Everything you always wanted to know about self-esteem but were afraid to ask

April 28, 2012

Apart from problems that are biological in origin, I cannot think of a single psychological difficulty – from anxiety or depression, to fear of intimacy or of success, to alcohol or drug abuse, to underachievement at school or at work, to spouse battering or child molestation, to sexual dysfunctions or emotional immaturity, to suicide or crimes of violence – that is not traceable to poor self-esteem. Of all the judgments we pass, none is as important as the one we pass on ourselves. Positive self-esteem is a cardinal requirement of a fulfilling life.  Nathaniel Branden

Nothing builds self-esteem and self-confidence like accomplishment. Thomas Carlyle

Homework is bad for my self-esteem. It sends the message that I don’t know enough! So instead of trying to learn, I’m just concentrating on liking myself the way I am. Calvin and Hobbes



I blame George Benson. Now I have nothing against the American musician, a ten-time Grammy Award winner. But he did sing The Greatest Love of All, which proclaimed that learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.  It became an anthem of the self-esteem movement, which emerged in the 1970s. The movement’s practitioners proclaimed that low self-esteem was the cause of myriad psychological and societal problems. Increasing self-esteem would bring more successful, happier, balanced people. But the benefits would go way beyond this. Some of the more outlandish claims came from John Vasconcellos, a leading Democrat in Californian politics. He had a lifelong interest in psychology and championed the self-esteem movement in the Golden State. He proposed the State Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem in October 1986. He argued that it would help with problems such as crime, teenage pregnancy, drug abuse, school underachievement and pollution. He even floated the idea that it would help balanceCalifornia’s budget as people with high self-regard earn more than others and thus pay more in taxes. These are important claims, but is there any basis for them?

First we need to define our terms. In psychology, the term self-esteem is used to describe a person’s overall sense of self-worth or personal value. Psychologists distinguish between two forms of self-esteem: Trait self-esteem reflects how good you feel about yourself in general or on average, and state self-esteem, which involves how you feel about yourself at any particular moment in time.

Low self-esteem is often linked to undesirable behaviours and emotions. People with low self-esteem tend to be more dishonest and are more likely to engage in criminal activity. They are more like likely to fail in life. Just about every negative psychological condition you can name is more common among people with low self-esteem. On the other hand people with high self-esteem are more likely to be happy with their lives and less likely to become depressed, anxious or worried. What’s more they are better educated and have more successful careers.

After establishing a working definition of self-esteem I now want to challenge some widely-held beliefs. EVERYTHING YOU THINK YOU KNOW ABOUT SELF-ESTEEM IS WRONG! Contrary to the popular view, there’s almost no evidence that self-esteem actually causes anything. Years of research show that low self-esteem does not appear to cause the negative outcomes that have been associated with it. Nor does high self-esteem appear to cause the positive outcomes. Correlation does not mean causation and the self-esteem movement has got the causation the wrong way round. Self-esteem is usually the result of these outcomes and not the cause. Low self-esteem doesn’t cause depression; the life events that cause depression also often provoke low self-esteem.

Dr. Mark Leary, of Duke University has applied evolutionary psychology to turn conventional wisdom about self-esteem on its head. His central insight is that self-esteem does not exist in a bubble. Leary, director of the Social Psychology Program at Duke, is behind the concept of sociometer theory, which sees self-esteem as an internal, psychological meter that monitors the degree to which a person is being valued and accepted by the people around him. Being accepted has evolved as a universal human need. In our time as hunter gatherers anybody who was rejected by the group would have had a very difficult time surviving. Social rejection was often a death sentence. Because of this, we are highly attuned to the degree that other people accept or reject us. If we feel we are being valued and accepted by those around us our self-esteem also increases. However, if we get negative feedback, our self-esteem falls. Self-esteem is like a petrol gauge; it moves up and down depending on changes in perceived acceptance and rejection.

What should we be doing about the level of self-esteem in society? Self esteem is a by-product of a balanced life and not an end in itself. And if self-esteem is merely a by-product, trying to promote it in a vacuum will simply not work. What we need to avoid is trying to increase people’s self-esteem artificially—to build them up and make them feel that they are more socially acceptable than they actually are. If your petrol gauge says you are running out of petrol, then you need to fill up the tank. You don’t want to move the gauge to the right if you haven’t actually put any petrol in the tank. People who view themselves more positively than they should, become confused and angry when they discover that the rest of the world just doesn’t recognize their wonderfulness. It makes them less receptive to improving themselves. We may be a creating is a narcissistic generation with an inflated sense of their worth and importance.

The most widely used measure of narcissism in social psychological research is the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. It consists of forty pairs of statements. You have to  choose the one that best matches you, even if it’s not a perfect fit. Here are some examples:

  • The thought of ruling the world frightens the hell out of me. / If I ruled the world it would be a better place.
  • I insist upon getting the respect that is due me.  / I usually get the respect that I deserve.
  • I like to look at myself in the mirror. /  I am not particularly interested in looking at myself in the mirror.

According to San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge, university students today are more narcissistic and self-centred than a generation ago. The study shows that scores on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory have been rising steadily risen since the test was first introduced 30 years ago. The researchers believe the phenomenon goes back the rise of the self-esteem movement. And now with Facebook, Twitter etc we have more channels available.

