All posts by Chelsea Roff

About Chelsea Roff

Chelsea Roff is Managing Editor for Intent Blog. She is an author, speaker, and researcher writing about science, spirituality, women's health, and humanitarian issues. Visit her website to read past writings, watch video interviews, and see her teaching schedule. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

#OccupyYouAreBeautiful: Why I’m Camped Out On A Rooftop Yoga Mat

Right now I’m sitting on a yoga mat on the rooftop of 2309 Main Street in Santa Monica, California. Just below me is a giant red wall painted with the words “YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL,” and there are two ten-foot tall inflatable dancing man balloons blowing in the wind beside me. There are men and women walking by on the sidewalk below, a beautiful community garden across the street. The ocean is just visible in the distance. This is #OccupyYouAreBeautiful.

Between today and Wednesday, September 18, this yoga mat will be my home. I will stay here all day and all night — I will eat here, sleep here, and I will be joined by yoga teachers, musicians, speakers, and other members of the community.

#OccupyYouAreBeautiful is a public demonstration of solidarity with people who struggle with food and body image issues on all ends of the spectrum. Together, we are taking a stand – for life, for happiness, and for the right for all people to feel beautiful in the bodies they inhabit.

The statistics around eating disorders in this country are discouraging. Nearly 24 million Americans suffer from eating disorders, and millions of others struggle with food and body image issues at a sub-clinical level. This disease kills nearly half a million people every year – daughters, sisters, brothers, friends, and spouses. That’s not okay. 32-year-olds shouldn’t be dying of starvation. 8-year-olds shouldn’t be vomiting to lose weight. This is not the kind of society I want to raise my kids in.

Over the past several years, I’ve built my life and career around helping others recover from this illness. I believe yoga can be a game-changer in the fight against eating disorders, and more importantly, I believe it can help shift the sociocultural dynamics that contribute to eating disorders to begin with. Yoga teaches critical skills for developing a healthy relationship with food and one’s body (which many of us never learn as children), and it can equip those who struggle with these issues with skills that pharmaceuticals, talk therapy, and other traditional forms of treatment simply do not provide.

That’s why I developed Yoga for Eating Disorders — to teach people who struggle with eating disorders practical tools for using yoga in their recovery. Specifically, the program teaches yoga-derived exercises for tuning into hunger and fullness signals, coping with difficult emotions, and learning to relate to the body as an ally rather than an enemy. The average cost of eating disorder treatment is $1,250 per day, and even at that rate over half of patients relapse after discharge. Eating disorders — from anorexia to binge eating — take a huge toll on our healthcare system. Yoga is a cost-effective way to teach those who struggle with these issues skills for long term recovery, potentially shortening treatment, reducing relapse, and ultimately saving lives.

On July 30th (my 24th birthday), I launched a crowd-funding campaign with the ambitious goal of raising $50K to take Yoga for Eating Disorders to treatment centers around the country at no charge, collect data for an evidence based study on its effectiveness in treatment, and offer pro-bono talks about eating disorder prevention at local schools in each city where the program is offered. We’ve raised almost $30K so far, but with only 4 days left in the campaign it’s time for something a little more drastic. It’s time to Occupy.

Inspired by my friend Will Baxter of the Don’t Let Will Die campaign, I am demonstrating my solidarity with eating disorder sufferers around the world by taking a stand. I invite you to take a stand with me – for life, for freedom, and for the belief that all people have the right to feel beautiful in the bodies they inhabit.

With less than 100 hours left in our campaign, I need your help. I will not let this campaign fail. This yoga mat saved my life once, and I’m not getting off it until other have the same opportunity.

Stand with me by donating today!

You can stand in solidarity with Chelsea and #OccupyYouAreBeautiful by making a donation, sharing this campaign with your friends and family, commenting on this page and visiting her at 2309 Main Street in Santa Monica, California. There is no reason this has to be the only #OccupyYouAreBeautiful. Host one in your own community!

Will Banning Underweight Models Prevent Eating Disorders?

In 2007, Israeli fashion model Hila Elmaliah died of anorexia at 34-years-old. She had dwindled away to just under 60 pounds when she passed.

Elmaliah’s untimely death motivated her friend, Israeli photographer and modeling agent Adi Barkan, to campaign for legislation in Israel that would prevent underweight models from walking the catwalk.  Just over a year ago, Barkan got his wish and Israel passed a law that imposes strict regulations on the country’s modeling industry.

In January of this year, five years after Elmaliah’s death, the new law finally went into effect. The law bans underweight models in Israel from catwalks and commercials, a measure that many believe will reduce eating disorders and promote a healthy body image in a country where the fashion industry runs supreme. The new legislation requires models to produce a medical report at every photo shoot for the Israeli market, demonstrating that a doctor has agreed they have a body mass index of no less than 18.5 within three months before they’re hired for a modeling job.

But that’s not all. The law also takes regulations one step further, aiming to close any loopholes advertisers might use to propagate images of stick-thin women in the country. Advertisers must include a clearly written notice disclosing if models photoshopped, although the law doesn’t apply to foreign publications sold in Israel.

via The Huffington Post:

The law’s supporters hope it will encourage the use of healthy models in local advertising and heighten awareness of digital tricks that transform already skinny women into seeming waifs.

“We want to break the illusion that the model we see is real,” said Liad Gil-Har, assistant to law sponsor Dr. Rachel Adato, who compared the battle against eating disorders to the struggle against smoking.

The law won support from a surprising quarter: one of Israel’s top model agents, Adi Barkan, who said in 30 years of work, he has seen young women become skinnier and sicker while struggling to fit the shrinking mold of what the industry considers attractive.

“They look like dead girls,” Barkan said.

