ate the chickens we raised and sometimes had beef from the local butcher. Occasionally we had some canned salmon. Margarine was sold in ugly white blocks with yellow coloring you had to mix in. We tried it once and never bought it again.
Did you or any of your siblings have dental problems? Crooked teeth? Wisdom teeth removed?
No. But my brother Paul overate sweets. You could buy them in town and we also made some at home. He lost all his teeth when he was about 20 and was obese later in life. But no one else had that problem.
How do you think your diet differs from what modern children are fed?
People eat too many prepared foods and too much. They also don't walk enough. There is a trend towards making things easier and people don't cook from scratch anymore.
What did you feed my mother and her siblings?
Grandpa and I were "health nuts." We didn't buy prepared foods, read labels, and I cooked from scratch.
Did you cook much meat?
No, I never cooked much. I don't really like cooking meat. (my mom's reaction: "but, but, but, we did eat meat when I was growing up, mostly beef, cheaper cuts, almost never chicken, no bacon, had ham at Easter, but ate beef in stews, etc. several times a week...guess Grandma has forgotten cooking beef stew, lasagna, etc. And antipasto salad every night with dinner!").
Mom always complained that grandpa made them eat "weird stuff"?
No, most of our food was normal. Well, one thing they didn't like was seafood stew called bouillabaisse. Grandpa sometimes ate traditional Japanese food for breakfast, but nobody else wanted that. Grandpa was very thrifty and we sometimes ate canned fish too.
So what do you eat now?
Well, it's very strange. But growing up I had some constipation issues and when I got older I read that eating fruit in the morning would fix that, so I've eaten that ever since. Your mother has told me this is not a good breakfast. I enjoy whatever fruit is in season, as well as four prunes. I really like coffee and drink two cups a day with a splash of milk. I don't drink much milk, but I enjoy cottage cheese. Your mom was reading that paleo book (Robb Wolf's) and told me that dairy might cause weight gain though...I recently lost some weight by trimming portions and eating fewer sweets.
For lunch I often eat coffee yogurt, hardboiled eggs, and egg salad. When I enjoy a sandwich I use an English muffin or only one slice of bread. I like peanut butter mixed with a dash of Hellman's mayo and yogurt on an English muffin.
For dinner I have two vegetables. Tonight I had acorn squash and green beans. I also had a tomato salad and some cottage cheese.
Do you eat out?
Not much. When I moved back to Eureka my friends and I would eat pie at Busy Corner, but I stopped because I gained weight. I only eat pie when I am at someone's home now and they made it themselves.
Why are you so healthy?
Many people in my retirement commmunity have many health problems, but I don't. I never go to the doctor or have any aches or pains. Maybe they don't eat well or walk enough. I walk every day.
What are you favorite foods?
Fruits and vegetables. And ice cream, but I try not to eat that too much. Hey, I've been enjoying shelled peanuts a lot lately and your mom said legumes aren't that good for you, are those healthy?
Err, well I think true nuts are healthier, but if they work for you and you enjoy them, don't give them up!
Yes, but real nuts are quite expensive and I like shelling peanuts.
When I was a kid you used to keep real shelled nuts in a bowl on your coffee table...
Oh, well maybe I'll do that again!
Thanks for the interview grandma!
Overall my grandmother's diet is very interesting. It's very low in calories...could calorie restriction account for her succcess? Good upbringing? Good genes? I know if I ate that way I don't think my system would work very well (the coffee in particularly would make me INSANE), but maybe I got that from my dad. Both my sister and I had braces and wisdom teeth removed...
YES, other grandma, I will interview you if you want! I will also hopefully have an interview with a 99-year old relative soon.
Two years back I started sending my dad a paleo article or two every once in awhile. My dad was really into exercise, but despite exercising every day he was having a tough time with his weight. It's no wonder. Growing up I remember he would take us out to the infamous Cici's All You Can Eat Pizza where well...we would eat amounts of sugar and junk that I shudder to look back on.
With exercise not working, he decided to read up on Art De Vany and Gary Taubes He found it was a simple diet that made sense to him logically. I write lots on this blog that is about adding in neglected foods or tweaking nutrient ratios, but my father is testament to the simple formula of meat, seafoods, vegetables, and fruit. He said he didn't do anything fancy, because he was already used to cooking and eating meat. Giving up sugar was hard, but the hardest part was giving up foods that are seen as healthy like fruit juice. Primal Body Primal Mind, which I gave to him after I read it, helped him realize the problems with fructose.
So far he has lost 50 lbs, his athletic performance is better, and he doesn't have GERD anymore. I think Art De Vany in particular is a great role model. In an age when older men are portrayed as overweight and bumbling (a la Family Guy or The Simpsons), Art has aged gracefully and retained his masculinity.
It's interesting because he started the diet after I left home, so many of our eating habits are different, but either way we are both testaments to the importance of eating nutrient dense HUMAN food and ditching sugar.