Narcissism can actually foment social problems. Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled–and More Miserable Than Ever Before and The Narcissism Epidemic highlights the dangers of this:

“Narcissism causes almost all of the things that Americans hoped high self-esteem would prevent, including aggression, materialism, lack of caring for others, and shallow values. In trying to build a society that celebrates high self-esteem, self-expression, and ‘loving yourself,’ Americans have inadvertently created more narcissists—and a culture that brings out the narcissistic behaviour in all of us.

Education has been an area where the ideas about self-esteem have been implemented. The dominant idea was that there had to be prizes for everyone and that competition was bad.  Not only did self-esteem-based educational methodologies fail to produce excellence, they actually undermined it.

I am not arguing against self-esteem, but against the bogus claims that have been made about it over the last few decades. Bombarding kids with positive messages is not a solution. It’s necessary to focus on the real causes of people’s problems and not artificially increase their self esteem. People function best when they have a more realistic view of their strengths and weaknesses, Once again we see the law of unintended consequences – a measure producing the opposite results to those intended. I don’t think we need to follow the example of those Chinese tiger moms. But we need to recognise that this obsession with promoting self-esteem has singularly failed to deliver what it promised.

The worst lyrics of all time

April 28, 2012

I have been trawling the internet and here is my selection of the worst lyrics:


 Are we human – or are we dancer?

Human -The Killers


War is stupid

And people are stupid 

War Song – Culture Club


Only time will tell

If we stand the test of time

Why Can’t This Be Love – Van Halen


Get up off my genitals

I stay on that pinnacle

Kill you with my lyrical

Call me verbal criminal.

Don’t Stop the Party – Black Eyed Peas


I don’t want to see a ghost

It’s the sight that I fear most

I’d rather have a piece of toast

Watch the evening news.

Life – Des’ree


I’m serious as cancer,

When I say rhythm is a dancer.

Rhythm Is A Dancer – Snap


Ebony and ivory live together in perfect harmony

Side by side on my piano keyboard, oh Lord, why don’t we?

We all know that people are the same wherever we go

There is good and bad in everyone

We learn to live, we learn to give

Each other what we need to survive together alive

Ebony & Ivory – Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder


We’re talking A-B-C

I’m singing do-re-mi

I’ll teach you endlessly

Games of Love

We’re counting 1-2-3

I’m writing “U 4 Me”

I’ll teach you endlessly

Games of Love

Games of Love – Boyzone


There were plants

And birds

And rocks

And things

Horse With No Name –  America


Lucky that my breasts are small and humble

So you don’t confuse them with mountains

Wherever, Whenever – Shakira


Someone left the cake out in the rain

I don’t think that I can take it

’cause it took so long to bake it

And I’ll never have that recipe again… Oh, no!

MacArthur Park – Donna Summer


More sacrifices than an Aztec priest

Standing here straining at that leash

All fall down, can’t complain, mustn’t grumble

Help yourself to another piece of apple crumble 

That Was Then But This Is Now – ABC


Slowly walking down the hall,

Faster than a cannonball,

Where were you when we were getting high?

Champagne Supernova – Oasis


You know I feel so dirty when they start talking cute

I wanna tell her that I love her but the point is probably moot

Jessie’s Girl – Rick Springfield


You’re beautiful

You’re beautiful

You’re beautiful

It’s true

You’re Beautiful – James Blunt


I am what I am…

A family man

I am what I am…

A family man

Mother… father… brother…

Mother… father… brother…

Family Man – Fleetwood Mac


And fiery demons all dance when you walk through that door

Don’t say you’re easy on me you’re about as easy as a nuclear war

Is There Something I Should Know? – Duran Duran 


The wild dogs cry out in the night,

As they grow restless longing for some solitary company,

I know that I must do what’s right,

Sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti

Africa – Toto

Alcatraz and the meaning of prison

April 22, 2012

Break the laws of society and you go to prison, break the prison-rules and you go to Alcatraz. Famous saying about Alcatraz

You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter and medical attention. Anything else that you get is a privilegeAlcatraz Inmate Regulations, Rule # 5

There will always be the need for specialized facilities for the desperadoes, the irredeemable, and the ruthless, but Alcatraz and all that it had come to mean now belong, we may hope, to history. James V. Bennett, Director of the Bureau of Prisons

On March 21, 1963, Alcatraz officially closed. All the prisoners were transferred off the island. Only that’s not what happened…not at all… Opening from the JJ Abrams TV series Alcatraz


On March 21, 1963, the final 27 inmates departed Alcatraz. For 29 years the worst of the worst had been housed in the notorious prison on an island in the San Francisco Bay. This was the end of an era. The local press had been invited to record the event for posterity. It was a poignant moment as the 27 prisoners spent their final hours on the rock. Even on the last day the Warden was determined to adhere to the rigid regulations; the final meal, breakfast, would last only twenty minutes. The inmates were then led back to their cells, where they were met by an officer and then handcuffed and shackled, ready for final departure. Amid the flash of cameras the prisoners went to board the prison launch. Frank C. Weatherman, inmate AZ-1576, was the last prisoner onto the launch. On being questioned about his feelings about the closure, he provided the prison’s unofficial epitaph: “Alcatraz was never good for nobody.”