According to a study cited by the Associated Press, about 2 percent of girls aged 14 to 18 in Israel have eating disorders. The rate of eating disorders is similar, if not more prevalent, in Western countries like America — where no such bans yet exist. The National Eating Disorder Association estimates that 10 million Americans struggle with eating disorders. And we’re not just talking about excessive dieting and unhealthy body ideals. Eating disorders are serious psychiatric illnesses with fatal consequences — 5-10% of anorexics die within 10 years of contracting the disease, and 18-20% are dead after 20 years.

While I’m skeptical of the underlying premise of the law — namely that banning underweight models will prevent eating disorders — I applaud Israeli lawmakers for taking a stand against an industry that not only condones eating disorders, but encourages them. Many models report that their agents and employers tell them they must lose inordinate amounts of weight to get the jobs they want, encouraging them to fast, purge, and do whatever it takes to shed “extra” pounds. Take for example, world-renowned fashion publicist Kelly Cutrone, who defends extremely thin models, saying that “Clothes look better on thin people. The fabric hangs better.” 

All that said, I think it’s important to note that eating disorders are not caused by unhealthy body ideals in the fashion industry. It’s tempting to think that if we just put more curvier women on the covers of our magazines, our girls will no longer hate their bodies, starve themselves to be thinner, or make themselves throw up because they feel unworthy of nourishment. As much as I wish it were that straightforward, it’s simply not the case. Eating disorders are complex, biologically-based illnesses with multifaceted causes — including genetic predisposition, early childhood trauma, and sociocultural dynamics that present weight loss as a convenient outlet for coping with stress. One analogy experts often use to describe what causes is an eating disorder is the metaphor of a gun. Genes and personality traits may load the gun, but emotional distress and environmental factors pulls the trigger.

So will Israel’s ban on super-thin models help to end the epidemic of eating disorders worldwide? Probably not. The images we see construed in the media certainly shape societal body ideals, especially among young people, but changes in fashion industry standards will not be enough to eliminate a disease so many women around the world lose their lives to. The law will offer protection for vulnerable individuals by curbing the environmental influences that trigger eating disorders, but legislation won’t prevent a person from developing the disease altogether. Ultimately, Israel’s law is a laudable attempt to combat an issue with causes that unfortunately go far beyond the media and the fashion industry.

While I think the legislation will likely make the fashion industry a much healthier space for women in the modeling industry in Israel, I can’t help but wonder what happens to those women who are turned away from jobs. Are they given recommendations for therapists and medical professionals? Provided with access to free or low-cost care? The real challenge I think lawmakers in both Israel and the US need to address, if they’re going to enact this type of legislation, is how to make treatment accessible and affordable for the millions of people suffering with this disease. In the US, most insurance companies refuse or limit the medical care required to treat eating disorders. Only 1 in 10 people with eating disorders receive treatment, and many of those individuals get kicked out of treatment long before they’re well enough to go home.

I think Israel sets a precedent that can (and should) be followed by similar legislation in America, but I hope we can take it one step further and instill the institutional support necessary to help the men and women already struggling with this disease.

Fortunately, there is already legislation on the floor at both the state and national level that can make a significant impact in preventing and eliminating eating disorders. If you’re in California, please send an email asking your lawmakers to support the California Insurance Bill, which ensures that the cost of treatment for mental illnesses, including eating disorders, be covered by health insurance. At a national level, you can encourage your members of Congress to support or co-sponsor the Federal Response to Eliminate Eating Disorders (FREED Act), which aims too increase research, education and prevention of eating disorders and ensure that people with the disease receive adequate care.

Take Action Now to Pass Important California Insurance Bill

Take Action Now to Pass the FREED Act

What do you think? Do you support Israel’s ban on skinny models? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

Photo ©: terryneuman.blogspot.com

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omegaflyerJoin Chelsea for her upcoming retreat – Yoga, Food, & Body Image: Fall in Love With Your Body Through Yoga – at the Omega Institute June 21-23, 2013. This program covers how to use the practice of yoga to support developing a healthier relationship to food, body image, and of course, yourself. The program covers how life experiences like dieting, eating disorders, pregnancy, and menopause impact us both physically and emotionally, and how yoga can be a tool for learning to navigate those life transitions with grace. A limited number of scholarships are available – contact Chelsea to inquire.

 A version of this article was originally published in 2012

Dove Real Beauty Sketches: Why Do Women Hate Their Bodies?

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Do women see themselves less accurately than strangers do?

According to a study commissioned by Dove, only 4% of women around the world would describe themselves as beautiful. 72% of young girls included in the survey say they feel “tremendous pressure to be beautiful,” and more than half (54%) agree that when it comes to how they look, they are their own worst critic.* Another study found that 97% of women have negative body thoughts each day, on average every 15 minutes.

That’s a lot of time to spend castigating yourself.

These are no doubt alarming statistics, but it’s difficult to understand the emotional impact of these beliefs from cold numbers alone. Perhaps that’s why the team at Dove decided to perform a social experiment to test whether women’s perceptions of their bodies differ from those of a stranger’s. And they went about it in a way that might surprise you: by enlisting the help of a forensic sketch artist.

Dove Sketch 2 FInalDove recruited seven women of varying ages and backgrounds and asked an FBI-trained forensic artist to create composite sketches based on each woman’s description of her face. In the video, it quickly becomes apparent just how much the messages each woman has received about her physical appearance over the course of her life — often from family, the media, etc — shape the way she sees herself. And often, unsurprisingly, her underlying body hatred shines through.

“My mom told me I had a big jaw,” one woman says. And another: “I kind of have a fat, rounder face.”

The experiment was part of Dove’s larger Campaign for Real Beauty, and in my opinion this video is moving in part because it sheds light on just how far our beliefs about what we look like can stray from reality. I can’t help but think back to the days when, in the heat of my own battle with anorexia, I would gaze at this emaciated skeleton in the mirror and see only a “pooch belly” and “flabby arms.” It didn’t matter how skinny I got, my body was never “good enough.” Fixing/controlling/hating my body had become a way of trying to work through emotions I didn’t have the skills to communicate at the time. I needed to hate my body, because it was too hard to express what I really hated… myself.

dove_sketch_1_finalLooking back, it’s nearly unbelievable to me now that I was so unaware of how distorted my view of my body had become. I honestly believed I was fat, no matter how many times the people around me or numbers on a scale suggested otherwise.

I think it’s important to acknowledge here that you don’t have to have a clinical eating disorder to have distorted body image. Many of us are taught from an early age to loathe and fix and control our bodies, and these early experiences lay the groundwork for the seemingly mild distortions shown in this video, as well as more serious problems, like obesity and eating disorders. We learn to starve away anger and anxiety — or, similarly, eat until sorrow and loneliness disappear. We let our body speak the messages we can’t give voice to. We come to hate our bodies, often because we hate ourselves.

Often, we hear obesity talked about as “an epidemic” and anorexia as “an eating disorder.” While they may seem like contradictory and unrelated diseases, I would argue that they likely stem from the same source: a fundamental problem with our relationship with food and our bodies. Research shows that both obesity and eating disorders are driven in part by depression, dieting behaviors, excessive weight concern, and what scientists call “loss of control eating.” It seems to me Americans are not suffering from two distinct health problems — anorexia, obesity, and the body hatred depicted in the Dove video are all symptoms of the same dis-ease.

I applaud Dove for challenging viewers to reflect on their own body image beliefs, but I would encourage viewers to take it one step further… to investigate the roots of those beliefs, and to explore what drives distorted body image to begin with (if you’re interested, I’m teaching a retreat on this topic at the Omega Institute this June). As far as I can tell, the women in the video are not visually impaired, so if their perception of their bodies is different from that of strangers… the distortions are coming from somewhere else. I would argue that they are psychological in nature, and that an integrative solution to both obesity and eating disorders must help people foster healthier relationships with food and their bodies. This begins with teaching people emotional coping skills, encouraging them to listen to their bodies’ internal cues, and promoting positive lifestyle changes for the sake of being healthy, not just attractive.

Finally, while Dove has been widely criticized for disguising ads behind the banner of a women’s empowerment campaign, I still find myself at a loss for why it’s “bad” for a company to combine positive sociocultural campaigns with profit-generating initiatives. If Dove sells more soap as a result of their Campaign for Real Beauty, I say all the more power to them.

Watch the video for yourself, and I would love to hear your thoughts on the ideas I’ve expressed in this article in the comments below:

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omegaflyerJoin Chelsea for her upcoming retreat – Yoga, Food, & Body Image: Fall in Love With Your Body Through Yoga – at the Omega Institute June 21-23, 2013. This program covers how to use the practice of yoga to support developing a healthier relationship to food, body image, and of course, yourself. The program covers how life experiences like dieting, eating disorders, pregnancy, and menopause impact us both physically and emotionally, and how yoga can be a tool for learning to navigate those life transitions with grace. A limited number of scholarships are available – contact Chelsea to inquire.

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*Source: Dove Research: The Real Truth About Beauty: Revisited

Image 1: Unknown (please contact us if you know where it came from so we can give appropriate credit)

Image 2 & 3: Dove Real Beauty Campaign (screenshots)

How the Monsanto Protection Act Silently Slipped Into Law

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Last week, Congress quietly passed a controversial last minute addition to the Agricultural Appropriations Bill  that has many food and consumer advocates up in arms. The addendum, which has been dubbed the “Monsanto Protection Act” by critics, will protect companies like Monsanto from facing litigation in the face of health risks posed by genetically modified organisms (GMO’s).

On Tuesday, while the rest of the nation was focused on gay marriage, President Obama silently signed HR 933 into law. The bill was originally designed to avert a government shut down and allow the federal government to (temporarily) keep paying its bills, but many consider the sneakily added provision to be a gift to Monsanto Company and other businesses invested in GMO’s.

Here’s the background from RT:

The provision, also decried as a “biotech rider,” should have gone through the Agricultural or Judiciary Committees for review. Instead, no hearings were held, and the piece was evidently unknown to most Democrats (who hold the majority in the Senate) prior to its approval as part of HR 993, the short-term funding bill that was approved to avoid a federal government shutdown.

Senator John Tester (D-MT) proved to be the lone dissenter to the so-called Monsanto Protection Act, though his proposed amendment to strip the rider from the bill was never put to a vote.

Critics are thus far alarmed by the very way in which the provision made it through Congress — the rider was introduced anonymously as the larger bill progressed through the Senate Appropriations Committee. Now, groups like the Center for Food Safety are holding Senator Mikulski (D-MD), chairman of that committee, to task and lobbing accusations of a “backroom deal” with the biotech industry.

As the Washington Times points out, the provision’s success is viewed by many as a victory by companies like Syngenta Corp, Cargill, Monsanto and affiliated PACs that have donated $7.5 million to members of Congress since 2009, and $372,000 to members of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

 

While the bill will only remain in effect for six months while the government finds a better means to fund its operations, the passing of the legislation sets an alarming precedent. By effectively barring federal courts from litigating the sale of potentially dangerous crops and seeds (there hasn’t been nearly enough research to make an informed decision on the safety of GMOs), Congress and President Obama sent the message that large corporations supersede consumer safety protections, if the price is right.

Food Democracy Now has been actively protesting the provision and has over 250,000 signatures on a petition against the legislation. Add your voice here.