I shall be coming back to Alcatraz later but I want to look at the history of imprisonment first. We are so used to the idea of prison that we do not realize that until relatively recently putting people in prison was not a punishment in itself, but rather a way of confining criminals until corporal or capital punishment could be meted out. Many credit the Quakers with the idea of reforming criminals through time spent under lock and key. In 1790 the Pennsylvania Quakers built a small prison with sixteen individual and fully isolated cells. The criminals were left there with only a copy of the Bible. The reformers believed that this would help them to achieve penance. From this practice we get the word penitentiary meaning prison.

The notions that locking criminals up was a form of punishment and that you could reform them were revolutionary. And it was in Britain in the 19th century that prisons as we understand them emerged, inspired to a large extent by the ideas of that great British philosopher Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism.. Bentham actually designed a kind of institutional building called a Panopticon, which allowed the observer to see all inmates of an institution without them being able to tell whether or not they were being watched. Bentham conceived the circular building as being equally applicable to hospitals, schools, poorhouses and lunatic asylums, but he devoted most of his efforts to developing a design for a Panopticon prison. He persuaded the parliament to allow him to build a prison based on this model. The scheme never got off the ground and the project was halted in 1801. Bentham may have been unsuccessful, but in the 1920s Cuban dictator Gerardo Machado did have the Presidio Modelo built following Benthem’s guidelines. Fidel and Raul Castro were imprisoned there the unsuccessful rebel attacks on the Moncada Barracks in 1953. The Castro boys obviously found it a positive experience – after the revolution they extended their hospitality to dissidents, counter-revolutionaries, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other assorted enemies of the state, who were able to study Bentham’s designs at close quarters.

A few years after the completion of the Presidio Modelo the world’s most famous prison came into being. On October 12 1933, the United States Justice Department announced plans to take over Alcatraz as a federal prison. To illustrate the fact that NIMBYISM is not a modern phenomenon we can observe the reaction of San Francisco’s citizens; they were none too pleased with the idea of sharing their scenic bay with nation’s most hardened criminals. Alcatraz was officially named as a federal penitentiary on January 1, 1934. As a federal “super-prison,” it had two key functions:

  1. to incarcerate the nation’s most notorious criminals in a harsh, maximum security / minimum privilege institution.
  2. to act as a deterrent to the new breed of criminal that had emerged during prohibition.

The federal government wanted to show that were getting tough on crime. An essential component of the punishment for famous inmates would be not allowing them to see their names in print.Alcatrazwould serve to completely isolate the inmates from the public, and every aspect of their daily lives would be controlled.

The prison could hold 336 men, but the prison never reached full capacity and the occupancy was usually about 75%. 1,545 men were incarcerated in Alcatraz in its 29 years of existence – from Frank Lucas Bolt, AZ-1, to  Frank Weatherman, the last man to board the prison launch. The rock’s three most famous guests were Al Capone, ‘Machine Gun‘ Kelly and Robert “The Birdman” Stroud. The convicts lived a highly repetitive, regimented, almost monastic life. Everything was done in accordance with a strict daily schedule, which never varied through the years. The schedule was established by the prison’s first warden, James A. Johnston. From the 06.30AM morning bell to lights out at 09.30PM everything was highly regimented. Alcatraz was the prison system’s prison – if a man did not behave at another institution, he could be sent to Alcatraz. The reason for all of this regimentation was to teach the inmates to follow rules and regulations. Once prison officials felt a man no longer posed a threat and could follow the rules, he could then be transferred back to another Federal prison to finish his sentence and be released. The punishments have become an essential part of Alcatraz lore. The notorious Strip Cell was a dark steel cell, where inmates would be stripped naked and given water and bread once daily, an occasional meal and a mattress at night. The only toilet was a hole in the cell floor and there was no sink. The convicts were completely isolated from the rest of the prison population and spent their time in total darkness.

Alcatraz was undoubtedly a strict prison but it was not the brutal hellhole depicted by many a Hollywood blockbuster. Our image of the prison is mediated by its representation in popular culture. Who can forget Burt Lancaster’s performance as Robert Franklin Stroud in as “The Birdman of Alcatraz?  It is a great film but it does contain a number of inaccuracies. Robert Stroud really should have been known as the “Birdman of Leavenworth,” since it was at the Kansas prison that he kept his birds and did his research. He was not actually allowed any birds during his time at Alcatraz. But the real problem is in the characterisation of Stroud. Philip Bergen, a prison guard was asked which character depiction he found most accurate. His reply was succinct:

“Well… the birds were very well written don’t you think?”

The reality was that Stroud was complex, multi-layered character, who was very manipulative and clearly had a vicious streak.  He first went to prison for manslaughter after killing a barman. Then whilst in prison he brutally stabbed and killed a guard. He was sentenced to execution by hanging, but his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by President Woodrow Wilson. In total Stroud would spend fifty years of his life behind bars, at the time the longest federal prison sentence ever served. For all the celebrities calling for his release and the tender images from the film of Stroud curing frail canaries, he never once expressed any remorse for his killings. What’s more he was said to have boasted to other inmates about the crimes he would commit if he were ever released.

For me the best film about the prison is Don Siegel’s 1979 thriller Escape from Alcatraz, which chronicles the story of Frank Morris and two brothers John and Clarence Anglin, who escaped from Alcatraz in 1962.  Morris and the Anglin brothers meticulously planned their escape from this island for almost a year. They stole prison-issue raincoats to make a boat and life jackets. They moulded soap and paper into life-sized heads with hair, lips and eyebrows, which they placed on their pillows to fool the guards into thinking they were sleeping in their cells. Using stolen tools and kitchen spoons they were able to dig a hole in the back of their cells big enough for them to crawl through.

There were 14 known escape attempts, with 36 would-be escapees, but this was the most famous This June will mark the fiftieth anniversary of their daring breakout. What we don’t know is if they survived in the chilly, turbulent waters of the Bay in their makeshift raft. It is not an impossible feat. There are no man-eating sharks in the bay and a well-trained and conditioned swimmer with knowledge of the speed and direction of the currents can swim to the mainland. It has been done. The problem is that the prisoners had no control over their diet or physical training. However, no proof of death has ever been found. We will probably never know the truth as to what happened nearly half a century ago.

Most recently we have had the 2012 television series Alcatraz by JJ Abrams, the man behind Lost. The premise of the series is that when the prison closed in 1963, the prisoners were not transferred from the island, but mysteriously disappeared. They have now reappeared without any aging and have begun committing crimes. A task force has been set up to track them down. The mystery is what has happened on the island. There are strange experiments involving the prisoners’ blood and a Machiavellian warden and the keys to a secret gold stash hidden beneath the prison.

Now the island is a tourist park and its influence is confined to movies and TV.Alcatrazmay have been shut down, but a lot of Americans are in prison.  The incarceration rate in the United States is 743 per 100,000 of national population, the highest in the world. When Alcatraz was inaugurated, the corresponding figure was 100 per 100,000. Despite having around 5% of the world’s population, 25% of the world’s inmates are in the United States. This is a very sobering figure. This massive increase has led to a significant decrease in the crime rate. Keeping people in prison is expensive, but allowing criminals to roam the streets to commit more crimes is also costly for society. However, the demented War on Drugs has led to more and more people are being convicted for nonviolent offenses. Prison is the right place for anyone committing crimes like rape, assault, armed robbery etc. but it is the wrong punishment for crimes without victims, or where other punishments are more effective. Buyers of drugs are generally engaging in voluntary transactions with sellers. Yet nearly 25% of all US inmates are there on drug-related charges. Moreover, since drug prices are kept artificially high by the drug policy, many others go to prison for crimes they committed to finance their consumption. Luckily in Europe we don’t have the crime rates they have in the States. But I think that prison should instil a sense of dread in potential criminals. Punishment should not be a dirty word. It is great if incarceration serves to reform criminals. But if that is not possible, then we need to protect society from these miscreants.

Prison trivia

April 22, 2012

Here is some prison trivia I found on the internet:

Striped prison uniforms, first introduced in the early nineteenth century, made it easier to spot escapees in a crowd. But they were also intended as a psychological punishment. In the Middle Ages, striped clothes were the pattern of choice for prostitutes, clowns and other social outcasts.

In January 2002, the website Convicts Reunited was started. Here is the blurb from their website: Our Company Convicts Reunited is, to the best of our knowledge, the largest database of convicts and ex-convicts run by ex-convicts, which means we can serve you better by getting more people together. Okay, so the newspapers gave us away. We’re not ex-convicts – although we have been chased out of more than one apple orchard as kids. But what we do have here is a great opportunity to get together and provide something to this online community.

Although criminals have been found guilty for some horrendous crimes against humanity and put behind bars, there still lies a chance for ’em to show their goodness for our planet at the world’s first ecological prison. Although the idea of a eco-friendly prisons isn’t widespread, a small island tucked away in Norway has managed to bring the fresh green change at the Bastoey prison. The Bastoey Island low security prison uses solar panels for energy, produces most of its own food, recycles everything it can and tries to reduce its carbon footprint. The solar panels have cut the prison’s electricity needs by up to 70 percent. Hoping to install a sense of responsibility in their inmates, the authorities aim to instill a strong sense of responsibility towards mankind and our environment as well. If inmates at this prison do porridge, it is organic porridge. For it is not only recreational drugs that are banned, pesticides are too. Bastoey has also tapped grants from environmental bodies to help it produce high-quality food. Though most of the food is used in the kitchen there, surplus is sold to other prisons too. Touted as the island of hope, this prison has also gained international media attention for its living conditions, resembling a summer camp with activities like tennis, horse riding, and even swimming in the summer, when the North Sea waters warm up. Isn’t it inviting? Maybe this eco friendly luxuriously prison lifestyle is going to tempt many to commit a crime to gain an entry to the ‘island of hope’.

The Interior Ministry in Peru has banned chili sauce and hot spices from prison food. An edict was handed down by the Interior Minister because these items were claimed to “have aphrodisiac qualities” and would “arouse sexual desires.”