Can Science Tell Us What is Morally Right and Wrong?

This article is a response to Julian Walker’s recent blog on YogaBrains, The Contortionist: Science, Morality, and Extreme Relativism 

Julian Walker, a fellow YogaBrainer whose thinking and writing I respect and admire, recently argued that “moral questions have to do with human well-being, and human well-being is something that we can look at through the lens of science.” I agree with his assertion that the scientific method can help us explore answers to moral and ethical questions, but I would argue science cannot lead us to a set of objective ethical values. By extension, I think it’s wise to unpack the practical limitations of scientific technologies and methodologies, and more importantly to explore moral questions that cannot yet be ascertained through the purview of science using logic, rationality, and empathic understanding.

urlSam Harris, whose recent book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values inspired our conversation, asserts that science can not only inform moral decisions (I’m with him here), but that the scientific method can be used to determine moral values (that’s where he loses me). Moral values, according to his definition, are “the set of attitudes, choices, and behaviors that potentially affect our well-being.” And here is where I question whether science, in practice, can provide enough information about what promotes well-being to sufficiently ground a set of objective moral values.

If we are to use the scientific method to explore the question of what promotes well-being and flourishing, we must first agree on an operational definition of those concepts. In my experience (and I think both Harris and Walker would agree with me), well-being and flourishing are complex and convoluted concepts to study in science: they refer not only to what promotes health/happiness/cooperation for an individual in the short term, but also include the long-term consequences of a given behavior. An accurate definition of well-being should incorporate the social, political, and economic consequences of a given behavior, plus how those consequences themselves affect other conscious beings (both now and hundreds of years in the future).

I realize that Harris and Walker aren’t trying to suggest that science has all the answers about what is moral and immoral right now. But as I understand it, they are asserting that, given enough time and information, the scientific method will eventually provide us with an objective set of moral values. The problem with that argument, in my mind, is that the scientific study of well-being itself requires a quantifiable definition of well being. But how we quantify well-being is subjective, reflects the values/biases of the researcher (and his/her culture), and often changes over time. Is well-being individual happiness? Length of life? Rate of violence in a society? Is it all these things, and if so what if they conflict with one another? How do we decide how much weight to assign the many components of well-being, and on what basis do we make the decision…. if not on what we value, which is subjective?

Imagine a scientist wants to know whether driving a car promotes well-being. Let’s say he/she does an experiment and finds that people who drive cars everyday have lower cortisol levels and higher quality of life, as measured by self-report (both very frequently used measures of “well-being” in psychology research). That researcher concludes driving promotes well-being.

The next month, a scientist in a neighboring lab (who just so happens to hate driving) does a similar study using different measures of well-being and finds that people who drive cars everyday are more likely to be overweight, become violent when provoked, and die an early death than their non-driving counterparts. That researcher concludes that driving does not in fact promote well-being.

Ten months later, another scientist looks at the economic impact of people driving cars everyday and finds that the car industry provides employment opportunities for unskilled workers and increases cooperative trade opportunities with neighboring countries. She/he concludes that despite the negative health consequences, frequent driving does promote well-being for society in the long term.

Then, ten years later, another researcher does an experiment and finds that people who drive cars everyday are pumping a dangerous gas into the atmosphere that is causing catastrophic weather events. By that time, hundreds of people are dying in floods and super-tornadoes, and within another five years humans are wiped off the face of the planet!

Okay, I got a little carried away. But hopefully I’ve made my point? Scientists can only measure well-being and flourishing using our present technologies and tools (which have their limitations), and all scientists must choose a measure based on what they subjectively deem important. Moreover, our measure of well-being will be limited by the point of evaluation — even longitudinal studies will only measure the effect of a given variable over 5, 10, or however many years. Basically, we measure “well-being” using insufficient measures in brief snapshots of time.

slavery - esclavage - sklavereiI am by no means saying that just because the study of well-being isn’t seamless we should stop studying it altogether or that science has nothing to add to our consideration of moral questions. Quite the contrary, I do think science should inform our debates about morality, and I think empirical evidence should absolutely determine public policy. But in terms of defining a set of moral values, I think the scientific method will forever leave us with insufficient evidence and an illusion of certainty about the “rightness” or “wrongness” of a given behavior where in fact there is none.

Life is a temporal process, and no matter how thoughtful our attempt to consider all the different possible outcomes of a given behavior, human beings have proven over and over again that we miss things (if you don’t believe me, watch this), even when we’re using the scientific method. I think we are much better served by acknowledging the limitations of our methodologies, which leave us with insufficient information to determine an objective set “moral values.” It is only with an honest and realistic approach to how science can inform our understanding of morality that we will have access to the open-mindedness and mental flexibility needed to contemplate alternative ideas and make new discoveries in the study of well-being and flourishing.

So how, you might ask, are we to determine moral values if not by the process of science? Shall we leave that sector of philosophical questioning to religion, intuition, our evolutionarily-endowed emotional responses to the hard questions in life? I would argue that part of the process involves a philosophical discussion about what we value, using justification that includes not only the scientific method, but also rationality, logic, and yes… sometimes our own subjective empathic feelings. When no other evidence exists, our gut feelings provide tentative ideas that can later submitted to empirical testing. When testing isn’t possible (e.g. with the question of whether killing Osama Bin Ladin was “right” or “wrong”), I think we have to acknowledge the fact that any absolute stance on the “rightness” or “wrongness” of a given decision is to some extent a personal judgment, not a statement of fact. Any conclusion about we make about what is morally right or wrong will always be relative to the questions we’re asking.

Does this mean that I think that morality doesn’t exist, or that no one can ever say what’s right or wrong because everything is relative? Of course not. We live in a world where we often have to make policy decisions before we have sufficient evidence, which is why I find it important to distinguish between moral questions and policy questions. We don’t presently have enough evidence to determine whether owning guns causes more violence in a given society, but policy-makers have to vote on legislation nonetheless.

In addition to acknowledging the relativity of morality, I would also suggest that any useful definition of morality should exist on a spectrum, reflecting what empirical evidence suggests about well-being so far. More importantly, recognizing the complexity of moral questions should encourage us to consider how we resolve moral questions that cannot, at this point, be calibrated accurately using the tools we have today. When it’s not clear how something will impact well-being, on what basis do we make our moral judgments? How do we resolve conflicts between equality and freedom, love and health, or other decisions that appear incommensurable with current scientific tools? What do we do when the scientific jury on what promotes well-being is still out?

To provide a real world example, one morally-fuzzy question that frequently comes up in the work I do is whether therapists should offer palliative care to individuals with treatment-resistant anorexia. In a recent article in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, Michael Strober argued that in some cases psychologists should “concede to the reality that there may be little to do to alter the course of a patient’s [eating disorder].” Essentially, he suggests that therapists should support chronically treatment-resistant anorexics in making their starvation-induced suicide as comfortable as possible, rather than trying to “fix” or “change” their illness — which is unlikely to work and will only cause the last months of their life to be wrought with suffering.

What is the morally “right” thing to do under such circumstances? Who gets to decide what well-being looks like for an otherwise mentally-sound individual who claims that death is preferable to the suffering they endure being alive? Such questions of well-being are difficult (though perhaps not impossible) to answer using scientific methodologies. Similar questions come up with the care of patients in persistent vegetative states and in debates about medically-assisted suicide.

Finally, and this is a bit of an aside, I want to point out that many of our moral questions will need to be rewritten as scientific questions in order to be examined empirically. Scientific questions must be testable — that is, they must be stated in the form of a hypothesis that can be supported or refuted by way of experiment. Many of the questions we ask in moral and ethical debates (e.g. “Is female genital mutilation wrong?”) aren’t merely asking if something will promote the well-being of a person or society in a given moment of time, but whether they are right or wrong in an ultimate sense. I don’t think science (and especially not religion) can answer that question, but I do think it can provide insight into how we make our personal judgments and policy decisions.

Matt Damon: I’m Not Using a Toilet Until The Water Crisis is Solved

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Matt Damon has vowed not to use the bathroom until the world water crisis is solved.

The multi-award-winning actor made the announcement in a video released on Tuesday, saying that he is boycotting toliet use until people start taking action to change the fact that millions of people lack clean water and basic sanitation. Damon, who is co-founder of  Water.org — a nonprofit dedicated to providing clean water and sanitation to communities in Africa, South Asia, and Central America — said he hopes that he can use his star power to take the campaign viral.

The video, released in partnership with Maker Studios and Youtube, is the first in a multimedia series aiming to inspire people to act to end the water crisis. The campaign directs viewers to StrikeWithMe.org, where they can learn more about the water crisis, donate money and sign up to “lend” their social media accounts to the effort.

Damon’s mock press conference was filmed for free at YouTube’s L.A. studios as part of their effort to help nonprofits more effectively use video campaigns to further their missions. Water.org has also launched an extensive social media integration interface, which allows users to “lend” their Facebook and Twitter accounts to the campaign. If you opt in, Water.org can share automatic posts to your Facebook and Twitter accounts with their content and messaging. It’s kind of ingenious, if they can get people to do it.

“If Sarah Silverman and I can generate millions of views on YouTube for something ridiculous,” Damon told the Los Angeles Times, “then we should be able to do better for one of the most important and solvable issues of our time.” He said he hopes that the campaign can earn the traction to similar viral videos like Kony 2012.

10 Strange and Little-Known Facts About Charles Darwin

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Happy Darwin Day!

Today marks the 204th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, and in celebration of his life and works I’ve dug up 10 weird facts about the man behind the theory of natural selection.

Here they are:

1. Darwin once ate an owl. Darwin was part of the “Gourmet  Club” at University of Cambridge, which met once a week to eat animals “not often found in menus.” According to sources, he called the flavor of the owl “indescribable.”

2. Darwin identified as Christian for much of his life. He even studied to become an Anglican clergyman at the University of Cambridge, but later pulled away from the church and described himself as agnostic (not atheist).

3. Darwin was very interested in the study of nipples. He collected case reports of men and women with extra nipples (which he called mammae erraticae) and even suggested that humans may have descended from creatures with more than two mammae. He also wondered why men have nipples. In The Descent of Man, Darwin argued that humans may have once been androgynous, with both sexes having the capacity to lactate (thus making male nipples vestigial organs).

4. Darwin was very concerned with public image. He delayed the publication of On the Origin of Species for more than twenty years because he was nervous about how it would be received.

5. Darwin wasn’t the only person to come up with the theory of evolution. Just before he published On the Origin of Species, he got word that British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace had come up with a similar theory, so he quickly finished and published his work. Scientists with the Linnean Society of London later debated the “who was first” question by examining both men’s publiscations in July 1858. Ultimately, Darwin was given most of the credit for the theory of evolution because he had described it in greater detail.

6. Darwin’s 25th birthday present was a mountain. Yes, you read that right — a mountain! On February 12, 1834, Captain FitzRoy presented Darwin with the ultimate birthday gift — named a mountain after him. Mount Darwin is the highest peak in Tierra del Fuego.

7. Darwin never said anything about “survival of the fittest.” That phrase was actually coined by Herbert Spencer, a philosopher and contemporary of Darwin. In his 1984 book, Principles of Biology, Spencer used the phrase “survival of the fittest” to suggest Darwin’s theory of natural selection extended into other disciplines — including sociology, ethics, and economics.