Russia’s prisons have a reputation for being the most overcrowded on earth, especially Kresty Prison inSt. Petersburg. The official capacity is set at 3,000, but the actual population is always at least 10,000. Each prisoner is also said to only be allowed 4 square meters of space each and 15 minutes a week (a week!) to shower. In summer 2006 Vladimir Putin announced that the prison would be relocated to a new facility in the Kolpinsky District on the outskirts of Saint Petersburg. After the relocation is complete the Kresty building will be sold at auction. It is anticipated that the prison building will be transferred into a hotel-entertainment complex.

Brixton prison, which was originally called the Surrey House of Correction, was originally built in 1820. Brixton become one of the first prisons to introduce treadwheels in 1821. It is the oldest active prison in London.

In January, prodded in part by outrage over a series of articles in the New York Review of Books, the Justice Department finally released an estimate of the prevalence of sexual abuse in penitentiaries. The reliance on filed complaints appeared to understate the problem. For 2008, for example, the government had previously tallied 935 confirmed instances of sexual abuse. After asking around, and performing some calculations, the Justice Department came up with a new number: 216,000. That’s 216,000 victims, not instances. These victims are often assaulted multiple times over the course of the year. The Justice Department now seems to be saying that prison rape accounted for the majority of all rapes committed in the US in 2008, likely making the United  States the first country in the history of the world to count more rapes for men than for women.

The United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility (ADX) is a supermax prison in Florence,Colorado,USA. This is the ultimate prison, literally. Since it opened in 1994, ADX is nothing but slow and inhumane torture. Inmates are only allowed out of their cells for 9 hours a week and barely interact with anyone. There’s hardly any sunlight and you have to do everything in your cell. Prisoners are served meals in their cells. The room is mostly poured concrete which ensures the furniture can’t be moved or even humped comfortably. The toilet will shut off if someone tries to plug it and showers work on a timer to cut back on potential flooding. ADX is a prison intended for the worst felons the country has to offer.

Charles Dickens’s father John Dickens was imprisoned in the Marshalsea debtors’ prison in Southwark London in 1824. Shortly afterwards, his wife and the youngest children joined him there. Charles, then 12 years old, was boarded with Elizabeth Roylance, a family friend, in Camden Town. Dickens later used the prison as a setting in Little Dorrit).

Sark Prison is located on the Island of Sark in Guernsey, was built in 1856 and is apparently the smallest in the world. it can house 2 prisoners at a push and is still used for overnight stays – if you continue to play up after that you’ll get shipped off to a proper grown-up jail with corridors and staff.

The land underneath 154 year old San Quentin state prison is estimated to be worth $80 to $100 million, instantly making it the most valuable prison in the world. it occupies 275 acres of oceanfront land overlooking the bay, some say the most valuable real estate in the whole country.

And finally here are some Guinness records:

Longest-serving prisoner on death row: Now 75, Iwao Hakamada (Japan) has been on death row in Japan for 42 years, convicted of murdering a family in Shizuoka in 1968.

Most life sentences: Terry Lynn Nichols (USA) is serving 161 consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole for his part in the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma,USA, in which 168 people, including 19 children, were killed.

Longest-serving political prisoner: On May 1, 2009, Nael Barghouthi, a Palestinian sentenced to life in jail, became the longest-serving political prisoner. He began his sentence on April 4, 1978 and has now served more than 32 years in an Israeli jail. Incarcerated at the age of 21, Barghouthi has now been in jail for a decade longer than he was previously free

Longest jail term: On December 23, 1994, American Charles Scott Robinson was sentenced in Oklahoma City,USA, to 30,000 years, the jury having recommended 5,000 years for each of the six counts against him.

Waxing lyrical on hair

April 15, 2012

There are one hundred and ninety-three living species of monkeys and apes. One hundred and ninety-two of them are covered with hair. The exception is a naked ape self-named Homo sapiens. From The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris, English anthropologist

God protect us from hairy women and beardless men. Arab saying

I am Armenian, so of course I am obsessed with laser hair removal! Arms, bikini, legs, underarms… my entire body is hairless. Kim Kardashian, reality TV star


Today I am going to be putting hair under the microscope. In “On the Generation of Animals” Aristotle argued that hairiness was a sign of abundance of residual matter. Hairy men had greater libidos than smooth men and produced more semen. Some of Aristotle’s ideas may now appear eccentric to us, but our hair or lack thereof is a fundamental part of our identity. We spend billions on it We cut, trim, shear, snip, shave, laser, condition, dye, spray, curl, and straighten it to our hearts’ content. Wikipedia has a list of hairstyles including cornrows, bangs, psychobilly wedge, mullet, bob, bouffant, comb over, dreadlocks and a Croydon facelift. English has many words and idioms connected to hair. When someone is annoying us we ask them to get out of out hair. If things are going all wrong we are having a bad hair day. Pedants are accused of splitting hairs. I hope you find this topic as interesting as I do.

Desmond Morris’s description of humans as naked apes is not strictly accurate. We actually have just as many hair follicles as you would expect for an ape of our body size. For example we have the same number of hair follicles, 5 million, as a chimpanzee. But our hair has evolved to be finer and more transparent than in other primates.

Why are we so different to our cousins? Scientists do not agree when or why the “great denudation” happened. There are a number of competing theories. In the beginning was the foot. Many experts see a link with bipedalism. When we began to walk on our feet, we became more exposed to the sun. Our small hair doesn’t get in the way of the cooling process; we are able to sweat.