8. Darwin married his cousin. In The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, Darwin methodically wrote out a pro and con list  marriage: Pros included companionship (“better than a dog anyhow”) and children, and cons included loss of time and freedom. In the end, he decided “Marry — Marry. Marry Q.E.D” (Q.E.D. is a latin phrase typically put at the end of mathematical proofs to indicate that the proof is complete). Ironically, the man whose entire life work was dedicated to the importance of genetics in natural selection chose to marry his first cousin.

9. Darwin loved Backgammon. Darwin became very ill after his return from South America, and the disease (which was never officially diagnosed) would leave him bed-ridden for long periods of time. Over the years, Darwin developed a strict schedule for playing Backgammon. Every night between 8 and 8:30 PM, he and Emma would play 2 games. Darwin apparently believed the game relieved his symptoms.

10. The last book Darwin published was about earthworms. While Charles Darwin is most remembered for his revolutionary theory of evolution, his theories about earthworms actually drew much more attention during his life. The book, entitled The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms, With Observations on Their Habits, was published in 1881, an sold even better than On the Origin of Species.

Cute Kitty Responds to Campaign to Kill America’s Cats

According to a new study published in the journal Nature Communications, free-roaming house cats kill around 4 billion wild animals across the U.S. every year.  The scientists who conducted the study say that domestic cats are one of the top threats to US wildlife — our feline friends massacre more wild animals than road accidents, collisions with buildings, and poisonings.

Vicious little guys, aren’t they?

Gareth Morgan, a top New Zealand economist and environmentalist, made headlines in The Atlantic last week when he proposed a radical and controversial new campaign to rid the entire country of New Zealand of cats. He outlined 4 steps that many believe America should also implement to “dispose of” our beloved household pets:

1. “All cats to be registered chipped and neutered — raising the barriers to cat ownership to those similarly already faced by dog owners. Chipping instead of collars is because cats more easily slip collars.”
2. “Citizens to be encouraged to cage-trap cats wandering on their properties and turn them in to the local authority.”
3. “Cats surrendered to the local authority Pound, to be euthanized if unregistered, to return to registered owner who is fined.”
4. “Councils to offer free disposal of cats. Vets are prohibitively expensive.”

Morgan’s call for a “cat-free country” may sound like an awful joke, but many wildlife management groups say that the consequences of domesticating cats cannot be ignored. Robert Johns, a spoksepserson for the American Bird Conservancy, said the findings are “shockingly high.” He continued, “we all love cats, they’re cute, they’re furry, but we can no longer continue to allow these predators to be turned loose on an unsuspecting and defenseless environment.”

Many groups (even PETA!) are suggesting policies be put in place to euthanize feral cats, but strategists like Morgan says those measures won’t go far enough. Other cat control strategies like trap-neuter-release programs have been suggested, but dissenters argue that such programs have been largely ineffective so far. Our kitties are just too damn frisky.

While nearly every news outlet in the country has been covered this story, asking scientists and policy experts to weigh in on what should be done to stop these ruthless killers, I have yet to see even one journalist ask a CAT what it thinks about the campaign to wage genocide on its species.

Alas, wait no longer. We here at Intent believe in balance, in equal representation for all, in all sentient beings having a voice! So we decided to ask a seemingly friendly feline named Sam what he thought about the recent findings:

Chelsea Roff: Sam, what was your reaction when you learned that domestic cats kill an average 4 billion wild animals each year?

Sam:

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CR: I see. Yes, it’s certainly disturbing data. And have you heard about Gareth Morgan’s proposal to make America a cat-free country? What do you have to say about that?

Sam:

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CR: Other policy experts have suggested spay-neuter programs to slow the rapid population growth of your species (I know you’re quite the lady’s man, Sam!). How do you feel about that?

Sam:

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CR: But Sam, something has to be done! I mean, really, your friends and family are responsible for the death of billions of poor innocent creatures!

Sam:

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CR: Darn-it, Sam, you and your manipulative cute face tactics! I don’t feel like we’re getting anywhere with this interview. Do you have anything else to say?

Sam:
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There you have it, folks. Sam, the killer cat, on why his species should be saved.

 

What do you think about the recent findings? Should measures be taken to control the domestic cat population, or should people just let “nature” run its course? Let us know in the comments below.

h/t to BuzzFeed for the pics

When Business and Ethics Collide: Yoga Journal vs. Hyatt Boycott

As hundreds of yogis scurried through Embarcadero Center last Thursday, a small group of impassioned hotel workers joined their voices just a few strides away in protest against the Hyatt hotel chain where the San Francisco Yoga Journal Conference was being held. The demonstration was part of a growing campaign seeking to bring change to an industry accused of abusive and unjust labor practices.

In 2009, Yoga Journal was asked to join the campaign’s global boycott of Hyatt hotels and end its financial support of the institution by moving its conference to a different facility.  This weekend, the conference  was held as scheduled at the Hyatt.

As news of Yoga Journal’s decision to “ignore the boycott” broke this week, the blogosphere was abuzz with headlines about the company’s failure to stand up for the rights of “exploited hotel workers.” My intention with this article is to shed light on the complex dynamics underlying the boycott, the reasons for Yoga Journal’s decision, and the questions that remain.

The Facts: A History of the Boycott

The dispute between the hotel and its workers began in 2008, when labor contracts between Hyatt Corporation and its employees expired. Hyatt is legally required to negotiate changes to terms of employment – which include wages, benefits, workloads, and the right to organize– with its workers’ union, UniteHere. While negotiations for a new contract were underway, the company began replacing non-union housekeeping staff with temporary subcontracted workers. These workers, who are not directly employed by the chain, come at substantially lower cost – they work for just above minimum wage, and Hyatt isn’t required to provide insurance and other benefits because they’re not full-time employees.

Three years ago in Boston, three non-union Hyatt hotels fired their entire housekeeping staff (many of whom had been working there for decades) and replaced them with workers from a local temporary agency. The city of Indianapolis even passed an ordinance last July to prevent Hyatt and other hotels from engaging in aggressive subcontracting practices. This practice of outsourcing labor has become increasingly common in many different blue-collar industries and allows large corporations to cut labor costs, increase executive pay, and shift any legal responsibility it has to its employees to outside institutions.

That’s when UniteHere, the largest hospitality workers’ union in the country, began helping Hyatt workers organize protests against the corporation. In June 2009, over 400 hotel workers at the Hyatt Regency San Francisco (the same hotel where Yoga Journal holds its conferences) walked off the job to protest abusive working conditions and unfair labor practices.

“Our injury rates are high, our wages are low, and our immigrant sisters are exploited and cheated by Hyatt’s housekeeping subcontractors,” reads a call to action on the UniteHere website. “We will no longer suffer in silence. The abuse must end. Hyatt must change.”

A month later, UniteHere launched a global boycott of Hyatt Hotels, asking consumers around the world to support workers by pledging not to eat, sleep or meet at Hyatt hotels. But a boycott is only effective if it incurs significant costs to the company in dispute, so UniteHere contacted hundreds of companies and organizations (including Yoga Journal) requesting they hold their events at different facilities. The campaign created major waves from the get go – nearly every hotel worker union in the nation endorsed the boycott, and even the NFL Players Association and National Organization of Women pledged to cancel their existing events at the Hyatt until a settlement was reached.

Yoga Journal Chooses Not to Join the Boycott

547010_10100482874861703_1442964110_nA few days before the conference began, Yoga Journal released an official statement announcing that (at least for 2013) it planned to honor its existing contract and obligations to its faculty and students by continuing with the conference at Hyatt. I spoke to several Yoga Journal staff members this weekend who told me they feel loyal to the workers at this hotel:

“We’ve been coming to the Hyatt Regency for years,” Elana Maggal, Yoga Journal’s Conference Director, told me. “We love it here. The management knows us. The housekeepers know us. It wasn’t a simple or easy decision – but ultimately, we felt it was important to honor our existing commitment and support workers whose livelihoods depend on this hotel’s business.”

While many have accused Yoga Journal of putting profits before ethics, Maggal told me that oversimplifies what was a painstakingly convoluted decision.  When I asked her why Yoga Journal decided not to honor the boycott, she said that moving the conference to a different hotel in San Francisco this year wasn’t possible. They looked into possible alternatives, but could find no facilities in the city that could accommodate their size on the date the conference was scheduled. Essentially, she said, it was either cancel the 2013 conference (and upset a whole lot of presenters and attendees who had already bought tickets) or move it to a different city altogether.

So if Yoga Journal had had more time to look for a different facility, could they have potentially moved this year’s conference? When I inquired about when Yoga Journal first become aware of the dispute, I learned that they were first approached by UniteHere several years ago; although, Maggal told me, at that time the campaign hadn’t “really heated up yet.” Perhaps it wasn’t clear to the company then that the boycott was a legitimate campaign (often labor disputes like this one are resolved internally or disintegrate completely), but that seems unlikely given the press coverage it received back in July 2009. The Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, and many other major media outlets all reported on the boycott, and given the sheer number of backers, there is no question the campaign had major traction.

Ripple Effects: The Ramifications of Yoga Journal’s Decision

Setting aside moral judgments about whether Yoga Journal was right or wrong in not joining the boycott this year, perhaps the more important question being asked is this:

What’s next? Will Yoga Journal continue to financially support a company that’s been branded by some workers as “the worst employer in the hotel industry”? And what would the consequences be –for Yoga Journal, Hyatt, and its workers – if they move the conference to another hotel next year?

Here’s what I found out: Yoga Journal has a multi-year contract with the Hyatt that isn’t set to end until 2015. If the company chooses to pull out of their contract with the Hyatt next year, it would cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars — and in an economy where it’s difficult to make any conference economically viable, that could mean no more conferences for Yoga Journal. “There would be a significant penalty to break the contract,” Maggal told me. “And it would severely impact our ability to continue holding conferences in the future.”

boycott 2I spoke with Diana Wong, a spokesperson for UniteHere, about the positive impact Yoga Journal could have if it chooses to move its conference.

“Hyatt is a multinational corporation,” she told me, “They deal with numbers, with dollars and cents. It doesn’t matter how many thousands of housekeepers speak up – the Hyatt won’t listen until it’s affecting their bottom line. When Yoga Journal comes back to Hyatt year after year and provides that business opportunity, they’re telling Hyatt they can continue abusing their workers.”

But if the union already has the support of organizations like the NFL, I asked, could Yoga Journal really make a difference by pulling out? “If Yoga Journal were to honor this boycott and withdraw its monetary support of Hyatt’s business practices,” Wong said, “That would speak volumes to the executives of this company. They don’t see the workers in picket lines. They see spreadsheets and numbers.

I also spoke with David Lewin, the general manager at the Hyatt Regency in San Francisco, about how the boycott is affecting his business. “The Hyatt is a large company with assets around the world and a reputation that speaks to hospitality. What this union is attempting to do for their own benefit is really just… insane.”