Now I’m going to look at the depiction of hair in art. Greek sculpture has had an enormous influence on western art and how we think about our own bodies. This is exemplified in a statue of Aphrodite made by Praxiteles in 360BC. In the work we see a naked Aphrodite, without genitals nor indeed any body hair whatsoever. This became a template for the ideal female body in Western art. When we look at a Renaissance Venus we can clearly see this Greek inheritance.

This stylised view of the female body has sometimes led to unfortunate consequences. The most famous case is that of John Ruskin, an art critic, poet, artist, social thinker conservationist and philanthropist of the Victorian era. And his ill fated wedding night has become the stuff of legend. Such was his sense of horror when he saw his wife Effie Gray in the flesh, that he was shocked into impotence. Amid great scandal the marriage was annulled after six years because of non-consummation. Effie then married John Everett Millais, an artist friend of her husband, for whom she had previously modelled in The Order of Release. Ruskin biographer, Mary Lutyens, suggested that Ruskin’s rejection of Effie was because he was horrified by the sight of her pubic hair. Lutyens argued that Ruskin must have known the female form only through Greek statues and paintings of the nude lacking pubic hair and that he just couldn’t handle the truth.

Had the Brazilian wax been available, then Ruskin might have reacted differently. In fact the waxing of the genital areas is not new. There is evidence of pubic hair removal in ancient India dating back to 4000 to 3000 BC. In ancient Egypt women waxed with a sticky emulsion made of oil and honey, and in Greece it was done with resin or pitch. With modern lingerie and bathing costumes the removal of pubic hair has once again became fashionable.  It was in 1994 that seven Brazilian sisters – Jocely, Jonice, Joyce, Janea, Jussara, Juracy and Judseia, the Padilhas – brought the Brazil wax to Manhattan, where they opened a salon called the Jay Sisters. They certainly have an impressive roster of celebrity endorsements: Naomi Campbell, Cameron Diaz, Lindsay Lohan, Sarah Jessica Parker and Gwyneth Paltrow. Ms. Paltrow is positively gushing: “You’ve changed my life!”

Another contemporary influence on the desire to remove all traces of hair from our bodies is the influence of pornography, which has become more mainstream in recent years. As Australian feminist Anne Manne pointed out, feminism has not colonised porn; porn has colonised feminism. The sexual practices and the intimate bodily details of the porn star, like the Brazilian wax, have entered popular culture, and are now as commonplace as a manicure at the local beauty salon. And for the man who doesn’t want to look like a furry caveman in his nether regions we have the “boyzilian”.  David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Frank Lampard are all said to be fans of this form of torture.

As we can see pubic hair is disappearing faster than the Amazon rain forest. Al Gore, where are you? This behaviour does seem rather peculiar. You just can’t imagine a chimpanzee pulling out the hair on its genital regions. Perhaps it’s just one of those fads, like tattooing and body piercing, which began with sailors and prostitutes, and have now gained wider currency. Of course these are fashions and maybe in a few years body hair will make a comeback. Or we could be witnessing another stage in humanity’s evolution towards near nakedness.

While some people invest huge amounts of time and money getting rid of unwanted hair, others have the opposite problem. By the age of fifty, half of all men have started to shed their locks. These statistics are for Caucasian males. Race plays a role in male hair loss; in China the figure is one in four.

There is no consensus regarding the details of the evolution of male pattern baldness. Bald heads are nature’s ways of telling men that their skirt-chasing days are over, according to zoologist Petter Bøckman. What is certain is that baldness is not confined to humans. Chimpanzees and Tsavo lions also lose their hair. Another monkey, the adult stump-tailed macaque, is commonly used in laboratories for the testing of hair-regrowth treatments.

Do such treatments work? Cures include drugs and transplants. Cures for male baldness always seem to be, like the philosopher’s stone, just around the corner. It’s one of those funny paradoxes that we have successfully transplanted hearts, kidneys and livers, but not hair. Judging by the results obtained by Wayne Rooney, they still have a long way to go. Whoever invents the definitive solution is going to become exceptionally rich..

Our hairstyles have important social and cultural implications. At most times in most cultures, men have worn their hair in styles that are different from women’s. Cutting off or growing one’s hair is often associated with religious faith: Catholic nuns tend to have their hair cut very short. And the men who became Catholic monks from the seventh century onwards adopted what was known as the tonsure, which involved shaving the tops of their heads and leaving a ring of hair around the bald crown. In Buddhism most monks and nuns have their heads shaved upon entering their orders. Many Islamic women cover their hair in public, and will only display it to their family and close friends. Sikhs are not allowed to shave, trim or pluck hair from any part of their body.  Men cover the hair with a turban and women may wear a turban or choose instead to don a traditional headscarf. Rastafarians associate dreadlocks with a spiritual journey that one takes in the process of growing them. Rastafarians grow their hair and twirl it into dreadlocks, representing a lion’s mane. They are taught that patience is the key to growing dreadlocks, a journey of the mind, soul and spirituality.

So there you have my brief tour of the fascinating world of hair. I would continue but I have an appointment at my local salon for a boyzilian. It isn’t easy to look as good I do without enduring a little pain.