Lewin said the workers at his hotel are unionized and that UniteHere is preventing housekeepers from getting wage increases and benefits a contract would afford. He said his employees are “like family” to him, and that he believes that the union does not have their best interest in mind:

“Boycotting this hotel doesn’t make any sense – why should my workers suffer? They haven’t received a raise in over three years because the union wants to increase their headcount. They’re holding their own workers hostage…. In my opinion, it’s just pathetic. Disgusting and pathetic.

Is an End to the Boycott on the Horizon?

Everyone I spoke to – from the housekeepers, to Yoga Journal staff, even Hyatt management – expressed hope that an agreement between Hyatt and the union will be reached quickly. So far, Hyatt and the union are reported to have agreed on wages and benefits, but are still caught in a stalemate on other contractual issues.

I asked Wong what it would take for UniteHere to end the boycott. She told me they want the Hyatt to concede on three principle points of disagreement:

1. Health and safety standards: Workers want a clause in their contract that would require the hotel implement key health and safety standards recommended to Hyatt in a formal letter sent by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. While the letter did not indicate that Hyatt had violated OSHA standards, an OSHA spokesman said on-site inspections at Hyatt “did identify the presence of ergonomic risk factors associated with the housekeeping tasks.”

2. Right to Organize: Hyatt workers want what they call a fair process to support non-unionized workers in forming a union. In legal terms, UniteHere wants the contract to include a card check neutrality agreement, which would allow them to ask workers’ at non-union hotels to vote for the formation of a union simply by signing a card. Hyatt, on the other hand, wants to require UniteHere hold secret ballot elections  (similar to the process of voting in a major political election) because they say such organizing methods are less coercive and more democratic. “Would you let Mitt Romney or Barack Obama sit with you in the voting booth with you when you’re deciding who to vote for?” Lewin asked. “As a company, we believe card check methods are coercive.”

3. Solidarity clause: The union is advocating for a clause that would allow unionized Hyatt workers to picket, strike or call for boycott in the name of non-unionized Hyatt employees should any future abuses occur. This is by far the most controversial request UniteHere is making in the negotiations, as such a clause would be largely unprecedented in the hospitality industry. “It destroys the point of a contract,” Lewin told me. “Contracts are meant to ensure peace.”

Final Thoughts: One Journalist’s Perspective

After spending the weekend interviewing hotel workers, union organizers, and staff members both at the Hyatt Regency Embarcadero and Yoga Journal, it was clear to me that this dispute is far more complicated than the oversimplistic “Yoga Journal Ignores Exploited Workers” portrait that’s been painted by many in the yoga community thus far.

484762_10151222022903590_485076263_nI think it’s important to recognize the complex dynamics at play in labor conflicts like this one. Disputes between companies and unions are often shrouded in jargon and riddled with conflicting information: As a journalist, it was difficult for me to distinguish fact from opinion and truth from manipulated information.  Everyone involved – UniteHere, Hyatt, Yoga Journal, even the workers – has their own spin on the story.

Hyatt accuses the union of putting its political interests and membership goals before the needs of hotel workers and effectively preventing workers’ from getting wage increases and other benefits by failing to agree on a contract. The Union claims that Hyatt is a corrupt corporation stomping on the rights of powerless workers.

Unfortunately, the question of “who’s right and who’s wrong” doesn’t seem to have a black and white answer. The collision between business, human rights, and economic realities creates a great deal of ethical gray area.

I’m left wondering about the bigger questions this dispute brings up about ethics and politics, and more specifically whether companies like Yoga Journal have a moral responsibility to defend the rights of everyday people, like the Hyatt workers. Should a company be expected to defend the rights of people in its community? And what is Yoga Journal’s community? Is it limited to the consumers who buy its magazine and attend its conferences, or does the Yoga Journal extend to the American populace in general, which includes workers at the Hyatt?

Does Yoga Journal have a responsibility to continue offering conferences to attendees who come back year after year, even if that means financially supporting a company alleged to abuse its workers? Or does the responsibility to act in accordance with higher ethical standards trump a company’s need to meets its bottom line?

I would love to hear your thoughts on these questions and the information I’ve presented in this article.  Please share your responses in the comments section below.

 *****

Photo 1: Yogis Uniting Against Workers Rights on Facebook

Photo 2:  T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images North America

Photo 3:  Double Secret Media, via Yoga Journal Conferences

The New Flu Shot for Babies: Puppies! (cute pics)

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Now here’s a counterintuitive science finding: According to the latest research, babies who spend time around a dog or cat to in their first year of life get fewer colds than those who live in a pet-free household.

The study, which was published in the journal Pediatrics last year, tracked the health of nearly 400 Finnish children born between September 2002 and May 2005. Researchers asked the childrens’ parents to keep weekly diaries recording several measures of health  — including coughs, sniffles, and ear infections — and also note if and when there was a cat or dog present in the house. After a year, the researchers found that both cats and dogs were linked to a reduced incidence of illness. But the benefit was significantly stronger for dogs: Babies who lived with dogs were 31% more likely to be in good health, while babies with cats only had a 6% advantage over those with no pets in the house.

And just how much of a difference did Fido make? It was pretty sigificant. Kids with dogs were 44% less likely to develop ear infections and 29% less likely to have used antibiotics during their first year of life.

That’s good news for dog-loving parents. And the research bolsters previous findings suggesting that overly sanitized environments aren’t good for our health.

“We think the exposure to pets somehow matures the immune system so when the child meets the microbes, he might be better prepared for them,” said Dr. Eija Bergroth, the pediatrician who led the study. In other words, all the germ-ridden pet dander might actually prime a still-developing immune system and teach it to fend off bacteria and viruses.

You can read more about the study at Time. But in the mean time, please enjoy these adorable pictures of an ultra-healthy baby with his immune-boosting friends:

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Photo source: Unknown! If you know who took these amazing pictures, let us know so we can give them due credit.

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