Hair trivia

April 15, 2012

Hair trivia

Here is a selection of trivia about  I found in books and on the Internet:

Peter the Great of Russia imposed a beard tax in 1698, later adding a penalty that involved shaving with a blunt razor or being plucked with pincers, one hair at a time.

The Scottish Highlands have the highest proportion of redheads in the world—around one in nine.

The Roman word for beard is barba, which gave us the term barber. Early barbers cut hair and trimmed beards, but they also pulled teeth and practiced medicinal bloodletting. This last procedure required the patient to expose his veins by squeezing a pole painted red to hide the bloodstains. When not in use the red pole was displayed outside wrapped in the white gauze used as bandages, and it eventually became the official trademark of the barber.

Aevin Dugas (USA) is the proud owner of a record-breaking afro. When measured in New Orleans,USA, on October 4, 2010, it had a circumference of 4ft 4in(1.32 m). She trims her afro two or three times a year, and uses up to five conditioners at once when she washes it.

In many cultures shaving is forbidden. The reason we in the West lather up every morning can be traced directly back to Alexander the Great. Before he seized power, all European men grew beards. But because young Alexander wasn’t able to muster much facial hair, he scraped off his peach fuzz every day with a dagger. Not wanting to offend the great warrior, those close to him did likewise, and soon shaving became the custom

The fashion for wearing wigs began with Louis XIII (1601–43) – who went prematurely bald in 1624 – and ended with the French Revolution. Wigs were often as expensive as the rest of a man’s clothing put together.

The iconic locks of American footballer Troy Polamalu (USA) of the Pittsburgh Steelers (USA) were insured for $1 million with Lloyd’s of London by shampoo brand Head & Shoulders on August 30, 2010.

It took four hours for stylists to erect Kazuhiro Watanabe’s (Japan) 41.3-in-tall (105-cm) mohican. The length was verified at the MACRO hair salon in Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan, on January 10, 2011. The mohawk was an incredible9.8 in(25 cm) taller than that of the previous record-holder from Germany.

The expression “blonde bombshell,” often used to describe a dynamic and sexy woman with blonde hair, came from a 1933 movie starring Jean Harlow.Hollywoodfirst titled the film Bombshell, but because it sounded like a war film, the British changed the title to Blonde Bombshell. It originally referred only to the platinum-haired Miss Harlow, but has come to mean any gorgeous woman of the blonde persuasion.

Lord Byron was irresistible to women. The archive of John Murray, his publisher, contains locks of hair posted to him from the heads and pubic regions of more than a hundred women (including, most famously, Lady Caroline Lamb). Byron would sometimes reciprocate, although he was more likely to send a tuft cut from Boatswain, his Newfoundland dog.

In 2002, researchers at the University of Louisville reported that people with ginger hair require 20 percent more anaesthetic before surgery than people with hair of another colour.

The Oxford Companion to the Body dates the origins of the merkin, or pubic wig, back to 1450. As a measure against lice, some women shaved off their pubic hair and covered the area with an artificial hairpiece. Prostitutes also wore them, though their motivation seems more likely to have been a desire to cover up signs of disease. The Oxford Companion also mentions a tale of one gentleman who acquired the diseased merkin of a prostitute, dried it, combed it well, and then presented it to a cardinal, telling him that he had brought him St. Peter’s beard.

And finally here are some Guinness records:

Longest arm hair: 5.75 in(461 cm) – Justin Shaw (USA).

Longest beard (ever): 17 ft6 in(5.33 m) – Hans N Langseth (Norway).

Longest chest hair: 9 in(22.8 cm) – Richard Condo (USA).

Longest ear hair: 7.12 in(18.1 cm) – Anthony Victor (India).

Longest eyebrow hair: 7.01 in(17.8 cm) – Toshie Kawakami (Japan).

Longest leg hair: 6.5 in(16.51 cm) – Wesley Pemberton (USA).

Longest nipple hair: 5.07 in(12.9 cm) – Douglas Williams (USA).

To boldly go: some thoughts on space travel

April 8, 2012

We have been observing the stars since before recorded history. In 1865 Jules Verne published From the Earth to the Moon a tale of a lunar expedition. In Verne’s novel the Baltimore Gun Club decide to build an enormous cannon, large enough to fire a projectile at the moon. This appeared to an extravagant flight of fancy by the French author. But with the development of large and relatively efficient rockets during the first half of the 20th century space exploration became a reality. But before humans could go into space we would require the help of other animals.

Contrary to popular belief the first animal in space was not a dog, but a fruit fly. The Americans define space as beginning at an altitude of 80 km. The diminutive astronauts were loaded on to an American V2 rocket along with some corn seeds, and blasted into space in July 1946. They were used to test the effects of exposure to radiation at high altitudes. Albert II, the first monkey in space, went up in 1949. he was known as Albert II because there had been an Albert I, who had suffocated to death in 1948 before reaching the 100 km barrier. Albert II also had an unfortunate end when the parachute on his capsule failed on landing. In 1951 Albert VI managed to get back from space, only to die two hours later. There was one exception to all this death. Miss Baker, a squirrel monkey, lived for another 25 years after she spent 16 minutes in space 1959 mission. Baker died of kidney failure after breaking the record for oldest living squirrel monkey. Her gravestone frequently has one or more bananas on top.

The first animal in orbit was indeed a dog, Laika, who was sent up by the Russians in 1957. She died of heat stress during the flight. And a further ten dogs were launched into space before Yuri Gagarin, made it up there in 1961. Six of the dogs survived. The Russians also sent the first animal into deep space in 1968 – a tortoise. Guinea pigs, frogs, rats, cats, scorpions, wasps, worms, beetles, cockroaches and spiders have all been into space. In 1973 the mummichog became the first fish in space when carried on Skylab 3 to use for biological. The first Japanese animals in space were ten newts in 1985.

The Soviet launch of a Sputnik in October 1957 was a traumatic moment for the United States. The satellite, which was the size of a basketball, orbited the Earth nearly 1,550 times. It was a stunning propaganda victory for the Soviet Union. President Eisenhower immediately declared the “Sputnik crisis” – there were important military implications – a country able to launch a satellite into space could also effectively deliver nuclear missiles to American soil. In 1958 The National Aeronautics and Space Act created NASA. But the effects were more far-reaching. There was a massive boost given to science in general.

The Space Race was won by the Americans in 1969 with the first moon landing. Of course you could argue that the Russians had already won after Gagarin went up. The Americans simply invented a new race. It was President Kennedy who set the challenge of reaching the moon by the end of the sixties. The Americans were spending 5% of GDP on the space program. 400,000 people worked on the Apollo project for nearly ten years, a total of four million man hours. Kennedy would not see his dreams fulfilled, but the Americans were able to set foot on the moon just before the decade ended. Between July 1969 and December 1972 they would land on the moon six times and twelve astronauts would walk on the moon. And then it all stopped.

The next challenge appears to be Mars. But any manned mission would present serious difficulties. The journey would be long and extremely boring. The astronauts would be living in cramped conditions with no privacy. And the food would be awful too. It would take six months each way. They would then have between 30 days and a year and a half on the red planet. If the astronauts stayed the latter time it would be 1,000 days in Space twice the previous record.

Space can have very negative effects on humans Astronauts spend most of the first 24-48 hours feeling or being sick. You remove gravity, which has been a constant as life on this planet has evolved over billions of years.  Bones and muscles waste. The heart atrophies. You come back less than you were; it has been estimated that on a Mars mission, astronauts would lose one-third to one-half of their bone mass. There are problems of hand-eye coordination.

There are also the psychological effects of being cooped up in confined spaces for extended periods of time. Last year saw the finalisation of a record-breaking simulated mission to Mars. Six male volunteers, from Russia, Italy, France and China, travelled 100m kilometres without moving a centimetre. The experiment, known as Mars500, had the six brave guinea pigs living in a “spacecraft” for 520 days. The simulation took place at the Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow. The crew managed to survive without killing each other, even if nerves were a bit frayed at times. It was a challenge for the men: one of them claimed that what he most missed was the randomness of life.

What does the future hold for space travel? A manned Mars mission seems decades away. There is much less optimism around. Space exploration now represents just 0.5% of American GDP, although the U.S.still spends more than the rest of the world put together. There are still some possibilities. Perhaps we could send robots. Other nations, especially China, will surely play an increasing role. Given the complicated economic situation and the prohibitive costs, greater international cooperation could be another solution. Finally I imagine there will be more commercial activity in space. However I do rather miss the visionary rhetoric of the last century. I will finish with just such an inspiring quote.  It comes from Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space by Carl Sagan:

Whatever the reason we first mustered the Apollo program, however mired it was in Cold War nationalism and the instruments of death, the inescapable recognition of the unity and fragility of the Earth is its clear and luminous dividend, the unexpected final gift of Apollo. What began in deadly competition has helped us to see that global cooperation is the essential precondition for our survival. Travel is broadening. It’s time to hit the road again.

Space quotes

April 8, 2012

Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why he wanted to climb it. He said, “Because it is there.” Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked. President Kennedy

Space isn’t remote at all. It’s only an hour’s drive away if your car could go straight upwards. Sir Fred Hoyle

Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before. Captain James T. Kirk,’s introduction at the beginning of every episode of the original Star Trek TV series

The impact of space activities is nothing less than the galvanizing of hope and imagination for human life continuum into a future of infinite possibility.  Vanna Bonta

It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.  Neil Armstrong

As I stand out here in the wonders of the unknown at Hadley, I sort of realize there’s a fundamental truth to our nature, Man must explore . . . and this is exploration at its greatest. Dave Scott, Commander Apollo XV,

It [the rocket] will free man from his remaining chains, the chains of gravity which still tie him to this planet. It will open to him the gates of heaven. Wernher von Braun, a leading German scientist for Hitler, who after WWII would become a leading figure n the United States’ space program.

What was most significant about the lunar voyage was not that man set foot on the Moon but that they set eye on the earth. Norman Cousins, journalist and author

I have a hunch the most important reason we’re going to space is not known now. Burt Rutan

As we got further and further away, it [the Earth] diminished in size. Finally it shrank to the size of a marble, the most beautiful you can imagine. That beautiful, warm, living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart. Seeing this has to change a man. James B. Irwin, Apollo XV

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